Em DeMarco is a journalist and cartoonist in Pittsburgh, who not-so-secretly wants to be a text-adventure computer character. She'd love it if you subscribe to The CoJo List, a newsletter roundup of nonfiction comics from around the world. Check out her website, emdemarco.com, and follow her on Instagram @eademarco.
What's your workflow like? And where do you usually get your work done? What do you use (software, computer, pen and paper)?
These days when I'm reporting, I usually have a few methods of documentation going at once -- snapping photos on my phone (it feels less invasive than my digital camera), recording audio, taking notes. Although I admire cartoonists who draw in person, during an interview I'm too focused on listening and asking followup questions.
When I'm deciding how to structure a story, I have to physically hold it in my hands in order to see how I want the story to flow. I know this process is nutty and time consuming -- sitting on the floor, armed with scissors, surrounded by stacks of transcripts, notes, data, whatever I want/need to jam in the story. I'll begin to trim the garbage, piece together themes, and scribble visual ideas to pair with the text. By the end of the first round of edits, I'll have this enormous mish mash of drawings and text taped together in one giant chain. That becomes the skeleton of the story, and I'll repeat the process until I've trimmed everything to its essentials. Every time I try to write a story another way (like with a traditional outline) I end up reverting to my tape and scissors.
I mostly work out of my apartment, overseen by a nasty cat.
How do you stay organized with everything?
Despite my love of spreadsheets, I truly need physical things to manage deadlines. My main squeeze is still a paper datebook. I use crayons for different assignments and projects, so I can visualize how my deadlines are overlapping. I have a pitch journal to keep track of the publications on my radar and a sheet of butcher paper for story ideas. I've tried some 'workflow management' apps, but found it's easier to jump from my desk and scribble an idea on the wall rather than locate the correct directory on my computer. And something tangible like a notebook or a sheet of paper has a pre-defined beginning, middle, and end. It's something that I can hold up and feel good about after pitching a publication X, or crappy about after receiving a "no thanks" email from publication Y. However a spreadsheet is endless. Endless rows of publications and editors and guilt that I haven't pitched the right idea, the right person, the right time of day, the right wording, and so on. Keeping track of things on paper helps me scrap some of those toxic feelings.
How do you deal with distractions or procrastination?
I jokingly refer to my freelance business as EMcorp. Unfortunately, it seems to be fairly common in this line of work to be a terrible boss to yourself.
That said, it's amazing what you learn about your work habits when you are your own boss. I learned that I floss my teeth when I'm avoiding something. Probably not the worst habit, because before I began freelancing I hated that part of dental hygiene. Now I know that when I'm reaching for the floss, I have to examine what exactly am I trying to avoid. It's usually a sign that I need to take a break. Walking the dog, baking cookies, doing yoga -- anything that gets me out of my studio and clears my head. (And I'm sure this is not news to anyone, but hot damn, YouTube yoga has been amazing. You can't be late for class! And there's no yoga-shaming garbage about not having the best downward dog or fanciest pants or farting in class!)
Actually, I'm less worried about distractions than not letting myself do anything fun. As a freelancer, I'm sure it's pretty common to feel like you have to work all of the time. But I was going nuts that way. By far one of the best things I've done was to allow myself some nights off to shoot photos at punk shows. It's incredible what standing next to the speakers at a hardcore show will do to help clear my head.
How do you self-edit your work? And how do you know when it's ready to be shared with anyone else?
Hm, I panic. I yell and carry on about not knowing what I'm doing. My partner is amazingly supportive about listening to my very regular bouts of panic. (A common phrase you can hear from my studio: "What was I thinking when I said I'd do this? I have no idea what I'm doing!") But there's comfort in that utter hopelessness too. I've come to expect it. And I've also come to expect that tiny moment of clarity when I'll find myself getting excited about drawing a particular panel or transition. That's usually a tipping point for me. After that, I enjoy sharing photos about how the story/project/etc. is coming along with others. It's pretty magical to pour hours and hours of time into something -- not always sure how it's going to work out -- and at the end hold it in your hands and say, this thing exists now, and it didn't exist before.
Most of the time that final thing isn't exactly how I expected it would turn out. I call that the Cringe Factor, something I started doing when I was producing radio stories. At first, I cringed 90 percent of the time when my stories broadcast over the airwaves because I had no idea what I was doing. Gradually, the cringe factor shifted to about 40 or 50 percent. Today I still use that system, keeping in mind that the next thing I do will be better. The next thing after that will be better, and so on.
How do you deal with or accept feedback?
If it's positive, I don't deal with it very well. Especially in person. Generally, I'll say thank you and then proceed to tell that person how nervous and sweaty and newt-like I am. I'm working on just saying thank you and leaving it there. In fact, I recently stitched a badger patch on a jacket to physically remind myself not to tell people that I'm a garbage-heap newt. I'd rather feel like a fiesty badger than a newt.
In terms of feedback that's critical, it depends on the source. I really appreciate editors who mark my copy with careful and thoughtful edits. (I'm sure a lot of journalists say the same thing -- good editors are like magical wizards.) I also think I have a real trust issue. It's the same thing with someone who says they like my work. Part of me only thinks they're saying that just to be nice. Who knows?
How do you know when something is "done" ? Or is anything ever finished?
For my comics journalism stories, I'm working on moving away from compulsively cross-hatching and overworking drawings. So I'm trying to use more tones, looser lines, areas of black. Josh Kramer, who compiles The CoJo List with me, suggested that I use a thick sharpie to block areas of black when I'm making thumbnails for my comics. It's been a great, fast, method to help me practice moving in that direction.
And yes. Things must have an end to them. It's not the length of a project that gets to me. It's the feeling that I'm supposed to make things perfect that rubs me the wrong way. Probably because I skew toward working in a compulsive way, I actively push against that feeling.
How do you make time for personal projects?
Tiny. Bite. Sized. Pieces. In other words, I used to write things like "finish that minicomic" in my datebook. Which was the equivalent to writing "fly to Jupiter on the back of Pegasus." These days, my datebook is littered with tiny goals that are parts of larger projects. Still, I'm often kept awake at night thinking shit, I can't believe I haven't gotten to [insert side project name(s)] here.
If you have imposter syndrome, how do you deal with it?
Yes. YES. If that's not brutally apparent by now, I don't know what is. I think because I didn't go to school for journalism or cartooning, there are moments when I feel like I'm not a "real" journalist or a "real" cartoonist.
I started off producing radio stories for an Indymedia outlet called Rustbelt Radio. I loved reporting and editing the stories, but occasionally I would host the show. Which meant I had to read live on air -- introducing the next segments, reading the community calendar, etc. Each time I sat at that mic, I imagined a horde of listeners at their radios, laughing at what a crap job I was doing. It's ridiculous, I know.
So I do little things, like making badger or tardigrade patches, to ward off those dumb feelings of not knowing what the hell I'm doing. I keep a read-when-you're-feeling-down directory on my desktop, where I dump screenshots of complimentary tweets or emails from editors, friends, and strangers. Somehow simply knowing that the directory exists is comforting.
And I know it's obvious, but freelancing can be really isolating. It's just you, your cup of coffee, and your cat (or dog or kid or whatever). No one else is going to hustle for you. So those feelings of being an imposter can be toxic. It's been incredibly helpful to carve out time to get drinks, go to meetups, or draw in person with others who are doing this kind of work. (GIANT thanks to Erin Polgreen, who shared this advice with me a couple years ago; she was so kind and generous to chat with me over the phone when I first started freelancing.) And if the producers of the Longform Podcast are reading this -- THANK YOU. Hearing kickass journalists who have done incredible work talk about their processes -- and sometimes anxieties -- has been invaluable.
What's the best advice you've ever been given in regards to creativity?
Bill Boichel told me, as I'm sure he's told everyone who's walked into his shop, "Read Lynda Barry." Bill was right. Lynda Barry is just the best. It was like a religious awakening reading her two questions: "Is this good? Does this suck?" Those questions can stab the creative process right in the gut, as she writes in her book, "What It Is." Which I think is a book every human or human-esque being on the planet should read, regardless if they are actively doing something creative or hoping to one day make a podcast or a build a rocket ship.
If you could give the younger you advice when you were starting out, what would you say?
Tell that feeling of "you should" to [eff] off. There's no time for that toxic crap anymore.