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Jeffrey Koterba on Becoming a Cartoonist, Growing Up with Tourette’s Syndrome and His New Book, “Inklings”

One of the most valuable aspects of reading memoirs is being able to get an inside look at a way of life so different from yours and learning how other people cope with the challenges they have to face. Award-winning political cartoonist Jeffrey Koterba has written an open, honest and completely intriguing account of growing up with Tourette’s Syndrome — and a volatile family — which I felt compelled to share with our readers. Here’s my interview with the amazing author (and musician!):

“Inklings” – a brilliant title, by the way — is fascinating on so many levels. It gives much insight into surviving a dysfunctional family, growing up with Tourette’s Syndrome and becoming an award-winning political cartoonist and successful musician. Which of these did you most want to write about or was it more important to show how all of those elements combined?

Thank you for your kind words. This may sound strange, but I sort of keep forgetting that the book is actually out in the world. I mean, I know it’s a physical book that exists—I’ve seen it in bookstores—but it’s surrealistic and exciting beyond belief that people I’ve never met are reading it. Regarding the title, I usually struggle with titles—but this one came naturally, literally in a flash. So I suppose it was meant to be. Regarding the overall theme of my memoir, I really wanted to show, best I could, how everything is interconnected. If not for the events and complexities of my childhood, and the Tourette’s, I might not ever have become a writer, cartoonist and musician.

You certainly had many obstacles to overcome to reach your goal of becoming a cartoonist but you never gave up, and I think your story will inspire many others to do the same. What gave you the courage and drive to pursue your dreams?

It’s funny you use the word “obstacles.” The other day, the phrase, “Let your obstacles become your muse,” came to me. Maybe because I have to often remind myself of my own life’s lessons. Instead of looking at the obstacles as a roadblock, I try to remember that in the past, my obstacles have often been exactly what I needed at that time, providing opportunities for growth. We all have struggles; the real challenge is how we deal with them, turning those challenges into blessings in disguise. I hope readers of “Inklings” will get that message.

What was it about cartoons that was appealing to you, as opposed to any other form of art?

That’s a great question. I think cartooning is part of my DNA or something. I’ve been cartooning as long as I can remember. Later, in high school and college, I thought I wanted to become a painter—the more abstract the better—but I kept coming back to cartoons—especially editorial cartoons. There’s just something so immediate and accessible about cartoons, but depending on what type of cartoon it is, there’s often a deeper layer. I’m all about the deeper layers. And sometimes, even though a cartoon might be pleasant to look at, the idea might be a bit dark or poignant. Ultimately, it’s not really about the drawing at all, but the message behind it.

Because Tourette’s is so visible, it must be especially difficult when you’re young. You touch upon the fact that other children teased you but don’t dwell on that in the book. How did you handle that?

I didn’t want “Inklings” to come off as a “poor me” kind of memoir, certainly, that’s one reason I didn’t dwell too much on the Tourette’s. And while Tourette’s obviously plays an important role in my creative life—I’m convinced that without the twitches and tics, I wouldn’t do all the things I do—it doesn’t define me. Kids can be cruel, but I certainly don’t hold grudges. In fact, looking back, it makes me sad for them—I wonder what kind of struggles were occurring in their lives, what obstacles they were contending with. The journalist in me would give anything to go back in time, to take notes of everything that happened, to interview those kids. But otherwise, I sure wouldn’t want to replay my childhood, although I’m grateful for my experiences, good and bad.

It seems that your family life would almost be harder to deal with than the Tourette’s. Do you think your dad was what would now be called a hoarder? For all your father’s craziness, though, what made me saddest was your mom secretly dressing you like a girl and calling you her daughter. What kind of effect did that have on you?

Because my father grew up during the Great Depression, in a large family without a father, and certainly with little money, when he discovered garage sales, he was in heaven. He could buy TVs, radios, stereos, sometimes for the change in his pocket. By today’s standards was he a hoarder? Maybe. But I can’t cast any stones. I’m currently in the process of moving and found I needed a place to store my stuff. As it happens, the house where I grew up is still in the family so I’m using it to store my cartoons. Bins and bins of cartoons and sketchbooks. All kinds of writings and drawings and musical items. I’m feeling like a bit of a hoarder myself. Another point about my father which refers to the earlier question about obstacles: As a kid I could see how sad and regretful my father was for not pursuing his dreams. I vowed to never have any regrets. Even if I failed, I would know that I tried.

Regarding my mom dressing me as “Cindy,” well, I don’t know, I like to think that as a male, it somehow gave me early access to my feminine side. As a boy I was pretty typical in that I played sports and liked to get my hands dirty and loved motorcycles, but I also loved, from an early age, the perfumed scent of a woman, the beautiful nuances of a woman’s face, what makes them look different from men. I think it helped me as an artist. I hope so, anyway.

How did your life change once you learned that there was actually a name for your tics? How do you think your family’s life might have been different if your father – and you — had been diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome many years earlier?

Growing up, I had what my father called “nervous habits.” He had them, too. And although Tourette’s is genetic, neither of us knew what caused the tics. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, there simply weren’t the resources now available. It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I was diagnosed, and although that diagnosis assured me that the habits weren’t simply something I could stop if I wanted, in a way I’m grateful for not knowing sooner. I mean, what if I had known as a kid and what if I latched on to that diagnosis and had defined myself as a Tourette’s kid? Of course, there’s really no way of knowing how things might have been different had I known. Maybe it would have saved me a lot of grief on the playground. But then, in a way, that grief inspired me to try harder, to prove myself that I wasn’t a failure.

As an adult looking back at your childhood, were you surprised to remember certain events? Did you gain any new insight or perspective in the process? Was it empowering to realize how far you’ve come?

I had been lugging around my stories ever since I was a kid. Frankly, I was getting tired of them. So it was a relief to finally get them down on paper and let them go. Still, I have more I need to get out of my system. It’s often said that a first-time writer puts everything into his or her book; on the contrary for me—there was so much I had to leave out, so many more stories. In the end I had to decide what served the overall story. While writing early drafts, however, I found myself twitching more than usual—my Tourette’s often gets worse when I’m stressed out, physically or emotionally. So to a certain extent it was a bit uncomfortable going through those first drafts. However, it was also while writing that I began to see all these connections in my life, in an even more profound way–events and connections with people that on first glance might have seemingly only played a small role in my life, but as it turns out, were significant in helping shape the person I am, for better or worse.

You’re the lead singer, guitarist and songwriter for the swing band, the Prairie Cats, as well as an incredibly talented cartoonist. You have to believe there’s truth to your doctor’s explanation that most people who have Tourette’s are artists in some form. Have you taken medication or are you concerned it will somehow mess with the creative process?

Over the years I have tried various medications, all to varying degree of success. In some cases, the medications seemed to have made my tics worse. But the stress might have had to do with outside forces. It’s difficult to know for sure. And yes, certainly, my biggest concern has always been that I don’t want to mess with a good thing—don’t want to dampen my creativity. But who knows? What if there is a drug out there that might ease the symptoms, but also give me more energy to create? The good news is that with age, the tics have seemed to lessen in severity and also a proper diet of avoiding caffeine and sugar, and also exercising regularly, has helped quite a bit. I’m always a bit concerned when I give a talk at a Tourette’s support group and all around they have snacks in the form of sweets. But that just might be my take on things, regarding sugar. Regarding those groups, by the way, it’s a great place to let go—of your tics, that is. That’s a place you don’t have to worry about people looking at you funny.

What were your parents’ reactions to the book?

Initially, they were worried what friends and family would say. Some of their concerns came from the level of detail I write about, and my parents, being very private people, were worried how others might judge them. Some of their reaction might have been a generational thing, too, my parents coming from an era when you “just don’t talk about such private things.” Growing up, we didn’t have many books in the house—certainly nothing like a memoir—so I’m sure it was a bit surrealistic for my parents to read about themselves so specifically. I did my best to remind them that many families have complexities and dysfunction. My overall intent wasn’t to point out my father’s weaknesses or faults, but rather, to show, how he rose above his disappointments and loved his family. And as part of loving me, he inspired me nearly every day, pushing me to be original and unique, to push my own personal envelope.

What advice would you give children with Tourette’s? How have they reacted to your book?

I once had a mother and her daughter who has Tourette’s come to see me at the newspaper. The daughter was in grade school and was already showing great promise as an artist and playwright. In front of her daughter, the mother asked me if I thought her daughter could live a “normal life.” That absolutely broke my heart. “Of course,” I answered. “In fact,” I remember saying, “not only will she live a normal life, she’ll live a great life!” The little girl looked up to me and smiled. That still gets to me.

I loved spending time on your site, going through the cartoon gallery. How are you so prolific? What do you do when you have cartoonist’s block?!

Well, I have to admit, it’s getting more and more difficult to keep up with everything, especially because I’m itching to write another book. Having said that, I do often find that doing one thing often feeds me in other areas. Sometimes when I can’t come up with a cartoon idea, I might pick up the guitar. Just the act of strumming might free up my brain to come up with a cartoon idea. It’s all integrated, really, not separate things I do, but all connected in some grand way in my brain. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Is there a specific subject you especially like to draw, that you find yourself returning to over and over? Which cartoon is your all-time favorite?

Even though drawing local cartoons typically doesn’t win national journalism prizes, those are probably my favorite. Mostly, because I know that the people I’m drawing about will see the cartoon. If I draw a cartoon about the leader of a foreign country, probably not. And picking one favorite is tough. I draw six cartoons a week, so in baseball terms, if I can get on base every time, I figure I’m doing well. If at least one of those makes it over the outfield fence, I’m happy.

What’s next for you? A subject you haven’t touched yet? A cartoon set to swing music?

I like that—a cartoon set to swing music would be awesome! Well, I am fiddling with a TV show idea with a friend of mine and an “Inklings” screenplay is in the works, so we’ll see. Otherwise, I’m mapping out my next book project. The problem is I have too many ideas and there’s only so much time. Maybe I should be working on a machine that would somehow expand time.

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I feel really privileged to get to know you a little better.

For me, the sign of a great question is when that question gets me to think about my life in ways I hadn’t previously considered. Your questions did that for me. Thank you so much.

Jeffrey Koterba is generously giving an autographed copy of “Inklings” and his latest Prairie Cats’ CD to one lucky subscriber. For a chance to win, simply leave a comment below by midnight Pacific time on Sunday, August 8. Winner will be notified by return email.

This post originally appeared on my former blog, StyleSubstanceSoul.

Comments

  1. Marsha Cunningham says:

    Absolutely awe inspiring man. My grandchildren are on the autism spectrum and sometimes I wonder about what kind of adult life they will have or not.
    Reading about this accomplished man has confirmed for me that their lives will be what they make of them.

  2. fascinating man. I look forward to reading the book, and hearing the CD!

  3. It seems so many artists bud from difficult health or mental challenges. It’s as though their strength from rising above gives them the urge to create, perhaps as an outlet for their overflowing minds. Though I battle depression/bipolar disorder myself, stories such as this make me feel guilty for occasionally feeling sorry for myself. It’s a tough battle when you’re faced with such a life-altering condition, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t some positives, too. Books like ‘Inklings’ remind us of that, and I think it’s wonderful Jeffry Koterba shared his experiences in order to prove life’s obstacles don’t have to stop us from following our passions.

  4. very inspiring! i’m looking forward to sharing this with my sons and friends! the mental list is growing!

  5. My husband is writing his first book. It was enlightening to read his comments on life as an author.

  6. Interesting reading! My son is on the Autism spectrum & I wonder what life will be like for him, after he graduates in a couple of years. It’s inspiring to see how someone has survived & even prospered with this type of issue.

  7. Catherine says:

    Fascinating review. I can’t wait to read the book. Thanks for sharing this.

  8. Loved your interview and the book sounds amazing. It is definitely on my reading list now.

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