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Questions Are the Steering Wheel, Answers Are the Gas Pedal: An Interview with Stefan G. Bucher

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Stefan Bucher, author of 344 Questions, talks about the most important question we should ask ourselves, how therapy helped him develop his book, and why he believes on knocking on wood.
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Peachpit: Can you describe what your book is about?

Stefan Bucher: 344 Questions is therapy session in book form. It's a fun (but also kind of intense) way of assessing where you're at in your life and in your career, where you want to go, and how to get there. The book prompts and prods you to be honest with yourself, and then gives you lots of big and small nudges to find creative ways forward.

Here is a page from the book. (Click to enlarge.)

Peachpit: The title of your book claims that it is for creative people. What does that mean to you?

Stefan: The book is for anybody who spends a large part of their life getting the things inside their heads out into the world. It's for professional designers, illustrators, writers, musicians, film makers, of course, but also for anybody who has the urge to make stuff, but was told that being creative isn't a proper, grown-up way of life.  

Peachpit: The visual style of your book is very pronounced. What was the thought process behind the flow-chart aesthetic?

Stefan: The book is structured like a series of insane flow-charts. An early reader once got quite upset that these aren't proper flow-charts. Each question doesn't lead to a set of answers that branch to new questions. There are yes/no questions in the book, but most are open-ended, so the answers will be truly yours. 

Having each question flow to the next is my attempt to suck you into the process. "Just one more. And one more. Come on, and then this one, too!" My hope is that the book will be the start of a great conversation you can have with yourself or with people you consider fellow travelers. (If you trust them enough to still answer honestly. Never choose the "correct" answer over the honest answer! Sometimes that's easier done alone.)

Peachpit:  What was it like working with the contributing writers, like Judd Apatow and Patton Oswalt? Was the process entirely by email, or did you actually sit down and talk with them?

Stefan: All the contributing writers chimed in via e-mail. As much as I would have loved the chance to sit down with everybody, doing this in writing allowed them to find their own rhythm of questions in a way that just doesn't happen in regular interviews.

The page of contributor Debbie Millman. (Click to enlarge.)

Peachpit: What led you to the idea of writing a book composed entirely of questions?

Stefan: The idea came from my frustration with self-help books that are prescriptive. "Do you have problem A? Try solution B!" Sometimes I get lucky, and a book really matches my situation. More often than not, though, the scenarios offered in self-help books are just different enough from my particular reality for their solutions to be inapplicable to me. Asking a cascade of questions makes the book all about you, specifically.

There are certain key questions that pop up again and again throughout the book. I cribbed that technique from therapy. Depending on the context, the answer may change and give you deeper insight into yourself. Some questions are uncomfortable to answer, and you may blow it off the first five times it's asked. But with the right lead-in, phrased the right way, it may unlock all kinds of interesting stuff. 

Peachpit: To steal a question from your book: Do you believe in knocking on wood? Would you qualify yourself as lucky?

Stefan: I do believe in knocking on wood. I don't really believe that it will grant me some sort of protection from the universe, but I think it plants something potentially useful in my subconscious—a more clearly defined desire, perhaps, or a note to look more carefully. I would say that I work hard to be prepared for opportunity when it finds me. That said, I've had some great opportunities. 

Peachpit: What would you say is the most important thing that you want readers to get out of your book?

Stefan: The most important thing I want readers to get from the book are moments of clarity. "Oh! THIS is why I procrastinate so much!" or "There actually isn't anything that's stopping me from pursuing this!" I hope it will let them realize that we have mental barriers that go back so far into our upbringing, or that have simply grown so large over time, that we don't even realize they're there anymore. If the book can help you discover any of those barriers, and if it can set you on a path to dismantling them, so you can lead your life more freely. That's the goal!

Peachpit: What is the most important question that you think we should all ask ourselves?

Stefan: Is this real?

Peachpit: Who has inspired you? What makes you excited to write and draw?

Stefan: My early inspiration came from comic book artists and illustrators -- Marco Rota, Luciano Bottaro, Giorgio Cavazzano, Hans-Georg Rauch, Kurt Halbritter, J.J. Sempé, Tullio Pericoli, and tons more. Lara Tomlin is wonderful. Christoph Niemann, of course. Mattias Adolfsson. Robert Valley is amazing. I'll never be that good, but as Conan O'Brien said in his 2011 commencement speech at Dartmouth, David Letterman became David Letterman by failing to be Johnny Carson. And Conan became Conan by failing to be Letterman. It's OK to reach, as long as you can forgive yourself for where you end up. Which isn't easy, but anything that gets you making things is worth the effort.

Sometimes it's easier to be inspired by people outside your field for that reason. I can't play guitar like Tom Morello, but I can take some of his sonic ideas and see how they translate into writing or drawing. That was the reason for inviting musicians and comedians and film makers to contribute their questions to the book. They see the world differently, and I wanted their take.

Peachpit: If you could send a letter to yourself at 20 years old, what would you write?

Stefan: My answer is going to make it look like this isn't a really tough question to answer. Which it is. I'd say "Relax! Have some fun! It's not nearly as difficult or as dangerous as you think. It'll be OK." But I wouldn't have believed it then any more than I'd believe it if my 60-year-old self told me tomorrow. But it'd be worth a try. I'd also add this: "Stop being ashamed of liking the things you like! It's much better to be happy than to be cool."

Peachpit: How long did it take to come up with all 344 questions? What was the process like?

Stefan: I like to write things on cards and scraps of paper, so I can shuffle them around. I started by writing down questions about topics I wanted to talk about. BIG topics. Life. Work. Love. Fear. Desire. Then I broke each area down into smaller and smaller pieces. I spent a few weeks getting them into a sequence that made sense to me. From there I just started writing around each seed question. 

By the way, the book contains 1,484 bonus questions, for a total of 1,828 questions. But 344 is a number that has been driving my life for the last twenty years—check out—so it seemed wise to use it.  

Peachpit: What is an example of a question that didn’t make the list? Why didn’t it?

Stefan: "Is this real?" It hadn't yet occurred to me then.

Peachpit: If you had to change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

Stefan: If I HAD to? Implying that I'd have to give up something I like about myself? I'd make myself slightly less of a wise-acre. If I COULD change one thing about myself? I'd learn how to stop worrying. 

Peachpit: What would you say to creative people who are disillusioned, cynical, and pessimistic? (besides “Buy my book!”)

Stefan: If you're disillusioned and pessimistic, I'd tell you this: You probably have good reason, but please don't become cynical. It's OK to feel that things aren't going your way. Oftentimes they won't. But once you think the world is out to screw you specifically, it's hard to find joy. 

The late Bill Hicks had a great line: 

"The World is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it's real, because that's how powerful our minds are. And the ride goes up and down and round and round, and it has thrills and chills and is very brightly colored, and it's very loud. And it's fun, for a while.

"Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they've begun to question, 'Is this real, or is this just a ride?', and other people have remembered, and they've come back to us and they say 'Hey, don't worry. Don't be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride."

I shortened it a bit, but you get the idea. If you're cynical, you'll read that and say, well, OK, but that doesn't put food on my table. True. But it always gives me hope when things get too dark or scary.

Also, keep in mind that as creatives we have an option that isn't open to everybody. When we've got an idea, we can mock it up! Somebody who is stuck in a regular job that no longer makes them happy can send out their résumé. They can hope that their past achievements give them enough credibility to try whatever they want to do next. It requires somebody to invest a lot of trust. For creatives? We can mock it up. We can write a draft. We can record a demo. We can make people see the future! That's an amazing thing! Don't forget that you have that power!

Peachpit: Do you think that the questions we ask are more important than the answers?

Stefan: I think both are equally important. Questions are the steering wheel, answers are the gas pedal. 

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