The Creativity Interviews: New Yorker cartoonist, writer, and performer Liza Donnelly

As part of my ongoing quest to explore what it means to live a creative life, I periodically invite kick ass creatives to come play with us on the blog.

Today’s episode:

Creating your way past rejection, swimming for inspiration, and the power of wishing the world a good morning.

Donnelly headshot b+w

I’m so excited this week to be interviewing New Yorker cartoonist, writer, and performer, Liza Donnelly. I met Liza on Twitter, where I meet all the cool kids. On Twitter, Liza manages to be funny, incisive, outspoken and compassionate. And as if that’s not reason enough to follow her, she also does things like spontaneously illustrating the Academy Awards. (Her doodled versions of Barbara Streisand, Jennifer Lawrence and the rest of Hollywood’s luminaries were my favorite part of the Oscars.)

In addition to her work for the New Yorker, Liza is a  weekly columnist and cartoonist for, specializing in politics and women’s rights, and she draws a weekly cartoon on gender issues and women’s rights for the news site Women’s Enews. She is a Cultural Envoy for the US State Department, traveling around the world speaking about freedom of speech, cartoons and women’s rights, and as a public speaker, Donnelly has spoken (among other venues) at TED, the United Nations, and The New Yorker Festival. She’s been profiled on CBS Sunday Morning, NBC and BetterTV, and has been interviewed on radio and in numerous magazines, newspapers and online.

Donnelly is the author/editor of fifteen books. Her most recent book (and the name of her blog) is When Do They Serve The Wine? Her new book, Women On Men, is due out in 2013. And here’s the thing… I’ve only begun to list all that she has done and is doing. You can read the rest of her bio here.

Needless to say, I thought she might have some thoughts about living a(n outrageously) creative life… and she did!


j: Life is demanding. What are your tricks for getting into a creative space?

Liza: I try to start first thing in the morning and make sure there are no pressing things to do for a few hours.  Also, I don’t listen to the radio, and I make sure all the emails have been answered the day before – doesn’t always happen that way.

j: What’s the weirdest thing that inspires you?

Liza: That’s a tough question. Sometimes you don’t really know what inspires you. Obvious things inspire me, like reading the newspaper, walking in New York City, looking at the work of my favorite artists.  I get energized by swimming, perhaps that’s unusual. It gives me time to think, without my computer, tablet and iPhone invading my thoughts. And I feel physically energized as well as mentally. However, I have learned not to trust all the ideas I come up with while swimming laps!

j: How do you deal with critics?

Liza: With humor, it’s easy to convince myself that humor is subjective. My humor is not going to resonate with everyone. That said, it still stings sometimes when you read an online comment that is critical, even knowing how online comments are often just from angry people.  The business I am in is full of rejection, and, in a way that’s criticism, and it’s difficult. I just keep pushing, because the more you create, the better you get (usually). The key is to leave rejection behind you and move forward.

j: What energizes you, solitude or engagement?

Liza: Both! I love being alone in my studio, but I also love being with people – parties and dinners are things I enjoy (not good at doing lunches – it takes away from my work day). I love Twitter for the sense of engagement it brings me. I tweet “Good Morning” on Twitter every morning for that reason. It’s a great way to start me on my day. And I love that sometimes I get responses from Uruguay or Jerusalem!

j: Some old 45s, a beach ball, colored twine and a hanger. What will you make?

Liza: One of my other joys, other than cartooning, is making other types of art. I am a painter, and so I might make a painting construction with those items. I would probably deflate the beach ball (sorry), and cut up the hanger, and put them all on a canvas with some kind of glue. And with oil paint, make a Raushenberg-like piece that says something about playing.


Donnelly color portrait

I LOVE this. It’s Liza’s self-portrait. First of all, it looks like her, which, as a budding doodler feels well beyond my capabilities, but mostly, I love the stuff she chose to include. Not just her work table, but her work table covered with drawings and supplies, her trashcan overflowing, spilling out onto the floor. It’s not just a portrait of Liza, it’s a portrait of the artistic process, which is all about doing, trusting that each attempt brings you closer to your vision (or something that surprises even you).

This week, I finally wrote a difficult, self-revelatory piece on an important subject that I’ve dreaded and desperately wanted to write. It’s for Kind Over Matter, and it will go up over there next week, but I was reminded (AGAIN) of the most necessary part of creation: just start.

Before your idea is fully formed, despite the noise your kids are making or the fact that after your full-time job, you’re tired. Even though you only have an hour, and you inbox is overflowing, and the laundry pile is getting scary. Even if the creative project is daunting (maybe especially then)…  just start.

After that, it gets easier.

At least for me. What’s the most important lesson in creativity that you keep having to learn over and over again?


  1. jb on March 7, 2013 at 9:57 am

    Great interview! I love these peeks into the creative life of others – thank you! I love her bio picture, with all the books in the background. Makes me curious about what books are on her shelves. 🙂

    The important lesson I have to keep relearning (right after “just start” and “do it even if you only have 30 minutes”) is to allow myself to be a beginner and make mistakes. I have to be vigilant about keeping my inner critic muzzled. What usually works best is reminding myself that I can’t say anything about my work that I wouldn’t say to my 8yo son, or any child, about their creation. Because really, it’s my inner child that’s the creative beginner and she deserves to enjoy this process, no matter how old I may be on the outside.

    My goal is to get past allowing myself to be a beginner and to actually enjoy being a beginner and then to pass that skill on to my son. (Someday, if you see a couple of inner critics with their bags packed, standing on the corner looking for handouts, you’ll know I succeeded.)

  2. j on March 7, 2013 at 10:04 am

    That last line made me laugh. I definitely won’t pick them up!

    I think that’s a really good (infinitely repeatable) lesson, and a really hard one for people with perfectionist tendencies to learn. Looking back, when I started my yoga practice fourish years ago, that was the beginning of truly accepting my beginner status. With doodling, I’ve begun the second part of your (fantastically perfect goal) – actually enjoying it.

    Your rule that you can’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to your son is wonderful! I’m going to try to do that too, even though my son is way more than 8 years old. I could even do this: Don’t say anything to myself I wouldn’t say to my best friend. (And you know how I love her.)


  3. Lyn Girdler on March 7, 2013 at 10:05 am

    Isn’t it so comforting to hear really successfully creative people talk about their process and realize that there isn’t a ‘secret’ formula that someone else has, and you don’t? That, we’re all going through the process in one way or another. Thanks for revealing these.

    • j on March 7, 2013 at 10:09 am

      YES! I think that may be my favorite part about doing these interviews!

  4. David Doodleslice Cohen on March 7, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Loved this interview! Like many a doodler I have a (not so) secret desire to someday have a doodle in the New Yorker. Just not enough bunnies in NYC. 😉

    • Pam on March 7, 2013 at 1:37 pm

      I feel that bunny shortage, too.

    • j on March 7, 2013 at 2:13 pm

      You two are so cute.

  5. Pam on March 7, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    Excellent! I love the self-portrait.

    “Just start” is very important…because if you don’t start, you don’t have anything. If you do start, maybe you won’t end up with what you set out to do (or maybe you will) but starting is the only way to find out what you’ll make.

    I do like the idea of telling the inner critic to be considerate. It might take some training, but it would be energy well-spent.

    • j on March 7, 2013 at 2:15 pm

      I know, right? “Just start” must be the easiest creative advice EVER. Why I keep having to relearn it is beyond me. Speaking of which… it’s time to step away from the interwebs and get to work. 🙂

  6. […] An interview with Liza Donnelly as part of Judy Clement Wall’s Creativity Interviews, March 7, 2013. […]

  7. Cynthia Fassett on March 7, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    Wonderful post and interview!

    The most important lesson in creativity that I keep having to learn over and over again is to remain in the creative void and allow inspiration to spring up in the moment, instead of trying to force it. Moving myself out of the way, which includes all those little worries and doubts and yes, that criticizing voice.

    • j on March 7, 2013 at 3:57 pm

      Not forcing it. Yes, that one is really hard. I’ve had days where I’ve been in tears because I can’t write a useable sentence, and even though it’s always-always-always better when I walk away and come back later, I would, apparently, rather cry than take a hike and trust the process.

      I’m going to be switching up the questions in my upcoming interviews. Always five, but not always the same five. Liza’s answers and this comment thread make me want to ask other artists about their inner critic (and how they get him/her to shut the hell up), and also what’s their repeatable lesson. I’m guessing we all have them.

  8. Andrea Lewicki (@Andrea_Lewicki) on March 7, 2013 at 6:43 pm

    “Just start” usually works for me, but I have to jump over my distraction-loving tendencies to do it. I’ve learned to take small steps, even if that means setting a timer for 5 minutes. Those 5 minutes are enough to keep creative momentum, even if they’re the only 5 dedicated minutes I give over to creativity in a day.

    I think I’ve also learned to trust the incubation process. Sometimes 5 minutes is all I can do because the 5 minutes after that are still percolating. And remembering that every minute counts towards done, no matter what gets edited or revised or unceremoniously deleted.

    • j on March 8, 2013 at 8:36 am

      At first I thought you meant setting a 5-minute timer on the distractions – 5 minutes on Twitter for instance, or 5 minutes mooning over Pinterest. It made me laugh when I realized I had it backwards!

      I think you make an interesting point. My favorite professor and adviser (himself a successful writer) said that even when you’re staring at the screen, thinking nothing at all is happening, you’re writing. Writers are always writing, he said.

      There’s some truth to that. Though he was also telling me to stop claiming writer’s block and sit my ass down in the chair. Start, even if it feels that what I’m doing is staring at the screen. 🙂

  9. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) on March 8, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Another great interview! That artwork should happen for real; it sounds pretty cool. =)

    One lesson I have to continuously relearn is not to self-censor. I’m not a rule-breaker in real life, but I have to almost constantly remind myself that it’s okay to be a rule-breaker in my creative works.

    • j on March 9, 2013 at 10:01 am

      I agree. That’s a re-learning lesson for me too. It’s related too, but slightly different than, self-criticism, I think. Self-censoring is about pre-deciding what will work, what people will like, or (as you say) what we’re “allowed” to do. I’m thinking the only inner-voice we should be listening to when we sit down to create is the one says “Yes. Do it.”

  10. Joanne Marie Firth on March 8, 2013 at 11:20 pm

    Great inverview j. I feel like I know so much about Liza now. She is definately someone I would like to follow on Twitter as well as become familar with her work. Great job.

    As far as a lesson that creativity keeps teaching me, is that is feels so f***g good to be creative.

    • j on March 9, 2013 at 10:02 am

      This made me laugh out loud, Joanne. Funny that I have to keep learning that one too.

  11. Estrella Azul on March 11, 2013 at 9:35 am

    What a lovely interview, so inspiring! Liza Donnelly is a great artist.

    That is one valuable lesson, j. Mine is, that messes are okay to make. Two years after reading Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, I still hold it near and dear; and it’s message loud and clear in my mind.

    • j on March 12, 2013 at 8:45 am

      The value of shitty first drafts. My favorite Anne Lamott lesson of all time. 🙂

  12. Nina Badzin on March 11, 2013 at 5:27 pm

    I love that answer to the question about dealing with critics: “With humor.” That’s awesome. What a fabulous interview all around. And I had no idea Liza has a blog. Cool!!! Off to check it out.

    • j on March 12, 2013 at 8:47 am

      I liked that answer too. Need to practice tapping into something that positive when I’m face to face with criticism.

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