SXSW Q&A: Cartoonist Matthew Diffee

Diffee, a frequent contributor to both TEXAS MONTHLY and the New Yorker, will moderate a panel titled "How to be an Idea Factory" on Sunday.
Fri March 9, 2012 11:04 pm
Matthew Diffee

Cartoonist Matthew Diffee, a Texas native, got his first piece in the New Yorker by winning a contest. His work has been in there ever since ... except when it isn't, which is how he also ended up editing the infamous "Rejection Collection" books. As the description for his SXSW panel,  "Being An Idea Factory" says:

As a New Yorker cartoonist, Matthew Diffee comes up with ten ideas every week to pitch to the magazine. For every one idea that makes it into print, nine are rejected. The creative life is a numbers game. The more ideas you have, the better a few of them will be. After twelve years of cranking it out, Diffee has learned a few things about being consistently creative. As editor of The Rejection Collection books, he's got some important things to say about dealing with rejection too. This is nuts and bolts, hands-on, day-at-the-idea-factory stuff that you can really use to increase the quantity and quality of your creative output and it might also be funny.

Diffee recently moved back to Texas and is also a contributor to TEXAS MONTHLY , including his epic graphic feature about rattlesnakes and his impressions of the TEXAS MONTHLY  BBQ Festival . His panel is Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

How many panel ideas did you submit to the panel pickers? 
I submitted forty-eight panel ideas. I can only remember a couple of the rejected ones ... the Future of Faxing, Gaming Strategy for Hemp Weavers, Digital Whittling, A Hipsters Guide to Hand Tools, How to Talk to Another Person in Real Life. I’ve also always wanted to moderate a panel with four one-man bands then have them all play together at the end as a four-man orchestra. I also pitched a panel discussion to discuss the past, present, and future of panel discussions. Okay, I’m gonna stop now.

Is it possible for one to tell the difference between one's own good ideas and bad ideas? Given your work with the Rejection Collection do you believe there are more of the former that just get overlooked or haven't found their proper home? How do you know when it's just a bad idea?
Now that’s a very good question. I think a person can tell a good idea from a bad one, but only with lots of experience in their field. By now, I’m pretty sure I can tell a good cartoon idea, but not so sure that I can differentiate good from bad when it comes to band names. And I’d say there are more bad ideas out there looking for a home than good ones.

Most people’s ideas aren’t as good as they think they are, mine included, as evidenced by this interview. 

When are ideas not enough, i.e. what about the importance of execution?   
Well, I’m an idea guy. I’m not very good at execution. It’s kind of a problem actually. Maybe there’s a panel I can go to for that--"How to be an Execution Factory." That sounds kind of grim.

Anyone who Googles you will quickly learn that you have done stand-up comedy and play the banjo, sometimes even in some pretty esteemed company. Can we count on seeing either of these things Sunday? 
No, unfortunately there was an incident, and I am legally barred from picking a banjo within fifty yards of another human being. Besides, the banjo is so last year. It’s all about the bassoon now.

Why did you move back to Texas, and how are you liking it this time? 
I moved back to Texas for the barbecue, obviously. Love being back. I was in New York City for twelve years. I loved that for about ten years. But it’s just nice to be able to drive your car to places and park there. And Texas smells better. I still get back to New York pretty often. It’s an amazing place, but it’s not easy, and it’s too expensive, and they can’t make a decent enchilada.

What else are you most looking forward to at SXSW? 
I ran around trying to see everything last year. This year I’ve got a whole bunch of friends coming to town so I’m gonna focus on hanging out with them …and eating barbecue, obviously.

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