Bill Watterson Knows About Writing!

I recently read Watterson’s The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. It is wonderful and you should buy it today. Available at Amazon or a bookstore near you.

Imagine it’s a television series and pay attention to how fast he establishes uniquely unique characters and a perfectly described world unlike any we’ve ever seen…

If you’re too young to have lived and breathed Calvin and Hobbes, get this book. You’re in for a monumental treat.

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From time to time I wonder if this is how some beginning writers feel

“I spent a lot of time drawing, but I don’t recall that I ever attempted much realism. Like most kids, I wanted instant results, not a learning process.”

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This applies to writing pretty much any kind of story

“Unemployed with no prospects, I drew up a comic strip about a loudmouth spaceman and his dim witted assistant, based on characters I’d drawn for a German class in high school. I sent the strip off to the newspaper syndicates, and about six weeks later, as my savings continued to dwindle, I opened the form letter rejections of my work. By the fall of 1981, I was living with my parents again, trying to come up with a different comic strip. At this point, I had four years to go before drawing Calvin and Hobbes.

“Four years is a pretty long time, especially when there’s no indication that the story will end well. On weekdays, I designed car and grocery ad layouts in the windowless basement office of a free weekly shopper for minimum wage. I learned a bit about design doing this job, but one might charitably say the boss had rage issues, so the office environment was dreary and oppressive, except when enlivened with episodes of fire-breathing insanity. For relief on my half-hour lunch break, I read books in a cemetery. On weekends, I drew editorial cartoons ($25 each) for the local suburban newspaper, where my specialty was weather commentary. My used car frequently needed repairs of the engine-removal type, and so on. Such were the prime years of my youth. After a certain amount of this sort of life, a reasonable person cuts his losses and opts for a different career, but I don’t recall that this ever seriously crossed my mind. In the free time I had, I drew up more comic strips

“In hindsight, all this failure was my good fortune. I’m honestly grateful that all my early strip submissions were flatly rejected. This was not a case of syndicate editors failing to recognize latent genius. My strips had serious flaws, so I’m very lucky I didn’t get stuck trying to make one of them fly. The hard part of coming up with a comic strip is finding strong characters that come alive and “write themselves,” suggesting new material as you go. Newspaper cartooning is an endurance sport, and you need characters and situations that won’t run dry in a few months. My early strip proposals were unevenly written – an occasional good character surrounded by flat ones, put into limited or clichéd worlds beyond my experience. These are common mistakes, but the only way to learn how to write and draw is by writing and drawing. The good thing about working with almost no audience was that I felt free to experiment. Nobody cared what I did, so I tried pretty much anything that came into my head, acquired some new skills along the way, and gradually learned a bit about what worked and what didn’t.

“As I say, that’s what I think in retrospect. At the time, it all just seemed like banging my head against a wall. To persist in the face of continual rejection requires a deep love of the work itself, and learning that lesson kept me from ever taking Calvin and Hobbes for granted when the strip took off years later. But in the midst of repeated failure, some self-delusion about your abilities comes in handy.

“Eventually, one syndicate expressed some interest in my work. They didn’t like the strip I had done, but they liked one of the secondary characters – a boy with an imaginary stuffed tiger. The syndicate gave me a contract to develop them into a comic strip of their own. I knew these characters had more life than any of the others are done. The more I wrote… the better the boy seemed to be, and I had the sensation that the strip was “clicking.” The syndicate had mixed reactions to it however, and eventually rejected it. This was as close as I had ever gotten, so it was quite discouraging.

“Back to square one yet again, I sent my rejected strip about the boy and a tiger to two other syndicates. One of them rejected it, but Universal Press Syndicate asked to see more samples. Desperate to impress, I called Jake Morrissey, the editor who had written me, and asked what the syndicate was looking for, what I should try to do. His answer was a total surprise: just do more of what I liked. I drew up another month of strips, and after waiting on pins and needles, I was offered a contract.

“For the first couple of years, I submitted my rough ideas to my editors at the syndicate. Back in the 80s, this was done by mail of course, which meant it took a week or more to find out which strips were approved for inking up. And earliest days, many ideas would come back marked “No.” This was always sobering, at least because I then had to write replacement strips (and get those approved) just to get back to where I thought I was on the deadlines. Occasionally I disagreed with the editors’ vetoes, but I decided never to argue on behalf of one of my ideas. Any strip that needed a defense wasn’t something I wanted published. I basically trusted my editors’ judgments, and having them as a safety net, I often submitted ideas I wasn’t sure about, just to see what reaction they got.

“When I first came up with the characters, Calvin was a little more than a mischievous loudmouth and Hobbes was simply his somewhat more sensible friend. As the characters expanded, Calvin’s and Hobbes’ personalities became more like my own. Their words and actions are fictitious, sometimes the opposite of what I would say or do, but their emotional centers are very true to the way I think. Hobbes got all my better qualities (and a few quirks from our cats), and Calvin got my ranting, escapist side. Together, they’re pretty much a transcript of my mental diary. I didn’t set out to do this, but that’s what came out, and frankly it’s pretty startling to reread the strips and see my personality exposed so plainly right there on paper. I meant to disguise that better.

“In Calvin and Hobbes, I used my childhood – sometimes straight out of the can, sometimes wildly fictionalized and sometimes as a metaphor for my 20s and 30s – to talk about my life and the issues that interested me. Without exactly intending to I learned a lot about what I love –imagination, deep friendship, animals, family, the natural world, ideas, ideals… and silliness. These things make my life meaningful, and having the opportunity to consider it all at length through the medium of drawing was the most personally rewarding part of Calvin and Hobbes. Giving words and form to what had previously been jumbled, half-conscious thoughts, I occasionally felt like I hit some truth, and in doing so, got to know myself a bit better.”

Bill Watterson

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

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Filed under character, Good Writing, Writing Process

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