Friday, January 17, 2014


My pal Raina Telgemeier (anyone I know who's spent a year on the New York Times bestseller list is automatically "my pal") recently wrote on Facebook that "The very earliest stages of writing a new project very much resemble 'doing nothing' and feel incredibly unproductive, but heading into my fourth book, I at least know this is important and worthwhile and that I can trust myself. Or so I hope."

In his excellent book Backstage at the Strips, cartoonist Mort Walker retold one of my favorite anecdotes about James Thurber's wife catching him staring into space at a dinner party: "James!" she scolded. "You're writing again!"

This morning my wife Karen awoke before dawn to find me propped up on the headboard already awake, gazing into the dark. "What are you doing up?" she asked. "Writing," I said.

(To be totally honest, I said "Sixty percent writing, forty percent bladder," but that may be more than you want to know.)

I figure I get more than half of my best creative ideas lying in bed immediately after waking up. I recall cartoonist Lynn Johnston said the same thing in one of her books and ascribed it to being in a relaxed semi-dreamy state. I think that's right. Ideas born of actual sleeping dreams are usually useless--they're too random and unstructured, and are never as profound or clever in the light of day. But right after I wake up, my brain seems to be in a loosey-goosey state in which I can still tap the creativity of dreaming but also guide it.

This process looks a lot like lying in bed staring at the ceiling. I'm not sure Karen believes me when I explain I'm doing my most important work of the day.

I keep a notebook by the bed to capture these flickering embers before they're snuffed. The usual joke about bedside journals involves a writer who bolts awake in the middle of the night, scrawls out a totally original sure-fire story idea, then rises in the morning to find a scribbled line reading "Boy meets girl." However, I find that my early morning notes are almost always useful and usable. The rest of what I do with them in daylight--the refining and drawing--is just mechanics.

A notebook page from last July, capturing some action that showed up this week in my webcomic, The Last Mechanical Monster. Though this is a sketch, most of my notes are plot ideas or bits of dialog.

I don't think there's any mystery to it, no "praying for the muse to strike." I'm very much of the school that waiting for inspiration is for amateurs; just start working. It'll come. I've simply learned to use my environment to my advantage and trust in the process.

Or so I hope.

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I posted this on Facebook but wanted to share it here as well: a commercial for H&R Block filmed on my daughter Laura's aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet. No, my girl didn't join the Navy; the Hornet is a museum in Alameda, Calif., and hasn't plowed through the waves like it does in this commercial for more than four decades. Laura is on the museum staff.

 My affection for this ship, which in addition to serving in wars ranging from WWII to Vietnam also recovered the Apollo 11 and 12 capsules from the South Pacific, has been well noted in this blog. I have been backstage in its Collections Dept. (cool!), helped design and install an exhibit (fun!), spent the night in a junior officer's stateroom (spooky!), and rode the gigantic aircraft elevator featured in the commercial (fast!).

It is my understanding that the Hornet did not get to keep the pallets of cash.

* * *

Time for a quick Mark Twain Insult of the Day (#11) in parting. Today's concerns a publishing colleague of Clemens's named Charles Webb:

Webb believed that he was a literary person. He might have gotten this superstition accepted by the world if he had not extinguished it by publishing his things.


Namowal (Jennifer Bourne) said...

I've also noticed my best ideas seem to come when I'm dozing off or just waking up. I agree that it has the edge over actual dreams- that we're conscious enough upon waking to actually do something constructive with the unexpected thoughts and ideas floating between our ears.
Another factor (at least in my case) is the stifling "What!? That's dumb!" critic hasn't waken up yet...

Brian Fies said...

I'm not as productive dozing off. My mind's usually on other things.

The Inner Critic is a tricky thing; sometimes they're right! Gotta be careful....

Brian Fies said...

BTW, in answer to a question raised elsewhere, I did ask and receive Raina's permission to quote her Facebook post here. I wasn't raised by wolves!