Interview with New Yorker cartoonist, Sarah Kempa:
Sarah Kempa is a cartoonist for The New Yorker, and UX designer based in Brooklyn. She's been contributing to the magazine since 2019, and you've probably seen her work on their website or via her wildly popular, incredibly charming comics on instagram, @auntsarahdraws.
Kempa's cartoons convey a general anxiety and millennial ennui that are all too familiar, often inspired by remote work life and spending most of her day in front of a laptop. She cites the syndicated comic strips of her youth as an early influence, and more recently, the work of fellow New Yorker cartoonists like Liana Finck, Emily Flake, and Roz Chast.
We sat down earlier in the year to talk about her work and how goal-setting and a regular creative practice help her come up with ideas for New Yorker cartoons. We talk about her particular approach to comedy and her simple trick for taking inventory of the day and mining it for humor. We also commiserate a bit about the constant, humbling rejection of drawing for such an esteemed magazine, a favorite pastime of New Yorker cartoonists.
One of my biggest takeaways from our conversation was the power of routine; designating time and space for creativity to happen, rather than waiting for it to strike. Our respective understandings of creativity share a lot in common and it's interesting to see how artists often arrive at this conclusion independently. She's one of my favorite cartoonists and I knew I had to talk to her when I first started planning the podcast.
Her debut book, Where Did My Roommate Put My Charger? A Kind of Activity Book for Kind Of Adults, comes out later this year. If you've ever been curious how an artist tackles their first book or where New Yorker cartoonists get there humor from, this conversation's for you.
Check out some of the interview highlights below:
We're going to be talking about your cartoon-work today but I also want to spend a little bit of time, before we jump into that, talking about what you're doing at your “job” job, if you will, and some of the things that led you down these respective paths.
Sarah: Yeah, sure. I think there were two separate trajectories with cartooning versus my UX career. In school, I studied industrial and operations engineering, which isn't like process type engineering. And I thought I always wanted to do something with that. I wasn't really sure what to do, but there were also things that I studied that were human factors, ergonomics, like how can we design things to be more useful or when you get frustrated and something's not working, so that always interested me.
And I went on a separate path of like, “oh, I'm going to work as a data analyst,” but I didn't really like that. And then started doing much more UX and got into it through a job several years ago and kind of stuck with it and have continued to work in that field since.
At the same time, I've always done a lot of drawing since I was a kid. I’ve always had cartoons and comic books and I think trying to find creative outlets. Once I felt much more settled in my career and wasn't trying to find a new thing to work in, or learn something new, then I felt like I had a lot more time for my creative hobbies or to find things that brought me joy or I like to do again. So then I was drawing a lot more and gradually just continued to do that.
Are there things that you purposely draw from your UX work to your cartooning, or do you try to compartmentalize them?
Sarah: I've thought about this before because I think there's some cartoonists who are so good at showing the workplace and working - they have really good gags for those topics.
And I think the only thing that I kind of jump off on a lot is just a general exhaustion and not wanting to get out of bed. And then also just the experience of spending most of my life in front of a laptop, you know, those are the two things, but I think otherwise I keep it pretty compartmentalized.
And it's never been intentional. Like I am pretty task oriented and I like to make to-do lists. I like to keep track of things I'm doing and cross it off, but I'll wake up and do any cartoons before the workday, maybe seven to nine. And if I'm going to pitch a daily or if I'm just trying to work on my batch, or if I'm just writing, then I'll work pretty much nine to five-ish, not really taking a break to do any drawing.
I think after that, unless on the weekends, I don't do much cartooning week to week, but, um, I feel like that's pretty separated, that I have a dedicated mental time for me to think about something versus something else.
How did you land on cartooning, and was The New Yorker always a specific goal you had?
Sarah: My parents were not the type of people to subscribe to The New Yorker growing up. I think in Michigan we got the Daily and the Free press, both those newspapers. They had comics in them every weekday, and then you had the color on the weekend, so I grew up with a lot of syndicated comics and really loved, like, I really liked Kathy and I loved Peanuts as well as other things I would just read. And so from a really young age, I did a lot of sports growing up. I would do my school things, but I also did a lot of comics that were almost mimicking syndicated-type comics.
I created my own comic characters for these people and had stories. I don't know what your experience has been, but it does seem like a number of people who get into cartooning, just started when they were kids because they were interested in it and liked it. And it's resurfaced throughout their lives, which I think is so fascinating because it's like, you know, in kindergarten I made a vacuum cleaner for show-and-tell and someone told me to be an engineer and somehow that stuck with me, but I also had all these comics and I wish someone was just like, “be a cartoonist!” So it’s just interesting how that resonates and can stay with someone for so long. So I think then it’s just kind of gradually, and then you do more writing and it starts to come back in some way.
The New Yorker is notoriously difficult to break into. Did you acknowledge the fact that it is such a daunting task at first or did you try to set that to the side? Or were you just fearless in the face of it?
Sarah: Yeah, at first, I tried a lot, very consistently and you know, it's hard cause you don't necessarily hear back so you don't know. It's pretty humbling in some ways where maybe you can lead with - I'm speaking about myself when I say “you” - but one can lead with more of an ego when they start and then you get humbled really quickly, you know, it's like, okay, I haven't heard anything, time and time again.
So you maybe start to give up sometimes, take breaks, reevaluate, which I think is good. It was good for me to do, in general. I started, maybe in 2019, and it was really inconsistent. And then, what I started to focus on more was trying to get into Shouts because that more so fits the way that my work is
Some people are so creative and so witty and just so good at, you know, really nailing a really good joke. And I think mine, and the way that my cartoons kind of are, is a lot more just - it's just what it is, you know? Like I have somebody anxious and in bed, and they're saying something and what's funny is what they're saying. It probably would be funny as a tweet but I just have it in a cartoon.
Talk me through your process for coming up with cartoons for your submissions.
Sarah: I like to take classes from other cartoonists. I know Jeremy Nguyen has a class coming up. I haven't taken his yet and I would like to, but I took one that Jason Adam had, and I've taken Emily Flake's class.
It's interesting to learn about their processes and see what works and doesn't. Jason had something where he did Venn diagrams of like, here's the list of things that's top of mind and I can't stop thinking about, and then here's different tropes or scenario-type things, and then just putting things on top of each other.
So I always start with kind of what's top of mind, what's going on and things I'm thinking about, how I feel, things that I'm doing. Or sometimes if I don't know, I'll make a list of everything I have to do that day, then whatever the tropes are because then it's easier for me to put ideas on there. Like I can't do every, you know, some tropes I find are more challenging than others to start with.
How are you staying organized? Are you a paper planner person? Do you use any tools online?
Sarah: I use Notion. I like Notion especially when you have a project that has a lot of pieces to it. I like having it because you can more so brainstorm. I use a paper planner too, which is just a simple one with, you know, classic Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. I like that it's kind of a list format. And then I use the Notes app. I just always have done...I didn't do one this year, actually, but I will just make a list of things like running a certain amount, going to a certain place.
Also, things that are hard. Like I have move 401Ks because I think I had started a new job and I hadn't done anything for that. And so just things that are mentally taxing, writing it down. And then if I do that in the year, I feel like, "Okay, you accomplished a couple of things." I know everyone's different though, on what works for them. I know that it's easier for me, I just like lists. So I gravitate to that and I'm pretty organized.
You published 15 or so daily cartoons last year, and a number of Shouts pieces as well. I just want to acknowledge that fact cause that's amazing. I've definitely felt that humbling rejection you talk about. How do you work through that, whether it's writer's block or rejection?
Sarah: I felt like I did have a lot of things run last year. It still felt like I was submitting a lot, but it was when I kind of had more breakthrough. I mean, the previous year I submitted a lot of dailies and I can't speak to the quality. That's the thing. In hindsight, the quality of what I'm submitting, sometimes I'm just like “Oh god, I’m so embarrassed.” But it's fine. It's growth.
But I like to set goals, and I do set a lot of goals for very specific things I want to accomplish. I might be like, okay. I wanted to see my parents four times this year and I want to run this amount of miles and I want to, I dunno, maybe I have a certain work goal. Just things that are so specific that I can really say whether I did it or not and less of a resolution, or something that's kind of hand-wavy. Some things work for some people, but it just doesn't work for me.
With The New Yorker, I was like, I'm going to submit every week, every time I can. And so that was something I did. Also, with the dailies, I just thought I would be able to finally get in. I wasn't selling anything and I was like, okay, well maybe the chances are a little bit better for me on the daily. That was my take on it.
And so I tried when I could, and I would just wake up early and try, cause it's much easier to, I mean, I submit completed cartoons weekly, but dailies you can kind of sketch quickly and that's enough. So that was kind of my goal. And I think I'm going to try and do the same this year.
Do you usually come to the figurative piece of paper - I think you draw it on an iPad if I'm not mistaken - but do you come to it with an idea or do you sit down and while you're there, try to brainstorm?
Sarah: I try and brainstorm while I'm there. Otherwise, that's the other thing, I don't have ideas randomly or maybe very rarely if I'm walking without music or not distracted, you know, but I always just write everything, do a little Venn circle thing, and then anything I have there, I take and I make a longer list.
And sometimes, if I have one idea and it's not right then I'll try and see how I can make it work. Then I draw whatever I think are the best ones to draw, which I'm trying to get to that stage of knowing what is a good thing to draw and what's not because I think I'd like to eventually get to the point where I know what good ideas are versus bad ideas that I have. Like I'm not there to identify that.
I would disagree. I think you have a pretty good measure on it. Are there any resources that you leaned on when you were first getting started?
Sarah: I'm looking at my bookshelf, but I really, really enjoyed Linda Berry. Linda Berry has. comic books and workbooks and those are a good resource for just getting going. So much, for me, was doing it. Spending the time to do it and allowing myself to think in a more creative way without trying to think of what makes a good cartoon. I think the best cartoons for so many people are things that really tie closely with different things that they think about, things that are their experiences. So, I really liked Linda Berry as a reference and just having something to kind of follow and do.
I do think taking classes [with other cartoonists] was the best for helping me get, I don't want to say serious because, you know, it's still fun. Like it's fun to do cartoons, but just helping me understand somebody else's process and get the mindset where I started to see that like, oh, these people also aren't just pulling ideas out of anywhere. They have a process that they go through, or several, that they try to get something. It just makes it a little bit more accessible almost, as opposed to trying to like, oh, you need to come up with 10 ideas, which is what I was doing before. And it was impossible to do.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but you are currently working on a book. Can you tell us about it?
Sarah: Yeah, I have. I think it's coming out in June. I'm not positive, but I have been working on a book which is titled, "Where Did My Roommate Put My Charger? A Kind of Activity Book for Kind Of Adults." And so it's a mix of activities that have jokes in them, as well as short comics that relate to the theme. Um, and yeah, I think I'm almost done with it. It's my first book, so it seems like it's almost done.
I really learned a lot and I feel like there's still so much I don't know. I wasn't sure what it would be like. It's just interesting to see what the entire process is.
In terms of your day, does working on that book fall into your morning, cartooning time, or do you have to carve out even more time after, after the date shots to work on my day job?
Yeah. The thing about a book though, that I didn't realize, and maybe this is where my planning got the best of me, like I did use Notion to plan for a lot of things and set up my schedule and stuff. But something that I didn't realize with a book is like, you send something and you kind of wait a bit while they do some edits or review. And so you don't really know how long you're waiting, but you sent something and you feel kind of accomplished about it.
So you're like, 'Ooh, like huge step done!" And then you get something back and you get a lot of notes and feedback and then you're, you know, you kind of spent three or four weeks, not even thinking about it or touching it. And they're like, "oh, can we have this by next week, Friday?" So then you're just kind of scrambling to do it as quickly as possible, or, you know, I feel like I got procrastination and stuff.
There's so many things that I would have done differently, in terms of time management with that. I don't usually work on things in the evening or after work. I try to run and cook or I've been taking a language class, so I try and keep it as things that are just not work. But that book fell into - it reminded me of college of like staying up late, trying to finish something. So I'd like to do it over. Or like do another book in the future so that maybe I can try and apply some things.
Are there things you'd still like to accomplish as a cartoonist?
Sarah: Something I’d like to figure out this year is trying more graphic type novels or longer comic strips, and I would like to see if I could create some sort of storyline I could pitch and have something that's much more comics-based. So that's kind of a goal I have is just think through what I could do with that. Maybe come up with a pitch for something like that to an agent and see, but I don't have any, I know that's kind of hand-wavy but it's been on my mind and I've done little segments of comics, but I think about how I can maybe pull them all together in something that feels a little more personal to me and that I could have some fulfillment and still challenge myself working on. That's what my thought is. In addition to still doing The New Yorker every week, or 15 of them every week. Yeah.