Liana Finck explains how to write like a cartoonist ‹ Literary Hub
Next first appeared in Lit Hub’s The Craft of Writing newsletter – subscribe here.
A single-panel cartoon is a joke in cartoon form: you start with a setup, then add a punchline. The setup should be something most of your readers will recognize, so they get the joke. here are a few New Yorker caricaturists often rely on it: desert island, cocktail party, therapist’s couch. A montage often contains a twist: there is a dog at the cocktail party, or the person stranded on the desert island is wearing skis. Choosing the configuration is the hardest part. Once you have your setup in place, you can forget about structure and be purely creative. I always wondered if it was possible to do a longer project like a cartoon or a joke. I thought that if only I could find a truly expansive setup, it would train me and keep me from falling into the horrible questions that true novelists and graphic novelists have to ask, like What am I doing? and Why? I could let the prefab structure do the heavy lifting of storytelling and focus on my fun little jokes.
For my latest book, I decided to test this theory. I chose the Book of Genesis as a backdrop. Everyone has heard of it; some know it well. It is certainly holy, and therefore it is vulnerable to mockery. As a personal touch, I decided to make my God a woman. I thought this would cause a continuous parade of interesting questions in the story. A female artist (and God is an artist) is seen differently from a male artist. A woman’s anger reads differently than a man’s. A female God promising the world to a male believer could be interpreted as an overbearing mother or a pathetically amorous schoolgirl, as opposed to a powerful paternal force. Even though I was raised in the religion (Judaism), it never occurred to me to ask myself if I believed in God. But the minute this character came to me, I knew I believed in her. Because she is me.
In my surge of confidence with this daughter of God character, I thought my lovingly undermining take on Genesis would sink. And it did, at first. The problem was that my target wasn’t standing still. I realized that I didn’t know the Old Testament (or the Torah, as we call it) at all. It’s a jumble of mysterious parts, some written centuries apart. I can’t sum up what he’s trying to say. And what story is coherent, when you really look at it closely?
This is, I think, the difficulty of writing a book in general. You need to create something that can be seen from a distance as a cohesive object and that a reader can enter as their own universe, full of self-contained details. As someone who struggles to hold two ways of seeing in their mind at once, reading a book gives me the same kind of dizziness I feel when trying to navigate using a map or contemplating my own mortality.
Even jokes and cartoons are complex stories with layers of history and multiple meanings.
I attended Hebrew day schools as a child, so I have a lot of experience laughing at the God of Torah. I used to draw him (sic) as a comically angry cloud. His great idyllic anger was delicious to me. I brought that energy to my book. My feminine God is not a woman. She’s a girl: innocent, full of great feelings and overflowing with creativity. The first part of the project – the stories of creation, Babel and Noah, which seem (and are) very old, with their cosmic brevity – was a pleasure to work with. I pointed out the innocence of the creation story as I see it: how joyful and fun it is to see the creation of the Earth as an art project made by a child. Noah’s story went well too. It is a great story, full of great sadness and great joy, but extremely simple. The story is this: God loved one man but hated everyone else. She was in a bad mood. She destroyed the world. She saved him. She inadvertently traumatized the man in the process. This story, too, was fun to adapt.
What I came to think of as the second part of Genesis—the long, boring story of Abraham and the short, sad story of Isaac—was more difficult. The first was a story about the petty meanderings and real estate dealings and possessions of a man named Abraham. He seems like a good person and strives to do well. It’s just a little dense, sometimes unforgivable. The story of Abraham made me confront, in a way the stories of Creation and Noah did not, that the Torah and my religion is so steeped in patriarchy that it is not exactly…mine. I solved Abraham by telling his story like a Philip Roth book: a good book that wasn’t written for me, a book with blind spots that are more apparent to me than the others. I made Abraham an important young writer or artist who considers himself a genius. Having heard the voice of God, he follows it with one mind all his life, as his life passes him by.
And after Abraham, well, the stories of Jacob and Joseph are my favorites. They are sophisticated and no doubt (a difficult argument, but still!) somewhat feminist, full of twists and turns, like a great 19th century novel. There was even less to laugh at in those stories than there was in Abraham. What did I do with them? Sincerely.
After realizing that I saw the book of Genesis as a story with three distinct parts, I became a structured person. I created a primordial and serious scaffolding to give meaning to the assembly of the text. I decided to have the creation story take place in the past, Abraham in the present, and Jacob and Joseph in the future. It was a big move and a lot of fun. This has caused me to be the age of God throughout my history. From a child, she becomes a teenager, then a woman. She loses her innocent self-centeredness, becomes introspective. Growing up, she ceases to be a cartoonist and develops a taste for history.
And me too.
Even jokes and cartoons are complex stories with layers of history and multiple meanings. There’s nothing quite like skimming the surface. There is only the wonderful illusion of doing so.
Let There Be Light: The True Story of Its Creation by Liana Finck is available through Random House.