The Breakdown: In anticipation of the SXSW panel (“How to be an Idea Factory“) by New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee (@matthewdiffee), this week Robert Stribley spoke with him about his creative process and how he finds his best ideas. What’s the secret of consistently creating great ideas? How do you maximize creative output under the tightest deadlines? What’s the trick to moving on when your best work has been rejected? For those who need a dose of creative inspiration and reality, read on.
Full Disclosure: Robert attended college with Matthew and they have previously collaborated on what might arguably be considered professional projects.
S/G: OK, first off, can you share all your secrets about being an Idea Factory, which you plan on presenting in your SXSW talk? OK, maybe a thought or two. How do you stay creative and still produce so much content?
Matthew: Of course I can share all my secrets. First of all: coffee. I don’t just drink it either. I soak my feet in it and I keep a pinch of grounds inside my lower lip. Second thing: underwear. I’m constantly switching out my skivvies. I’ll wear a chilled pair taken from the crisper drawer in the fridge and then abruptly switch to a pair straight from the dryer. I work at home. I should mention that. But seriouswee, my whole thing is quantity over quality. For me creativity is mostly a numbers game. If you want a handful of good ideas, you gotta crank out a bunch of mediocre ones. That’s the factory part. It’s really hard to sit down and come up with a brilliant idea, but it’s not that hard at all to sit down and come up with a hundred bad ones and in the end, it usually turns out that some of them aren’t actually that bad. At South By I’ll be talking about how to ramp up your creative output -How to get out of the “delicate genius” mind set and take a workaday factory approach to it. It’s more effective in the end and more emotionally pleasant along the way.
S/G: Is it really possible to be creative under pressure? To perform on command as it were? Doesn’t something suffer or is this where you thrive most?
Matthew: Well yes and no, for me. There are times when being cornered like that forces you to produce something and you get lucky and something brilliant comes out, but there are just as many times when it doesn’t come out so rosy and you end up shipping a box of crap. I think it’s a myth that pressure helps the creative act. It forces it, but it doesn’t improve it and working like that takes a toll on you. It’s much more reasonable to treat your creative life like a day job. Like the big boring brick building on the outskirts of town. Nothing remarkable or attractive about it, but it gets the job done.
S/G: One of your job titles is New Yorker cartoonist and one of your many projects has been editing The Rejection Collection, a series of books featuring cartoons rejected by the New Yorker, which rejects most of the cartoons it receives. How do you and your colleagues stay inspired amidst all this rejection?
Matthew: Well, the best way to deal with rejection is to work in bulk. Have so many ideas that the death of a few doesn’t bother you. Be like a mother sea turtle. And the other sad truth is that most of your ideas just aren’t that good. That goes for everyone. It’s easy to spot an amateur because they haven’t learned this yet and they get all worked up when one of their precious ideas gets rejected. It’s like they’re living in a house with only 60 watt bulbs. Until one burns out and they replace it with a 100 watt bulb, they are literally living in the dark. Some ideas are brighter than others and if you’re used to coming up with dim ones, you might not even know what a bright idea looks like. When you know this, it helps you keep a humble perspective on rejection and hopefully pushes you to work harder, get more ideas and, from them, cull higher quality ones. But you’ll still get rejected. You can either expect constant acceptance and be often disappointed or expect constant rejection and be occasionally pleasantly surprised. I choose the latter.
S/G: Suffering a creative block when you’re under a tight deadline has got to be frustrating. Do you have any hints on how to free up those blockages and let the best ideas flow?
Matthew: There’s nothing better than the moment when you have an idea, but there’s nothing worse than needing an idea and not having one. Actually, there’s a lot worse than that, but in terms of the creative life, that’s definitely the worst part. The best way to avoid that is to work early and consistently on things so that you don’t get to that tight deadline panic, but when you do, you have to move back to move forward. If the road you’re on hits a brick wall, you really have no other choice. You have to back up and choose another path, so go back to the last point where you weren’t lost and see if there is a parallel road you can take. In cartooning you can always go back and tweak the set up. Change something. Add something. Take something away. What if the pirate was talking instead of the psychiatrist? What if you added a penguin to your desert island scene, or replace the penguin with an ostrich. It’s different when you’re trying to solve real problems, but maybe not that different. Can you go back and reframe the problem or the question in a small way that will lead you down a different path that ends in a solution instead of a brick wall? When you’re out of ideas for the solution, go back and come up with more ideas for the problem. That or go take a nap. I’ve got more thoughts about this, but I’ll save them for the SXSW talk.
S/G: Writers sometimes use a somewhat unpleasant phrase that you have to know when to “kill your babies” (or more politely “murder your darlings”) to describe when to let an idea ago, which you may be partial to, but which just isn’t working. How do you identify and avoid bad ideas?
Matthew: There is definitely a time to be critical and judge the quality of an idea, but in a factory that’s a different person’s job. And there are a lot more people producing things than judging things. I try to keep that ratio in my own mind. I spend a lot more time coming up with the best ideas I can and still meet my daily quota, and I try to avoid hitting the big red button that stops the conveyor belt. It’s hard to get things started again. You’ll put the quality inspector hat on later when you have piles of babies and at that point all you’ll want to do is start killing a few of them. I sure hope someone doesn’t take that last sentence out of context.
S/G: What are you looking forward to seeing at SXSW?
Matthew: How many breakfast tacos I can eat.
More of Matthew Diffee can be found in these highly reputable corners of the Internet:
Explore the rest of the SXSW 2012 Q&A Series.
Image credits, from left to right:
Austin – by Brian Warren
Badge – by adactio
Microphone – by hiddedevries
Xtranormal – by nan palmero
Texas waffle – by rachel lovinger