Last week’s post focused on collaborative approaches to blogging (Trickster Angels: Collaborative Posts and Synthesis Blogs). This week I’m pleased to have an in-depth interview with a pair of entrepeneurial women who decided to draw on two genres to create a third form. When writer and humor blogger Norine Dworkin-McDaniel (who I met at She Writes) teamed up with social web designer and illustrator Jessica Ziegler, the end result was a humorous post card blog sure to draw a chuckle from every parent.
Norine, you write in a deliciously humorous vein over at Don’t Put Lizards in Your Ears, a delightful blog about the adventures and misadventures of a “Late in Life Mom.” I noticed in your bio that you’ve written books about serious topics, Food Cures: Breakthrough Nutritional Prescription for Everything from Colds to Cancer, as well as about adult humor: You Know He’s Keeper, You Know He’s a Loser: Happy Endings and Horror Stories from Real Life Relationships. I’m curious to know your trajectory with humor. When did you first start writing in that vein?
I started writing humorous essays in high school. My first published story, ever, in my hometown (alas now defunct) newspaper, The Hollywood Sun-Tattler, was about a family trip to tour the western national parks when I was about 15. I am a city girl through and through, and three weeks of hiking mountains and looking at rock formations and water falls was sheer torture, so I wrote the essay “Plight of the City Girl” about how I only recovered after we got to San Francisco and I could run behind a city bus and breathe the exhaust.
I carried this “fish out of water” theme through the first blog I started about moving from New York City to live with my now-husband off-grid in Las Vegas, in an isolated, rustic, solar-powered mountain house — Jessica used to call it The Bunker, with good reason. It was the perfect place to survive the apocalypse. Tons of humorous material there! Don’t Put Lizards In Your Ears carries that “fish out of water” theme into parenthood.
How did you come to collaborate with artist Jessica Ziegler in her words, “CEO of Scribbles,” to create your collaborative postcard blog at Science of Parenthood (with great tagline: “because raising kids defies all reason, logic and most of the laws of the universe”)?
So glad you like the tag line! It’s so true, really!
So how’d we get started? Late last year — it was December 30th actually — I had this idea to bang out a gift book for Mother’s Day. I’d been collecting these “science-y” observations about parenthood for a while and suddenly realized I was having a lot of fun writing them and that I’d amassed a bunch. I figured if I came up with some more, I’d have enough for a book. But I knew I needed illustrations to really make the book pop. And for me there was only one choice: Jessica. More than anyone, I knew Jessica would really get the concept. She’s done all of my illustration/web work for years.
We’ve been friends for a long time and, more important, we have a really good time working together. We are both pretty creative people, but we are exponentially more creative when we put our heads together. I was so jazzed about this idea I called her as soon as it was late enough in the morning Denver time that she wouldn’t be mad at me for waking her out of a sound sleep. Not only was she totally on board, she saw the enormous potential for the concept to be bigger than a single gift book. She saw the blog, the community, the product lines that we plan to develop as we grow. Literally, within minutes we were in business. Two weeks later we posted our first image on Facebook. Two weeks after that, we rolled out the blog. A few weeks after that, an agent came knocking — Agnes Birnbaum of Bleecker Street Associates. We now have a book proposal based on the blog in submission. We’re still amazed that it all came together that quickly.
Can you give us a quick overview (how do you describe the blog to newcomers)? And what about the form of the graphics and how you decided on structure? Visuals vs. text? To let the visuals stand alone or blog to them?
Norine: The blog takes many of those scientific principles and math theorems that we all learned in middle and high school — think the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Schrodinger’s Cat, Newton’s laws of motion — and then twists them in funny ways to explain the many mysteries of parenting. To wit: “Newton’s First Law of Parenting: A child at rest will remain at rest … until you want your iPad back.” We also draw on a lot of pop culture references too. One of our earliest illustrations to receive wide attention was one Jessica wrote and illustrated: Parental Time Dilation Principle: “Time will cease to elapse while listening to your 8-year-old talk about Minecraft.” Parents with Minecraft-obsessed kids just loved that one. We’ve also referenced Downton Abbey, Pokemon, Beyblades, Legos, Caillou.
The way we work is that one of us writes the scientific principle, then Jessica illustrates it. It always starts with the words, then the images follow. We post three new illustrations a week and on Thursdays we have a feature Jessica developed called The Story Behind where we talk about the funny parenting SNAFUs that inspired the images. Either Jessica or I will write these posts. Sometimes we’ll get other bloggers to talk with us about the illustrations too.
Norine and I met about 10 years ago (gasp!) when we were each doing our brief Las Vegas stints. Since leaving we’ve kept in touch, I designed and maintain her writing website for Lizards. She called me this past New Years Eve (‘12) out of the blue and pitched the idea of taking her humorous parenting quips and creating illustrations for them. She knew they were good, but they just needed something to differentiate and make them pop. I instantly could see exactly how it should look in my head. It’s pretty rare that someone reaches out to you essentially asking for a load of free work and the idea is strong enough that you don’t guffaw, spit your coffee across the room and slam down the phone.
We talked for maybe and hour and a half, by the end of the call we had found and secured the URL, the Facebook page, Twitter account and started setting up the hosting. I STILL can’t believe that URL was available. Norine came into this with a huge list of items for me to work from, I set a personal goal of completing 10 illustrations before we launched, partially to have a bank ready to go and partially to see if I could maintain the energy and enthusiasm for the project. Within about 15 days we had those initial illustrations, the site built, Facebook ready, and we were off!
Jessica, any desire to talk about your life as a web-designer and how those skills dovetail with motherhood (or don’t!) and The Science of Parenthood? What parts of your life come to the table for this project?
I generally don’t have much opportunity to do illustration, so this has just opened that whole area back up for me. My background and BFA are in painting, but web design pays the bills so very nicely and regularly. I actually really love the problem solving involved with building the websites, there is no way I’d still be doing it 15 years later if that weren’t the case.
I’m about 18 months ahead of Norine in the parenting game, which works out really well. Just enough of a difference that the boys are perpetually in slightly different stages, but close enough that we frequently say to each other, “Yes, he does that, too!” which helps confirm some of our ideas. Neither of us have girls, but we both have close friends that do, and our readers also provide great insights into the world of My Little Pony and Katy Perry.
What does your process look like? How do you come up with topics?
Norine: How do we come up with topics? Funnily enough, I just keep my eyes and ears open to what my 7-year-old is doing and saying. I’ve got seven years of material stock piled! Seriously, if you’re a writer with a child you never run out of ideas. For example, this whole project really started the night my son told my husband and me over dinner that he’d learned about Newton’s laws of motion that day in school. As he was explaining that an object at rest stays at rest until acted on by another force, I thought, “That’s kind of like him with the TV and video games. He’ll sit mesmerized forever until I turn it off.”
And that’s when I made the connection between using scientific principles to explain children’s behavior and the ups and downs of parenthood. It also helps that I’m married to a scientist I can bounce ideas around with. He’s come up with some great concepts that we’ve used. Also, we’re very open to our friends and readers of the blog sharing ideas with us. We’ve illustrated several ideas that have come from readers — with appropriate shout-outs to thank them for their inspiration.
Jessica: Norine comes up with the vast majority of the ideas, and then there are a few of mine thrown in there, generally from my own life or an idea triggered by one of hers. I feel like my part is the easy part, once we have the concept, the imagery just appears in my head. On occasion I’ll need to do a second version if my first doesn’t feel strong enough, but that is pretty rare. I draw all of the illustrations in Adobe Illustrator using a Wacom drawing tablet, so they are print-ready from the get-go. That is the main reason I chose this particular illustration style, as opposed to going with a pen-on-paper method. No scanning/converting/tweaking required!
You are both established professionals, but any words of advice for others on how to connect with your audience? What has been the response to your work so far? I’m also thinking of your own children, and the joy of them someday looking at a compilation of how they may have inspired your work. Will you collect or present it for them at some point? I’m also wondering how you navigate the public/private line when drawing on real life examples (whether you are discussing other mothers or children)?
Jessica: It’s funny sometimes my son will wander over and say, “WHAT are you drawing??” Nothing better than trying to explain parenting humor to an 8-year-old. However, he does come up with some pretty good ideas, which was unexpected. I didn’t think he was self conscious enough to know what would qualify as a funny axiom. Maybe he just knows what drives me crazy! The response from its intended audience has been really great. We get lots of unsolicited ideas from friends, which is awesome. Though you think you never will, sometimes you forget those little things that were such a big deal five years ago.
Our initial audience has grown mainly from Facebook and Twitter. We also reach out to certain bloggers and have participated in a few post-sharing events. It’s really an experiment to see what is going to have legs. Twitter, which is hugely annoying to many people, really is a great place to make some strong connections. You need to connect directly, and that is a very low-impact place to do it. We are also going to be going to BlogHer this July in Chicago. I’m hoping to have the opportunity to meet some of the people I’ve been connecting with IRL. Another experiment!
Norine: I believe we connect with our audience because we’re reflecting the truth in parenting in a funny, relatable way. The one comment I hear consistently from people on Facebook, in person, on the blog in response to our illustrations, is “That is soooo true.” We are reflecting the often maddening, frustrating side of parenting but in a way that makes people laugh. And if there’s anyone who can use a few laughs it’s the frazzled mom (or dad) who’s — as we say on our blog — just one PBJ shy of going all Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
I certainly HOPE my kid looks at this work when he’s older and laughs. He’s a little young to really understand what I’m doing — or the humor he provides — but he does know that I often write about him, not only for this blog, but my Don’t Put Lizards In Your Ears blog, the parenting blog I write monthly for Lifescript and magazines like American Baby and Parents. As a journalist, I’ve always used his real name in posts and articles, but I make a point of not writing anything that might embarrass him. I am always the straight (wo)man to his comic genius. The joke is always on me.
Occasionally real friends’ names pop up in my posts, if it’s something positive. If I’m going on rant, then I hide them behind a moniker. One of our early The Story Behind posts, I blogged about the play date that inspired the Inverse Play Date Principle (in which your child only wants to play with kids whose parents you can’t stand). It wasn’t a particularly attractive characterization of the other mom so I just called her That Mom throughout.
Norine: Well, I’d like it to eventually pay for my kid’s college and grad school (laughing!). But in the short-term, we do have plans for a book, and hopefully many more books after that, we’ve got some ideas for products that we’d like to develop as well. But the end goal is really to continue to have fun reflecting the many phases of childhood and parenthood in an entertaining way. We just want to make people laugh … and have a great time together while we’re doing that.
Jessica: Yep, we will start small, and just feel our way along. Print-on-demand companies like Zazzle.com and Cafepress.com make it SO easy to experiement with product lines and different designs. Right now, we’re just excited to have the items for ourselves!
Anyone else working within this genre who inspired you?
Jessica: I adore TheOatmeal.com and Allie from Hyberboleandahalf.com. Their sites are far more narrative than ours at this stage. Honest Toddler is a favorite as well, I think she has the best twitter feed going. Of course, all of the New Yorker cartoonists have been hugely influential for my entire life (my dad, Jack Ziegler, being among them). I’ve had a very long and thorough education in cartoons 🙂
Norine: Erma Bombeck and Dave Barry are two big influences. I grew up reading both of them and just love how they found the humor in everyday family life situations. Dave Barry once wrote an essay called “Warning: An American Teenager Is Loose In Europe,” published in the anthology I Wanna Be Sedated, about his kid losing his passport and all of his travelers checks on the plane en route to Germany. I’m sure this was a harrowing experience for Dad back home, trying to fix it remotely from Miami.
But the way Barry writes it, it never fails to make me laugh. Ditto Cindy Chupack — she was one of the main writers on Sex In The City, and the way she pulls humor out of dating drama/trauma is inspiring. I aim to do the same thing, mining those small moments that make you want to scream for big laughs. As I often say, “That which doesn’t make us pull our hair out at the roots gives us plenty to regale our friends with at dinner parties — provided we can find a babysitter of course.”
Jessica: The key is being able to take each other’s feedback in the spirit it is intended, which is to make the overall project better. You have to trust each other’s input and be open to having your ideas noodled with. Nothing should be considered too precious. Also use the tools, we use Google drive to organize content, and collaborate on shared posts, such as this interview! It’s much easier that trying to email documents back and forth, where things can easily get lost, versions overwritten, etc.
Norine: Jessica is 100% right. I think it starts with having someone you’re simpatico with, and after knowing Jessica for years and working with her as well, I knew we had the same sense of humor, the same approach to parenthood and our kids are about the same age, so we were starting the project from the same place, and I knew our ideas would naturally gel together. Even so, we don’t always initially agree on every concept. But we are always kind and we respect each other.
Early on, I think we were a little tentative about saying anything that might hurt feelings. Jessica had gotten some negative feedback from some of her friends about a post I had written and was a little reluctant to share the comments. But I was really glad she did. I saw what the women were telling her and changed the post accordingly. Likewise, I’ve spoken up when I’ve thought a particular illustration was almost there but not quite, and Jessica’s made changes. We’ve found that when we’re direct and constructive, the results are always good.
The other thing I’ll add about our collaboration that makes this work is that we each bring a specific and unique skill set to the table. The concept for Science of Parenthood was mine. But the overall aesthetic for the blog, etc. is Jessica’s. And it’s exactly as I’d hoped it would look when we first talked about marrying the words and images but she’s the artist. She instantly got the feel of what I was trying to convey with my “science-y” concepts and beautifully articulated it visually.
And we’ve naturally divvied up other tasks too. Jessica has the mad web and social media skills, so she built the website and our Facebook page. She’s also our voice on Twitter and she’s cultivated some fantastic bloggers who now follow us. We landed our literary agent through my contacts and when it came time to write the book proposal, I handled that as well. I also do much of the writing and top edit everything. There is so much to do getting this fledging business off the ground, I feel very fortunate that our skills dovetail so nicely.
Any question you wish I had asked?
Norine: I think you covered everything, Tania. This was delightful. Thank you so much for the interview.
Jessica: Yes, thanks!
Norine Dworkin-McDaniel is the creator of the humor blogs Science of Parenthood and Don’t Put Lizards In Your Ears. She writes nationally on parenting, women’s and children’s health and relationships. Her articles have been featured in More, Health, Parents, American Baby, Shape, Prevention, Redbook, Family Circle and on the Lifescript and iVillage websites.