Where do your ideas come from?

ONE of the most frequent questions I'm asked, aside from What's the deal with your face? is Where do your ideas come from? I write and draw a daily comic strip (6 dailies a week and a 3-deck half-page Sunday strip every week). It's written for a 40-80 year old audience and goes out to 34 countries. It gets translated into different languages at the syndicate, so it needs to be finished and sent 6 to 8 weeks in advance of being printed. I usually write 12 dailies at a time and 2 Sundays for consistency of tone and narrative. Writing one strip per day would be jarring; each gag would reflect how my brain was functioning on that day, and knowing my brain, I wouldn't wish that upon any readers.

To answer the question, I'd say "It just looks like this. All the time." To answer the other question, I'd say "I change up the scenery. Often."

I've had 7 studios in 7 years. For those of you playing at home, (and thank you for playing) you'd have incredibly deduced I've moved house every year since I left home. I also scrimp and save so I can take an overseas trip ever year- it doesn't have to be far flung location; places like Bali, Vanuatu or New Zealand are great as long as I'm taking in new surroundings, absorbing new cultures and expanding my visual vocabulary. It always does the trick. I write volumes every time I change scenes. Then I unpack.

I used to work out of a tiny 2 x 3m bedroom in my mum's duplex in Greenwood, an old suburb in the sleepy northern suburbs of Perth. In the room was a bed, a chest of draws and a small desk for a computer. There was a small space for standing. In that room I slept, ate, watched TV and, most importantly, practiced drawing. My sister joked that I was the only person prison wouldn't phase. The polar opposite became the case, but I did learn to work in confined spaces. It came in handy when I had a deadline to meet while working on the edge of a shoebox-sized room with a mattress and a sink in France, or a train seat in Long Island.

My mum's ex-boyfriend was the kind of bloke who would go around with a ute, picking up old furniture during roadside pick-up week in each suburb. He was a real estate agent and thrifty as they come, so he knew when each suburb was holding it's annual large garbage week, or as he poetically coined it, "Lar-Garb".

One day he was rolling around the shimmering glamour of Winthrop, a suburb infamous for gun-crime and chalk outlines, when he came upon an old wooden drawing desk propped on the curb of a house made built in the bronze age. The old desk looked about 50 years old and needed work. He lugged it onto the back of his ute and snuck away before the neighbours could reload.

On my 17th Birthday, (well it was months before, but he didn't know), he presented me with the drawing table, the surface of which he'd wiped clean with a hefty swab of methylated spirits. This might have explained some of the Steadman-esque drawings I did that summer.

It took up the last chunk of standing space in my room, but it became by far the most valuable piece of furniture I owned. It wasn't 'til years later when I started working digitally (drawing on a tablet and looking up at the screen) that learning to draw by hand, on a drawing board was an invaluable skill to have. The best advice I have for young artists starting out is always 'Learn to draw by hand first -THEN draw digitally. The 'undo' key is the world's worst hindrance to learning to be bold with line.'

But I digress.

I was trying to answer a question about how I get my ideas. Well that digression is a perfect example. I start by thinking of one thing, then allow my mind the white space to drift off and explore another in as much detail as it needs. I don't like to control the way my mind works a lot of the time. I'm not talking about my inability to master some kind of Norman Doidge-esque neuroplasiticy, I'm able to form habits and stick to them, but when you're talking about being creative, finding new ideas for the rest of your life for your JOB, you need to learn to let your brain wander. Professionally. (I used to be great at it in History class.)

You can still give yourself restrictions. The human brain thrives on patterns, so if you set guidelines like allowing an hour between 10am and 11am every day for 'mind-wandering' you can still quite easily enjoy creative freedom without forcing it. If you're trying to come up with ideas and you're making a grunting sound, you're doing it wrong.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise, wine does have magical powers when it comes to getting creative.

Some people will tell you their best ideas come to them when their subconscious is occupied with mundane tasks; when they're in the shower, doing the dishes, watching Jersey Shore. That's not true for everyone, but there's something to be said for occupying that warden in your brain so your conscious mind-goblin can escape and do some exploring. Others will say they marinate on an idea, then go off and do something completely different then come back to it with fresh eyes. That's another good method. Others will say after agonising over an idea all day they 'sleep on it' and let their subconscious work it out for them. You'll find a lot of writers, musicians and cartoonists keep a pad and pen by the bed in case it happens mid-slumber.

But as I said before my goblin wandered off, I've found the activity most conducive to creative inspiration is change. Luckily for me, time does that for you whether you like it or not. You can't keep everything the same no matter how hard you try so you're best off going with the flow and adapting to the change rather than fighting against it. Even if you don't want Breaking Bad to end.

Moving house so often means I'm forced to audit my possessions annually, so I live with only what I need and nothing more. It makes packing easier, but it makes day-to-day living even more so. There's less distraction when you're trying to think- your mind isn't consumed by physical clutter. As a result, I don't tend to attach myself to material possessions the way I did when I was growing up. I don't own anything 'just in case I need it one day'. If I haven't used it in a year, it's gone. Craigslist is my homepage.

If you're wondering, that old drawing board never made it past move number 1. It was so old the council got it heritage listed. I'm pretty sure the carpenter's name was J. Christ.

My ex-housemate, Wyatt, who constantly (and hilariously) has the fervour of a drugged pet-store puppy, used to bounce around our apartment and laugh at how everything in our tiny apartment was messy chaos except my empty desk. Which was in the living room/dining room/entire apartment. He'd come home and say 'Hey do you know where the bread is? And DON'T SAY EBAY!' I'm still convinced that apartment was meant as a broom cupboard.

But, despite its microscopic nature, I was accustomed to working and being creative in tiny spaces. It was new, interesting scenery and I stayed there for 12 months before clicking the 'next' button. One friend asked if I was too A.D.D. to stay in one place; that I was the epitome of the too-easily-bored Generation-Y archetype who couldn't sit still for more than five minutes without craving something new. I get that it seems that way, but it's more a case of 'keeping momentum to stimulate my little creative brain-elf'. I did have to delete Twitter from my phone to focus, so I'm not completely innocent of all charges.

I still have creative blocks, I still hit brick walls and I still work close to deadline some days. But the more I do, the more I learn the best way to work around them. Everyone is different, so any self-help book telling you 'THE 5 GUARANTEED WAYS OF THINKING CREATIVELY' immediately take with a bag of rock salt. Everybody's different, thus, there's no one way to get ideas, or be creative, or let your brain wander. I hope to hell anything I've written here helps someone, otherwise wow. What a waste of time for you! Sorry.

I once met a cartoonist who needed to work in a noisy Starbucks and work out his ideas on napkins to be able to get his creative buzz. You would have seen his work - he appeared daily as an editorial cartoonist and has one of the most widely-syndicated strips in the US. The consistency of his work is astounding. It obviously makes a guppy like me feel like a total hack, but then, I'm a guppy. I'm allowed to be making mistakes while I figure my stuff out. Right?...

I understand not everyone is afforded the opportunity to do what I do; to move around so often or to even have the luxury of figuring out how to work without a clock-tapping boss breathing down my neck, but I think the guilt of not having to work a day job any more (which I did for years before this) keeps me propelled enough to work hard and never rest on whatever laurels might be on my chair. (I just checked. There are no laurels there. NEW IDEA! The Laurel Chair. Available to seniors, and Mark Hammill.)

I can't believe I just wrote 1400 words on how to think creative as a distraction from writing a Sunday strip. The good news? I just got an idea for a Sunday strip.