Thursday, May 10, 2012

You won't believe how this popular comic strip artist gets his ideas

Stephan Pastis, the creator of the wildly successful Pearls Before Swine, says the process of humour writing is most akin to what they say about the sausage: It tastes great, but you probably don’t want to see how it’s made.

Pastis makes this claim in his introduction to This Little Piggy Stayed Home, a collection of Pearls strips that appeared in newspapers in 2002-03.

That introduction is proof, to me, that this comic strip artist is truly a funny man. Funny ha-ha, as well as funny peculiar. Read these excerpts and you will know what I mean:

The question I get the most from Pearls readers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” And the truth is I don’t know. What I do know is that most of the better ones seem to quite literally pop into my head, with most of the dialogue already written. A good example of this is one of the more popular daily strips, where Rat asks Pig, “If you could have a conversation with one person, living or dead, who would it be?” and Pig answers, “The living one.” I don’t think I spent more than a minute writing it. It was just there. The good ones always seem to be more “found” than “created”.

I also know that the ideas seem to come in bunches. If there’s one good idea, there’s usually a few more behind it…. It’s like all you have to do is keep the pen moving.

But the converse of this is also true. When there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there. I’ve had days where I’ve written for ten straight hours, not eating and not leaving my room, and I have not come up with a single idea. …

While the thought process remains more or less a mystery, I have learned that there are certain circumstances that seem to be more conducive to creativity than others. For me, the key is total isolation, loud music, and coffee. Every time I explain what I do to achieve this in interviews, I look unbelievably strange. But it’s the truth, and I am strange, so here goes.

First, I lock myself in a spare bedroom in our house. I remove the phone. I close the blinds. I even put a folding chair in front of the door, in case the lock doesn’t work. I also turn off the lights, leaving only the minimal amount of sunlight that comes in through the closed blinds to show me where the notepad is.

Second I turn on loud music. I have about a dozen compilation CDs that I’ve made, filled with what I think are great, soaring, more or less spiritual songs in which you can lose yourself. There tends to be a lot of U2, Peter Gabriel, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, and Counting Crows in the mix….

Third, I drink a lot of coffee…two large cups. For the first hour, I just drink the coffee and walk back and forth with my headphones on, head nodding up and down to the music, occasionally playing the air guitar, and air drums and dancing. As I’m usually wearing only my boxers, you now have a good visual of how strange this really is.

To make matters even stranger, I periodically go to my bookshelf and read the same sections of the same books over and over. They are: 1) the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; 2) the beginning of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and 3) Ernest Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”.

By the second hour of this, the ideas will usually start coming, and I’ll lie on my stomach on the floor and write them all down in a spiral notepad. I don’t draw at all. I only write. After about eight hours of this, I’ll usually have a week’s worth of strips written. Which means I can put on my pants and get dinner…hopefully in that order.

So now you know.

And then Pastis has the last word, or three. Enjoy your sausage, he tells us.

If you're a Pearls fan, you will agree that in Pastiss case we not only relish our sausage but also revel in seeing how it is made.
  • For more advice on cartooning from Stephan Pastis, visit the official Pearls Before Swine blog: Cartooning 101.
  • Photograph and comic strips © Stephan Pastis

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