books, art, culture, and other things I love

Category: creativity

Pay Yourself First.

Personal finance experts always advise individuals to “pay themselves first,” that is, to invest in their futures (through saving or investing) before paying bills and other expenses. Important advice, no doubt–which could also be applied to other situations.

Case in point: this Friday evening, I came home from work exhausted and frazzled. My husband innocently asked how one of my writing projects (with a looming deadline) was coming along.

I admitted that I let the whole week go by without even opening the file on my computer. I was too bogged down with things at work, shuttling kids around, keeping things running smoothly at home to do anything else, I said. And furthermore, once I was through with all of the daytime activities, I had no energy for anything else.

My husband thought for a moment and then spoke. “You just need to pay yourself first,” he said. “Work on your projects first–even for an hour, right when you get up–and you’ll feel much better because you’ll be making progress on the work you love.”

An important reminder that we are not defined by our “day jobs” if they are different from what we really wish we are doing.

In her book, The Artist in the Office: How to Creatively Survive and Thrive Seven Days a Week, Summer Pierre writes about the “wage slave” mentality that people often lapse into. It is easy to adopt that mindset–that our other work is keeping us from the work we were meant to do–but it is not productive or helpful. Pierre suggests that it is all about priorities. It is easy to bemoan one’s lack of time due to a crummy job, but if the creative work (writing, visual art, music, etc.) isn’t important enough to fit into your life right now in your current circumstances, you may never do it.

Pierre’s book is fantastic–think of her as a cheerleader for your creative endeavors. She offers practical suggestions for ways to make one’s creative life a reality 24/7, not just something that is saved for after-hours when the work day has ended.

Author Danny Gregory echoes Pierre’s message in his new book Art Before Breakfast–and talks about the importance of “injecting creativity into our already over scheduled lives.” In this excerpt from the book, he gives his own pep talk on why creativity matters and how we can fit it into our own lives:

But creativity isn’t a luxury. It’s the essence of life. It’s what distinguishes us from the mush. And it’s why our ancestors survived while other less adaptive critters perished. They responded to change by being creative in some way, by inventing a new answer to the chaos.

And that’s what you need to do to make the most of your life, every day of it. To be inventive, open, flexible, in touch. To have perspective on what matters to you. To deal with change without being overwhelmed. And that’s what creativity offers you.

Creativity can become a habit that fits into your life, like Pilates or flossing, only a lot more fulfilling. You just need to shift your perspective on what it is to be creative. It doesn’t mean you have to be a full-time artist. It doesn’t mean you need lots of training or supplies. Or time. It doesn’t mean you need to be a so-called expert.

You just have to be you—and express what that means.

Listen to his interview on WBUR’s Here and Now.

What are ways that you make your own creative life a priority?



The Creative Class and Where They Live.

Richard Florida’s 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, gave name to a discrete group of individuals, “Creative Class” (which he defined as “a class of workers whose job is to create meaningful new forms”), and argued that this group would be the leading force of growth in the economy—particularly in post industrial US cities. Florida posited that the economy would grow by over 10 million jobs in the next decade, which in 2012, would equal almost 40% of the population.

Then the Great Recession happened. And despite the wholehearted embrace of Florida’s ideology (i.e. if a city has access to the three “Ts” it can be successful: talent, tolerance, and technology) by many metropolises suffering from urban blight, by some measures, the impact was not quite as rapid and dramatic as Florida suggested. And in fact, some argued that his message introduced a whole host of other potential problems, such as gentrification and affordable housing concerns. Some, who believed in Florida’s message, found themselves disappointed with the actual outcome.

Writer Frank Bures was one of the people who relay such a story. He writes that for a “variety of not-very-well-thought-out reasons,” he and his wife moved to Madison, Wisconsin, including the fact that the city had ”been deemed a ‘Cre­ative Class’ strong­hold by Richard Florida, the prophet of pros­per­ous cool.” Bures argues that much of what Florida suggested in his book was already part of a commonly-accepted economic viewpoint, the Human Capital Theory, which says that it is the amount of college educated people in an area that drives economic growth—not artists, innovators, and gay people—many of whom hold college degrees.”

Florida responded to Bures’s piece by noting that the Human Capital Theory does not provide as comprehensive a picture of the Creative Class as does his alternate approach. He writes, “The two measures have meaningful, important and very useful differences. Human capital theory uses educational attainment (typically the percentage of adults with a college degree), a very broad measure that excludes such successful entrepreneurs as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who didn’t graduate from college. My creative class measure is based on the work people actually do, as measured by detailed Bureau of Labor Statistics data. This allows researchers and economic developers to zero in on the actual occupational categories – science and engineering, arts and culture, business and management, meds and eds – that make up the creative class and other occupational classes.”

I have been thinking a lot about this issue–of The Creative Class, where they live, how they live, and how they support themselves while creating their art. Particularly in the case of writers–when they are not under contract for a new work. This was particularly on my mind this last week after reading Emily Gould’s piece “How Much My Novel Cost Me” and this article  from NextCity which included the map below. The map shows New York City and how different parts of the city (and different buroughs) are divided up by types of jobs–with large concentrations of creatives in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where, obviously housing costs are astronomically high. But then again, opportunity is obviously significantly greater–or is it? Thoughts on this?

“The Divided City” map organizes NYC into the creative class, the working class and the service class. (Source: The Martin Prosperity Institute)

“The Divided City” map organizes NYC into the creative class, the working class and the service class. (Source: The Martin Prosperity Institute)

The Weekender: Daily Habits of Highly Creative People.

I am always interested in hearing about the routines of creative people. How do they work? When do they work? What do they do in their “off hours”? Last year I read Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, and got some answers. For example, did you know that Anthony Trollope wrote three thousand words (250 words every fifteen minutes for three hours) every morning before going off to his job at the postal service? He also kept this up for thirty-three years while he wrote more than two dozen books.

The folks over at Info We Trust turned the data from Currey’s book into a pretty cool infographic. Check it out below…
CreativeRoutinesInfographic-850x1275-1Remember, we all have the same 24 hours in each day–it’s how you use it that counts. Happy Weekend!

Sing, O Muse…

Yesterday, while driving home from a family vacation, I made an attempt to block out the voices of bickering siblings behind me (those would be my children) by flipping through the satellite radio stations. For the music stations, the 80s and 90s on Sirius are my favorites and occasionally a little Pop2K, where I can indulge my affinity for early aughts boy bands (N’Sync et al–you know you like them too).

As I flipped between the stations, I knew every song by heart. T’Pau? Check. Billy Ocean? You know it. Lavert? Of course.

When I made a technical comment on the abrupt tonal shift from the chorus to the bridge of Rick Springfield’s “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” my husband piped up. “You must have logged a lot of hours listening to these tunes if you still remember them word for word after not hearing them for at least a decade.”

The interesting thing was that I had no good explanation why I could sing all of the words to such a diverse range of songs from the days of yore (ha!). I hadn’t, in fact, “logged lots of hours” in front of a radio. Bon Jovi’s “Never Say Goodbye” was never my teenaged anthem, yet I can still sing every phrase of the song with emphatic expression. Nor did I drive around singing Rob Base’s “It Takes Two” or Boys II Men’s “Mowtownphilly” (well, maybe I did to the last one). But I wondered how it was that I remembered all of these lyrics, when I have to write down a shopping list.

Turns out, we remember things differently when they are set to music. Is it the melody that helps us? Or is it the lyricsResearch suggests that it is the latter. If we think back to many of the early epics, we remember the stock phrases (e.g. Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn”) that populate the poems—could it be simply that we look for patterns (like song choruses or stock metaphors in poetry) and that once we find them, we intuitively commit them to memory? It is an interesting topic to consider—how text and melody and memory intersect.


Book Tunes (later renamed Sparktunes) was an interesting project conceived of by Jonathan Sauer and created with rapper Abdominal to use music as a mnemonic device to summarizes complex literary plots. Here is a sample of a Sparktune that summarizes the plot of The Scarlet Letter . It is a great concept.

Are you able to remember song lyrics that you haven’t thought about in ages? How might we apply this skill to remembering other important things?

Friday Culture Watch: What to Read, Listen, Make, and Do.

To Read
For thirty years, John Carey has been a professor of English literature at Oxford as well as a prolific reviewer of books. He is perhaps best known for his “literary activism”—or his emphatic insistence on the value of reading. In fact, the final chapter of his autobiography, released earlier this year, contains a final chapter titled “Why Read?,” which concludes, “Reading is freedom. Now read on.” Readers might be familiar with his argument in What Good Are the Arts, where he suggests that literature is the only art capable of reasoning, and the only art that can criticize. In Carey’s mind, Literature has the ability to inspire the mind and the heart towards practical ends far better than any work of conceptual art. I have been thinking quite a bit about Carey this week after having an impromptu conversation with an employee at my favorite clothing store. She told me how she was reading a classic work of literature each month as a self-improvement project and enthused about how much she was learning about the world and herself from this endeavor. I didn’t need any convincing about the benefits (and likely results) of such a project, but for those who do—or those who appreciate confirmation of their perspectives—John Carey is one to read.

To Listen
Have you seen the movie Begin Again? If not, you should. Afterwards, you are going to want to run out and download the soundtrack featuring Keira Knightley and (yes), Adam Levine. It is a great summer soundtrack. Download it, pour yourself an ice-cold lemonade, and enjoy this perfect blend of indie-pop.

To Make
This simple meal—Shrimp with Orzo and Feta—has been a staple in my house since I discovered it in a Sunday Boston Globe feature on easy dinners back in 2009. Though the recipe calls for frozen shrimp and spinach, you can easily substitute fresh ingredients (I do). It is super-easy and SO delicious. Trust me! Serve with a leafy green salad and a glass of Vermentino and you will be in heaven.


To Do
Learn a new skill. Have you heard of Skillshare? It is an online learning community where you can acquire valuable real-world skills in tech, media, design, and the creative arts. Want to take an online screenwriting course with James Franco? Done. Want to learn how to do fashion watercolors? Try it (I did!) Learn the tools to take better photographs? There are many classes to choose from. Most courses are less than $20, or you can sign up for a monthly membership for unlimited courses.

What are your suggestions for things to read, hear, make, or do this weekend?

A Room of One’s Own: Where are you most creative?

I am always interested in hearing about how other creatives–especially writers work. From their daily rituals and habits to their physical workspaces, it always intrigues me because everyone is so different.

I work best parked at my dining room table with a laptop with a legal pad and a blue pen (this kind specifically) at hand. This, even though I have a designated desk in my home with a nice big iMac and a work office with the same–still, I prefer my 11-inch MacBook Air. There must be some
reason that this setup works best for me (streamlined?), but I am not sure.

Last fall, the New York Times Magazine featured the rooms of writers that were releasing new novels in the last quarter of 2013. Here are a couple that looked like happy working spaces to me:

Jhumpa Lahiri is like, my idol. Studied with Leslie Epstein. Learned to speak Italian. Moved to Rome. Wrote NYT-bestselling novel. Done.

Jhumpa Lahiri is like, my idol. Studied with Leslie Epstein at BU. Learned to speak Italian as an adult. Moved to Rome. Wrote NYT-bestselling novel. Fashionable (a bonus). Done.

Jonathan Lethem. You know you want his green Converse. (I do.) This is his writer's room in Blue Hills, ME. He must need the calm to conjure up Dissident Gardens, a (wonderful) novel about societal upheaval.

Jonathan Lethem. You know you want his green Converse. (I do.) This is his writer’s room in Blue Hills, ME. He must need the calm to conjure up Dissident Gardens, a (wonderful) novel about societal upheaval.

Here are some other writers’ spaces that I could visualize settling into:

Food goddess Nigella Lawson. Books and a cozy corner. Doesn't get much better!

Food goddess and cookbook author Nigella Lawson. Books and a cozy corner. Doesn’t get much better!

Confessional poet Anne Sexton and her bad, mod self. Love it.

Confessional poet Anne Sexton and her bad, mod self. Love it.

Where do you work best? Are there any things you need nearby to spark creativity?