Personal Creative Explorations

I run through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY. In winter, I get out there mostly on the weekends — it’s too cold in the mornings before work, and too dark after work. During the spring and summer, there are no excuses — warm weather and lots of sunlight. I get out there seven days a week.

It’s for the exercise, of course, to keep the high blood pressure at bay and my midriff unnoticeable while wearing certain types of clothes. But it’s mainly about clearing headspace. I run for the sweat, to set the goal, the sense of accomplishment, to chase the setting sun, to get out of my own head, for the clarity that comes from exhaustion, to finish.

During good runs, I can disconnect from my to-do list, set aside all the little pieces that make up the still undetermined stretch from point A to the finish point, dampen the worry quotient about questionable assumptions or stressful unknowns, and instead, simply take a comfortable full view picture of the project at hand — why I am doing it, what it means, why it is meaningful, what it all adds up to. I can see more completely what the project actually is — the layers below the surface — and that in turn, helps me manage all the other logistical elements when I finally get back to the table and buckle down to the work at hand.

There is, however, a specific place of dread along my run-route in the park. It is a winding uphill road, about a quarter-mile long. It’s location is about 3.5 miles into my usual 5 mile run. It can take away all of the above mentioned clarity, and instead, fill my head up with negativity and a sense of defeat.

1) Yes, the hill can be avoided.
2) I do not like to avoid it, because that makes the dreaded place even more dreadful.

It can seem like hours to get up to the top of the hill, even though it only takes about four minutes. It’s hard on the knees, and makes my legs feel as heavy as cement and as sturdy as mush. There are aches in the lower back, and my lungs feel constricted and depleted, as if they are rebelling, trying to force me to keel over and lay on the ground until I catch my breath. And then there’s the really hard part — processing all those negative thoughts from the voice in my head that tends to get louder at times like this: that I am feeling tired, that I just want to slow down, to cut around and take the flatter path, that I feel so heavy and strained, that it’s too cold out, or too hot out, or how empty my stomach is, that my stomach is too full and I want to puke, that I could just stop and walk, that I could turn around and go back the other way, that I am never going to get there, that the hill will never end, that I will not reach the top. That I don’t even want to get to the top. That I don’t care.

SOLUTIONS:

1) Anger. Just shut the fuck up and take the fucking hill and fuck it all.
2) Document the specific dreaded place.
(They are not mutually exclusive solutions.)

HISTORY:

The history of my Specific Dreaded Place: Four years ago, I saw a posting about the Brooklyn Half-Marathon. It was a two weeks away. Despite not having run in years, I decided to sign up. I did several practice runs of about five miles each. I figured I’d just take the half-marathon slow, and that if I needed to go slow or walk part of the race, that that would be fine. I just wanted to finish.

The problem was, I hate to go slow, and even though there were times that I wanted to start walking, I just couldn’t pull myself out of the stream of runners. I was too embarrassed to do it. A cloak of humiliation seemed ready to swoop down on me every time I felt myself easing up and moving to the side to start walking.

And then came the hill. I just couldn’t believe how heavy I felt, how much pain was welling up with every flex of every tiny muscle it took to bring one leg in front of the other. I was moving in slow motion. I wanted to cry. If I had stopped, I probably would have completely broken down. I was really feeling sorry for myself. I thought the hill would never end.

MEMORIES:

1) One guy, pulled off to the side while gripping the back of his leg. I remember thinking that he was just faking the injury so he would not have to keep running, that he just didn’t want to look like he was just quitting.
2) A woman was yelling at herself, with quick, deep, loud breaths between each shout: “Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it.”

HISTORICAL IMPACT:

For several months after the race, I avoided the hill. Just thinking about it could make me nauseous. Eventually, the idea that the dreaded place was carrying such weight made me revisit it. There was dread upon dread. I began to take the hill again, and now there is just dread.

RESULTS:

Anger:
Simply put, it’s an excellent way to blow off steam AND stay in shape.

Documentation:
An understanding of the dreaded place. Instead of avoiding a place, you dig into it. By turning it into a project, you take ownership of the dreaded place. The more you know about it and how you perceive it, the less dreadful it becomes. Or rather, your understanding of the dreaded place helps you factor in other elements that can help you manage the dread. After all, running up a hill is always going to be dreadful. But how I take the hill, what I think about as I’m doing it, knowing how I feel when I’m at the top, all of these thoughts and feelings can help pin down and allow me to better process the simple dread of running up a long, windy hill on a bitter chilled winter day.

More on Running.

This article originally appeared on Glowlab.com in Jan. 2006.

Inspired by our conversation at the 4th Ave. Pub, and also, an episode of Elvis Costello’s show Spectacle featuring Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson, Rosanne Cash, and John Mellencamp, not to mention that second, but certainly not the last, Sly Fox beer.

I’ve got clothes on the chair behind me.
Dirty clothes.
I wanted to put them away hours ago.
I can’t lean back, comfortably, anyway, and yet, there they are, on the back of the chair.

I should be writing.
But I am fiddling with the music.
I keep wanting to hear this song.
And that song.
Brings back memories, and various thoughts, about the things that I’m pretty sure happened exaclty as I remember them.

I could really go for some fried chicken.
I wish it was Sunday morning.
God, Norah Jones, she’s got a hell of a voice.
She’s hot, too, in that real world normal way, like you could know her, if only.

I wrote a story a while ago.
It’s pretty darn good.
There’s more to it, even… more to the story.
But I’m not sure where it’ll go next, got to think about it, which I’ve actually been doing now, for a while.

What was it she said about nothing left to lose?
Or maybe it was the song in the background…
That was a hell of a night.
I have to remember this, got to write it all down, just got to sit down, but damn is it time to put away these clothes.

Taken on Nov. 25, 2007:

Taken on Nov. 15, 2008:

Taken just after sunrise on October 24, 2008.

See more of the Tree Project.

Sad news strikes again — just a few days after Studs Terkel passed away, surprising word came around that Michael Crichton, at a very young 66, had died of cancer. Studs Terkel and Michael Crichton were clearly very different writers, but they both operated at the very top of their respective areas — Terkel in Pulitzer Prize-winning oral history, Crichton in techno-thriller bestsellerdom.

I just wrote about my ground level floor, very minimal connection to the great Studs Terkel, a wonderful and significant memory for me. I was also fortunate enough to get to work with Michael Crichton on the online marketing campaign for his book Next, which came out in 2006. My involvement with the Next campaign ran a bit deeper than my one logistics phone call with Studs: It offered up the opportunity to truly engage the creative process — not always the case in the workplace.

Next is all about genetics gone, well, Crichton — he had a knack for isolating scientific what-ifs ahead of the curve and spinning fast paced yarns that let a worst-case scenario dangle its way to a climactic conclusion.

Working with Crichton, along with Cary Murnion and Jon Milott from the excellent creative agency Honest, we created an expansive online campaign that explored the world of Next without spoiling the plot.

There was an authentic looking corporate website (no longer available online, unfortunately) for a fictitious biotech company. While the company wasn’t in the novel, the website allowed us to convey some of the thought-provoking scientific issues addressed in the book.

And there were videos like this one:

(See more videos here.)

Working on all of this was a hell of a process — The concept and goal of the campaign was quite ambitious, the budget was “book publishing money” (meaning, not much at all), we had to adhere to many voices (some highly intelligent, some just plain idiotic) and of course we had to get Crichton’s sign off on everything. Boy, if you could read some of the emails that went back and forth… Like I said, it was a hell of a process.

It’s not always easy to understand or truly feel this way in the thick of the stress of trying to get a major, creative campaign done on a tight deadline, but if it’s NOT a hell of a process, if it’s not keeping you up at night and making you sweat and want to pull your hair out, if someone isn’t sending nasty emails, if there aren’t pleas to see if there’s a way to delicately revisit something that has already been absolutely killed, well, then, it probably isn’t going to be any good, or maybe it will be good, but not great, or maybe it will be great, but it won’t blow any minds.

Blood. Sweat. Tears. Essential ingredients.

One thing that always sticks out in my mind from this experience is something that Crichton said on a conference call while discussing a particular scene in one of the videos. Crichton didn’t like some of the visuals — he felt they did not belong, that they served no purpose, and therefore should not be included in the video. Then, in a low, serious voice, he said: “Remember guys, everything has meaning.”

In other words, to put the wrong images in there, no matter how briefly they were flashed, would take away from the overall experience and message we were trying to convey.

At the time I distinctly recall thinking — not saying out loud, but thinking, as I rolled my eyes to the back of my head — “For fuck’s sake, it’s like a 2 second thing, who cares if it doesn’t quite fit, it’s totally fine being in there and now we’re just going to have to take the time to edit and fix and show the damn thing again…” With hindsight, however, Crichton’s statement continues to resonate. To view a creative project in such a way, to work very hard to calibrate and fine tune every aspect of it, is of course maddening, but everything does have meaning… So the entirety of your endeavor, all the pieces that make up the whole, need to be just right.

Not that you will get every single component just right, but at least you have to make the effort.

I really do feel lucky to have gotten the chance to work on this campaign. Though it was certainly a minuscule piece of Crichton’s amazing, thought-provoking, entertaining, ahead-of-the-curve, prolific, hugely successful body of work, I do believe it was a part of the book’s success, broke some new ground in online marketing (for books, anyway), and most importantly, gave me the incredible opporunity to catch an informative glimpse into the way Crichton approached the creative process.

Everything has meaning.

Studs Terkel is such an inspiring figure. He passed away this past weekend at the age of 96, and the well-deserved tributes and articles celebrating his life are rolling in. I’ve been enjoying each and every one — more inspirational fuel for the fire of life.

I have been a huge fan of Studs Terkel since I read Working in college. And in fact it was that book that was a key inspiration for one of my first writing ventures — the Working For The Man zine. Though it certainly was no Working, that zine did help me get working in the business of writing. Perhaps someday it will all lead to something on the level of Working. Something to keep on working for.

And when I moved to New York about ten years ago, my first job in the city was at The New Press, an independent publishing house. There were three reasons I was overjoyed about getting that job — 1) it was a job. 2) it was in book publishing. 3) The New Press published Studs Terkel.

Indeed, when I would tell people where I worked, I would often say, “I work at The New Press,” and then quickly add, “We publish Studs Terkel.” No one knew The New Press, but they all knew Studs Terkel.

I was just a lowly marketing associate at The New Press, and so I had the experiences of a lowly marketing associate — Hello envelope stuffing! But fortunately, I did get to hear some Studs Terkel stories, and also got to personally have a very minor interaction with the great Studs Terkel himself.

One Studs story involved a time when he was calling up the main New Press line, only to not be able to get passed the intern run “switchboard” when trying to get a hold of Andre Schiffrin, his editor and also the founder and publisher of The New Press.

Apparently, the intern thought some old crank was trying to get through to the publisher, and hung up on him. When Studs called back, even crankier, I am sure, and told the intern that it was Studs Terkel calling, and can she put him through to Andre immediately, the intern promptly hung up again. She didn’t know who Studs Terkel was!

All was smoothed over quickly by some more informed staffer — a minor blip of an inconsequential incident, but one from the ground floor, the kind of story I’m sure Studs would appreciate, if not in the moment that it was happening and he was left hanging on the drone of a dial tone. And hey, what a way for a young intern to discover Studs Terkel — I can’t think of a more impressionable way to be introduced to the author of Working.

The interaction I had with Studs was also very ground floor level. During the time I was at The New Press, we were publishing Studs’ book The Spectator. This was a very big book for the press, so I had the opportunity to do more than just envelope stuffing (though surely there was some of that as well). I got to help out with booking some major venue events for Studs’ book tour. This was quite easy, since pretty much everyone I called was thrilled to do an event with Studs.

Once I had all these events lined up, I had to call Studs to get final approval on the schedule. I honestly don’t remember all the back and forth, but the general sense I got from him was that while he certainly wanted to do any and all events, he didn’t want to do any traveling. Perfectly understandable, given that he was in his mid-80s, but not really realistic, given that this tour involved events in places far away from Chicago, his hometown. He was conveying his distaste for the whole travel aspect of the tour to me with a charming testiness. Perhaps I was just imagining the charming part.

Finally, I just said, “Studs, I have to say, everyone I call, they are so excited about the book, and about you possibly doing an event… Everyone I call, they just say, ‘name the date and we’ll make it happen.'”

“Really?” he asked. His demeanor completely changed. He seemed humbled, and happy, and shocked that his presence at an event would be so desired. Surely he heard such things regularly, probably too often. And yet, he seemed genuinely surprised, and flattered to be embraced in such a way.

“Oh, yes, totally.” I said, and then probably rambled on and on, saying the exact same thing, over and over again.

Finally, after my incoherent rambling, we shifted back into the details of the schedule. And after no more than a few minutes, our business done, he hung up the phone and went back to whatever he was doing, and I got to file away an important life moment — the time when I got to speak to THE Studs Terkel.

It would be meaningful if it had happened recently, of course, but it was especially meaningful back then, during my first year in New York, when I was just starting out in book publishing and making my first attempts to get stories and articles published — those truly ground level days. The voice of the work of Studs resonated more deeply and burrowed an inspirational root in more fertile headspace. I’m so glad I was able to stick a sliver of a toe at that moment in time on the huge superhighway (not a mere road) of life that Studs Terkel cut across four years shy of a century.

Times Square Project.

July 25, 2008

See the ongoing Fall Project here.