In one of those unlikely fairy tales, a nine-year-old boy named Caine Monroy decided to build an entire amusement arcade out of cardboard boxes and packing tape. He created “fun passes” and used calculators to make sure each pass was legit. His arcade had every variety of game but the place, at the back of his father’s east Los Angeles auto body shop, lacked the crucial element — customers. Most people now buy auto parts on the Internet.
He found Caine, played in his arcade, made a film — and asked everyone he knew to come and play there. They did. The event made NBC Nightly News and a college scholarship (and college prep tutoring) fund has topped $145,000 for Caine, a sweet-faced kid in a bright blue T-shirt.
Although — as someone not wild about traditional college education — I wonder where his amazing imagination would flourish best. Cal Arts?
It’s an astonishing video and I hope you’ll make the time, 10 minutes, to watch it.
It embodies everything I love:
Having a dream
Being persistent enough to make it into something real, even when no one is looking
Finding the tools to build your imagined world
Making stuff up from scratch
Finding someone who believes in you
Having that someone believe in you so much they want to do whatever they can to help you succeed.
I suspect for some people Caine’s win is that he’s now “famous”. It’s not.
The grin on his face when he saw how many people had finally shown up to play in his world was one of the sweetest sights you can imagine.
It’s based on 100 objects in the enormous collection of the British Museum, and I’ve so far heard the fascinating backstories of a Mayan lintel, an Anglo-Saxon helmet and a Korean roof tile; you can download all of them from the link above.
If you’re as much a fan of history, global culture and design as I am, you’ll love it.
This series also made me wonder which 10 objects might somehow sum up my life so far, and how they have shaped or reflected my own history. These are not the only ones, certainly, but each reveals a facet of my character and what matters most to me in life..
Olympic badges from Tokyo
My father went to Japan to make several documentaries and brought me back some cloth badges from the Olympics. I was only seven, but seeing them made concepts like foreign travel, Japan and the Olympics alluringly real to me. It also piqued my insatiable curiosity about the rest of the world — the hallmark of the rest of my life, really. (I still haven’t made it to an Olympics or to Japan though.)
My Canadian passport
I was maybe seven or eight when I first recall using my own passport, and my first solo trip I remember was flying from Toronto to Antigua. I love being able to move freely between countries.
Two bears and a bunny
And yes, I still have them…photo of two of them above! The bunny was a gift from my maternal grandmother one Easter and his battered remnants are in the back of my closet. He was so stitched and repaired by the end he was practically transparent. He saw me through some tough times as an only child with no sibs to commiserate with.
The tiny bear is perfectly pocket-sized and kept me lucid and sane through yet another boarding school church service. The larger white bear looks a lot like (!?) my paternal grandmother. Don’t ask me how. He just does. He’s been all over the world with me, even in recent years, and is a very good travel companion. I imagine he has much amused TSA agents and chambermaids.
I attended summer camp in northern Ontario and every Sunday we put on a talent show that anyone brave enough to step onto the stage — in front of the whole (all girls) camp — was welcome to try. Thanks to my guitar and some crazy self-confidence, I did it often and sang songs I’d written. The welcome I received taught me to not be so scared to try new things or in front of a crowd.
Pentax SLR camera
Loaned to me by a friend of my father who knew I had a budding and passionate interest in photography. I sold three color images of the city — one of our garage! — to TorontoCalendar magazine, a monthly — while still in high school for $300, a fortune in 1975 and still a pile ‘o dough. Discovering so young that my work had some commercial value gave me the courage to start freelancing as a (self-taught) shooter and I sold a photo to Time Canada when I was still in college.
Carte de sejour
This little pink piece of cardboard, the official French document allowing me the legal right to live there for a while, was my ticket to the best year of my life, on a journalism fellowship based in Paris. I spent eight months living, learning and traveling on their dime (or franc!) and studied with 27 peers, all of us aged 25 to 35, from 19 countries, from Japan to Brazil to New Zealand. I’m still in touch with a few of them. That year taught me the true meaning of one of my favorite words — se debrouiller (to be resourceful, to figure it out on your own.)
As the then unmarried child of an American citizen, my mother, I was able to apply for, and get, a “green card”, also known as an alien registration card. I am a registered alien. That card gives me the legal right to live and work (although not vote) in the U.S.
I started playing softball with a local group of fellow suburbanites, men and women ages 18 to 70-something, which includes a cantor, several psychiatrists, college professors, an orthopedic surgeon, a pastry chef and a retired ironworker. These people know me better than almost anyone here in New York. I usually play second base and can hit to the outfield.
I love having an activity that’s outdoors, social, athletic, fun, builds skills and is competitive enough to be energizing but mellow enough to be enjoyable.
I ordered personal stationery for myself, and another set for Jose and I, at Scriptura, a lovely shop in New Orleans where I last bought these things in 2004. Some stores are so perfect you can’t wait to go back, and this is one. You perch on a cane stool at a wide wooden table and their helpful staff spend as much time as you need — while the letterpress printer from 1906 clanks away in the back room.
Now that’s my kind of shopping: personal, attentive, quirky, historic and stylish!
Mine will be white cards with a lime green border, my name printed in a soft orange. Ours are kelly green (!) printed in navy blue. Total cost, just over $100. Score!
I stocked up in Chicago in November at Blick, a 101-year-old store that was totally intoxicating. I bought felt pens with brush tips, an art book, several great binders to hold my loose recipes.
There are such lovely papers to be found, everywhere I travel. Toronto has the Japanese Paper Place, Florence offers gorgeous marbled papers at Il Papiro and the art supply section at Paris’ BHV. Ooooh la la!
There are few things that make me so completely happy as knowing I have lots of gorgeous paper, pens, watercolor, pens, brushes, and my camera…beauty just waiting to explode out of my fingertips.
When we have dinner parties, I make individual place cards for everyone. At Christmas, I make and send out some of our own home-made cards as well. This year was a fun photo I took of Jose — who is not a huge hulking guy — carrying in our tree on his shoulder. Another year it was a photo he took of two canoes, one red, one green.
I grew up in a home full of creativity and feel bereft if I don’t have ready access to the tools of making stuff. My Dad paints, sculpts, works in silver, oil, etching, engraving….The only medium he doesn’t work in, ironically, is photography (although he was a film director for a living.)
We traveled across Canada by car the summer I was 15, sleeping in motels or our tent, and he filmed and I drew. I treasure my drawings from my travels as much as my photos: a temple in northern Thailand, a glass of Guinness in the Aran Islands, a sculpture in Paris, a courtyard in Queretaro.
Drawing, and painting, makes you sloooooow down and really look at whatever it is you are appreciating.
Here’s a fun New York Times story about one of my favorite art supply shops anywhere, Lee’s, on 57th. Street in Manhattan.
If you live in the Northern Hemisphere and are heading into our fourth month of cold, snow, ice and short days, it’s time for a cheer-up!
Here are ten ideas:
Spend as much as you can afford on fresh flowers. Even $20 or $30 will fill several containers with living color, scent and beauty for a few weeks. I snagged $16 worth of white lilies from the supermarket last week and they’re still blooming and fragrant in the bedroom and dining room. So lovely to open the front door to a hit of scent! If you have nothing to put them in, check out your local thrift shop.
A long walk, preferably with a camera in hand. Snow and ice transform the landscape in unexpected ways. The jagged stone walls surrounding our apartment building, covered with snow, look exactly like a row of teeth!
A long talk with someone you adore. Make a phone date — or face to face, better yet — and settle in for a good 30 minutes or more. Forget email and Facebook.
Bake! This morning I cranked out blueberry/banana muffins and spice muffins. Easy, fun, something nice to look forward to every morning for a week or more. If you haven’t replenished your pantry, make sure you’ve got the staples on hand for when inspiration hits.
A small pretty treat for your home. Check out the sales at old favorites like Pottery Barn, Home Goods, Crate & Barrel, West Elm, Anthropologie, Wisteria, Sundance — a few of my on-line favorites. For even $20 or 30, you can enjoy a new set of hand towels, a few new dishtowels, some pretty candles, a 2 x 3 foot cotton throw rug from Dash & Albert, some fresh pillowcases. Check out Etsy for affordable and charming choices. Here’s the Dash & Albert rug we ordered for our living room.
Make fresh tea — in a teapot. Enough with this awful Americanism of “tea” being one sad teabag stuck in a mug of hot water. I think not! You need a proper china or pottery teapot; here’s one shaped like Big Ben! Some lovely teas, maybe a few you’ve never tried before. I love Constant Comment (with orange and spices), cardamom/chai, Earl Grey and even (wild stuff) Lapsang Souchong, whose smoky, tarry flavor makes me feel like I’ve been licking the deck of some 17th century frigate. If your local store doesn’t have these, order from my favorite New York purveyors, both of which are more than 100 years old, Porto Rico Coffee & Tea, (try their pumpkin spice or chocolate raspberry coffee), and McNulty’s. Even better if you’ve got a lovely bone china teacup with saucer; check out this one, in blue toile, for a mere $9.75. Aaaaaah.
Something cashmere. A pair of socks, or gloves, or a watch cap or scarf, or a turtleneck sweater. The sharp-eyed can always find one affordably in a local thrift or consignment shop.
A massage. If you’re really lucky, your sweetie knows how and is happy to provide. If you can afford it — usually $65 or more — a scented rubdown is sheer bliss after months of being swaddled in wool and rubber, our chilled muscles stiff and sore. My local drugstore sells a bottle of eucalyptus scent for a few dollars…add it to some light oil and you’re good to go.
A stack of library books you’re dying to read. Make them two-week returns so you won’t procrastinate! I recently read, and totally loved, “The House in France” by Gully Wells, a memoir.
Get out your pens, pencils, watercolors, oils, paper, wool, threads, fabric, dye….and create! Borrow your kids’ Legos or Barbies or trolls. Turn off every single electronic “toy” and use the best one of of all — your brain!
Bonus: Paint something: a bathroom, a funky chair from the thrift store, a bookcase you’re sick of, (one of ours recently went from deep olive green to pale yellow/green to match the walls. Big difference!) A fresh coat of paint in a new-to-you color is a guaranteed happiness-inducer: quick, cheap, eye-opening. Here’s a $10 guide from House Beautiful magazine with some wonderful choices. The British company Farrow & Ball makes the yummiest colors ever. They’re expensive, but even a sample pot will give you enough to re-do a lampshade or lamp base or a small table top. Here’s a sample of Straw, a great neutral mustard tone which we chose for our very small (5 by 7) and only bathroom; two years in, we still love it.
Not only are they back, but hipster kids newly discovering the joys of a Smith Corona (not some obscure beer) or Olivetti (not an olive oil!) are even holding type-ins to celebrate these quaint, sturdy little writing machines, reports The New York Times:
“Can I touch it?” a young woman asked. Permission granted, she poked two buttons at once. The machine jammed. She recoiled as if it had bitten her.
“I’m in love with all of them,” said Louis Smith, 28, a lanky drummer from Williamsburg. Five minutes later, he had bought a dark blue 1968 Smith Corona Galaxie II for $150. “It’s about permanence, not being able to hit delete,” he explained. “You have to have some conviction in your thoughts. And that’s my whole philosophy of typewriters.”
Whether he knew it or not, Mr. Smith had joined a growing movement. Manual typewriters aren’t going gently into the good night of the digital era. The machines have been attracting fresh converts, many too young to be nostalgic for spooled ribbons, ink-smudged fingers and corrective fluid. And unlike the typists of yore, these folks aren’t clacking away in solitude.
They’re fetishizing old Underwoods, Smith Coronas and Remingtons, recognizing them as well designed, functional and beautiful machines, swapping them and showing them off to friends. At a series of events called “type-ins,” they’ve been gathering in bars and bookstores to flaunt a sort of post-digital style and gravitas, tapping out letters to send via snail mail and competing to see who can bang away the fastest.
As someone old enough to have begun her journalism career working on a typewriter, I remember well the joys and frustrations — fingers covered in Wite-out! No delete key! Physical cutting and pasting! — that went along with it.
My first typewriter was a lightweight correspondent’s model with its own vinyl shoulder carrying case, a Hermes Baby. My lifelong dream was to file from exotic locales and, for decades, this was the tool to use! I loved its turquoise letters and drop-proof metal casing. As long as I had the essentials — paper and a fresh ribbon — I could write anywhere, anytime, knowing, and feeling a cool sort of kinship with, all the others before me who had filed their dispatches in similar fashion.
The part I miss the most?
That delicious Ding! when you hit the end of a line.
Not to mention the delicious crunch-and-toss of every offending page that just wasn’t good enough.
We all need time to think, reflect, ponder, meander, take some detours, some of which — being immediately unproductive — lead into dead ends, some of which lead us off into totally new and hugely profitable (financially or creatively) directions.
Shutting down the production line for a while — silence! solitude! no immediate income! I’m wasting time! — can feel terrifying.
It’s absolutely necessary.
But we don’t talk about the downtime, the quiet moments of connection and insight that can, when allowed to blossom quietly unforced by another’s schedule, birth wonders.
Whenever I’ve taught or lectured on journalism, I crush a few young dreams when I make clear that traditional news journalism more resembles an industrial assembly line than an artist’s studio.
Editors aren’t terribly interested in whether you’re feeling creative — they want accurate copy/content/visuals and they want it now!
The worst of its managers rely on the crude tool of by-line counts, i.e. how many stories have made it into the paper with your name on it (your byline.) So re-writing press releases or dumping puff pieces all add up to more bylines, if total garbage. So you’re visibly and undeniably producing and are therefore (whew! job saved!) productive.
Now….how to be creative?
What does that look like to you?
It might mean inventing a recipe, choosing a new color for your living room, or starting a poem or sketching your cat or simply staring into the sky for an hour to let your weary brain lie fallow, like an overworked farmer’s field that needs time to re-generate.
I’ve been told that I’m highly creative. I paint (watercolor, gouache), draw, take photos, cook, write, make things with my hands, design rooms in my home and for others. I’m constantly working on ideas for several projects at once, some of them books, some articles, some ideas for products.
My father, who is one of the most fervently creative people I’ve ever met, works well in all sorts of media, from silver to oils to etchings. One of my favorite things growing up, and still, is a pair of black wrought iron candlesticks he made in the ’50s. Dead simple and fabulous.
But you also have to produce something; I admit it, I’m a fan of Seth Godin because he insists on shipping product, not just massaging it endlessly. (That opens up the scary bit — finding a market for your work, pricing it and explaining it.)
And I loveloveloveThe Creative Habit, a smart, inspiring and helpful book by New York based choregrapher Twyla Tharp, a ferociously driven and creative woman.
One of her tips, my favorite, is to create a cardboard box for every project you’re working on. That action concretizes your commitment to it. You can fill it with glitter or feathers or old maps or pebbles. But it ensures a physical reminder that you are working on something.
It also devotes a reserved physical space for your ideas and inspiration, not just bits of scrap paper in a drawer or pocket somewhere. By dignifying your creativity, you show it respect.
Here’s an interesting blog post from Three New Leaves, about taking, and making, downtime, without which (I think) creativity soon dies.
Are you more interested in being creative or productive?
It’s for a ceramic hanging holder for fresh fruit, and looks like something an elegant Hobbit might use. I discovered his work through Design Milk Daily Digest, which every day offers a tightly edited, well-chosen mix of international ideas about architecture, furniture and product design.
I love his playfulness and willingness to try something so unlikely.
What I like most is actually seeing the thinking and hard work behind the final product, which we so rarely witness. At a conference I attended a few years ago, one of the creators of design firm Pentagram, Michael Bierut, gave a talk, with slides, explaining how he arrived at a design for a children’s museum exhibit.
I am fascinated by process.
I don’t simply want to study or observe items in a shop or a museum or a show or at a conference. I’m eager to know where these ideas come from, what was most difficult or interesting about bringing them to life — not just to market.
When I heard John Maeda, who now heads the Rhode Island School of Design, speak in Manhattan, he minced no words when discussing why great design so rarely comes to mass markets — the suits who run the numbers, he said, love uniformity, predictability, projections and guidance to reassure investors. The designers, whose very job it is imagine the new and unthought-of, scare the hell out of the suits. Therefore — constant conflict!
I’m forever hungry for visual beauty and inspiration.
What design blogs or sites or publications inspire you?
It’s interesting watching how people react to criticism of their work or their ideas.
Too often, they mistakenly conflate a rejection of these for some more general loathing of them as people, whose real and enduring value to the world extends far beyond their professional definitions or creative aspirations.
We all, as Walt Whitman wrote, contain multitudes. When someone (other than an editor paying me for it), hates my writing, I laugh. It’s one opinion, even if shared by thousands.
I’m still a loving daughter, a generous friend, a loyal partner, a talented photographer/athlete/cook/artist, world traveler, formerly nationally ranked athlete. My words aren’t (only) who I am.
Hate my words? It happens. They’re one part of my identity, and as carefully chosen and edited as any other of my public presentations.
If someone swoops in and flays you for yours, then what?
The same idea can be applied to virtually any creative endeavor, whether poetry or photography or cooking or designing a room.
A creator or innovator expresses their vision. Theirs. But it’s easy to forget that:
You are not your ideas. If you can’t divorce the two, you’re putting too many eggs in one basket. Your choice. What will you do and how will you feel when people reject them/you out of hand and possibly very rudely?
People have no idea what to make of the truly original. If an idea is so new or radical or game-changing as to challenge the current paradigm, it will scare, theaten, piss off or annoy people currently deeply invested — emotionally, intellectually, financially or all three — in it. They will shred you. This “rejection” is quite possibly then, about them, not you.
Rejection of an idea may require re-tooling it. Just because this iteration isn’t working out, maybe the next version will. (See: The Wright Brothers.) That’s why artists working on paper have A/Ps — artist’s proofs — to see how it actually looks. It might be lousy. Maybe you need to re-think or fix it.
Are they rejecting the idea or its execution? Many people now, unwisely, conflate effort with success. They did X so X must, simply because you made it, be amazing. No. Some Xs require training and practice to be(come) truly excellent or appeal to a wide(r) audience.
What (hidden, unknown) obstacles lie in its path? I had a brilliant new idea, (I hoped), and ran it past some people in that industry who know its specific obstacles. They liked the idea but explained why it might never fly — not because the idea is weak but because the execution of it is far more expensive that I realized. Now I know!
Feedback is merely information. Take it or leave it. Freaking out is a total waste of time. Take what will help you achieve your goal most effectively and leave the rest. Don’t personalize feedback.
Define your goals clearly and with a timeline and a measure of progress. You want to show your photos or art in a commercial gallery or local library? What steps have you taken on that path? Rejection along the way stings far less if you have aimed for a specific few goals, can be a little flexible about “success” and keep on plugging.
Timing matters. A lot. Many stunning works of fiction and non-fiction simply disappeared from public view, criticism and potential success because they were published on…Sept. 11, 2001. There’s no way anyone could have predicted that, but it hurt many people’s longed-for dreams as the world shifted focus.
You may be offering your work to the wrong audience. Every community has deeply held beliefs about what is valid, important, worth listening to and validating. If your ideas are consistently rejected and demeaned within a community you thought worth joining, find a better fit. Others exist. Make one!
You need the courage of your convictions. Allowing total strangers on-line who shout, shriek, curse — and rally others to their cause to join the chorus — to intimidate you gives them way too much power. Unless they can cost you your livelihood, health, home and/or the safety of your loved ones, (which is when lawyers and law enforcement come in handy), why surrender your peace of mind to the bullying of a bunch of ghosts?
I was lucky. I grew up in a family of people who earned their living — and a good one — through writing, directing and producing material for print, television and film. No one has a pension. No one had a “real job.” We all had agents, learned to negotiate, to live within or below our means because a steak year — success!! — could easily be followed by a hamburger year.
We all know the marketplace is fickle and frightening and so we all developed thick skins, back-up plans and f—k you funds so we can walk away from work and projects that are a time-suck and talent-killer.
I only have one more drawing class before this four-week session ends. This morning the teacher set up a still life so utterly daunting I sat there paralyzed while I tried — like some medieval warrior staring up at a very large castle — to figure out my point of entry.
It doesn’t sound like much: a 1940s floral print linen tablecloth, and on it a pale yellow Fiestaware teapot, a red tea tin, a dark blue mug with a spoon on top and a sterling tea-ball. Perspective! Scale! Color! All those highlights (reflections) on the glossy surfaces of the pot and mug and spoon.
The exercise was to work in primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Easy, right? Not when the yellow ceramic is soft, pale shade — and my pencils are all strong colors. I managed to get the teapot and the mug done in two hours, when the teacher finally came by to take a look.
The great thing with drawing is it’s immediately obvious when it’s lousy. The problem is — how to fix it. The pot was too small, the mug too large. There was no fixing it.
I started again. Do-over!
This time I focused only on the teapot and spent 60 minutes just on it. It was certainly recognizable as a teapot. It was just lopsided.
As the teacher helped me figure out how to do it better next time, she packed away the items, including the tea-strainer that I’d just spent three hours looking at — focused on it only as something I had to capture and portray realistically, as a problem to solve.
I hadn’t even noticed that this tiny elegant object was itself in the form of a teapot, sort of a sterling silver fractal.
“Sometimes you have to step away to see things clearly,” she said. Indeed.
The pleasure of my drawing class is that, for three hours out of my week, I get to make a big fat mess in my sketchbooks as I (re)-learn how to see and how to translate what I see into something that makes visual sense and might even be attractive. I have two stories due to The New York Times today; no “mistakes” welcome there.
Unlike much of the rest of my life, class offers me a safe place to “fail” — to try something new, to do it poorly, to take gentle and helpful instruction, to go away and think hard about why I couldn’t even see clearly that which was before my eyes for so long. My fellow students are planning to show their work soon, but I’m in no rush to join them. I don’t need or want that validation — or that pressure to do it right or well or good enough.
My lousy drawings, my “failures”, are giving me great joy. That’s plenty for now.
I spoke today to a class of 20 freshman journalism students at New Mexico State University about writing for a living. Their world is very different from mine, and will be throughout their careers, in one significant respect — unquestioned, socially approved, if not demanded, access to, if not addiction to, the Internet and its enormous pool of images, ideas, data and opinions.
It’s also the graywater of received wisdom, inflated ego, unfounded or salacious rumor. Can anything fresh, clean, valuable emerge as your life’s work if this remains your primary or exclusive source of intellectual or emotional fuel?
As I said then — Picasso and Gauguin didn’t zip on over to cubism.com or exploretahiti.org to envision and paint the images many still consider extraordinary in their vision, beauty and creativity. They created them.
I told this group of fresh-faced kids, one even a high-schooler visiting for the day, to do the unthinkable. Turn off the damn computer. For a day. For entire days.
I just spent five days in a desert home on 26,000 acres, nurtured and recharged by a silence punctuated only by the yowls of a mountain lion, the squeaks of skittering quail, the wind in the trees. We had no Internet or television and listened, briefly, to NPR on the radio before turning it off in favor of…silence.
Without withdrawal, reflection, isolation, creativity is, I believe impossible.