Tag Archive for Bill Watterson

Bill Watterson on Creativity, Inspiration, Playfulness, and Artistic Integrity


Today, thanks to the genius Brainpickings site, I discovered a wonderful commencement address by Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin & Hobbes comics.

I have so much respect for the integrity and wisdom of this artist. Here’s a small sample:

“If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.


At school, new ideas are thrust at you every day. Out in the world, you’ll have to find the inner motivation to search for new ideas on your own. With any luck at all, you’ll never need to take an idea and squeeze a punchline out of it, but as bright, creative people, you’ll be called upon to generate ideas and solutions all your lives. Letting your mind play is the best way to solve problems.


A playful mind is inquisitive, and learning is fun. If you indulge your natural curiosity and retain a sense of fun in new experience, I think you’ll find it functions as a sort of shock absorber for the bumpy road ahead.”

Go ahead and click here. You might be inspired.

As for the comic above, I think Mr. Watterson is correct. And I am sure he’s writing from personal experience. There’s nothing like a deadline for a kick in the pants.

Students often ask about writer’s block. They seem fascinated by it. I tell them that my father was an insurance salesman with seven children. He never had insurance block. Nope. He just went to work.

In this profession, when you are stuck?

Make something up!

I discussed this with author Todd Strasser the other day at an event in Walkill, NY. He agreed and said [sic]: “No reader ever opens a book, points to page 112, and complains, ‘You just made this part up.'”

Because: of course.

It’s how we roll.

Thank you, Bill Watterson, for your great shining example.



Meet Sue Fondrie, 2011 Grand Prize Winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for “Worst Opening Sentence in a Work of Fiction”

On Monday, July 25, Sue Fondrie was announced as the grand prize winner of the 2011 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. As a longtime fan (and occasional perpetrator) of spectacularly bad writing, I blogged that sucker up and, to my surprise, Sue dropped by with a comment. Medium story short: She agreed to satisfy my curiosity by answering a few questions.

Sue, I loved and admired your amazing sentence. Congratulations on the sweet, sweet victory. Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you do for a living?

Is this victory sweet? I think it soured people on writing, really.

Not true! I think it takes a real appreciation of language to create something that egregiously bad. Just look at the popularity of the contest. We are delighted and charmed. Seriously: Great job.

For a living, I work with future teachers as an associate professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. I teach the secondary English methods courses, the middle school education course, supervise student teachers in English language arts, and generally help students become teachers.

Let us gaze in awe once again upon your award-winning sentence:

“Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.”

How long did it take you to craft it? I can’t believe something that over-cooked could have been completed in a first draft.

Don’t tell anyone, but I cranked it out in a few minutes, initially. Then, as I always recommend to my students, I let it sit for a few weeks and then came back to work on it some more. Hmm, maybe I should’ve let it sit longer . . .

Have you entered the contest in previous years? What appeals to you about bad writing?

I’ve never entered before, although I’ve been following it for almost 20 years. What’s not to love about bad writing? It makes my own mediocre efforts seem acceptable.

You are an associate professor at a university, the land of ivory towers, usually a bastion for writing that is dry, tedious, filled with arcane language. The academic world has it’s own brand of bad. But your purple prose draws inspiration from . . . where, exactly? Can you site any specific sources? Just a hunch, but have you been reading the Twilight series?

If you read any of my academic writing, you’d see that dry and tedious describes it perfectly. I credit my Bulwer-Lytton win to being raised in a household of people who love a good pun and like to play with language. We often had long pun-filled contests on a central theme. And like any good teacher educator, I’ve read the Twilight series.

Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes,

knows a few things about academic writing.

What next? I mean, is there a second sentence in the works? A chapter, a book? Do you have serious writing aspirations?

Sadly, I had but the one sentence in me. I’m going to rest on my rapidly decaying laurels. As for serious aspirations, I’m a superior technical writer and an appalling creative one. I’ll have to stick with academic efforts and the occasional (bad) fan fic effort.

Good luck, Sue. Thanks for stopping by. Your parting gift is on the way — a signed copy of my recent book, Bystander. And if you ever do write that next sentence, I’ll be eager to read it. In the meantime, I’ll be left with only forgotten memories and sparrow-like thoughts . . .

Calvin & Hobbes & Self-Taught Artists

Unconfirmed info states that the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip below, by the great Bill Watterson, was produced more than 15 years ago. It still resonates today, a little bit, don’t you think? (Click on the strip to see it larger.)

As a child, I learned to draw by copying the comic strips. I’d fill pages with my own renditions of Andy Capp, Beetle Bailey, and Charlie Brown. It was relaxing, soothing, almost meditative, that physical/mental activity of drawing. Somehow as we get older, we stop. We learn that there’s “good art” and “bad art,” and decide that it’s best to leave it to the professionals. We get the message and the message is: Don’t. Just don’t.

Our loss.

When it comes to art — and we could easily be talking about writing here — the most dangerous questions revolve around quality. Is it “good?” Is it “bad?” Because the unspoken question is: Can I continue, or would it be best for everybody if I just stop? Because if I’m making bad art, then I’m probably a bad person, and this is absolutely a bad idea. So I better quit now.

I’ve always been uncomfortable when it comes to teaching creative writing. It’s such a fragile thing, the courage it takes to dare make something. The artist is exposed, vulnerable. The last thing I ever want to do — as the so-called expert, the professional — is to kill it. And it’s so easy to do. With just a few ill-advised comments, we can suck the joy out of just about anything. At the same time, it’s why I have such respect for people like Ralph Fletcher, and the insights of Lynda Barry, or the impressive bloggers, Stacey and Ruth, at Two Writing Teachers who work with such dedication to keep kids motivated and involved in the act of writing. All I know to do is say, “Great job, keep going, you’re fantastic.” And maybe — maybe — there’s a point where artists of any age need a little more help than that, though I have my doubts.

I remember being asked to interview Mark Teague very early in his career, late 1980s. In my preparation, I kept coming across information that stressed he was a “self-taught” artist. And I puzzled over that. Because, like, who cares? Why was that significant? What did it matter?

The conclusion I reached was that for most of us, we need permission to draw (or paint, or sculpt, or write). Sort of like going down to City Hall to pick up a fishing permit. You can’t be an artist unless you go to art school. Everybody else: Put the crayons down and please step away from the table.

The thing with self-taught artists is that somehow they manage to persevere without a license. They keep on making pictures, hand and mind in unison, and it seems to me like such a healthy, wholesome activity (in which we are made, figuratively, whole and at one, ommmmmm). Today my daughter Maggie still loves to draw pictures. We’ll sit down at the kitchen table, divide up the Sunday comics, markers and paper strewn everywhere, and recreate our favorite characters, music playing in the background. I hope she never stops. Because somehow the act of stopping is like a little death in all of us. An end of innocence, of participation, of creative joy, of play. We lose something very dear when we surrender our art (and our artistic selves) to the professionals.

FINAL COMMENT: Looking at the comic strip above, and how it reflects today’s financial climate, you are either struck by Bill Watterson’s amazing prescience . . . or by how little things have changed over the years. Given what we’re learning daily about the big corporations: The surprise in it is that anyone could find it the least bit surprising.