Feb 18, 2012

What can Calvin & Hobbes teach you about writing?

“From now on, I’ll connect the dots my own way.” -- Bill Watterson

 Bill Watterson (b. 1958) is an American cartoonist, best known as the author of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.
For much of his life, Watterson lived in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a village of four thousand souls. There, High Street leads into the Whitesburg Park, ending in a dusty teardrop by a shaded lake. The Chagrin river flows lazily among the trees, beavers swim and toil, people come to fish or walk their dogs. Sounds like a place for Calvin.

Watterson is painted as ‘reclusive’ -- I say he’s just private. Since Calvin ended, he’s avoided interviews and generally maintained a low profile.

But this little essay isn’t about Watterson. Calvin and Hobbes, the strip he wrote, penciled and inked for 10 years, ceased publication in 1995.

Maybe the six-year-old hellraiser, Calvin, and his tiger companion Hobbes still get so much love because Watterson didn’t “run the wheels off of it,” as he once told an interviewer.

You can easily cross the line that divides artistic integrity from gross, mercenary self-interest. Bill saw that line and said no, I’m staying right here. The cartoonist wouldn’t sell his soul to pay utility bills or put food on the table.
It is understandable that he never let Calvin & Hobbes be commercialized like the Simpsons. Watterson felt that this move would invalidate anything he had to say.

So, what can Calvin & Hobbes teach you about writing a novel, story or play? Maybe include more dinosaurs? Let’s find out.

“Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating,” said Bill Watterson. “The mind is like a car battery - it recharges by running.

There’s treasure everywhere. You just have to know where to look but, more importantly, it’s how you look that really counts.

Consider photography. Ask yourself this: what is a photographer’s most important tool? The one he absolutely can’t do without?

If your answer is ‘a camera,’ you’re WRONG. The photographer’s one indispensable tool is a trained, attentive mind. A monkey with a camera, you see, is just that. A monkey. With a camera. Possibly broken.
Monkeys are hella smart, but we’re a long way from witnessing the birth of a Chimpy Leibovitz or a Gorilla Ray. I think. I hope.

Never confuse the instrument with the person who plays it.
An excellent camera won’t turn you into an award-winning photographer; a MacBook Pro won’t make you a better writer. Technology is there to help, not replace you or add “value” to your writing. You can draft a heartbreaking ode to your lost love on a cocktail napkin using a crayon. (You can eat the crayon afterwards, but it won’t make you feel better, trust me.) Conversely, one might plot an Uwe Boll movie on a million-dollar laptop.

Long before web 2.0, social media, even before the printing press, a writer knew that she must rely on her storytelling skills. She wouldn’t trust her quills to come up with a sonnet -- or somehow improve it.

“I just tried to write honestly,” Watterson told Cleveland.com, “and I tried to make this little world fun to look at, so people would take the time to read it. That was the full extent of my concern. You mix a bunch of ingredients, and once in a great while, chemistry happens.

Writing is the fine art of making mountains out of molehills and having your reader play along. It’s this very elaborate, private joke between the two of you.
Set up these stick figures, maybe splash a little paint on them, make funny voices. It’s all pretend. But it’s real at the same time. You both find a way to inhabit the story. The more effort a writer puts into this make-believe, the more love they’ll get in return.

Now, I don’t like Harry Potter one bit, but may lightning strike me dead if I don’t admit it right now -- that JK Rowling sure packed her books full o’ them word things. Like, hundreds of thousands of them. They might be beautiful or ugly, work together or not... I don’t care. Rowling had the discipline, she put in the hours. People don’t snap up those books just because they’re terrible and they have no taste... there’s actually something to them. Those stories speak to a certain need and, so long as they satisfy that need (which I would say is a longing for transcendence) they are good, up to a point.

“The purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure pure reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!” -- asserts the sage Watterson.

It’s true, you can let bad ideas get in the way of your good ones. There’s one golden rule of composition and Ezra Pound put it best: “Cut, cut, cut.” Another sage once advised the filthy beggars at his saintly feet: “when writing, skip the boring parts.” In other words, some ideas already smell ripe before you commit them to paper.

One great big question keeps dogging us, however. It’s not always easy to tell good ideas from bad ones, so how do you do it?
I don’t have any recipes for you. Trial and error is a time-honored method for weeding out terrible notions. Natural selection employs it; who are we to think ourselves above nature? It is her guiding hand, after all, that gave us such marvels as the average person, who does not jump in front of a train just to see what happens.

Good idea? Bad one? Depends on your preconceived notions, I guess.

Who are Calvin and Hobbes?

Calvin is an explorer, a treasure-hunter and a time traveler. When he is stuck behind a school desk he withdraws into the cosmos of his mind. One of the wilder fan theories out there maintains that Calvin is a god-in-training and Hobbes is a mentor figure.

Fascinating as that theory sounds, I’m not going to explore it here. I’m running low, need to replenish my electrolytes. I see Hobbes as a totem animal, a spirit guide. Is he real or not? I don’t know, what do you think?

What I love best about these two is... Damn, I don’t have a name for it. There’s something so true, so deeply humane about Calvin and his tiger buddy. Thank you, Mr. Watterson. 

“Things are never quite as scary when you’ve got a best friend.

25 Great Calvin and Hobbes strips || Chagrin Falls, OH || Cleveland.Com interview with Watterson || 16 things Calvin & Hobbes said better than anyone else


What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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