Why Create?

Sometime late today or early tomorrow I will post the final Mr. Fitz comic strip online. It will appear in my local newspaper next weekend. I will post it with sadness, but also with relief. I am tired.

I have wondered whether the thoughts I’ve been having for the past few years about creativity and writing are worth sharing, or if no one would care. But then I think about my students, some of whom actually love to write (no matter how hard the system has tried to kill that love). When I think about my students who love to write, I think that my own thoughts about why we create might be valuable – even though my thoughts are somewhat incomplete, still full of ambivalence and ambiguity.

I have always been drawing since I could hold a crayon. I have been poking fun at education and school for just as long – hence my Kindergarten fire safety week drawing of students roasting marshmallows over the smoldering embers of the school. I have been writing from the time I could read and form letters with a pencil or pen. I learned to read because I desperately wanted to read the funnies on my own – especially Peanuts. And when my grandparents got me Peanuts Jubilee, the 25th anniversary book about the comic strip, I knew I wanted to draw cartoons.

Several comic strips followed: one about a dog with the unfortunate name Poochey, one about a unicorn named Camilot, a comic strip in college for the Stetson Reporter called The Forest of Arden. And then, finally, in 2000, I landed my gig with the Daytona Beach News-Journal to draw a comic strip about teaching five times a week, Tuesday through Saturday. That later increased to six times a week one Mondays got added to the run a few years later.

I tried several times to get syndicated for national distribution, but this was the beginning of the internet era, and newspapers were beginning to struggle. Syndicates began to struggle: United Media, the distributors of Peanuts, closed its doors in 2011, the same year I started the Mr. Fitz Facebook page. I was turned down by the syndicates several times. But I kept going anyway.

Some cool things happened. I made the cover of the National Council of Teachers of English magazine Voices from the Middle. I made it into a New York Times special education section. I made it onto the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog by Valerie Strauss. My plot about Mr. Fitz’s depression is probably the series of mine that was read by the most people ever after appearing on the Answer Sheet. I wrote two books about writing for Scholastic Professional books that including about a 100 cartoons each.

But despite all that… I have never really caught on. My books are now out of print and available only digitally. By internet standards, my following is very small. I made less than minimum wage working on the strip after expenses – even with contributions made by several followers on Patreon. If I took my little cartooning business to the TV Shark Tank, they would laugh me out of the room and Kevin O’Leary would call me a cockroach. My wife and I used to joke about signing “the standard rich and famous contract” like Kermit the Frog did at the end of The Muppet Movie.

I had hoped my advocacy through satire would perhaps change the discussion about education reform, but yesterday our Florida governor signed a new law that teachers must provide to parents a complete list of all the texts they will be covering in their classes so they can approve or disapprove of them. (More on that some other time.) I don’t really feel I’ve impacted the system that much.

The comic strip did get me in “trouble” a couple of times, and I was told I might get fired despite my tenure. But I kept going anyway.

I have been giving a great deal of thought to why we create and what we hope to get out of it.

At a charity event for adult literacy I met a professional writer and talked to him. He told me never write anything unless you have an advance in hand from a publisher – and a decent one at that. The only reason to write is to make money. As someone who had been writing and drawing for fun since second grade, I did not particularly like his advice. I also don’t recall his name or what he wrote.

But then there is the other end of the spectrum.

A friend recently gave me a book called The Creative Struggle, a non-fiction book of cartoons by Gavin Aung Than. One of the cartoons was a creative pep talk that quoted a person I had never heard of, a man named Jiddu Krishnamurti. He says, “We want to be famous as a writer, as a poet, as a painter, as a politician, as a singer, or what you will. Why? Because we really don’t love what we are doing. If you loved to sing, or to paint, or to write poems, if you really loved it, you would not be concerned with whether you are famous or not. To want to be famous is tawdry, trivial, stupid. It has no meaning. But because we don’t love what we are doing, we want to enrich our lives with fame. Our present education is rotten because it teaches us to love success and not what we are doing. The result has become more and important than the action. You know, it is good to hide your light under a bushel. To love what you do and not to show it off. It is good to kind without a name. You are just a creative human being living anonymously… and in that there is richness and great beauty.”

That quote really brought me up short. In the age of social media and endless addiction to Likes and Shares, it is a positively counter-cultural message.

I did note, however, that Gavin Aung Than put his name on the front of The Creative Struggle.

Are we too obsessed with popularity in our culture? Yes. Do I probably care too much about those Likes? Probably. But now I know social media platforms are trying to manipulate me, so I try not to look. But do I care about the comments I get that thank me? Yes. I want to know that I am helping some teachers get through their days, weeks, or school years with my humor, or that I’ve made points about education worth making. I treasure those comments and messages. I think that as a creator, wanting to connect to your audience is perfectly valid, just as when I appear in a funny play, I want to hear laughter from the audience out in the seats.

But writing only for audience reaction sometimes leads to pandering to an audience.

And then there is the famous advice from Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet: “This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your while life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

Do I need to create? Yes. Does it have to be the comic strip? Probably not. Or at least not right now. I am tired. For 22 years I have taught full time and done a second almost full time job. Fun fact: many cartoonists make a full-time salary and hire a staff who will do the actual inking. I have draw and inked every strip myself, week after week for 22 years. Something can be really, really fun and really, really tiring at the same time.

In one of my favorite books about creativity, Walking On Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, Madeleine L’Engle quotes Jean Rhys, “who said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake’.”

I love this metaphor. I hope I have been a very tiny rivulet into the lake of art.

I know many artists never sell work in their lifetimes, only to have it become incredibly valuable after their deaths. I know many artists become successful and sell out to their popularity, creating lots and lots of dreck just to make money. Stephen Sondheim’s answer to that, having written a musical just to make money, is that “The only reason to write is from love.”

I have been writing for love for 22 years, but I am tired. If I were making 20 thousand dollars a week drawing Mr. Fitz, would I be quitting? Um… probably not. Would writing it for more money be a good reason to keep going? Probably not. This is where ambivalence comes in.

I start to fear I may just be repeating myself after writing and drawing 6,000 or so comic strips. When I first started drawing it, I looked across our dining room table and told my wife I was blissfully happy. Some of the bliss is gone these days. Rightly or wrongly, my lack fame and money has played a role in that loss of enjoyment. And the world of education is so awful these days, it becomes harder and harder to find the humor in it, and making light of what’s happening somehow seems wrong. I feel I need to address the issues of education in a different format.

In the end, I knew my gut would tell me it was time to let this particular dream go… at least for now. There are other writing and art projects I want to pursue. Maybe nothing will come of them, but teaching and drawing the comic strip have left me no time to complete these other projects and find out where they might lead. I may decide in a few months that I can’t live without the comic strip and I need to start drawing again. But I need some time off to see how I feel about it.

Stephen Sondheim, who I quoted above, and who passed away the day after Thanksgiving in 2021, co-wrote, with James Lapine, a musical about art, Sunday in the Park with George. Sondheim, of course, wrote the songs. The show ends with an artist, George, wondering what to work on next. His muse, Dot, tells him it is time to “move on.”

“Move on…

Stop worrying where you’re going.
Move on.
If you can know where you’re going,
You’ve gone.
Just keep moving on.”

“Anything you do,
Let it come from you,
Then it will be new.
Give us more to see.”

For now I must move on. There are other stories to tell, other projects to work on. My full-length play about Johannes Kepler, The Music of the Spheres. My metaphysical thriller about a cult, Faithful Unto Death. My new version of my novel Making My Escape, which will be half traditional text, half graphic novel/storyboard. My education novel, Reform School.

And other things I haven’t even thought of. That’s the most exciting thing of all – to create something completely new.

Of course, a classroom should be a creative space as well, as I have tried to demonstrate throughout the run of my comic strip – up to and including the last strip.

In both my art and my teaching, I look ahead to frames only partially filled – and new blank frames full of possibilities…