Previous Post  |  Next Post

Dispatches from the Moth · Posted On: Feb 19, 2019

The MOTHerview with storyteller Matthew Diffee

by Suzanne Rust

Matthew Diffee

"The best way to deal with rejection is to keep moving onward–have newer ideas by the time the old ones are judged."

A New Yorker cartoon contest inspired Matthew to find an unexpected outlet for his art...

How did you know that this was The Moth story you had to tell?

I first told this story at a special Moth event that was part of The New Yorker Festival, so I needed something from my life that connected with my career at the magazine. Apart from that, I always love stories about "the struggle" and about risk-taking and leveling up and this is mine, or at least one of them. I've had a few of these points in life when you feel like you pass through a threshold and everything after that is changed a little bit, both inside and out. We all have these moments, so I think it resonates. I know it does for me when I look back at my life so far.

What makes the art of storytelling via cartoons so special?

It's a very short story. Sometimes just a few words and a picture. Of course the picture is worth a thousand words, so maybe it's not all that short. But that's what's special about it I guess. You can use a single image to fill in the back story or the next part, or even both. 

You grew up in rural Texas, unaware of the New Yorker and its cultural heft and significance. Do you think that helped you be bold enough to submit your work? 

Yeah. It probably helped. Ignorance has always been one of my greatest assets. Of course I knew more than nothing by the time I got there. It's a fine line. You have to know enough to make a proper approach but not so much that you get over-awed, or even too realistic about it.  I’m still doing that now and in a purposeful way. For the last couple years I’ve been thinking about and working on some children’s picture book ideas and I’m just about to take a swing at that. Along the way I’ve purposefully avoided going to conferences or reading books about the business side of it because I don’t want to know how bad the odds are. I’m afraid that knowledge might stop me from trying. Or at least dampen my spirits. I’d rather work with joy than worry. 

What do you love most about being a cartoonist?

The marker fumes. No, it's the moment when I come up with an idea. That's the best. When an idea comes together in my head, I get the same little jolt of discovery or recognition that the reader will hopefully get later. It's actually much better for me because it comes with a sudden surge of relief after staring into space for so long and fighting off the creeping fear that I'll never have another idea ever again. One of my favorite quotes about creativity is by Edwin Land who said, "creativity is the sudden cessation of stupidity." It feels great to suddenly, briefly, feel not stupid. I get to that feel that about once every seven to ten days.

Who are your favorite storytellers and why? 

I won't pretend to know the current world of oral storytelling, and it seems dishonest to google it, so I'll do a throwback and say Jerry Clower. My dad had some albums of him telling his very southern stories that I only vaguely remember, but I think he was the first person I ever knew of as a "storyteller." If I expand the definition of storyteller, as folks tend to do these days, then I'd include Andrew Wyeth and Springsteen, especially his album, The Ghost of Tom Joad. Those two are all about a sense of place and tone. Oh, and Gillian Welch too and the Coen Brothers and a shout out to my buddy, Adam Wade. Nobody gets the audience rooting for them the way he does.

After you submitted your first cartoon, you say that it took five weeks before the New Yorker got back to you. What was going through your mind during those weeks of waiting?

You try to forget about it as much as possible. The best way to deal with rejection is to keep moving onward--have newer ideas by the time the old ones are judged. I probably wasn't as good at that back then, but now I try to be like a mother sea turtle. Hatch some ideas and then waddle off and get back to swimming. 

What did it mean for you to be able to share you story on The Moth stage? What did you want people to take away from it? 

It was great. I love The Moth. I kind of grew up alongside it back in my New York years. It was also really good, as far as this story goes, just to get the chance to revisit that part of my life and remind myself to be thankful for both the hard times and the good fortune that I've had. I guess I mostly hoped my story would give listeners a few laughs and then maybe some who heard it might take heart if they're in the middle of a similar barren patch or have empathy for someone else who is. Keep on trucking' I guess.

What are you most proud of?

As a newish Dad, I gotta say the growing life force/personhood of my three year old son. That, and my whittling skills.

You said that as a child, terms like Musical Chairs and Baggage Carousel were disappointments because they didn’t live up to their promise. As an adult, which terms don’t stack up for you now?

Everything Bagel.

Please finish this sentence: Storytelling is important because…. can instantly silence my three-year-old's tantrums. Seriously, it's amazing to me. Whenever he's upset or having a hard time I can just say, "You want to hear a story?" and he calms right down and gets really focused. Now, ain’t that true for all of us grown-ups too? 

For more on Matthew, go to

Previous Post Next Post

Musical Chairs

by Matt Diffee

A jack-of-all-trades enters a cartoon contest.

Listen Now Add to Playlist