New Yorker Cartoonist Shows What to do When You’re Stuck on a Piece


Please check out this wonderful piece by New Yorker cartoonist Drew Dernavich, in which he discusses his creative process for a cartoon.

This is the rejected cartoon! Click over to Dernavich's article to see the final version! (Used with kind permission.)

This is the rejected version of the cartoon! Click over to Dernavich’s article to see the final version that The New Yorker used. (Reprinted with kind permission from Drew.)

He submitted it in 2007, but it was rejected. At that point, he did NOT do what many perfectionists would do, which is to either: (a) despair, and maybe give up cartooning, or (b) grind down and start reworking the cartoon to death, probably bringing all his other work (not to mention, his life) to a standstill.

Instead, he simply set the cartoon aside and moved on to other projects. He did that for six years!

Dernavich writes:

  • “As I retrace my steps in those six years, I can definitely see the formula for success. My approach was to say “whatever,” move on to the next thing, forget completely that I had ever done this cartoon in the first place, go to sleep, get up the next day and drink coffee, eat and drink as I usually do, work at some stuff, work at some other stuff, get up earlier some days and later some days, do social things every once in a while, try to eat healthy, go on vacation, waste time on the internet, try to lead a normal life, try not to lead a boring life, go to the doctor, return my DVD copy of the Wire Season 3 Episodes 1-2 because it was scratchy, decide to sign up for honors points at hotels in case I ever need to use them but then forget what my password is, have my appendix explode, have a bunch of relationship problems, drink a bunch of Shiner Bock one summer for some reason, go to a baseball game at Wrigley Field for the first time, buy long-sleeved shirts in the springtime when they’re cheaper because stores are trying to clear them out, do a Vine video, Google “Murray Head” because I didn’t know he was the guy who sang “One Night in Bangkok” because who needs to know that information, get rid of a bunch of books I don’t need anymore, upgrade my phone, and then wake up one day and then think ‘hey – I have a funny idea about warning shots that’s better than the one I had several years ago.'”

Dernavich is demonstrating the essence of liberated creativity, which is to have a lot of ideas and projects going at once, switching joyfully among them, and letting each mature at its own pace. 

In The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, I quoted the late, great Isaac Asimov, author and editor of more than 500 books and 90,000 (!) letters and postcards:

  • “What if you get a writer’s block?” (That’s a favorite question.) I say, “I don’t ever get one precisely because I switch from one task to another at will. If I’m tired of one project, I just switch to something else which, at the moment, interests me more.” [From his memoir, In Joy Still Felt.]

Note Asimov’s absolute sense of freedom and dominion (author-ity!) over his work–expressed not in grandiose terms, but the simple ability to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. And, of course, the total lack of blame, shame, compulsion, and perfectionism.

This technique also works on long works, except that, when you get stuck, you switch to a different section of the same work. (And even then, you might sometimes take a break and set that work aside to work on something else.) Click here for instructions for that technique, which I call The Writercopter.

What if you have a deadline and can’t just switch projects? This could admittedly be a short-term problem. In the long term, though, this system helps ensure you never arrive at a deadline without something to submit. Say you’ve got four reports and four newsletters due for your job throughout 2014 (or twenty blog posts). Start working on all of them now, in bits and pieces, and do a little more work on each, each week. You’ll have plenty of time to mature them, and will probably wind up getting many of them done ahead of schedule.

This “having a lot of material in various stages in the hopper” technique is one that pretty much every prolific creator I know uses. It offers the least-pressured creativity process around, so I hope you will try it out.

And don’t forget to check out Dernavich’s article to see the cartoon “hitting its target” in its final form!

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