Spark: How Creativity Works doesn't hit bookshelves until February 15. But to get you in the mood, we've got a sneak-preview. In his foreword to the book, Kurt describes how he embraced Daniel Boorstin's "Amateur Spirit" and summoned the courage to keep trying new things.
Igraduated from college with no job in the offing and no desire to return home to Nebraska. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to live in New York City, hang out with people doing creative work, and get paid for doing creative work myself, but that I didn't know how to act or sing or dance or play an instrument or draw. When I was twenty-one, that was the extent of my career plan. And oddly enough, I've executed it in all its half-assed, unkempt glory for the last thirty-five years: I'm a New Yorker; my friends are mostly writers and artists and filmmakers and musicians and designers, and I've earned my living in pretty much every creative field that doesn't require me to make music or draw. Or dance.
But it was just a decade ago that I had two back-to-back aha moments that finally explained my zigzagging professional path to myself and also made me understand the prerequisites for creativity.
The first lightbulb went off when I read an essay called "The Amateur Spirit" by the great scholar and writer Daniel Boorstin. The main obstacle to progress is not ignorance, Boorstin wrote, but "pretensions to knowledge. . . . The amateur is not afraid to do something for the first time. . . . the rewards and refreshments of thought and the arts come from the courage to try something, all sorts of things, for the first time. . . . An enamored amateur need not be a genius to stay out of the ruts he has never been trained in."
Here was a supremely credentialed prince of the Establishment, the ultimate professional intellectual---Rhodes Scholar, Ph.D., professor at the University of Chicago and Cambridge University, museum director, Librarian of Congress---arguing in his seventies that while professionalism of the good kind (knowledge, competence, reliability) has its place, it is the curious, excited, slightly reckless passion of the amateur that we need to nurture in our professional lives, especially if we aspire to creativity in the work we do.
A few months later I found myself interviewing my funny, brilliant friend Tibor Kalman, the graphic designer and multifarious auteur. A transcript of our conversation would appear in a monograph about his work. He was forty-nine and when we talked he knew he had only months to live. Tibor had always been smart about the nature of creative work, but now the wisdom was pouring out.
"You don't want to do too many projects of a similar type," he told me. "I did two of a number of things. The first one, you fuck it up in an interesting way. The second one, you get it right. And then you're out of there. I have sought to move into as many other fields as possible, anything that could be a step away from 'graphic design,' just to keep from getting bored. As long as I don't completely know how to do something, I can do it well. And as soon as I have [completely] learned how to do something, I will do it less well, because what I do will become more obvious."
I realized my entire professional and creative life so far had been conducted in a similar way, by indulging the amateur spirit: I'd repeatedly, presumptuously barged into jobs for which I had no credentials or much specific training and then worked extra hard, hoping that my rank inexperience might somehow be transmuted into interesting innovation. I'd had no experience writing radio and TV news scripts (for NBC, my first job), or about politics or crime (for Time, my second job), or about architecture and design (also for Time), and when I cofounded Spy magazine (my fourth job), I had never edited anyone's writing but my own, or run a business. Ditto when I wrote and produced prime-time network comedy specials (for NBC), wrote an off-Broadway revue, wrote a screenplay (for Disney), and sold my first novel (to Random House). Professor Boorstin and my friend Tibor had convinced me retroactively that what I'd done by accident, going from interesting gig to interesting gig with no real strategy, had a philosophical basis.
Shortly after that double epiphany, executives from Public Radio International and WNYC called me out of the blue and asked if I might be interested in hosting a new program they wanted to create about the arts and entertainment and creativity. Really? Me? My total on-air experience consisted of having been interviewed a few times about books and articles I'd written. Host a weekly show on public radio? Were they serious? I'd done plenty of things I had no standing to do, but no one before had ever invited me to do something I had no standing to do.
That's not completely true. Twenty years earlier, a theater director had called me out of the blue and asked if I might be interested in playing the lead in his upcoming production of Othello. Really? Me? My total acting experience consisted of playing Captain Hook in a grade school production of Peter Pan. And also, I am, um, er, Caucasian. Was he serious? Well, as it turned out, um, er, uh, no: he'd meant to call an (African American) actor named Curt Anderson. Wrong number.
But this time, it turned out, the public radio grown-ups really had intended to call me, and not the veteran radio personalities Curtis Andreessen or Karl Andrews or Carter Andrazs. They were serious. And that's how I came to help invent and host Studio 360.
What we do every week on Studio 360 is try to show how creativity works by means of individual case studies, by talking at length and in depth to some of the world's most talented people about how and why they do what they do. And for this book we've distilled the most relevant wisdom from my hundreds of conversations to create a kind of plain-English master class about the difficult, exhilarating process of pursuing one's creative passions. It's Creativity 101 featuring guest lectures by visual artists and designers Chuck Close, Denise Scott Brown, and Robert Venturi; filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow, Ang Lee, Mira Nair, and Kevin Bacon; writers Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, John Irving, and Tony Kushner; musicians Patti LuPone, Rosanne Cash, Robert Plant, Yo-Yo Ma; and many other artests. Maybe you're an artist or would-be artist yourself; maybe you're an amateur singer or painter or writer. If so, consider this a collegial primer on how some supremely talented and successful people unleashed their talents and achieved their successes. But I'm also convinced that there are plenty of valuable, hard-won lessons about living and working creatively that can be applied to almost any life and any job. Or maybe you simply want to enjoy an unbuttoned, intimate look at the life and times of a few dozen cultural superstars. If so, enjoy.
What I've realized after talking to this remarkable pantheon of creative people for our five hundred shows is that what I learned from Daniel Boorstin and Tibor Kalman a decade ago is true of pretty much all work worth doing, especially creative work: the prerequisite for doing exciting work is to be excited about it yourself, reaching to do or make something that you haven't done or made before and which seems at least a little scary, just beyond your comfort zone. E. B. White famously wrote that "no one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky." The same goes for people who want to do any kind of creative work.
As soon as I adopted this paradigm of the amateur spirit just over a decade ago, taking risks to try new things, staying out of ruts, refusing to be paralyzed by the fear of imperfection or even failure, opening myself to luck---that is, once it became my conscious MO rather than simply the way I'd unthinkingly stumbled through life---I began spotting other members of the club, such as Danny Boyle, the director who made 127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, and eight other feature films. "Everything after the first one," he told the New York Times, "is business. There's something about that innocence and joy when you don't quite know what you're doing." And Steve Jobs, talking about the unexpected upside of being purged from Apple nine years after he founded the company. "The heaviness of being successful," he says, "was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life." A period during which, among other things, he founded the amazing animation studio Pixar.
I'm not much of a religious person, but if forced to choose I'd probably go with Buddhism, because its practitioners write and say paradoxical things, such as this line by the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few." That's what Tibor was getting at, and Boorstin and Boyle and Jobs. And Richard Serra, as he explained a few years ago in a conversation on Studio 360, which we've included in Chapter 2. "I'm just going to start playing around," Serra told me about his decision to abandon painting as a young man, "without the faintest idea of what I was doing."
I learned how to make a national radio show by making a national radio show in the company of people who knew lots more about radio than I did, especially Julie Burstein, my executive producer from 2000 through 2009. Having written for TV and radio and the movies, I knew how to write sentences for the voice and ear rather than the eye, and I knew how to tell stories. But I learned how to have a new kind of conversation, in which I uttered sentences that parsed and contained a minimum of ums and uhs and you knows, conversations in which I seldom interrupted but nevertheless took the lead.
Moreover, in creating Studio 360 with Julie and the rest of our team of producers, I had the same goal as when I'd created magazines and websites and produced TV shows and written novels---to make a thing that I would want to read or see or hear even if I'd had nothing to do with it, and that was unlike anything extant. For me, that's also how creativity works, when it works. In this sense, creativity is selfish---but it derives from what I call "good selfishness," something like good cholesterol.
In the ten years that I've hosted the show, I've had more than a thousand conversations with some of the most creative and interesting people on earth. Many of them have surprised me. Before I met Susan Sontag, for instance, I was terrified. She'd been a hero of mine for decades, and her assistant had informed my producer that "Ms. Sontag does not suffer fools," just in case I happened to be one. But our hour-long talk turned out to be one of the best I've ever had---and the only one for Studio 360 that generated a handwritten thank-you note. I was very differently surprised by the novelist and journalist Nick Tosches, who did his best to offend me and then, failing to do so, left the studio for a smoke halfway through the show and never returned. I was surprised when Gore Vidal remembered he had once threatened to sue me for an article I'd published about him, surprised when Twyla Tharp started crying, surprised when Rosanne Cash became a close friend, and surprised when Neil Gaiman asked me, years after he'd appeared on the show, if I would write a piece of short fiction for an anthology he was editing---and thus last summer I published my first science fiction story. Once again, I'd never done it, didn't know for sure if I could do it, but did it anyway, and was pleased with the result. Such is the terror and delight of trusting one's amateur spirit, being willing to be lucky and seeing where creativity takes you.
-- Kurt Andersen
August 6, 2010