People always ask cartoonists these three questions:
  1. How long does it take to create a comic?
  2. How many do you create per day?
  3. How do you come up with ideas?
The answer to the first question is that a 3-panel daily comic takes me about two hours from idea to final art. But it can be as fast as 30 minutes if the idea comes quickly and the art doesn't need much detail. The Sunday comics take about five hours apiece. The quickest I could do a Sunday comic would be about three hours.

My schedule is that I write two daily comics every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. I do the writing and rough art in the early mornings, starting at 5 a.m., when my creative energy is highest. And I do one Sunday comic on Wednesdays. I do the finished art whenever I have time, usually evenings and weekend mornings. I aim for nine comics over seven days, to give some cushion for days I can't work for one reason or another.

The third question, about how I come up with ideas is more interesting. The simple answer is that I'm wired that way. It happens somewhat automatically. I couldn't shut it off if I tried.

But internally, the sensation is that I am trading memory for creativity. I'll explain.

My creative process feels to me like a stream of ideas rushing through my mind, pausing only long enough for a reflexive evaluation. 95% of the ideas get flushed immediately, thus making room for the next idea in the stream. For me, the active part of creativity is the flushing - also known as forgetting - of the bad ideas so the new ones have space to enter. The faster I forget, the more creative I am.

As luck would have it, I have a notoriously poor memory for most things. So my stream of ideas doesn't have much stickiness to it. The only ideas that make it out of the stream and into my more rational mind are the ones that move me physically. And by that I mean I have some sort of body reaction that can range from a giggle to goose bumps. If I don't "feel" the idea, I flush it.

If I feel the idea with my body, I let it stick around long enough to apply my rational filter. That kills most ideas.

But sometimes I have an idea that sticks in my mind so aggressively that the only way to dislodge it is to go public. So I blog about the idea, or put it in a comic, or otherwise give it some oxygen. That's the hard way to flush it. But once it's out, I can let go. I've done my job by giving the idea its moment in the sun. If it dies in public, it was meant to be. And I move on.

So the question I have for you today is about the relationship of memory and creativity in each of you. My hypothesis is that poor memory is necessary for high-production creativity.

In the comments, let me know your memory powers from 1-10 (ten is a photographic memory) and also your creative talent (ten would be commercially creative, like a daily cartoonist). This format would be useful:


Is memory the enemy of creativity?

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+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
People rating themselves as 8-10 in creativity but not doing anything creative in their responses is really pissing me off.
Jan 16, 2014
10, 10. Oh yeah I have a high self esteem and it's good for me.
Jan 15, 2014
memory: 8
creativity: 8

I don't find memory to be the stumbling block.

It's more like "thinking" about making things as opposed to "feeling" about making things.

Don't interrupt creating (which you already know how to do) with too much thinking. My guess is this is why so many creative types like marijuana.
Jan 14, 2014
Memory 6
Creativity 8

My memory is selective and tuned to my tasks as a software developer. I remember !$%*!$%*!$%*! and how to deal with them, code I wrote and it's purpose, algorithms etc but not specific syntax - that's what Google is for.

Creative solutions to the problems I encounter in my work may not sound creative. I think it is though and no-one else knows my experience. So there you go.
Jan 13, 2014
Memory: 3
Creativity: 7

I can relate to the recent PHB strip where he didn't recall "his" great idea. People often tell me about something i said or did (sometimes only a few weeks ago) that i cannot remember but sounds brilliant. It doesn't bother me because i do feel i consciously have decided to give up memories for a very high functioning, flexible (hadn't thought to call it creative) present.
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Jan 13, 2014
There are many more variables affecting creativity than the single one you have presented to us, Scott.

I'll name a few that come to mind (but in general terms only, since there are so many different types of scenario -- artistic, social and material -- in which creativity may be called for, and in which not all the possible factors are equally germane).

For instance:

- Urgency / deadline pressure.
- Emotional engagement with the material (which can itself span the full range of responses, including horror, delight, the desire to confront a particular orthodoxy, the need to escape some unpleasant situation, the desire to help people facing very challenging situations, etc. -- in fact, any number of social and personal motivations may be involved).
- Familiarity with relevant concepts and facts; this is essential for creativity in science and technology.
- Experience of what is known to have worked or not worked in the past.
- For some people (such as stand-up comedians), the rush that comes from performing before an audience.
- Knowing what problems in one's field of activity require novel solutions.
- Having the necessary resources (e.g. tools, materials, money) to enable one to put one's creativity into practice, or to test its value or effectiveness.
- Support from family, friends, colleagues or (in some cases) bureaucrats in giving it a go.

So though you may consider that a poor memory is one of the most important factors in your creative process, I think your focus is too narrow to be relevant or useful to most people who are involved in some kind of creative activity.
Jan 12, 2014
Here you go:

Memory: 7
Creativity: 7

Is memory the enemy of creativity? I don't know - sometimes it feels that way because I remember most of the things I've read or watched, so when I get to writing anything I feel like I'm stealing this from Sam Harris, that from you, this from Richard Dawkins, that from anywhere.
Jan 12, 2014
The theory holds water for me. I'm a 9 on memory, unless I forgot that I forgot something. I generally tell people that my creativity can be measured in terms of italics i (math joke), which is an imaginary number. (It's the square root of -1 for those lucky enough to not have dealt with as many math classes as me.)
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 12, 2014
In me, your hypothesis is wrong. Just for reference I worked for 30 years in drug discovery research. I find that creativity comes from assembling, side-by-side, multiple ideas for which most people do not see any commonality. For example, if I REMEMBER a wrench and a hammer are both big weird shaped pieces of solid metal, and one uses a hammer to pound things, why cannot one use a wrench to pound things. Most people stall at the fact that a hammer is mostly used to with nails and wrench mostly with nuts, and miss the commonality. Of course this example also shows that the commonality often doesn't work; one cannot as easily use a hammer as a wrench.

I also try initially to ignore a lot of details. For example if I am trying to figure out how to repair something on a car, I worry about what has to come off or get moved, and what has to be replaced. I don't let the fact that the attaching screw has some sort of head I have never seen before. I assume if a tool put it on, there is a similar tool that can take it off...and accept I may have to spend some time finding one. But I try not to let that detail detract from my focus on the bigger problem of figuring out what has to be moved or replaced. There will always be unexpected details that need attention, and more and different creativity, during the **implementation.**

Scott, I have several questions about your comics. 1) I have noticed over the years that you have made all the characters less **pudgy**. Is that intentional? Or does it reflect some aspect of your life or your perception of engineers and bosses? 2) How does one draw comics so the relative shapes and appearances of, for example, faces and people, are so consistent? If I tried to draw Dilbert or the pointy haired boss, no matter how close I came on my best try, I could never repeat two of my own misrepresentations to save my life. Do you have some sort of stash of stencils or templates or something, that can be used to re-size and reorient characters at will?

On the other hand, it is true one has to let go of what doesn't work as fast as possible.

-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 11, 2014
I'm a:
3 memory
7 to 9 creativity (depends on what type)

I've worked with two people with photographic memory. Both seemed very creative unless you worked with them and understood what was being done - then you could see that the "creativity" was just derivative of stuff they had seen or done. If you suggested something new that was not similar to something they had read or seen, they would reject it as bad or impossible.

On the other hand, I know one person with a 9 memory and a 7 creativity - this is because they know how to take the ideas from memory and build on them. We work well together because I can build from their remembered ideas and they don't feel threatened by it - as a team we can approach a 10-10.

A team of both memory people and creative people can be great IF both types realize what is going on, accept it, and nobody has a big ego [That is a very big IF. I've been in three of these teams that started out great and ended very badly.]


Jan 11, 2014
Memory 5 for most things but 9 for anything technical (I'm an engineer) and my creativity is in the negative numbers. I have friends who are really good at creating and they are great at letting go of an idea. It's not that they have a bad memory but that they know when something will be dead in the water. I hang on to stuff in case it comes in useful. It clutters up the brain but makes for good engineering.
Jan 11, 2014
Hi Scott - The surprise to me is that I always thought some of your ideas came from stories from your readers (delivered via Email). I often read your strip with the thought "wow, something similar to that really happened somewhere?"

Jan 11, 2014
Creativity: 7 (loads of it but yet to be paid for any of it)
Memory: 4-5 (pretty sure I have alzheimer's)

Memory: 9
(all facts stay forever, social information like birthdays, what the house used to look like before I repaired/renovated and places we went informally are completely lost)
Creativity: 6 and rising
(since we got married, I taught him how to draw and he's becoming highly creative)

Jan 11, 2014
Memory: 9
Creativity: 2
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 11, 2014
Memory: 2
Creativity: 8 (based on the type I'm paid to do, which involves a lot of innovative design)

My father:
Memory: 9
Creativity: 1

My husband:
Memory: 8
Creativity: 3

My mother:
Memory: 7
Creativity: 5
Jan 11, 2014

Interesting.... I've got some short-term memory issues due to being 67, but have been writing the great American Sci-Fi novel for about 55 years. The nutty part is that the core (if any of it was written down) is largely still "up there", but later additions lack people's names, whether they were inserted in 1960 or 2013. I still remember one of our first family phone numbers, too, probably from about 1952, when I was first likely to call home from someplace else.

It's a little hard to _know_ that something my wife tells me, like "bring up a package of paper towels" when you come upstairs" will vanish long before I decide to do it. Or, as a semi-retired rent-a-cop, driving by something "suspicious", deciding to have a closer look when I come past again later "tonight", and knowing that I'll probably forget....

Guess a note pad in my pocket might pay.... [grin]

I don't get "Dilbert-like" insights very often, unfortunately, but I do enjoy yours. The trick, IMHO, with technique (including scheduling yourself) is to find something that works, and stick to it, while diddling it around a bit to see if there's a reasonable refinement. If it's not broke, don't fix it, but it doesn't hurt to think about it....

I'm more or less semi-retired, but "work" in a basement office, at night. My wife has no sense of "don't open a closed door", and thinks a TV is a night light. So, if I want to do something serious, or even watch some decent TV, she's got to be in bed.

0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 10, 2014

10 of Memory and 10 of Creativity.

Hang on. Don't jump.

If 1 - 10 is the measure of creative effort, then it's always 10.

If the effort is anything less, it is safer to dump it and start afresh than to face the silence of the sheep later.


My take is:

Animals eat, fight and breed. Humans have fun.

Memory is a necessary device for the fun. It may not be good or important.

Any creative effort will have an equal, perhaps even crazier, portion of memory working on it.


The positive evidence is:

Your cartoon reminds the readers of something familar to them. Even if the reader is sitting 4 continents away from California.


The negative evidence is:

If you were to write a comic on the impending drought in some areas of California, it would leave the readers gaping. Some in South China may even have to Google and find out where it is.


So my answer is:

10 of Memory for 10 of Creativity.


Jan 10, 2014
Scott, this describe me to a T! My wife has an excellent memory, but is about as creative as a brick. I lean creative, but am lucky to remember the first names of all five of my kids at the same time. My kids are, fortunately, fairly well averaged between their 'rents. My wife only finds a few of my ideas worthwhile, and I don't even share 99% of them.
Jan 10, 2014
When I was a software engineer with fewer responsibilities:
Memory: 7
Creativity: 8

But as I moved into the management ranks (read: more stress), my responsibilities exploded and my memory has dropped dramatically, whereas creativity has not.
Jan 10, 2014
What constitutes creativity is a pretty vague concept, I wouldn't know how to rank it. I was a film major in college but ended up developing software as a profession and I find it a much more satisfying outlet for my ideas. I've come to think of creativity as the ability to keep an open mind; to be able to generate and evaluate a multitude of ideas and then pick a winner. I don't know if that's genetics or the product of how you grow up? Did people encourage and support your "crazy" ideas or did they shoot them down to the point you stop trying? I think everyone must have a creative talent for something, the trick is finding it and freeing your mind.
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