On Sunday, May 1, the GLC's Jef Mallett, creator of the comic strip "Frazz," was the speaker at the University of Michigan-Flint commencement ceremonies at the Perani Arena and Event Center. Jef has kindly consented to share his remarks to the Graduating Class of 2005 with us.
by Jef Mallett
congratulations. This is huge. You've accomplished a task so impressive and inspiring I just can't believe it. You've summoned a Herculean effort, endured staggering levels of stress and made so many sacrifices that everybody quit counting long ago.
But enough about the parents and spouses and children and friends. I suppose I should talk about the graduates.
Actually, no. Let's talk about me!
When you're a cartoonist, you get mail. It's mostly e-mail these days, which is great, because writing real letters takes thought and care and organization, and we can't have that. E-mail is apparently more like talking, more instantaneous, with the same opportunities for spontaneous, unedited brilliance and stupidity. Which means, on my side of the transaction, more entertainment. More of a lot of things.
That mail keeps me going, makes me blush, keeps me honest, makes me smarter, puffs me up, brings me down to size and scares the bejesus out of me. Come to think of it, my first piece of advice to you should be this: Choose a career where you get lots of fan mail and a certain amount of hate mail. Or some form of feedback. And that's every career, when you look at it that way, as long as you're open to it.
But you have to be open to it.
A lot of my mail seems to fall along two lines: "What's the secret?" and "Why isn't your comic strip in my newspaper?" Of course, if I knew the answer to the first question the secret the second question would be completely moot. Every paper in the country would run Frazz. Twice! But already I digress.
I got a great letter of the what's-the-secret variety not long ago. It started out pretty typically.
"Dear cartoonist Jef Mallett," it read. "I would like to be" I'm paraphrasing here "I would like to be a famous, syndicated cartoonist. I would like to be in hundreds or even thousands of newspapers all over the country, giving people" I'm really paraphrasing here "giving people laughs and thoughts and insights based on the innermost elements of my own life, my hopes, my dreams, my regrets, my triumphs."
It was signed, "ANONYMOUS."
You really can't do this right and be anonymous in any sense of the word. But that's not just my job, is it?
It left me wondering if people in other professions get similar letters.
"Dear Dr. Michael DeBakey: I would like to be a heart surgeon even though I faint at the sight of a steak cooked medium rare."
"Dear Paul Keep: I would really like to be a editors at the Lint Journal."
"Dear Coach Lloyd Carr: I would like to be a starting Big 10 inside linebacker. PS: I wheeze climbing into bed, I don't like to lift anything heavier than 12 refreshing ounces and I have the pain threshold of a sunburned Chihuahua."
"Dear Coach Lloyd Carr: Thank you very much for your generous advice, I will call the Ohio State Buckeyes right away."
"Dear Jef Mallett: You'll be fine, just make a gratuitous football joke and they'll pay attention for a while. Now quit bothering me, David Letterman." Shoot. How did that get ?
Anonymity. Forget about it. Anonymity is for informants, vandals and people buying certain blue pills at the pharmacy. Otherwise, it's overrated.
Just like the runner who puts in that extra lap when the Boston Marathon is on the schedule, or the boxer who works a little harder when James Toney's waiting in the ring; just like you check your teeth for stray poppy seeds when Uncle Bruce shows up at your graduation open house with the camcorder, you're closer to your best when you're going to be held accountable.
That's why runners race, why boxers fight, annnnnnnd, you're on your own for Uncle Bruce.
Risk it. Hang it out there. Crash harder, fly higher. Sign. Your. Name.
I have a quote hanging in my studio that reminds me not to play it safe. It reads, "Walk like you mean it." It obviously means if you're going to do something anything do it right, because excellence is a habit, not, say, one special tool you can pull out of your junk drawer when you really need it. That line is eloquent, succinct and has inspired me for years. It's from a magazine article by Jennifer Tanaka. I know this because she signed her name to it.
Conversely, I'm seeing an advertisement in my bicycle magazines lately that says, "Ride it like you stole it," which I can only assume means wobble all over the sidewalk, bend the rims on the curb and ditch it in the ravine next to the rusty shopping cart. That was written by an ad copywriter who did not sign his name.
Fine, you say. You're a cartoonist. This Jennifer Tanaka person is a writer. But I'm going to be a, a, a physical therapist, and people aren't going to appreciate it if I pick up a Magic Marker and put my John Hancock on their vastus lateralus.
True. But also totally false. There are plenty of ways to sign your name. Most of you out there will soon have business cards. When you get a job, they give them to you so you have something to drop into the fishbowl at Applebee's and maybe win a free lunch. But this is cool: You can also give them to people so they'll associate your name with your work.
Even without business cards maybe you left your last one in the fishbowl you'll have countless opportunities to say to customers, vendors and colleagues, "Hi, I'm Jef." Or Vanessa, or Tammy, or Juan. (I believe we'll have the full list in a few minutes.) And you'll have the opportunity to look them in the eye and squeeze their hand a little tighter. Dare them to hold you accountable, to pat your back or kick your butt. Deny them the opportunity to dismiss you as just another nameless drone.
Write good memos. If you do nothing else, write good memos. An editor I once worked for had this theory that when it's all said and done, the guy who gets promoted is the guy who wrote the best memos. I think he was on to something. You will write memos. Oh, you will write memos. You'll call them e-mails or leave them on answering machines, but they're memos. And you can write sloppy, misspelled, vague and boring chicken scratch, or you can spend a couple minutes extra and put together something clean, concise, bold and maybe even a little bit fun to read. Either way, the memo goes out. Either way, it gets seen by important people. And either way, it has your name on it. At least, if you've been listening to me at all, it does.
I realize this could backfire on me. I'm telling you to hang it out there, take some risks and, one way or another, sign your work. But some people put their name to their work and for that very reason play it safe. Acceptance speeches at political conventions come to mind. As does your sophomore literature paper on Mark Twain, and don't you deny it.
Let me say this about playing it safe.
A few years back, I wrote and drew a children's book and spoke at a lot of elementary schools after it came out. Part of my shtick was to invite a kid to the front of the room so I could draw a portrait in front of everybody. The last thing I wanted was to hurt somebody's feelings, so I would play it safe. And the child's courage, her willingness to stand up in front of the room like that, would reward her with something like this (holds up flattering drawing of child). Then I'd turn the tables, and in exchange for the nice, bland picture of her, I'd have her draw a portrait of me. For my caution, I'd be rewarded with something like this (considerably less flattering, possibly even grotesque kid's drawing of Jef).
But that's not the real issue. To tell the truth, I love those pictures. Both the kid and I were being gutsy in our own way, and we were duly rewarded. No, when it really got fun and instructive was when, once in a while, the kids would start chanting for their teacher to come up and go a few rounds with me. And the teacher would, but of course only because there was no getting out of it. And that teacher would after, invariably, a good excruciating fifteen minutes of gripping the pen so tight I was expecting to get it back with little diamonds on it reward me with something like this.
One lesson we can take from this is that apparently humans learn fear and hesitation sometime after the 5th grade. Because that's the difference between those drawings, and nothing more. The kids are fearless, and they do a better job. The other lesson is just that: When they're fearless, they do a better job.
Okay, here's another piece of advice I should insert: Beware of generalizations put forth by commencement speakers. I'm not saying all fear is bad. Constructively used, fear can be good preservation; it can be good motivation, and remarkably efficient transportation. Fear can be good, and a total lack of fear has its own problems. Nobody's going to improve his life by picking a fight with a Marine or driving home with his seat belt unbuckled.
Okay, then. That's at least the second time I've backpedaled, and when I start correcting myself and explaining away all the little vagaries and inconsistencies and outright contradictions in my sermon here playing it safe maybe it's time to wrap it up, boil it down and step aside so Dr. Mestas can start slinging the sheepskin.
I'll leave you with one last thing. And I apologize in advance for depressing you, because now that you've invested at least four years and a small fortune in a very fine education here at the University of Michigan-Flint, not to mention the ten minutes of me so far, I'm going to tell you all you really need to know in life. And it isn't much. It's so concise it fits into a single panel of a single comic strip:
"Do what you love, love what you do, leave the world a better place and don't pick your nose."
Isn't that beautiful? Sure wish I knew who drew it ...