Starting in the July/August 2017 Writer’s Digest, we’re thrilled to announce the debut of a new recurring column from cartoonist Bob Eckstein, called “Worth a Thousand Words.” Eckstein’s illustrations regularly appear in the pages of such acclaimed publications as The New Yorker and The New York Times, and we couldn’t be more excited to now share his talents with the readers of WD. So, look forward to a future filled with funny cartoons!
In the meantime, check out the 5-Minute Memoir below that Eckstein penned for the March/April 2017 Writer’s Digest, along with its accompanying illustration.
Bob Eckstein is a writer and cartoonist for The New Yorker and The New York Times, and has also written for New York Daily News, Atlas Obscura, Reader’s Digest, GQ, MAD and others. His latest book, Footnotes From the World’s Greatest Bookstores, is a New York Times bestseller and was selected by The Wall Street Journal as one of the Most-Anticipated Books of Fall 2016.
Solving the World’s Most Cliché Writing Question
By Bob Eckstein
I was recently asked on a podcast, “Where do you get your inspiration?” The question gave me a wave of anxiety. The last time I felt that way was back in eighth grade, when my teacher, Mr. Readron, said our total grade would be based on answering one question. He passed out sheets of paper and announced, “Explain the history of the world.” We sat there in stunned silence, frozen in mental rigor mortis.
As a writer, cartoonist and comedy nerd, my inspirations stem from a universe of sources. Charles M. Schultz … Charles Addams … Charles Grodin. Dozens of The New Yorker cartoonists. Hundreds of The Odd Couple episodes. Thousands of things my grandmother said. The zillion things in your lifetime that make you scratch your head and question the status quo.
I’m able to be less ambiguous discussing specific points in my career. To inspire my new book, Footnotes From the World’s Greatest Bookstores, for which I illustrated 75 bookstores in under a year, I decorated my studio with the work of others. I printed out pictures from favorite childhood illustrators such as Robert Cunningham and Robert Weaver, and visited museums in Chicago, New York City and London—bringing home postcards from their respective gift shops. While nothing in the book blatantly looks like the artwork it was inspired by, such images raised the bar in color, quality and work ethic. For the writing, I reread my favorite novels, asking myself what made the stories so compelling.
Original cartoon by Bob Eckstein.
I’ve been a humorist for a long time, penning pieces for the likes of SPY, MAD, National Lampoon, GQ and Playboy. The key is to tell your story first and try to be funny second. With humor, inspiration can be anything, everything and everyone. Jerry Seinfeld. Garrison Keillor. SpongeBob. Old “Bob and Ray” recordings. My 12-year-old nephew who, when asked how his first school dance went, replied, “It was a trainwreck.” The woman sitting opposite me on the subway, wearing a sweatshirt with the word Special in glitter letters, who proceeded to vomit.
Or Lee DiFazio. Lee was a stoner who was sitting next to me on that monumental day in Mr. Readron’s class when we were asked to write that kooky essay. This tall, dangly Black Sabbath fan didn’t fret, but immediately scribbled something in pencil. To the astonishment of the class, after two minutes Lee took his sheet of paper and his denim jacket to the front of the room, dropping his final report on Mr. Readron’s desk. He then walked out and was MIA for the rest of the week.
Mr. Readron was a bald man who dressed like he was in a black-and-white movie. He looked like a janitor. Before my junior year he was the school janitor. He was funny and unorthodox in his teaching methods. About 60 seconds after Lee’s departure, Mr. Readron rested his elbows on his desk. The whole class stopped to watch what he’d do. He lifted the paper and, with a straight delivery, read Lee’s opus: “John Kennedy shot Abraham Lincoln. The End.” He placed the paper down, leaned back in his chair and went back to chewing his pen.
Lee’s economic summary of world history inspired one of my favorite cartoons: George Washington chasing Abraham Lincoln with a machine gun, with the cautionary banner, “When Kids Learn History on the Streets.” I drew it 32 years after that memorable morning. One learns much in the most unexpected ways—and that day it was an unparalleled lesson in comedic timing.