Caterina Fake: 30 Days of Genius

I was interviewed by Chase Jarvis, the co-founder and CEO of Creative Live, an education company that has live education around the clock, every day, in creative fields such as design, filmmaking, photography and music. It’s a great company! I was on their board too.

Here is the interview, which was recorded last week, and is part of a series “30 Days of Genius”, which includes interviews with other folks such as Richard Branson, Swiss Miss, Arianna Huffington and other interesting and unexpected people. I had fun doing it, and, while I chafe at being characterized ONLY as an Entrepreneur and Angel Investor, was able to talk about my experiences along the way.


Further Reading

These are some of the books I mentioned in my interview:

A Blue Fire by James Hillman. Hillman is a student of Carl Jung, but focuses his work on the cultivation of the soul. Great guide for creative pursuits, but for anyone looking beyond success into fulfillment and magnanimity in the old sense: great-souledness.

 

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald. A German writer, who spent most of his career teaching in East Anglia in England. Sebald writes movingly, is deeply learned. The Emigrants is his masterpiece: a study of men, their lives and failures, their deaths.

Storytelling, buzzwords and the loss of meaning

I gave a talk this week at PING:Helsinki about storytelling to a group of people working in social media and marketing. There were a bunch of Instagrammers there, YouTubers, bloggers and so on, and as I was writing my talk and seeking inspiration, the first thing that I thought of was this video by Stefan Sagmeister:

“Storytelling” has become the latest buzzword in business, especially in marketing. Telling your “brand story”, re-imagining your company as a story–it makes one long for the days when the marketing world was exhorting individuals to become “personal brands”, telling their own individual stories. Now entire companies are getting into the game.

Sagmeister points out that this is bullshit. Real stories, like the ones made by novelists or filmmakers, take a lifetime of study, practice, and hard work to realize. Journalists know how to tell stories, and some bloggers too. But most of those YouTubers, Instagrammers and marketers have not mastered the form. They’re doing something though. If it is not storytelling, then what is it?

The reason everyone wants to be a storyteller, even if they’re not, is that stories have a magical power of persuasion and seduction. Stories enrapture us, absorb our attention. They take the messy business of living, and wrap it into a tidy package from which meaning, beauty, insight and truth can be gotten.

The snack-sized postings on social media rarely add up to the full meal that make up a real story. If you were to take a long view, and follow a feed or stream through time, you might be able to discern the ghost of a story in the stream, but it wouldn’t be a story until it was written down, and given the shape of a story, with its rising action, climax and conclusion.

The loss of a word is a terrible thing, and though I don’t think the word “storytelling” is under any real threat, Sagmeister is right in calling out its misuse. The importance of using words correctly was spelled out in Joseph Brodsky’s 1988 Commencement Address at the University of Michigan in which he says:

Now and in the time to be, I think it will pay for you to zero in on being precise with your language. Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bedroom eloquence or your professional success — although those, too, can be consequences — nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to articulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neurosis. On a daily basis, a lot is happening to one’s psyche; the mode of one’s expression, however, often remains the same. Articulation lags behind experience. That doesn’t go well with the psyche. Sentiments, nuances, thoughts, perceptions that remain nameless, unable to be voiced and dissatisfied with approximations, get pent up within an individual and may lead to a psychological explosion or implosion. To avoid that, one needn’t turn into a bookworm. One should simply acquire a dictionary and read it on the same daily basis — and, on and off, with books of poetry. Dictionaries, however, are of primary importance. There are a lot of them around; some of them even come with a magnifying glass. They are reasonably cheap, but even the most expensive among them (those equipped with a magnifying glass) cost far less than a single visit to a psychiatrist. If you are going to visit one nevertheless, go with the symptoms of a dictionary junkie.

I am a dictionary lover, and was both happy and sad to see a whole pile of dictionaries available on the free rack outside our local bookstore. You may find the same. Pick one up, read it daily. I agree with Brodsky here. Reading the dictionary will expand your vocabulary, and with it, your experience of living. And defend those words, and their meanings.  Be alert to when they are under threat, and cautious when you hear buzzwords buzzing about.

This is especially important during a time where the dumbed-down articulations of a demagogue are gaining followers in the U.S. government.


Further Reading

Things I have learned in my life so far. One of my favorite design books! A folder of pamphlets showcasing Sagmeister’s work, but also his sharp humor and the wisdom he’s gathered along the way.

 

On Grief and Reason by Joseph Brodsky is a collection of essays that includes his commencement address, the lecture he gave upon accepting the Nobel Prize, an astonishing essay about living in an apartment in Soviet Russia, and other musings.

 

The Compact OED. A real dictionary-lover’s dictionary, this is the full 20 volume dictionary reproduced micro graphically. The history of the words, lost definitions, a word-lover’s delectation.

Advice for Young Writers: Move to the Country

In a live interview, years ago, conducted by Dave Eggers on a stage in San Francisco, Denis Johnson (prolific author, National Book Award winner, war zone explorer, homeschooling dad, recovered addict) was asked the inevitable question: what advice do you have for young writers? “Move to the country,” Johnson said. Most of us in the audience had moved from small towns and suburbs in places like Minnesota or Georgia to great cities such as New York, San Francisco and L.A. to further our creative careers, live among like-minded people, and absorb the creative atmosphere these cities provided, absent in our home towns.  To us, this advice sounded, well, wrong.

Dave Eggers interviews Denis Johnson in 2003
Dave Eggers interviews Denis Johnson in 2003

But Johnson’s rationale was sound. Writing is not a particularly remunerative career. Sometimes it takes years, even decades, to reap the fruit of one’s labors. If you live in a big, expensive city, you’ll spend most of your time paying your rent, not writing your book. The struggle to just stay in the city will take up all your time. Instead, Johnson advised, move to, say, Northern Idaho, where Johnson himself lives, or the equivalent in your part of the world. Besides, you’ll be happier there, and happiness stokes creativity, in spite of all the propaganda to the contrary. Sociologists have long known that people in small towns are happier than those living in cities, as you can see from this chart. You’ll write more, and better.

Rural Happiness
People living in small towns or the country are significantly happier than urban folk. Via https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/03/18/why-smart-people-are-better-off-with-fewer-friends/

 

Your work may be dependent on what Brian Eno described as Scenius–the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene, the communal form of the concept of the genius–which flourishes in cities. If so, you’re going to have to pick it up and take with you to the country, as Flaubert did, who lived with his niece and extended family in Rouen, but had a lively social life in Paris. It’s largely a matter of style, goals and effort. But tremendous beauty and inspiration can be found in rural areas. And community too.

Northern Idaho
Northern Idaho, where you can finally escape the Information Overlords

Northern Idaho is just as beautiful as this photograph suggests, but if you worry about a cultural deficit, don’t. You can be just as much of a bohemian there as in the Greenwich Village or Bloomsbury of yore–the Bloomsbury folk lived out most of their lives in the country.  You can get a glimpse into Johnson’s family life there in his 1997 article about homeschooling his children. And living in such beauty doesn’t require you to be a nature writer. Denis Johnson isn’t a nature writer–he spent 14 years as an addict, which provided much of the material for his first book, Angels, and his much-lauded stories in Jesus Son. He has spent most of his childhood, and much of his adulthood, traveling around the world, some of the stories from his journeys are recounted in Seek. And then he returns home to the relative tranquility of home and gets so much done.

So don’t worry about becoming provincial. There’s a cabin somewhere just for you.


Seek: Reports from the Edges of American and Beyond. Johnson has traveled to some extreme places, and this collection of essays includes a completely hair-raising account of his trip to Liberia.

 

Tree of Smoke. Johnson’s National Book Award winning novel about the Vietnam War.

Thinking and the Creative Process

“My process is thinking, thinking and thinking—thinking about my stories for a long time. If you have a better way, please let me know.”–Hayao Miyazaki

“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity…You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things” – Ray Bradbury

“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try.”–Dr. Seuss

“My process is thinking, thinking and thinking—thinking about my stories for a long time. If you have a better way, please let me know,” says Hayao Miyazaki, and of course, how could there be a better way if you look at the result of Miyazaki’s thinking? Hayao Miyazaki is the creator of some of the most astonishing and beautiful films of our time, a master of animation. You’ll recognize them: My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, and so many more.

 

If you read the conflicting ideas about creation and thinking at the start of this blog post, it’s clear Bradbury is implying a great enmity between thinking and doing, that the thinking gets in the way of the doing. He’s in the School of Perspiration. Miyazaki is in the School of Inspiration. It’s impossible, of course, that Bradbury never thought, or that Miyazaki never did, but what they see themselves doing is very different. And of course Dr. Seuss thinking of thinking as play and invention.

I went to art school in New York for just one semester, then dropped out. The professors in my classes had us working on abstraction, and conceptual art, and I felt that I didn’t have anything to say. I was 18, I had more to learn, I didn’t know about history, or life, or society, or what I believed. I didn’t even know what questions to ask. I had urges and inklings and guesses, but nothing I felt confident enough to make art out of. I wanted skills, mostly, and so I enrolled in figure drawing classes, and classes that focused on technique, the chemistry of paint, the use of different media, but eventually I dropped out and became an English major, because, at the time, I needed more thinking.

The other thing that irritated me, once I became an English major and took some creative writing courses, was the “write garbage” type assignments where you were meant to just do it, write bad stuff, anything that came into your head, especially if you were stuck, just write. I did them, and wrote down a lot of garbage, and never got anything good out of them. Maybe you did. Did you?

On the other hand, children make great art just by doing. They don’t think, they do and do, make and make, wasting shocking amounts of paper and art supplies, indifferent to quality, but fearlessly making art in a state of playful, Seussian quasi-thinking. Our culture is very action-oriented, and most of us adults are focused on Getting Things Done, laboring mightily to get straight A’s in the School of Perspiration. But in our go-go-go daily life, the common-sensical thing is to hew to Miyazaki’s method, and spend our precious free time thinking, thinking and thinking after endless days of doing.

What’s a thoughtful creative person to do? It’s not a matter of either/or, it’s how much of either, and sensing what you need to do at the time, think or write/paint/create.


This creative exercise is inspired by the tension between thinking and doing in the process of bringing out our creativity:

DOING? or THINKING? a creative process exercise

  1. Go to your art-making place.
  2. Make art. Do.
  3. If that doesn’t feel right, or you’re not getting anywhere, think instead. Keep thinking until you’re ready to do.
  4. Do.
  5. Tell us what happened at thecreativehours@gmail.com

Further Reading:

Starting Point: 1979-1996. Miyazaki started out as just another animator, but in this memoir tells of his journey from childhood dreams to founding Studio Ghibli.

 

 

Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. A documentary about Studio Ghibli, featuring Miyazaki, Producer Toshio Suzuki, Ghibli’s other director, Isao Takahata

Art makes life make sense

Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt, and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician.

– Robert Louis Stevenson

In other words, art provides meaning unavailable to us in the chaotic reality of living, frames a space for us to experience and understand what would otherwise be missed, or even lost, in life’s confusion.

The sickly, Scottish son of a lighthouse designer, Stevenson wrote many of the classics of our time, traveled widely, worked hard, but died young, in Samoa, where a Samoan mourning song was written for him, which is apparently still sung.


Further Reading

A Child’s Garden of Verses is a must-read-to-children book. The poems are magical, mysterious, funny, clever, and express perfectly a child’s world. Children also like sounds and suggestions, they seem to be OK with not understanding poetry–unlike many adults!

 

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A classic, describing sociopathy long before that term was in use, and writing in a genre that had not yet been invented: horror.

 

Treasure Island. The classic adventure story, written in, of all places, Davos Switzerland, where Stevenson had gone to recover from his various illnesses. Pirates, treasure maps, and buried treasure.

Yoko Ono and how teachers dislike creative children

Yoko Ono’s birthday is today, and she is 83. The daughter of a Buddhist and a Christian, and born into a wealthy family in Japan that moved back and forth to the United States, at a very yound age she started creating some of the most radical and avant-garde art in the art world. Her art work is sometimes beautiful, sometimes shocking, sometimes whimsical, sometimes tragic. She invites people into her work, to participate in it. She would ask people, for example, to imagine a painting in their minds, rather than painting it. The audience in her 1965 performance “Cut Piece” at Carnegie Hall was persuaded to cut off her clothing piece by piece. And of course she was also singing, once upon a time, with John Lennon in the Plastic Ono Band. She is as prolific today as she ever was.

Yoko Ono performing "Cut Piece" at Carnegie Hall in 1965
Yoko Ono performing “Cut Piece” at Carnegie Hall in 1965

In many ways Yoko Ono embodies the project of The Creative Hours, in that her conceptual art challenges people to see and think differently, and seeing and thinking differently is the golden road to creativity. In her book Grapefruit, a “book of drawings and instructions” she asks readers to “Watch a movie without looking at any round objects”, or, “Get a telephone that only echoes back your voice. Call every day and talk about many things.” In her more recent book Acorn, she instructs “Count all the puddles on the street / when the sky is blue.” Ono is different from others, and has struggled with criticism and ostracism her whole life–even being blamed for breaking up The Beatles–because her way of thinking and being were divergent from the norm. But her difference is also the very root of her brilliance and creativity.

Reading an interview with her in Songwriters on Songwriting today, this passage caught my eye:

When Yoko Ono was a child in Japan, her writing was rejected by teachers who objected to the fact that it didn’t fit into existing forms and that she had no desire to make it fit. “It’s not that I consciously tried not to conform,” she explained, smiling, “I was just naturally out of the system.”

This is often the experience of creative children. And it turns out that in fact teachers dislike creative children in spite of their assertions to the contrary. 96% of teachers say that daily classroom time should be dedicated to creative thinking, and yet they seem biased against the very children whose thinking is most creative. At school, creative children are punished rather than rewarded, and the system seems designed to extinguish creativity. In spite of all the lip service, most creative children are different, like Yoko Ono.

The characteristics that teachers value in the classroom are those associated with the lowest levels of creativity. Teachers want students to be responsible, reliable, dependable, clear-thinking, tolerant, understanding, peaceable, good-natured, moderate, steady, practical and logical. Creativity is not moderate or logical. It is associated with characteristics such as determined, independent and individualistic, people who make up the rules as she goes along, divergent rather than conformist ways of thinking. You can read some of the research in this article.

120229-Finger-Painting

For good reason Ken Robinson’s talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? is the most viewed talk on the TED web site. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original,” he says, and rightness and wrongness, as anyone who has ever received a graded paper can attest, is the very backbone of education.

The gulf between rhetoric and reality isn’t really that surprising.  It’s nearly impossible for a teacher, outnumbered by his charges, to help the rebels and mavericks flourish in an environment requiring more supervision than vision. The system is set up for teachers to prefer the obedient. You have to be a strong character to stay creative in a classroom that thwarts the very thing it purports to serve.

But being disliked, even hated, is something artists often face. At one time Yoko Ono was “arguably the most hated woman in the world”, as pointed out in an article about last year’s exhibit Yoko Ono: One Woman Show 1960-1971 . The sense of being outside, or against, or in the shadows, or wrong is often part and parcel of the creative life, for better or for worse. And Yoko Ono embraces this. Her works allow that dislike, rejection, scorn, even hatred to enter in. They do not defend themselves against them. Look at Cut Piece, Rape, Painting to be Stepped On, and Painting for Cowards in which the artist performing the work shakes people’s hands through a hole in the canvas. The courage of her work is its vulnerability.

Whatever happens to the artist, starting young, starting in school, no matter the pleasures of creation or their rejection and resistance, no matter the joys or trials, all of it is inspiration and fodder for great art.

Mirror Piece, from Grapefruit, 1964
Mirror Piece, from Grapefruit, 1964