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zadie smith on “creativity and refusal”

08/06/13 4 Comments

zadie smithin the essay “creativity and refusal”, author zadie smith explores creativity (the word itself + its application today) and how refusing to conform to norms (or refusing to rebel) comes into play.  with it, she adds some new perspective into how we should view music, design, literature, technology, & other “creative” elements of everyday life.  read it below (via the 12th international literature festival of rome) and discuss any points that stand out to you:

I have been asked to talk to you this evening of “creativity.” It’s one of those slippery words, popular with the organizers of literary events, and I confess I stared at it a long time without gaining any traction. ‘Identity’ is another word of the same type. We must have a genuine need for such terms – we use them so often – but like a pair of well-loved shoes they’ve worn right down to the soles, and now tend to let in more than they keep out. ‘Creativity’ has had an especially long fall from grace. If you pick up the modern culture dictionary Keywords, by the British Marxist critic Raymond Williams, you can trace its decline. As he tells it, ‘creation’ begins life as a prerogative of the gods (as in Augustine’s maxim ‘creatura non potest creare’; the creature who has been created cannot himself create) from which height it descends, in the sixteenth century, into a synonym for “counterfeit”, or “imitation.”  “Or art thou,” asks Macbeth, “But/A dagger of the mind, a false creation/proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?” For the Elizabethans, whatever was ‘natural’ was the truth. Whatever was created in the minds of men was in some sense secondary, suspect. Which faint stain of shame lasted a long time – even the Romantics were not entirely free of it. More recently, Williams argues, we use the word to disguise from ourselves the fact that the arts are dominated not by innovation or originality but by “ideological and hegemonic reproduction.” In other words: we like to think the ‘creative arts’ represent a form of rebellion against the way of things, but more often than not they reinforce the status quo. The most painful bit comes at the end: “The difficulty arises when a word once intended, and often still intended, to embody a high and serious claim, becomes so conventional…Thus any imitative or stereotyped literary work can be called, by convention, creative writing, and advertising copywriters officially describe themselves as creative.”

I suppose it is in this last, loosest, sense that I most often hear the word used in my adopted city, New York. A young woman at a party will proudly tell you she works in ‘creative branding.’ The man whose job it is to rid our apartment of cockroaches speaks of finding a ‘creative solution to the problem.’  The marketing department of any large company is considered its ‘creative hub.’ As I write these words it is officially ‘Creative Week’ in New York (“Where advertising, design, and digital media collide with the arts.”) In Manhattan, when a person is described as ‘creative’ it usually means they’ve found a particularly ingenious way to sell you something.

The other place I hear the word a lot, unsurprisingly, is behind the door of 58 West 10th street, where I teach in a Creative Writing program. There, ‘creative’ has transformed from adjective to noun. “I knew from the earliest age,” writes a student, in her application letter, “that I was destined to be a Creative.” In its Sunday supplements, the New York Times regularly tortures my students with lavish articles about the fantasy lifestyle of this person, the ‘Creative.’ She lives in Brooklyn, sits in cafés with a laptop, makes her own hours, and is answerable to no-one. I wouldn’t begrudge any young person this entirely reasonable desire (although personally I have never typed a single creative word in a café) but I sometimes wonder whether it is creative writing itself or this advertised lifestyle that is the main attraction. To create something, as the Gods knew, requires a certain boldness. But though my students are excellent readers and sometimes brilliant intellectually what they write is often, at first, oddly timid. It is writing that aims to please; specifically writing that seeks to fill some perceived niche in the literary market. Often this niche is characterized by that other slippery word ‘identity.’ I heard Salman Rushdie claim recently that the most important advice he can think to give to young Asian writers these days is the following:  “There must be no tropical fruits in the title. No mangoes, no guavas. None of those. Tropical animals are also problematic. Peacock, etc. Avoid that shit.” Just because Asian novels are the fashion you needn’t make a fetish of yourself. Or to put it another way: it is not creative to let the logic of the market into your mind. One of the virtues of novel-writing is, or used to be, its relative independence. Unlike movies or television you do not need to please a committee or get a green light before you set out to write. But what if the phantom committee has been internalized? Sometimes students can seem more attuned to the chatter of publishing PR departments than whatever is going on in their own minds. They plan on penning the ‘Next Great Post-Colonial Novel’ or a ‘Multi-Generational Epic’ or a ‘Delicate Canadian Historical Drama.” At the end of a semester, not long ago, a student asked me: “How did you choose your literary brand?”

Most of my time with students is spent trying to press upon them the idea that creativity is about something more than finding the perfect audience for the perfect product. To my mind, a true ‘Creative’ should not simply seek to satisfy a pre-existing demand but instead transform our notion of what it is we want. A work of art forms its own necessary audience, creates its own taste. In this sense, at the heart of creativity lies a refusal. For a genuinely creative piece of work always declines to see the world as others see it, or as it is commonly described. It refuses received notions and generalities  – it “makes new.” Sometimes this forced change of perspective provokes delight, and a Creative should count herself extremely lucky if that turns out to be the case. But she should also prepare herself for the more usual reactions: discomfort, distaste, confusion, shock – even anger. The genuinely new rarely slips easily into the world-as-it-is. It causes at least a little friction. But I find it’s difficult to cultivate and encourage in students – especially American students – a willingness to risk displeasure. They are brought up on the principle of supply and demand, of entertainers and audience. As antidote, early on in our time together, I assign Kafka, in the hope it will embolden them. Kafka being the type of Creative whose creativity was not rooted in the need for approval. A man for whom creativity itself was a form of refusal.


This is all happening at the high end of the creative industry – my students being the type of kids whose parents don’t mind dropping sixty grand on a writing program. Meanwhile, down at the other end, the urban youth of New York, in particular the young African-Americans, do not require Creative Week to be creative. Their fashion, their language, their music, their visual arts – all are a source of constant innovation. Not one but two entire art forms – jazz and hip-hop – have risen up from this minority community within one century. (Not to mention the various subset activities these art-forms have spawned: bebop, funk, spoken word poetry, street art, break-dancing, scratching, beat-boxing.) But – as is often the way in America – all the way at the other end of the class ladder you find a strange mirroring of what happens at the top. The sad state of contemporary Hip-Hop is an obvious example. The creative energy is still there, as it was at Hip-Hop’s inception, but so is a new keenness to be co-opted, monetized. Once an underground, resistant culture, now rappers speak enthusiastically of “becoming a brand.” Happily they make deals with sportswear manufacturers and perfume companies, hawk high-end drinks in their videos, and lend their hard-won aura of authenticity to various aspects of the socio-economic status quo. Some of these gestures are as old as the hills. The surest sign of a successful rapper, for example, is his willingness to rap a verse over the anodyne pop song of a white starlet. She sings; he raps; she tries to dance; he stands behind her, looking impressed. If you squint it looks no different than that old tap dancer Bill Robinson clapping his hands and grinning as Shirley Temple dances in front of him. The black artist lends authenticity to the white star; the white star legitimizes the black artist. The music may have changed but the deep structure remains the same.

Such cultural repetitions make me nervous; they are primarily nostalgic, and nostalgia is the enemy of creativity, and the driving force behind “ideological and hegemonic reproduction.” Over and over in Hip-Hop we see what began as a creative refusal of the mainstream culture ending up as its support act. We used to call this ‘selling out’. Now it’s called ‘consolidating your brand.’ Rappers themselves like to argue that “getting paper” (making money) is itself a creative act of rebellion against the socio-economic status quo in America. But there seems to me a qualitative difference between monetizing the end product and monetizing the process itself, a line between selling a record and selling yourself. I confess it depressed me to hear that a rap collective as innovative as the LA-based Odd Future recently signed on to make an advert for the soft drink Mountain Dew. Not to star in it, mind you, but to actually design and direct it. (I was later cheered to hear their efforts were too offensive for the company to use.) To think of your creativity as a brand – or as at the service of a brand – is to build into the creative process the consistency and audience approval that products require. It is to think of yourself as product. And products cannot refuse their buyers. The whole point of a product is to slot into the world-as-it-is, seamlessly.


I grew up in the age of grunge and refusal, the tail-end of that generation of people who still feel sad when they see Iggy Pomp in a TV advert for car insurance or Bob Dylan in a deal with Starbucks. I was fifteen when Kurt Cobain killed himself. I was raised on the idea that there is a deadly tension between creativity and the market. I imagine that for the generation under me this idea of the ‘sell-out’ is considered as sentimental and impractical as those other 60’s throwbacks like free love and peace on earth. They grew up largely unmolested by the fear that the logic of the market is in any way in conflict with the act of creation. This must partly be because they grew up in a world of digital technology in which the seamlessness of creativity and capital is real. What is Apple if not “creativity” and “brand” working together in perfect synergy? Perhaps I should be teaching students about the creativity of Steve Jobs rather than Kafka? But here we get to the limits of this word ‘creativity.’ For though I may, on occasion, be so in love with my iPhone as to call it “a work of art,” the creativity embedded within it is of a different kind than the creativity that brought “In the Penal Colony” into existence, and I think it a little dangerous to confuse the two. The ultimate purpose of creativity in technology is to be frictionless, in form and function. Its final aim is not to challenge but to facilitate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – a tool, if its working well, should feel simply like an extension of us, and should work in the same way and equally well for every soul who picks it up. We get used to tools – they become invisible to us (Unless we happen to be hackers or especially technologically literate.) The creativity of art, by contrast, is something we never ‘get used to.’ I read “In the Penal Colony” every year with my students and every year it is a new kind of provocation, a challenge to the way I think and behave, to the things I claim I believe. The creativity of art is different from the creativity of tools: it forces us to be active in the face of it and always individual. Your reading of Kafka will not be the same as mine, but both of us will use our iPhones in much the same way. Still, it’s true that in the world of creative technology each new iteration of hardware or software does induce a jolt in us – forcing us to see our world differently, not unlike a work of art – and certainly for a day or two, or even a month, we may find ourselves confounded by some element of a new design, or refusing it outright (as is happening presently with Google Glass, which, in America, is being preemptively banned and legislated against in various contexts.) But very soon, almost sooner than we realize, we get used to the new design, whatever it is, and it begins to become invisible to us, we cannot imagine it was ever any other way.

The iPad, the iPhone et al – these may be an expression of Steve Jobs’ creativity, but they are also products, and for all the talk of revolutionary freedom in the adverts, all those billboards of Einstein and Hendrix above the slogan ‘Think Different’, Apple the company slipped seamlessly into the world-as-it-is, with all its iniquities, as we learnt when stories of work conditions in the Foxconn factory in China began to surface. To really ‘think differently’ necessitates some kind of refusal, and products – no matter how beautifully designed – simply do not have that freedom; they exist only to please, which is why Jobs’ creative brand utopia is not an especially good model for creative artists. It feels important to insist that when I say “I don’t know how I ever lived without my iPhone” (and I say it all the time) I am not speaking of the same kind of creative experience as when I say: “I was a different person before I read – and re-read -“In the Penal Colony.”


However, there is something very important the digital era has to teach young Creatives: un-sentimentality. A passion for the new. Technology is fundamentally un-nostalgic and young people who want to be creative would do well to cultivate this instinct. In my experience, fighting nostalgia, as an artist, is a full time job. Never more so than when I lived in Italy, which seems to me to be a country perversely designed to make you feel both awe at the cultural achievements of the past and a great doubt that you could ever add to them yourself. It’s not so easy to paint in the city of Michelangelo, nor to make music in the land of Verdi, or write sentences in the shadow of Dante. If ever there was a country over-burdened by a legacy of creativity, it’s Italy. Of course, a great cultural history can also be a wonderful advantage to a young Creative; the better you know your own cultural history, as TS Eliot argued, the less likely you are to repeat it in a formulaic or dull manner. Nostalgia may be the enemy of creativity – but history, properly understood, is its friend. When I lived here I always felt that the young creative people of Italy were in some sense deprived access to the full greatness of their cultural history by a conservative mass media that curiously insists on its nostalgic aspects; that insists, for example, that the 50s and 60s in Rome represent the very pinnacle of modern Italian life, never to be forgotten or equaled. Alberto Sordi and Anna Magnani movies play in rotation on the television; the chat shows continually reminisce about the good old days, and there are so many magazine articles about Agnelli you’d think he was still alive. There’s something deliberately soporific about all that, as if an older generation refuses to get out of the way to allow the flowering of something new. I think a young Creative has to learn to be a little ruthless about the past, and that can be hard to do in a culture preoccupied with heritage. Surely one of the reasons young Creatives from around the globe flock to New York is that city’s impatience with nostalgia. The town seems to change week by week; old buildings are torn down, new ones arrive. No doubt it’s brutal, but it’s what makes it a city on the side of the young. It’s always looking ahead, never sentimental about what came before.


I should confess before I finish that I don’t think of myself as particularly creative. At best I am a good synthesizer, someone who, in Eliot’s sense, reorganizes and rearranges the materials of the past. If I am occasionally able to ‘make it new’ this is wholly due to this tendency towards refusal I’ve been trying to describe. As a child, born into a certain class, into a particular race and gender, my first creative act was to refuse, in various ways, the destiny England thought it had in store for me. My writing springs from this same instinct. Even if my publishers print my name in the same font on the covers of all my books, I still want what is inside to be free to mutate, transform and surprise, and otherwise fundamentally disturb a ‘brand.’ I like writing that is inconsistent and a little unruly. And like all creative writers, I want to rescue this word ‘creative’ from its recent devaluation. Because there’s something vital and radical about the creative arts, when they’re good. They’re not just well-designed tools or beautiful products, they’re experiences, in which space is made for you to wrangle with what you are offered, re-interpret it, or refuse it, in an ongoing and unique engagement. They may be sold as product but they can refuse the form and identity of products. And in their habit of creative refusal they can encourage a broader creative refusal that may actually have some teeth to it.

What if the most creative thing we can do right now is refuse? Show ourselves not content to slot our energies into the smooth running of the present order? Imagining the world other than it is feels like a creative duty right now, and everywhere you look a principle of refusal seems to be taking hold. The Internet activists ‘Anonymous’ refuse an identity at all, while the global Occupy movement also took the form of a refusal: the refusal to name leaders or even policies. Your recent election here in Italy bore some traces of this same legacy: the refusal of business as usual. And we’re beginning to see artists refusing ‘content providers’ all together – bypassing publishers, record companies and TV stations in creative and interesting ways. The end of the financial order, or of the political order, or of a certain version of the cultural and media industries – we were always warned that when these familiar certainties collapsed, anarchy would follow, anarchy being the refusal of everything. We have been taught to fear it – but the moment is upon us and why should it be purely nihilistic? It might be the most creative thing to happen to us in a long time.

related: behind kanye’s mask 31 days of creativity with food | “in the penal colony” by franz kafka


surreal images by erik johansson

07/24/13 3 Comments

"Self-actualization" - "It was shot in mid October 2011 just before the winter arrived. In short he was shot in front of a white canvas in all natural light with Swedish Värnen as a backdrop. I could have done the painting in Photoshop but wanted to keep it as realistic as possible so I did it by hand and shot the canvas from the same angle about a week later. See video below:"

photographer/retouch artist erik johansson says that he uses photography as “a way of collecting material to realize the ideas in my mind.”  see how he brings some of those ideas to life in the gallery below (click for a closer look).  spotted on soul pancake.

related: it was all a dream | dali in wonderland

31 days of creativity with food

04/17/13 1 Comment

artist/architect hong yi (aka “red”) challenged herself to create new art every day in march using only food:

My ‘creativity with food’ series has helped me push the limits of my creativity by forcing me to churn out new designs every day. It has taught me to not be too serious about what I do, but also to pay attention to detail and to work within the confines of a very small area. I’ve learned to slice, dice, stir, boil…who would have thought I’d need that for my art! 

This has definitely been a very refreshing and fun exercise that is very different from what I’ve done before. It’s made me more observant of the food I come across each day; I don’t just shove them done my throat anymore…I notice their texture and patterns, the way they crack or fold or crumble, and how they react when in contact with heat or moisture or air…It has taught me to see joy and fun in ordinary, everyday items that I come across, and to paint and create objects as I feel and imagine them, not just as I see them.

check out some of my favorites from the series below (click on them for a closer look + red’s captions).  for more, go to her instagram or blog.  spotted at colossal.

related: see the alphabet sculpted into crayola crayons | the banana is but a canvas to our imagination

i never got with the odd future wave.  love what frank is doing on the r&b front, but most of what i heard/saw from their rappers (tyler, earl, hodgy, etc.) was mostly wack and/or weird.  that said, i’m glad i gave tyler’s new video a shot.  his song “ifhy” adds some color to the gray areas of love.  visually, it reminds me of the imaginative stuff busta rhymes was doing out in the 90s (see here & here for examples & nostalgia).  on both fronts, he does a good job negotiating that subjective line between weirdness and creativity.  check it out and let me know what you think.  also on the strength of this, i’m gonna give tyler’s new album wolf a run-through (will update ya on it when i do).

update: i listened to the album.   he shows flashes of talent throughout, but it’s buried under the aforementioned weirdness too often for my taste.

video: tyler, the creator “ifhy” f/ pharrell

03/29/13 5 Comments

the banana is but a canvas to our imagination

01/30/13 3 Comments


“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” – henry david thoreau

in today’s edition of “things that blew my mind,” we have photographer/artist jun gil park & his “banana art.”  park gives life to thoreau’s quote by creating intricate art on such a small, unsuspecting surface.  usually, the darker and more bruised a banana appears on the outside, the less appealing it becomes to me.  here however, park uses that same supposedly flawed element of the fruit to turn it into something beautiful.  click on the pics below for a closer look at the level of detail.  via thesmithian.

“be wrong as fast as you can”

01/29/13 1 Comment


written by hugo lindgren for nytimes:

Here’s a partial, redacted-for-the-sake-of-my-dignity list of stuff I once aspired to write but never did: a “Mamma Mia!”-esque rock opera called “Bastards of Young,” based on the songs of the Replacements. A sitcom set in Brooklyn that inverts “I Love Lucy,” so that the wife plays the stable, amiable breadwinner while her lovable loon of a husband hatches ridiculous schemes, often involving the production of artisanal goods. A thriller about the ultimate rogue trader who concocts a single, diabolical transaction to blow up the financial system. An HBO show, called “Upstate,” about a burned-out corporate raider who returns to his hometown outside Buffalo to save his father’s failing liquor store and ends up trying to rescue the whole town from the double scourge of unemployment and alcoholism. Too depressing? How about this: A reality show in which retired hockey greats like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier compete against each other coaching teams of — ready for the deal clincher? — inner-city kids who’ve never been on ice skates.

If you had the time, believe me, I could flesh out these ideas for you, explain their origins, describe in fine detail my vision of the characters and plots and how it would all coalesce into something awesome.

Or not. For at least 25 years, I’ve been serial daydreaming like this, recording hundreds of ideas in a sequence of little notebooks that I have carried around and then stacked in a shoe box in my closet, a personal encyclopedia of undone to-do’s. Sometimes, when I’m searching for something in my closet and I see the box, I have a flashback to my first-grade report card: “Hugo has the gift of a rich, active imagination, but needs to work on his follow-through skills.”

My situation, I know, is not unique. Who doesn’t have big plans they never get around to acting on? Everybody swaps ideas with his friends about the excellent TV show they’d make or the groundbreaking movie they’d write. And a couple of my grand schemes got an inch or two off the ground — an agent lunch, a pitch meeting, a trip to L.A., a flurry of e-mail filled with exclamation points — though never much higher than that. And along the way, I also became editor of the magazine you are now reading, so it’s not as if I became mired exclusively in a world of delusional ambition. It’s just that for way too long, I held on to the fantasy of a completely different professional life, and I can’t help wondering why certain creative endeavors just seemed impossible to make happen.

I know, writers have been complaining for eons about the weight of their burden, and it’s not attractive. But I’ve been around it long enough to know that writing anything good that’s longer than a paragraph isn’t easy for anybody, except for maybe J. J. Abrams. You can’t explain how people do it. Some of the most successful screenwriters, novelists, television producers and rock-opera librettists I know are about a hundred times lazier than I am. They take long afternoon naps, play lots of pickup basketball and appear to accomplish little or nothing for months at a time. And let me tell you, their ideas do not all crackle with scintillating originality.

So what am I missing? What is that elusive thing that turns some people’s daydreams into their next novel for F.S.G.?

Earlier in my professional life, as I began to do all right as an editor, I naïvely discounted it as something I never intended to stick with. A respectable occupation, I thought, while preparing myself for the Masterwork of Spectacular Brilliance that would eventually define me.

One of my pet theories about why I could never actually produce anything of brilliance was that I was cursed with a comfortable existence. What might have been my creative prime was spent in New York City in the 1990s, a flush time for the young and college-educated. Magazine-editor jobs paid O.K. and were relatively easy to get, especially compared with now. Maybe I would’ve been better off in the 1970s, when a young person with ambitions like mine had to take a hard job as a means to his artistic ends. Would such sacrifice, I wondered, have sharpened my desire to make it as a writer?

All you have to do is read Mark Jacobson’s classic New York magazine depiction of cabdrivers in the 1970s to know that’s a joke. The story is about nighttime cabbies who aspired to be actors or poets or playwrights. Jacobson was one of them. His original plan was to drive three nights a week, write three nights a week and party one night a week. But as he watched his fellow drivers get sucked in to the working life, he realized how the daily grind slowly robbed them of their dreams.

“The Big Fear,” Jacobson writes, “is that times will get so hard that you’ll have to drive five or six nights a week instead of three. The Big Fear is that your play, the one that’s only one draft away from a possible showcase, will stay in your drawer. The Big Fear is thinking about all the poor stiff civil servants who have been sorting letters at the post office ever since the last Depression and all the great plays they could have produced. The Big Fear is that, after 20 years of schooling, they’ll put you on the day shift. The Big Fear is you’re becoming a cabdriver.”

My big fear, of course, was that I was becoming an editor. I won’t lie. For a long time, I considered this an unacceptable outcome. I don’t know if anyone ever told me, “Those who can’t write, edit,” or if I made that up on my own, but that little aphorism haunted me. Meanwhile, my grandiose writing projects were all going nowhere for the same tedious reason. The minute I tried to commit them to paper, or otherwise turn them into something tangible, my imagination coughed and sputtered like the cheap Renault convertible my girlfriend drove in college. I’d write a bit of dialogue using that miraculous software that automatically formats it into a screenplay for you, and I’d be instantly paralyzed from the neck up. Here was incontrovertible evidence that I wasn’t half as good as I imagined myself to be. The voices I heard so clearly and powerfully in my head became inert and alien on the page. I was surprised by how mortally embarrassed you can be by writing something nobody else will ever read. Even looking back over those one- sentence descriptions of TV ideas in the first paragraph of this essay, I am humbled by how inadequately they convey the vividness they had as I conjured them. It’s like hearing a recording of my own voice. That can’t be how I sound. Oh, but it is.

I recently saw a Charlie Rose interview with John Lasseter, a founder of Pixar, about the creative process behind his movies. Pixar’s in-house theory is: Be wrong as fast as you can. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the creative process, so get right down to it and start making them. Even great ideas are wrecked on the road to fruition and then have to be painstakingly reconstructed. “Every Pixar film was the worst motion picture ever made at one time or another,” Lasseter said. “People don’t believe that, but it’s true. But we don’t give up on the films.”

Hugely successful people tend to say self-deprecating stuff like this when they go on “Charlie Rose.” But I heard something quite genuine in Lasseter’s remarks, an acknowledgment of just how deep into the muck of mediocrity a creative project can sink as it takes those first vulnerable steps from luxurious abstraction to unforgiving reality.

I could never forge through this. My confidence always collapsed under the weight of my withering self-criticism. I couldn’t bear the awfulness and keep going. Even as I’m writing this essay, I have to stop myself from scrolling back to previous parts and banging my forehead against the keyboard as I see how short I’ve fallen of my expectations. My mind goes uncontrollably to whether it might be better to scrap the whole thing and write a different Riff — like, I’ve got a few stray ideas in my notebook here about the glassy office tower they’re building next door to where I live and how it obliterates what’s left of the spirit of Greenwich Village. Or about this ’80s band called Talk Talk that started out making bland pop hits like Duran Duran but then rejected fame and made a couple of crazy, weird, beautiful records until mysteriously vanishing. That Riff will practically write itself, I just know it.

A promiscuous imagination like this is dangerous for writers. As an editor, I can see that clearly. I know that the next brilliant brainstorm is never going to be the one that will just write itself, any more than the last one did. Ideas, in a sense, are overrated. Of course, you need good ones, but at this point in our supersaturated culture, precious few are so novel that nobody else has ever thought of them before. It’s really about where you take the idea, and how committed you are to solving the endless problems that come up in the execution. The more I experienced this frustration firsthand, the more I came to appreciate how naturally suited I am to the job I used to think I never wanted to have when I grew up. Magazines give me a healthy, satisfying amount of creative license, as well as a very defined responsibility. Journalism keeps my imagination from flying off into the ether. At the core of everything is reporting, a real event. And editing allows me to collaborate with people whose talents make up for my weaknesses, especially writers who don’t seize up at the sight of a blinking cursor.

At the same time, the protracted period of realizing all this has been necessary. Struggling with my own creative process has helped me appreciate the difficulties that others go through, while fighting to subdue my own self-criticism has left me open to the possibilities of fledgling ideas that look wobbly out of the gate. Daydreams, weirdly enough, have made me a better editor.

Plus, if I’d understood this all perfectly when I started out, embraced editing right from the beginning, I’d be ready to move on to something else now. Like maybe I’d open a civilized sports bar that served only bourbon and sold vintage Pendleton shirts —

But now I must contend with my editor for this story, who just stopped by my office to see when I’ll stop beating my head against the keyboard so he can get this to the copy desk. There’s no chance of backing out now. He insisted it wasn’t as dreadful as I feared, gave me good advice on how to end it, and also remarked that my reality-show idea is not bad, but does it have to be about hockey? Well, no, I said, suddenly diverted into fantasy land, the conceit could be broader, maybe about how to coach amateurs more generally, so that the competition changed season to season — badminton, bobsledding, roller derby, square dancing. Rock operas!

We had a laugh and then got back to work.

related: slow mastery: 10 great achievements that took time | 100% life: muoyo okome

atomic lemon drops #6: barbershop

01/01/13 4 Comments

most places that you’ll visit discourage thievery but it’s kinda encouraged in the world of art.  in fact, there’s a saying that goes something like “good artists borrow. great artists steal.”  in this case, stealing isn’t as simple as just taking.  you have to analyze your fellow artist (“the mark”), find out what she/he does well  (“the prize”) and make it your own (“success”).  it’s a great exercise that adds to your repertoire by increasing your knowledge of the craft.

in a writing workshop, i had to write a poem copying the writing style of one of my classmates.  one thing i noticed about her was that she liked to use extended sentences, similes & metaphors that might spill into different lines & thoughts.  in spots, they let her poetry feel alive as ideas/readings would shift constantly.  none of that really flowed with my writing at the time so it was a fun challenge putting the poem below together.  send any questions/comments you have about it and i’ll respond below.  and happy new year:


I know it’s a good day when
the sun shines both sides of the street
with light polish
like a boy buffing shoes for
the first time.  He made my walk so clean
I gave him a tip.
Don’t move your head. Not if you want
your line straight like sidewalks.

Jimmy told me this once.
That promise falls short
sometimes. You see it as
mistakes rush to dead ends
like gray scuffs on fresh Sundays.
He said this, eyes gone dim,
still clipping and snipping away
at growth. Cuts like these run
deeper than baby scars.


previously in atomic lemon drops: grim reaper | dear leader | weekend in jamaica | rehearsal for “when doors slam shut a poem called lauryn

© Carlton Williams Jr. and atolemdro, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this poem without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carlton Williams Jr. and atolemdro with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

14 exciting architectural moments in 2012

12/28/12 2 Comments

fast company’s co.exist compiled a list of their top 14 buildings of 2012.  spanning the globe, these structures are noteworthy for doing things to potentially change the way we live.  click on the pics for closer looks + links to background articles.

a unique answer to “who owns the future?”

11/06/12 1 Comment

roland reiner tiangco’s “dirt poster” offers an important message while accentuating the creative possibilities of education.  see it in action below (click on the pics to open the gallery).  via ancestry in progress.

slow mastery: 10 great achievements that took time

10/13/12 3 Comments

written by carmel hagen for 99u:

In an ideal world, the road from idea to reality is proven and predictable, with a distance made fathomable by visible benchmarks. But more frequently – especially in pursuit of less linear concepts like art, drastic innovation, or even paradigm shifts – time is mutable and you can’t project when completion will come.

Those middle moments, the grey areas between beginning and end, are the moments when we’re most prone to abandonment. As a tribute to those who stayed the course, we’ve assembled a list of labor-intensive creative achievements that depended on more than a few sunsets to reach their final destination.

What: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

How Long: 10 years

After releasing his first book of short stories (Drown) to much critical acclaim in 1996, Junot Diaz dove into writing his first novel. But after a 75-page writing streak, he got stuck. For five years, Diaz sat down and wrote every day but he couldn’t write anything he was happy with. Yet, after a brief flirtation with giving up the writerly life, he plunged back in again. Then it still took him another five years to complete his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which went on to win a Pultizer. As Diaz puts it: “In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Who: Bruce Springsteen
What: “Born to Run”
How Long: 6 months for one song

After two dangerously overhyped albums, Bruce Springsteen faced high stakes as he went into the studio to record his third – it was time to make rock and roll history or give up the ghost. When he began recording Born to Run in 1974, Springsteen was spinning his wheels and seemed doomed to fail. But after almost a year in the studio – including an unheard-of six months of lyrical edits to the title track “Born to Run” – the album was finally released and the rest is history. In Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus called it “a magnificent album that pays off on every bet ever placed on [Springsteen.]”

Who: James Cameron
What: Avatar
How Long: 15 years

In 1994, James Cameron drew on “every science fiction book he had read” to pen an 80-page treatment of Avatar. Two years later, he announced his intention to begin filming the movie after the completion of Titanic. Though 1999 was the year originally intended for Avatar‘s release, Cameron soon rolled back the deadline, blaming underdeveloped technology. It wasn’t until 2005 that Cameron finally began working closely with artists and designers to visualize the characters and settings of the film. Four years and over $400 million later, Avatar went on to capture over two billion in box office sales and nine academy award nominations.

Who: Blu
What: MUTO animation
How Long: One summer, daily

Italian street artist Blu spent nearly every day of a summer painting (and re-painting and re-painting) a large-scale mural across the public walls and buildings of Buenos Aires, capturing each “frame” in succession. The resulting short animation film, MUTO – a real-life flip book sharing a story spread over city surfaces – has since gotten over 10 million views on YouTube, and extended Blu’s own artistic footprint to institutes like the Tate Modern in London.

Who: Julia Child
What: Mastering the Art of French Cooking
How Long: 10 years

With a resume that included copywriting, the development of shark repellent and the handling of “classified” documents, Julia Child was an even odder candidate for classical French cooking than many depictions let on. Her ten-year training and subsequent pre-publishing trials were made more complex by issues of era, culture and even team dynamics, making the immense success of her book launch both unexpected and immensely satisfying. Over forty years later, Mastering the Art of French Cooking remains as irreplaceable to the modern chef as it was to the aspirational gourmands of the 1950s.

Who: Christian Marclay
What: The Clock
How Long: 3 years

Artist Christian Marclay and a handful of assistants slaved away for over three years collecting and editing the 10,000+ film clips that make up his iconic installation, The Clock, a 24-hour video collage. Not surprisingly, Marclay was daunted by the sheer size of his own project at first: “I didn’t have the courage to get started, because I knew it would be an endless struggle.” After The Clockdebuted at London’s White Cube Gallery in 2010, Newsweek named Marclay one of the ten most important artists of our time. In 2011, The Clock was also awarded a Gold Lion.

Who: Art Spiegelman
What: Maus
How Long: 11 years

Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a post-modern depiction of the Holocaust and Art’s father’s experiences as a Polish Jew, was serialized for 11 years as an insert in the cartoonist’s own magazine, Raw. But after a decade+ of work, Spiegelman still struggled to find a publisher for the collection. Once he finally did, the book received rave reviews. Then in 1992, twelve years after the first comic was published, the complete Maus – now regarded as the first graphic novel – was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It was the first comic to ever receive such distinction.

Who: Scott Weaver
What: Rolling Through the Bay

How Long: 34 years

“I always had a dream that I would build the world’s largest toothpick sculpture,” says Scott Weaver, the mad scientist behind “Rolling Through the Bay” – a 9 feet tall, 7 feet wide and 2 feet deep model of San Francisco made entirely of toothpicks. Half art, half “out-of-hand pingpong ball experiment,” the rollercoaster-like sculpture took over 3,000 hours and 34 years to complete. It’s a fascinating study in the power of setting lofty goals and pursuing them no matter what it takes.

Who: John Roebling
What: The Brooklyn Bridge
How Long: 10 years

One of the 1800’s most significant – and drama-inducing – engineering innovations, the Brooklyn Bridge took more than ten years to complete. The victim of constant naysaying from skeptics and incessant technical setbacks, the construction of the bridge took the lives of an estimated 20-30 men, including the bridge’s architect, John Roebling. Yet, over 125 years later, the bridge still carries traffic across the East River daily, with only a few modifications to the original design to allow for modern transportation.

Who: Matthew Weiner
What: Mad Men
How Long: 7 years

Creator Matthew Weiner began pitching Mad Men in 2000, almost seven years before it finally went into production. Says Weiner, “A lot of people had read [the script], but it was also considered to be old. Like, why did everyone pass on this? Why is this material out there?” In 2007 AMC finally picked it up, giving Weiner full creative control in the process. Today, Mad Men and its cast have claimed 15 Emmys and four Golden Globes.

What Are Your Stories of Slow Mastery?

What long-term creative achievements have inspired you?–

Carmel Hagen is a brand strategist, writer, and speaker who’s helping creative thinkers launch socially aware companies at COMMON. For thoughts on creativity, social entrepreneurialism and nerd tech, follow Carmel on Twitter here.
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