Why I’m Milking My Childhood for a Webcomic

I had to learn to take writing less seriously to have any fun with it, or to be any good at it.

Webcomics and comedy in general weren’t at the top of my mind when I first had an inkling to start writing more than ten years ago. Like most young writers aspiring to be called aspiring, I wanted to write ‘serious’ stuff. So I wrote some horror stories. Now, the irony of horror stories hardly being what can be considered ‘serious’ was completely lost on me, and that should give you a good idea of where my head was at, and it wasn’t a place where the sun is known to shine. The long road I took to start writing goofy comics wasn’t so much a process of giving up on naive pretensions but a slow realization of two things every writer hears but often discounts as cliched and cheap throwaway advice: write what you’re good at, and write what you know.

Let’s start with the first one, because writing what you’re good at is a difficult proposition for someone who isn’t really all that great at writing anything. Before the age of twenty I had never even considered writing as something I wanted to pursue; I was a music junkie and went to college for audio production, figuring that was where my future would lie (I’m laughing the sad laugh of everyone with an unused college major as I write that). My first impetus to start writing, ironically enough, came from a renewed love for comic books, something I had drifted away from in high school. In fact, the first few projects I began work on were comic scripts before quickly migrating to short fiction. No writer starts out polished, and getting as late a start as I did definitely didn’t help; the results were ugly, to say the least. I couldn’t quite find a passion for the grisly horror stories I set out to write and not because I’m not a horror fan, I love the stuff, but I just don’t have much of a talent for it and the end product showed as much. I also wasn’t getting a lot done; convincing myself to sit down and force dull, overblown sentences out was a chore of herculean effort. But I stubbornly slogged away, insisting to myself that writing doesn’t have to be fun, and after a few years with nothing to show I finally had to take a moment to ask myself what I was doing wrong.

The answer was as simple as looking back to the only other time in my life when I had written anything. In high school there were only two classes that ever appealed to me: Debate and English. Admittedly, the first was a favorite simply because I’m a smart-mouthed asshole that hasn’t met an argument I can’t win. The latter, however, was fun not for the grammar but for the writing assignments. Math never clicked, history was too easy, and tech class was basically a free period, but I could have fun with short stories. And, being a smart-mouthed asshole, I could be funny while roasting the entire faculty and get an A for it! Sadly, I never translated the fun I had with those writing homework assignments into anything extracurricular, but around the same time that I was reevaluating my motivations for putting pen to paper I learned that one of my old shorts was still being used by the English teacher as an in-class writing example. My current writing was decidedly unpublishable, but somehow through my snark of years gone by I had managed to become high school curriculum. And I remembered having fun doing it, much unlike the begrudging tedium I felt while pecking out the forced melodrama of my recently shelved fiction.

So I had part of my solution: write what you’re good at, which turned out to be humor. But what to write about? This is where the impulse to write ‘serious’ things got in the way; humor may be fun to write, but it’s not generally thought of as something to take seriously. This is, of course, complete bullshit. Since the ancient Greeks, good humor — especially in its satirical form — has always had substance and even modern humorists from Carlin to Pratchett have had more than plenty to say beneath the dick jokes and cheap laughs. My problem was that I wasn’t giving myself anything worthwhile to write about where humor is involved. The ah ha moment came on a random day when a friend commented on the way I always seemed to have a story from my life that I could relate to nearly any conversation, regardless of how offbeat or unlikely. At long last I realized that if I couldn’t think of any outward topic to apply humor to I could simply utilize the ready-made supply of subject matter I had at my fingertips: my childhood.

A scene from Inventor Dad…and my childhood. Illustrated by E.P.

I don’t want to give the impression that my upbringing was a circus sideshow or a CPS-worthy disaster by any means; if anything it was a terribly average period for a lower-middle class American kid. But if The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle had anything to say, it was that lower-middle class life in America has plenty to offer in the way of comedic anecdotes, especially when working with a formula of three latchkey boys, a self-styled inventor dad, and a wife with more than a little fraying around the edges. Because familiarity breeds boredom, I have always thought of my upbringing as little better than benign, but it eventually dawned on me that I just may have a moderately-sized goldmine of material that might be worth telling. Perhaps it’s not novel-worthy, or even suited for a TV sitcom, but a webcomic? If I couldn’t squeeze out one self-contained page of based-on-a-slightly-true-story sketch comedy a week then my life would have to be a hell of a lot more boring than I previously assumed.

Not everything in Inventor Dad is based on real-life, I made sure to leave plenty of wiggle room for ‘artistic interpretation’, and it also gives me a chance to play around with the characters, but many of the strips do come from actual events and that’s what makes it especially fun. Sure, there’s the drawback that much of it feels (to me at least) like one inside joke after another, but the chance to revisit and make use of memorable moments in my childhood, like when my brother and I learned the true meaning of a ‘fire hazard’, or my dad’s well-meaning attempt at late-stage potty training, has given me a new appreciation for a childhood that I previously took too much for granted.

The logo for my comic, Inventor Dad.

Learning to stop taking the idea of writing too seriously and point my pen towards a style and subject that made sense ultimately helped me achieve the one thing that had been holding back my productivity since first starting to scribble words on paper: I’ve been having fun writing my goofy little webcomic. There is no agonizing tedium when I sit down to write adventures of wonky inventions gone horribly wrong, or adapting childhood stories I’ve been retelling for years. It’s something I actually look forward to doing rather than dreading like a chore, and while it’s tempting to regret that I couldn’t come to this frame of mind many years earlier I also have to acknowledge all the lessons I learned from years of trudging through my sparse fiction writing. I still work on ‘serious’ fiction, just with a very different approach, shaped by those lessons and the new enthusiasm I have for the craft in general. Surprisingly, I’m starting to have fun with that too and it’s gotten me halfway done with my first novel.

If there has been one lesson I have learned more salient that the others, it’s life’s too short and messy to take everything so seriously that you take the simple things for granted. Simple things like writing what you know and what you’re good at.

Follow Brett: http://www.brettreistroffer.com/

Follow Inventor Dad: http://www.inventordad.com/

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