Friday, May 27, 2016

TED talk


Well, I'm not sure if the video of my speech at the TEDx conference will be posted or not, but, as the Magic 8-Ball would say, "It looks doubtful." So, in lieu of the video, I'll just post the text, along with the accompanying images. Also, fair warning: If you think my normal updates are long-winded, this one is going to seem like listening to Alan Greenspan read a James Michener novel aloud.

Here goes.

Hello. My name is Noah Kroese, and I’d like to begin today with a moment of respectful silence for the ordinary human being.

We try so hard, us mortals. But the fact is that we’re nothing more than fleshy water bags who work in offices, pay bills, and sometimes forget the “lefty loosey, righty tighty” rule. We live in anonymity and die in obscurity, about as noticeable as a potato. Sure, some of the brave or foolhardy ones will try to do interesting things, never aware of the insurmountable gulf between our own averageness and the creative and intellectual luminaries who can actually make meaningful contributions.


One of the many ways in which my own overwhelming averageness can be measured is in my inabilities, which I have in spades. I can’t do that thing where you stick your fingers in your mouth and whistle. I can’t do math or spell words in my head. And I’m really bad at estimating distances of either the literal or metaphorical kind. That last one is important, because it turns out I’ve been overestimating the distance between us average schmucks and those creative and intellectual giants. My whole life. By a LOT. But I didn’t know that until I wrote and illustrated this book called “Saturday”.

Let me explain.

I’m an illustrator. It’s not the most common job, but it’s not unheard of. And just about every aspect and every result of my job is so normal it’s near invisible. When you’re leafing through a magazine or scrolling through a website and, for a millisecond, you glance at an accompanying image and then can’t remember you even looked at it? That’s what I do. I draw the things you can’t even remember you saw. I do so from home, which is even more boring than an office because there’s no one around I can chit chat with or steal lunch from. Maybe the only extraordinary thing about what I do is how much I love it.

I’ve pretty much always loved to draw. I drew when I was a little kid. A lot. But I wasn’t a prodigy. My drawings were awful. Mostly ninjas. Some robots. But mostly ninjas. And again: If there was anything extraordinary about my drawing it wasn’t the quality, it was how excited I was to be doing it. I loved it so much that I didn’t care how awful I was at it.

I also read a lot. And by “reading” I mean, you know, looking at pictures. Holling Clancy Hollings books, Tintin adventures, Rien Poortvliet, Frank Frazetta. These weren’t human beings. Somewhere, probably in some stately marble hall where your footsteps echo and you speak in reverent, hushed tones, there were bronze effigies to these titans who never ate ketchup or worried about the power bill.

Even as a kid, without being told, I understood they were special people. In another league. From another planet. Like Krypton or “Look at Me I’m So Special and Perfect Planet” (that’s in the outer edges of the Jerkwad solar system). That’s not something people like me can do. It’s not something ordinary people do. It’s something other people do; people with innate abilities and knowledge that I don’t have and can’t obtain.

But I was having fun, so I wasn’t afraid to be drawing in the long, deep shadow cast by their talent.

Later on, in spite of what turned out to be totally sensible advice from my mom, I went to college and majored in art, drew crummy political cartoons for a couple of years, and eventually blundered into freelance illustration.

So there I was wallowing in my own averageness, driving around a mostly un-rusted 1994 Toyota Camry and eating at the finest gas stations when I had this idea for a book. One that I’d never really seen before.

To be fair, I was terrified. Scared enough to sit on the idea for several years because of that fear of my profound ordinariness. I didn’t know the first thing about writing or illustrating books. In fact, the reason my imaginary book had gathered dust on an imaginary shelf was because every time I thought about starting it, I would think first about the laundry list of things I didn’t know how to do. And it was a long list. It had regular points and sub-points.

But I was also curious. And I knew it would be fun. Drawing is the one place where I’m willing to follow my curiosity in spite of my own reservations. What’s the worst that could happen? Well, I guess the worst that could happen is that I would start drawing the book and somehow my face would catch on fire. But it’s more likely that I would try it, it would turn out crappy, and I’d give up. And that’s not so bad. If that turned out to be the case, I could just bury the idea in the back yard like a goldfish or a burned quiche and no one would be the wiser.

So that’s how “Saturday” started. It was about as profound as a rerun of “Wheel of Fortune”.

What I had in mind was a king-sized graphic novel/children’s book with a lot of lavishly drawn detail in every panel. It would have weird characters, goofy jokes, and cultural references, sure. But what I really wanted was a book that the 10-year-old me and the 30-year-old me would both want to pick up and explore.  I wanted to make something that you could get lost in. And I did get lost in it. The aspects of the book that made it unique and exciting to me also made it an astounding amount of work. “Saturday” took me nearly nine years to finish. And every inch of it was fun. 

Now, it’s super important to note that I don’t think “Saturday” qualifies as great art or that, having finished “Saturday”, I’m now among those luminaries with their own bronze statues. But I DO think it’s cool. I think it’s fun and interesting. But that’s beside the point. Even if you think it’s worth its weight in soggy bread, you can look at this book and see how much work it took to bring this thing to fruition. It’s an intimidating amount of work. One I never ever thought I would be able to finish. I was always my biggest doubter and critic. Mostly because of my own acute awareness of my extraordinary ordinariness and of the distance between a human like me, who once shaved off his own eyebrow, and the kind of genius and talent capable of making something cool.

But I didn’t sit down one day and say, “I think I’m going to make an epic, sprawling, ambitious book” and then just do it. Ever see one of the old timey cartoons where someone dangles a carrot on a fishing pole in front of a donkey to get it to pull a cart? It was more like that. The drawing was so much fun that I didn’t even notice the cart was behind me. And also because of that fun, I pulled that cart a distance I thought couldn’t be crossed by someone like me. Because I have to be tricked into doing anything worthwhile.

It’d be like if I ate nothing but fried mozzarella for six months and at the end I found out I had accidentally competed in a triathlon. I never actually meant for something productive to result. I just think cheese is really, really delicious.

I think my concept of how cool things get made was also a bit screwy. I guess I’ve always imagined that, not only were there brilliant people who were bestowed with godly artistic or intellectual acumen, but also that these people thought of what they wanted to make and then instantly willed those things into existence. I never thought about Faulkner pacing around and chewing the end of a pencil in frustration or Renoir having to throw a sketch into the trash because he got nacho cheese dip on it and then he tried to wipe it off real quick but it just smeared and made it worse.  But we’re not privy to their struggle, so we assume it came easily to them.

Remember that first thing I said? About how ordinary people are and how they can’t accomplish anything interesting? I still think half of that is true. People are ordinary. But it’s the ordinary people who do interesting things. And the art and literature and science that I admire and adore? Pretty much all of that was all authored by regular folks. It’s a thought that’s both depressing and exciting at the same time. Depressing because it means there aren’t really superhumans. There’s something comforting about the idea of infallible people who always have the right answers. Maybe because we could turn to them like kids turn to parents when they’re confused or scared and need answers. But it’s exciting because it means we, ordinary people, can make extraordinary contributions in spite of our own infinite limitations.

So go forth and be ordinary.


Go and make your thing, whatever it is. And when you’re struggling with the work and with yourself and your fears about whether or not someone like you can actually make something cool, don’t forget that you’re an ordinary human being. That there’s a proud legacy of average humans making abnormally great stuff. Part of a very long line of people who sometimes put the milk away in the oven, bang their shins on coffee tables, and sometimes create things beautiful enough to make your heart stand still. That your struggle with ordinary is part of the distillation that’s responsible for lovely things to come to fruition.

Thank you.

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