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Posts Tagged ‘interview’

20 MAY, 2014

Seth Godin on Vulnerability, Creative Courage, and How to Dance with the Fear: A Children’s Book for Grownups

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“If you just pick one human you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art is.”

At the 2014 HOW conference, Debbie Millman, host of the excellent interview show Design Matters and a remarkable mind, sat down with the prolific Seth Godin to discuss courage, anxiety, change, creative integrity, and why he got thrown out of Milton Glaser’s class. She used an unusual book of Godin’s as the springboard for their wide-ranging conversation: V is for Vulnerable: Life Outside the Comfort Zone (public library) — an alphabet book for grownups illustrated by Hugh MacLeod with a serious and rather urgent message about what it means and what it takes to dream, to live with joy, to find our purpose and do fulfilling work.

I had the pleasure of seeing and recording the conversation — transcribed highlights below.

On how moving away from the economy of scarcity is changing the motives for making books:

[You used to] create an item that is scarce, and that thing that you created that is scarce has value because it’s scarce and you can sell it. In the world we live in now, none of those things are true — we don’t know the people that made the internet, we don’t have to pay them. And we type something, or we design something, and it can be seen by hundreds of thousands or millions of people, if it spreads. That’s a whole new way to think about how we make things. So why bother making a book, ever again? What’s the point, if can reach ten times as many people with a blog post as will ever read one of my books? … If I’m going to make a book, there’d better be a reason experientially.

On why he used the format of a children’s book to shake grownups into absorbing a serious message:

I wanted to capture the way [that] I felt as a three-year-old when my mom read me a book. I wanted to capture the way, as a parent, I felt when I read a book to my kids. And that feeling isn’t something we get when we hand a kid an iPad in a restaurant and say, “Don’t bother me.” Something magical happens when we read a book to a kid, when we’re read a book.

So I wanted to steal that feeling — that’s why the format looks like a kids’ book, so that I could get to that part of your head that’s pre-cynical, the part of your head that isn’t yet afraid of what other people are going to think of you, the part of your head that has the bravery to do this work that matters. If I can steal that and get in, that’s my goal.

Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Tell yourself enough vivid stories about the worst possible outcome of your work and you'll soon come to believe them. Worry is not preparation, and anxiety doesn't make you better.

On what telling ourselves that we’re limited in our work by faulty others — crappy clients, bad bosses — is really about:

My thesis of humanity is that we are not squirrels. If you watch squirrels in the fall, they all do the same thing — they hide the acorns and stuff, they never help each other out, and they don’t do anything non-squirrel-like. They’re just squirrels — that’s their job. We’re beyond that, I would hope. And if we’re spending a lot of time in squirrel-like behavior, we’re selling ourselves short.

There are so many people in this world that don’t have the leverage and the trust and the promise that we’re lucky enough to be born with. With got this huge head-start, and to use it just to hide acorns feels to me like a cop-out.

When we see the designers that we admire and the people that we look up to, they also have lousy clients. They also have bosses that are pushing them to fit in — but they refuse. Because it’s hard to refuse, and that’s the work. The work isn’t kerning — everyone here knows how to kern… Kerning just gets done for you — that’s not the craft. The craft is looking the client in the eye and saying “No” — that’s the part that computers are never going to be able to do for us.

Vulnerable is the only way we can feel when we truly share the art we've made. When we share it, when we connect, we have shifted all the power and made ourselves naked in front of the person we've given the gift of our art to. We have no excuses, no manual to point to, no standard operating procedure to protect us. And that is part of our gift.

On anxiety and Steven Pressfield’s notion of the Resistance in creative work and the value of being disagreeable — for the right reasons — in the client business:

The discipline … is to first understand that “No” might mean you want to make art, but “no” might also mean you’re hiding — that being disagreeable is a perfect way to hide from criticism, because if you’re disagreeable enough, you won’t have any customers, you won’t have to do anything scary… I think we have to be disagreeable in the service of the client, not disagreeable in the service of the Resistance — that when we’re being disagreeable, we’re doing it on behalf of the client achieving more — not our ego achieving more, not us being more famous, but the client getting more of what he or she wants. That means you have to pick clients not who pay, but who want the things that you want.

Quality, like feedback, is a trap. To focus on reliably meeting specifications (a fine definition of quality) is to surrender the real work, which is to matter. Quality of performance is a given, it's not the point.

A beautiful definition of design:

Design, at its core, thrives when a human being cares enough to do work that touches another — it doesn’t thrive when it gets more “efficient.”

On how what to do, as creative people, when our amphibian brain begins to whisper into our mind’s ear every possible disaster scenario and assuring us of our prospective failure:

That is what we do for a living — we dance with the Resistance, we don’t make it go away. You cannot make it go away — you cannot make the voice go away, you cannot make the fear go away, because it’s built in. What you can do is when it shows up, you say “Welcome! I’m glad you’re here. Let’s dance about this.”

[…]

What we need to do is say, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people that can teach me how to dance with the fear?” Once we get good at that, we just realize that it’s not fatal. And it’s not intellectually realize — we’ve lived something that wasn’t fatal. And that idea is what’s so key — because then you can do it a little bit more.

On reconciling making art with making a living and how the sacrifices that art necessitates clash with our chronic discomfort with uncertainty, using Patti Smith’s time as a starving artist as a humbling example:

There’s a collision of the cultural and the Resistance and many other things, which is: “I would like to make art, but I’d like to do it while making a steady income, and I want to make sure that steady income is respected by everyone around me and has no uncertainty associated with it.” Well, there’s a good reason not a lot of people make art, and that’s one of them. If you read Patti Smith’s book about her and Robert [Mapplethorpe] called Just Kids … she was homeless for years — HOMELESS! — living on bread from the garbage can, sleeping in the park, to make her art. And what’s fascinating about the first third of the book is never once does she say, “I’m a homeless person.” She says, “I’m an artist who hasn’t found her muse yet.” She’s on her way to being an artist and the homelessness is a temporary moment…

But what the industrial economy seduced us into believing is that the deal was simple: You work your day doing something you’re not proud of, and you decompress at night with television and whisky, and on weekends you can go for a run. Right? Do that forever, and forty years from now you’re dead — that’s the deal. And we sold that deal to a lot of people.

Gifts are the essence of art. Art isn't made as part of an even exchange, it is your chance to create imbalance, which leads to connection. To share your art is a requirement of making it.

On the difference between those who want more and aren’t getting it and those who want more and do get it:

It’s back to this idea of what are we truly afraid of. I am more afraid of settling — I am more afraid of not giving what I can give — than I am afraid of doing it. And so when we’re sitting quietly, there’s a debate we have to have with ourselves all the time, which is: “What is my work?” And if “My work is to have more impact,” I don’t think we start by asking — I think we start by giving… Once you get hooked on that, culturally, then doors open — doors open because your work precedes you. You are your work — not your resume, but the ruckus you have made before, the people you have touched before…

Can you name someone who has built a life around that who’s a failure? I can’t!

Zabaglione is a delightful Italian dessert consisting mostly of well-whipped foam. It takes a lot of effort to make by hand. Each batch comes out a little different from the previous one. It's often delicious. It doesn't last long. It's evanescent. And then you have to (get to) make another batch.

On creative courage — something Millman herself has addressed beautifully — culminating with an exquisite addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

For the [creative person], what’s going on outside is trivial compared to what is going on inside… Don’t try to change the structure of the outside world [hoping that] then you’ll be fine, then you’ll be creative and then you’ll be brave. No. First, figure out how to be creative and brave and courageous, and the outside world will change on your behalf…

It’s always the same case — it’s always the case of you’re a human, trying to connect to another human. And if you just pick one human that you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art is.

The full conversation is well worth listening to, and V is for Vulnerable is an unusual delight in its entirety.

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13 MAY, 2014

Pete Seeger on Combinatorial Creativity, Originality, Equality, and the Art of Dot-Connecting

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“All of us, we’re links in a chain.”

In 1987, shortly after being appointed editor of SongTalk, the journal of the National Academy of Songwriters, Paul Zollo began interviewing some of the greatest songwriters alive — Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Madonna, Frank Zappa, David Byrne, and dozens more — “always with the assurance that my focus is strictly on songwriting and the creative process, as opposed to the celebrity-oriented queries often directed to them by the press.” These remarkably candid and wide-ranging conversations, collected in the impressive tome Songwriters On Songwriting (public library), transcend the realm of songwriting to unmask the essential elements of ideation in just about every creative discipline, from writing to illustration to design. Indeed, Zollo’s most striking realization from the series was that despite writing songs that are “infinite and eternal — everywhere at once, untouched by time,” these songwriters themselves are deeply human, “as finite and earthbound as the rest of us.” Zollo, a songwriter himself, reflects:

[This] underscores the knowledge that all songwriters are in the same boat, and that even the most enduring and magical of their songs began where all songs begin — with a single spark of inspiration that is balanced with the mastery of craft that comes from years of work.

Pete Seeger (photograph by Annie Leibovitz)

Among the most spectacular conversations in the volume, conducted in 1988, is that with beloved folk musician and activist Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919–January 27, 2014), one of the most prolific songwriters of the past century. In reflecting on his ample creative output, Seeger echoes Henry Miller on originality and speaks to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the idea that everything is a remix:

Don’t be so all-fired concerned about being original. You hear an old song you like but you’d like to change a little, there’s no crime in changing a little.

[…]

It’s a process. It’s not any particular song, it’s not any particular singer. It’s a process by which ordinary people take over old songs and make them their own.

He later adds a remark that applies just as much to creators of all stripes — artists, writers, inventors — as it does to songwriters:

I look upon myself and other songwriters as links in a long chain. All of us, we’re links in a chain. And if we do our job right, there will be many, many links to come.

Pointing to the legacy and spirit of jazz as a perfectly illustrative example, where “the melody which you sing the first time is just considered as the bare bones” and improvisation builds upon it, Seeger echoes Virginia Woolf’s famous assertion that “words belong to each other” and adds:

Even the most original song you can think of is liable to have a good deal of tradition in it. After all, the major scale and the minor scale were invented thousands of years ago… And the English language was invented a long time ago, and the phrases that we use. And we’re just rearranging these ancient elements.

Seeger later revisits how this layering of ideas and language fuels the creative process and the circumventive quest for Truth:

The nice thing about poetry is that you’re always stretching the definitions of words. Lawyers and scientists and scholars of one sort or another try to restrict the definitions, hoping that they can prevent people from fooling each other. But that doesn’t stop people from lying.

Cezanne painted a red barn by painting it ten shades of color: purple to yellow. And he got a red barn. Similarly, a poet will describe things many different ways, circling around it, to get to the truth.

My father also had a nice little simile. He said, “The truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch. And you can’t lay your hand on it. All you do is circle around and point, and say, ‘It’s in there somewhere.’”

In discussing how his Vietnam War song “Our Generation” was born, Seeger once again acknowledges the combinatorial nature of creativity — that slot-machine quality of ideation that Paula Scher so memorably described, which David Lynch has also echoed. Seeger tells Zollo:

I [came] across the phrase in some little radical magazine: “Our generation wears sandals like the Vietnamese.” And I took that line and built a song out of it.

That quite often happens to me. I’ll read one phrase somewhere. A middle-aged woman in Ohio wrote a poem that said, “The month of April, when we pay for the burning of the children.” Talking about the income tax, of course. That’s where we pay for the burning of the children. So I built a whole song around that, called “The Calendar.”

To further illustrate this unconscious connection-making, Seeger recounts reading a short passage in a chapter of a famous novel about Czarist Russia, which gave him the basic idea for a song. He diligently copied the passage in his pocket notebook but, true to the pivotal role of unconscious idea-incubation in the creative process, it was another two or three years until he revisited it — unconsciously:

I’m sitting in a plane, kind of dozing. And you know, when you’re dozing, that’s when the creative ideas come.

Suddenly, the passage from the novel came to mind, as did a line he had written five years earlier but never used in a song. His unconscious mind brought the two together — for isn’t that capacity the definition of the creative mind? — and his beloved song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” was born.

Later, in discussing his famous anthem “Rainbow Race,” a song that had come to him at six in the morning, Seeger echoes Stephen King’s belief in wakeful dreaming and the power of “creative sleep,” considering the conditions most conducive to such unconscious dot-connecting:

I don’t know how other people are, but a number of my ideas come early in the morning or late at night. When the brain is somehow released from the pressures of the day.

He goes on to elaborate:

In solving a problem, you often have to make connections between two things that aren’t usually connected. You know, E.M. Forster, the novelist, was asked, “What are your words of wisdom for future generations?” He said, “Only connect.”

[…]

Your brain often suppresses such idle connections because you’re busy with the business of the day. You’re doing whatever you’re supposed to do. But there come times when you’re no longer doing what you’re supposed to do and you’re just kind of rambling, making strange connections.

(A photographer whose work I admire tremendously, for its ability to connect place and presence with unparalleled emotional resonance, recently used the phrase “mumble with my eyes” to describe her work — a phrase that inadvertently captures what Seeger is describing with wonderfully poetic elegance.)

In considering the relationship between creative integrity and commercial success — a question increasingly timely in our age of vacant made-to-sell pop hits — Seeger contradicts Picasso and speaks unambiguously of commercial culture:

Bless my stars that I met people who had nothing but contempt for the commercial world… I write a song because I want to. I think the moment you start writing it to make money, you’re starting to kill yourself artistically.

When asked about his relationship with the Bible, Seeger — a longtime proponent of gender equality — offers a wonderfully wise lament on the role of organized religion in the history of gender relations:

I don’t read the Bible that often. I leaf through it occasionally and I’m amazed by the foolishness at times and the wisdom at other times. I call it the greatest book of folklore ever given. Not that there isn’t a lot of wisdom in it. You can trace the history of people poetically.

It’s quite obvious that once upon a time the human race shared everything equally; it was like living in a garden. And then we got smart and invented farming. And all of a sudden we had class society and injustice and male supremacy and a whole lot of other cruddy things.

But the priests wanted to keep women in their place. So they invented the story about Eve and the apple. You can see that was invented by a bunch of male supremacists: “These women are misleading you. They are evil. They misled you before; don’t let them do it again.” Women threatened the power of the priest. They undermined the priests’ power with their husbands: “Oh, don’t listen to that priest. Listen to me, honey.”

But cultural conflict, for Seeger, has its silver lining. In talking about his song “Last Train to Nuremberg,” he echoes Anaïs Nin on the role of emotional turbulence and tells Zollo:

Crisis brings out some of the best art the world has ever known. Whether it’s somebody being in love or a country at war or revolution.

Songwriters On Songwriting is absolutely fantastic in its hefty 750-page entirety, featuring fifty-one more equally dimensional and insightful conversations with such icons as Suzanne Vega, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, David Byrne, and Neil Young. Complement it with writers on writing.

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09 MAY, 2014

David Lynch on Where Ideas Come From and the Fragmentary Nature of Creativity

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How to throw bait in the river of ideation.

As soon as we ask what creativity is, we invariably ponder the essential question of where good ideas come from and how we can coax them into manifesting. In 1926, Graham Wallace proposed a pioneering model for the four stages of the creative process, which was adapted into a five-step “technique for producing ideas” in 1939, and went on to influence present theories about the creative process. But despite what psychologists may delineate, the best answers come from the trenches and the front lines — from the artists, writers, inventors, and other creative troopers who summon and wrangle ideas for a living.

In this fantastic conversation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, LIVE from the NYPL host and interviewer extraordinaire Paul Holdengräber poses this very question — where do ideas come from? — to legendary director David Lynch.

Lynch, who answers with equal parts irreverence and insight, speaks to the fragmentary nature of creativity and its combinatorial quality, echoing Arthur Koetsler’s seminal 1964 “bisociation theory” of how creativity works.

An idea comes — and you see it, and you hear it, and you know it…

We don’t do anything without an idea. So they’re beautiful gifts. And I always say, you desiring an idea is like a bait on a hook — you can pull them in. And if you catch an idea that you love, that’s a beautiful, beautiful day. And you write that idea down so you won’t forget it. And that idea that you caught might just be a fragment of the whole — whatever it is you’re working on — but now you have even more bait. Thinking about that small fragment — that little fish — will bring in more, and they’ll come in and they’ll hook on. And more and more come in, and pretty soon you might have a script — or a chair, or a painting, or an idea for a painting.

[They come], more often than not, in small fragments.

Pair with Lynch on the role of meditation in creative work, then revisit more explorations of how ideas are born from Neil Gaiman, Rod Serling, and Alice Walker.

Photograph courtesy of BAM

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