Recently in Conversations about Creativity Category

Creativity interview with the Exploratorium's Adam Tobin
In which Tobin talks about mechanical art and what makes for a great toy, and shares ruminations from a Muppet colloquium.

Welcome to the second part of this interview with toy inventor/Director of Exhibit Development Adam Tobin. If you haven't already, be sure to also check out Part One.

On the Web: The Exploratorium; Wordle preview


Cecil Vortex: I read that you also create mechanical art. What's that work like?

Adam Tobin: After I sold the first toy company, I had a few larger-scale projects I'd always wanted to pursue. The first thing I wanted to make was a clock that told time with rolling marbles. I'd wanted to make it since I was a kid. And I started making it and ended up making a few other contraption-type pieces. It was just such a joy for me, after years of designing things to be mass produced to say, "I'm just going to make one, and I'm not as concerned about how you can make 10,000 of these." In essence, they were very large one-of-a-kind toys.

CV: Do you still work on those projects?

Creativity interview with the Exploratorium's Adam Tobin
In which Tobin talks about growing up as a child-inventor, the Exploratorium workflow, and the challenges of summoning an "ah-ha!" moment on a deadline.

Bio: Adam Tobin is the Director of Exhibit Development at San Francisco’s famed Exploratorium. Before that he was an entrepreneur and an award-winning toy inventor whose creations included Frigits, Getups, Tub Tunes Water Flutes and Drums, and SuperFort. His creations are sold around the world and have been featured in New York Magazine, Discover Magazine, CBS Morning News, Fox News, CNN, Regis and Kelly Ripa, and the New York Times.

This is the first half of a two-part interview. Jump here for the second half.

On the Web: The Exploratorium; Wordle preview


Cecil Vortex: Do you remember your first invention?

Adam Tobin: I started as an electronics tinkerer. I made a burglar alarm to keep my sister out of my room. I took an old car radio that had been abandoned from one of the old family cars and got inside it and wired up quadraphonic sound in my bedroom. I began making wooden toys when I was young as well, like whirligig and rolling marble toys.

CV: Were you raised in a family of inventors, or was it something you got into on your own?

AT: I don't know where it came from. My father can't pick up a hammer.... For some reason, with me, I was just a tinkerer from the get-go.

CV: How did your parents respond?

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Photo credit: Chelsea Hadley.

In which Reinhardt talks about why she rarely uses her notebook, how her first book may have been the easiest to write, and getting a sixteen-year-old to translate into IM.

Dana Reinhardt is the author of three novels for young adults. Her most recent book, How to Build a House (Random/Lamb, 2008), tells the story of a resilient teen who leaves her split family and life on the coast for a summer in Tennessee. Reinhardt's pre-novel-writing experience includes working in the foster care system, fact-checking for a movie magazine, working for PBS' Frontline, and time spent as a reader for a young adult line at a mass-market paperback house.

We chatted by phone eons ago (she's very patient). I read through the conversation last month while simultaneously attempting to tackle a novel during NaNoWriMo, and her words rang so true -- there's great advice here for artists of all stripes, and especially for writers.

Dana Reinhardt on the web: danareinhardt.net


Cecil Vortex: Do you have a writing routine you hold to?

Dana Reinhardt: I do. I try my best to stick to writing every workday. It's a bonus if I do any writing on a weekend. I try to write Monday through Friday as if I had a real job. My goal for each day can change but in general, my rule is that my workday's not done until I have three pages, which is roughly 1,000 words, maybe a little less. So it's somewhere in there. I generally don't let myself off the hook until I've done that. And sometimes I can do that in 40 minutes, and sometimes it takes me ten hours. But I try to have that done every single day.

CV: Is there an outline you work off?

DR: I don't work with outlines. I know a lot of people do, but I don't. I mean, I know where I'm headed, usually. Before each book so far that I've written, I know generally the arc of the story and how I want it to end. And sometimes I'll have certain things I have an idea that I want to have happen halfway through. But in general, for me, the fun about writing is finding out what happens between the beginning and the end of the story.

CV: Do you try to get a first draft out and then go back and revise? Or do you tend to polish as you go?

I posted an interview this evening over on the O'Reilly digital media site with Jesse Thorn, the host of "The Sound of Young America" (an excellent radio show that's distributed by Public Radio International.)

Thorn's launching an intimate convention/vacation/education/entertainment extravaganza this summer called MaxFunCon. Most of the conversation was about that event -- where the idea came from, what the focus is, why it won't feature half-naked pictures of Dane Cook.

At the end, he shared a bit about how he gets stuff done that I thought would make a nice addition to the About Creativity interviews on this site:

MaxFunCon bills itself as, among other things, "a convocation of awesome people who seek to become more awesome." In your own life, is there anything you've found that helps you achieve more awesomeness?

Jesse Thorn: When I was just out of college, I couldn't get a job. I was really depressed about it, and I had been trying to get a radio job. But I couldn't even get any job. It was really horrible. I was applying for retail jobs and not getting them.

I was really down, and I was thinking, "Why am I driving back and forth to Santa Cruz, an hour-and-a-half from San Francisco?" At the time, I didn't have a car, so I was driving back and forth in my mom's car. I thought to myself, "I should just quit doing this. There's no reason I'm doing this."

And I talked to my now wife/then girlfriend, Theresa. And she said, "Well, you don't do anything else," and I thought, "Yeah, that's true, I don't do anything else. Maybe I should keep doing this." [laughter] And it has been the regular demands of making sure that I'm doing something that has backed me into a corner in order to be creative and think of new things. The fact that I have to make a radio show every week. For many years I did it when I had a real, regular day-to-day job, and now it is my job. The fact that I have to think of new stuff to connect me with people. It's sort of boring, but it's that backed-into-a-wall state where I'm able to be creative.

I'm a very harshly self-critical person. To be honest, I'm a very harshly critical person in general. [laughter] Which I think is one of the reasons why I find improv so beneficial. I'm only able to really create when I have to. So I've set up my life so that I do have to.

And the things that I have to do are things that I love to do, so it works out.

So-called Bill and I have recently started posting about digital creativity over at digitalmedia under The Creative Beat. This subsite is an extension (an outgrowth? a spur?) of the interviews you've found over over here, with a little more focus on things-tech.

Last week, SCB had a fun post on Eno's Oblique Strategies and where they can be found online. And mere moments ago, I added a chat with Craig Schwartz the co-founder of toonlet.com, a neat site that makes it easy peasy for folks to make cartoons. Drop by when ya get a chance....
-Cecil

I've recently started blogging about things-creativity-and-tech at work. Using my own name even. My other own name.

Before too long, there should be an actual brand-new creativity subsite I can link to, but for now, it's more like a post here and there. Today's entry: Dr. Horrible and the Future of Entertainment, which reveals why Doogie Howser is the man of tomorrow.

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Welcome to the second part of this interview with Blizzard VP of Creative Development Chris Metzen. If you haven't already read the first part of this interview, be sure to check it out to hear about the power of spinning ideas, and how Metzen got his big break on a bar napkin.

Chris Metzen on the Web: Blizzard Entertainment, Warcraft: Of Blood and Honor, Sons of the Storm


Cecil Vortex: What do you think are the ingredients of good storytelling in computer games?

Chris Metzen: You definitely want "show -- don't tell." And it's difficult in interactive spaces because "showing" usually means it's very keyed into specific art resources or the way your game engine works. Also, more often than not, you don't want to stick the player with minutes worth of exposition. Ultimately, it's a video game and people are conditioned to want push buttons or click their mouse. Whether they're playing Pac-Man or Half Life 2 or World of Warcraft, they want to feel like they're in the driver's seat -- that's the difference between the interactive medium and film, for instance. In film you're pretty much a captive audience. You're going to sit there for two hours and experience what the writer and the director and the actors want you to experience. You have very little say in the matter other than how you process it after the fact, right?…. [So] even if we take control away from you for a couple of minutes to show a pre-rendered cinematic, or a cinematic sequence that shows the next story note unfolding, we want to get people back into the action as soon as possible. And that determines the way your story unfolds. You have to tell it in bite-sized chunks because you know that control must resume for the player pretty soon.

CV: How do you typically kick ideas off?

Welcome! This interview is part of an ongoing series of chats with artists about their creative process. You can find the full set of interviews, including musicians Adrian Belew and Jonathan Coulton, writer Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), cartoonist Dan Piraro, and comic book creator Matt Wagner all at about-creativity.com. You can also subscribe to future interviews here. Thanks a lot for dropping by, -Cecil

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Chris Metzen is the Vice President of Creative Development at Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind the beloved Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo series of PC games. These are the blockbusters of the PC gaming world, famous for their rich worlds, near flawless gameplay, and graphics and audio that pull the player in and don't let go. World of Warcraft, the company's popular MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game), and its expansion packs, have been the best-selling PC games for 2005, 2006, and 2007. WoW currently has 10 million subscribers worldwide.

This is the first part of a two-part interview. Be sure to also check out Blizzard Entertainment, Warcraft: Of Blood and Honor, Sons of the Storm


Cecil Vortex: How do you explain to nongamers what you do for a living?

Chris Metzen: My core responsibility is coming up with the worlds our games take place in. And over time, the worlds are becoming the game, strangely enough.

When I started out in this racket about fourteen years ago, we were making war games. Essentially, you're playing through a sequence of maps with this virtual army you build over time. It was my job not only to create the single-player component of the game -- the storyline that you ultimately track through in these ongoing wars -- but also to just kind of create the universe behind the game so that when you weren't actually playing, you might still be chewing on these concepts or characters or places that you'd experienced.

CV: What were some of your big influences growing up?

CM: Well, figure that everyone in the industry just loved Star Wars. Star Wars created a monster. But I think what shaped the monster [for me] ultimately was a mix between Dungeons & Dragons and comic books. Those were my absolute loves, as most geeks around here will probably repeat. I'm more a comic geek than anything else, honestly. I still have about a thirty-dollar habit per week. It's gotten bad; I need a twelve-step program. I even still buy Marvel. So I just grew up with serial storytelling. Every week you could go to the store and see somebody's latest adventure. That template -- the way comics unfold over time -- had a really big impact on me.

I loved D&D -- I loved the big worlds, the big spanning themes, the big epic quests, the unfolding settings with ancient civilizations and ancient secrets coming back to haunt the present. I loved all that. I love mythology. And somehow, as a little kid, comics was the conveyance system -- the media that really captured my imagination…. There was continuity, high drama, threads from beyond space and time. There were threads from the past. There were gods walking the earth. Everything I wanted to have my head in was right there.

CV: Did you create your own comics?

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Photo credit: Nancy Bellen.

Ianthe Brautigan was born in San Francisco at the tail-end of the Beat Era. Her book You Can’t Catch Death: A Daughter's Memoir (St. Martin's Press, 2000), recently optioned for a movie, chronicles her life growing up as the daughter of poet and novelist Richard Brautigan and grappling with his suicide in 1984. Her work has appeared in Cartwheels on The Faultline, The Poet’s Eye: A Tribute to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Antioch Review, and will appear in Confrontations. She's taught at Sonoma State University and lives in Northern California, where she's currently working on a novel.

Ianthe Brautigan on the Web: Red Room, You Can't Catch Death


Cecil Vortex: What sort of writing had you done before you started working on your memoir?

Ianthe Brautigan: I was actually a Theater Arts major, and I was going to the Junior College, and I fell in love with my English 1A class and ended up writing nonfiction essays. At that point I realized that I was going to be torn between the two worlds, and I decided to choose writing. I still went to New York and worked for Roundabout Theatre and was in the theater world and toyed with that for a little while. And then I came back to Sonoma County and really started writing in earnest and did all the things that writers do -- I took creative writing courses and did workshops and worked with Robin Beeman, who's in the county and is absolutely phenomenal. I got my undergrad in English Literature at Sonoma State, which was the best thing I could have ever done…. You need to read a lot of stuff and get an idea of what's going on. Then I got my MFA at San Francisco State University, and I don't recommend that for everybody.

Going back to my memoir, God, I had started that in the form of poetry right after my dad died. And I'm a terrible poet. But I wrote a prose poem and Don Emblen read it and he said, "You're onto it -- this is what you should be doing; stay away from that poetry stuff." [laughter] And I began writing about my dad. And as you might imagine, it took a long time.

CV: Was the transition from short stories to poetry to memoir writing difficult, or did you feel like you were finding your natural genre?

IB: I think it's important to try all sorts of stuff. I love writing short stories. I've written a novella. I think that in memoir and nonfiction writing, you're using the craft of fiction writing. In fact, a lot of what makes, I think, a good memoir is that it has a lot of fictive elements, except it's based on truth.

CV: Can you elaborate on that -- how fiction-writing techniques can play a role in memoir writing?

Creativity interview with illustrator and author Keri Smith
Photo credit: Jefferson Pitcher.

Keri Smith is an author/illustrator turned guerilla artist. She is the author and illustrator of several activity books aimed at jump-starting creativity, including Wreck This Journal (2007, Penguin Books), The Guerilla Art Kit (2007, Princeton Architectural Press), Living Out Loud (2003, Chronicle Books), and Tear Up This Book!: The Sticker, Stencil, Stationery, Games, Crafts, Doodle, And Journal Book For Girls! (2005, American Girl).

As a freelance illustrator she's worked for a variety of clients, including Random House, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Ford Motor Co., the Boston Globe, and Hallmark. In the last few years she's lectured and run workshops on the topic of living creatively for the HOW Design Conference, U.C. Davis, and schools across North America.

Keri Smith on the Web: Keri Smith.com, The Wish Jar


Cecil Vortex: What got you started making creativity books?

Keri Smith: I've been trying to figure this out for myself. For some reason I cannot stop making activity books based on the subject of creativity. I seem to be obsessed with it, even though I will admit that I get tired of talking about it directly and would rather just have people do something (as opposed to talking about doing something) -- a conundrum for an author, yes?

I can tell you a few things that I know about it in list form (just because I like lists):

  1. My medium is most definitely books. I have been obsessed with books my whole life and worked in bookstores for years. As a child I had a favorite activity book (called Good Times) that I think had a lot to do with forming my creative brain.
  2. I love the idea of creating books that give people more of a direct experience with life instead of walking through it passively. Get up out of your chair and take a look at things around you for crying out loud! Turn off the TV and use your brain cells before they deteriorate completely! There is no time to waste. Aren't we all just aching for a bit of adventure? It's all there in various forms. It's just about a conscious decision to "tune in." My books are just a little reminder of why and how to do this (for myself too).
  3. I am drawn to experimenting (in various forms). My favorite artists and authors are often those who are "playing," trying things, not necessarily succeeding at them, but seeing where an idea takes you. This concept of play comes up constantly for me and is in large part the foundation for all of my work. To truly conduct an experiment, you must not know where you are headed. It can be scary at times, but that fear is what excites me about it. What happens when I try "this"? A direct confrontation with the UNKNOWN. It is such a great metaphor for life because none of us truly know where we are headed. We can try to control it but at a deep level we aren't ever really in control.
  4. My family life growing up was not about taking risks (make sure you have all your bases covered, don't attempt things unless you know what the outcome will be, take the safe route). I think in part my life/creative work is a form of rebellion against this and about choosing to do the opposite in a given situation to see what happens. I had to learn to trust in my ability to deal with whatever comes up in the moment. And guess what? You really can deal with "whatever comes up." You are much stronger and more creative than you think. But you have to jump off a cliff all the time to figure that out. Every time I do, I learn how amazing a feeling it is. There is nothing that can hurt you in this. Fear of taking risks is a fear of living.
  5. For a while now I have enjoyed working with the concepts of imperfection and impermanence (the Japanese refer to it as wabi-sabi). I think this concept is quite rare in Western culture, which seems obsessed with making things as perfect as possible -- technology, bodies (plastic surgery), mechanization of life, etc.

So I see the books as another way to present the idea of embracing imperfections and actually incorporating them into your process (Wreck This Journal is a good example of this). I guess what I am saying here is that books are a way to share my philosophies and get some different ideas out into the culture at large. At some level I enjoy the thought of taking ideas from some slightly edgier artists and thinkers and incorporating them into my work so that a new audience can experience them.

CV: Can you talk a little bit more about play and how that shows up in your creative process?

Creativity interview with Adrian Belew
Photo credit: Image courtesy of Daryl Darko.

Welcome to the conclusion of this three-part interview with guitarist, singer, and songwriter Adrian Belew. If you're just jumping in, be sure to hop back to the start to hear Belew talk about collaborating with King Crimson and the Bears, why the last two years have been so productive, and how he lets goes creatively.

Adrian Belew on the Web: Adrian Belew.net, Elephant Blog, Side Four


Cecil Vortex: Is there anything you've learned about the creative process that's surprised you?

Adrian Belew: I'm impressed to see that if you work really hard at something, it does eventually pay off. And nothing in my life has proven that to me as much as the creative process. Sometimes you do have to work at it; it doesn't always just flow out of you like lava. Sometimes you really do have to sit and [say], "How am I going to make this work? What can I do?" And really go deep within yourself or at least concentrate to such a degree that it gets tiring, you know? So I'm kind of amazed that the process works and that it's still working.

CV: Have you gotten any advice about creativity that particularly stands out?

Creativity interview with Adrian Belew
Photo credit: Image courtesy of Daryl Darko.

Welcome to the second part of this interview with guitarist, singer, and songwriter Adrian Belew. If you haven't already read the first part, you can find it here.

Be sure to also check out the third and final segment, in which Belew talks about the value of setting up obstacles, what excites him in other people's music, and how he recently joined forces with two kids who don't have driver's licenses yet to form the Adrian Belew Power Trio.

Adrian Belew on the Web: Adrian Belew.net, Elephant Blog, Side Four


Cecil Vortex: Do you remember when you first started writing songs?

Adrian Belew: At age sixteen I contracted mononucleosis in high school and was forced to stay at home and be tutored for two months. And the requirement was that you be inactive. I was a drummer, and I could no longer drum. I had always had songs in my mind that would just appear, and I could kind of hear them full on as though a record was playing. So I decided to take those two months and teach myself to play guitar.

I borrowed an acoustic guitar from one of my band members, and by the end of the two months I had written five songs and put them on tape. I do remember little bits of pieces of them, but I couldn't even tell you the melodies or titles.

CV: The tapes are long gone?

AB: I'm afraid so. I wish they weren't. They'd be on my website right now.

CV: Were you surprised at how quickly you picked up the guitar?

Welcome! This interview is part of an ongoing series of chats with artists about their creative process. You can find the full set of interviews, including musicians Van Dyke Parks, Dan Wilson, and Jonathan Coulton, memoirist Ianthe Brautigan, and cartoonist Dan Piraro all at about-creativity.com. You can also subscribe to future interviews here. Thanks a lot for dropping by, -Cecil

Creativity interview with Adrian Belew
Photo credit: Image courtesy of Daryl Darko.

Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Adrian Belew is a Grammy-nominated solo artist and a member of both King Crimson and the Bears. Belew's big break came in 1977 when he landed a job in Frank Zappa's band. Over the past thirty years, he's played on records as varied as David Bowie's Lodger, Paul Simon's Graceland, the Talking Heads' Remain in Light, Herbie Hancocks' Magic Windows, Nine Inch Nails Downward Spiral, Laurie Anderson's Mister Heartbreak, and William Shatner's Has Been. To date, he's released more than fifteen solo projects, starting with 1982's Lone Rhino. His most recent CD is Side 4, a live recording of The Adrian Belew Power Trio, a new outfit featuring Julie and Eric Slick on bass and drums.

Belew is currently posting a play-by-play of his ongoing recording efforts mixed with memories from years gone by over at his highly recommended Elephant Blog.

This is the first part of a three-part interview. Be sure to check out part two to hear about how Belew taught himself guitar at 16, what it felt like to sign on with Zappa's band, and how he writes and performs complex, multi-rhythmic pieces.


Adrian Belew on the Web: Adrian Belew.net, Elephant Blog, Side Four


CV: With both the Bears and King Crimson, you've developed longstanding creative relationships that have spanned decades. What do you attribute that to?

AB: When you know something works, you should continue it. There's a large part of me that's solo oriented. Like a painter, I think sometimes, "Well, I don't really need anyone's help in this. This is me painting a picture or me painting a song." So as much as I can, I try to do everything myself because that's not only the most fun, it's also the most rewarding.

But it's very healthy to step out of that and share something with someone else where you're not the only one in control and you're not the only one with the ideas. Interesting things happen that way. So I've tried to kind of have a diet of both throughout my career, as a way to continue to be fresh and grow.

CV: How does collaborative songwriting differ from when you're writing solo?

AB: Well, most of my collaborative things have been quietly done -- you know, one or two people sitting down together, perhaps, unamplified, where you're just trying to get a basic outline of something. Then you take those ideas away and refine them and you meet again and show each other your refinements.

If I'm working within, say, King Crimson, with Robert Fripp, that's exactly how it works. It's a quiet process and what you're trying to do really is allow each other the freedom to try things and be a sounding board sometimes, or else be the one who's leading the parade.

CV: So with King Crimson, one person typically takes the lead writing a particular song?

Creativity interview with visual artist Tobie Giddio

Image created for Tiffany & Co. by Tobie Giddio, reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Tobie Giddio grew up on the New Jersey Shore where she fell in love with fashion and art from the books and magazines in her basement makeshift studio. After graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology, she began illustrating advertisements for Bergdorf Goodman that ran weekly in the New York Times. Other work during this period included editorials for Interview Magazine and elaborately illustrated forecasting books and editorial work for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. Since 2000, her work has been commissioned by clients ranging from Seibu Department Stores of Japan, to Apple, Inc., and Tiffany & Co.

Recent projects have included a series of classic charcoal and pen and ink drawings for Amy Sedaris's book, I Like You: Hospitality Under The Influence and a series of drawings for Infiniti Cars, as well as animated projects with Dovetail Studios, a collaboration between Giddio and her fiancé, motion/graphic designer Peter Belsky.

Tobie Giddio on the Web: Tobie Giddio.com, Dovetail Studios


Cecil Vortex: Can you describe your background?

Tobie Giddio: Well, I started out in fashion illustration. I studied with a number of teachers at F.I.T. [the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York - ed.]. And one of my main mentors was a teacher who was very rooted in fine art, so I was getting taught both principles at the same time. I was learning about drawing, and drawing the figure, and drawing the fashion figure, and then at the same time I was learning how to abstract the figure and learning about color and fine art and especially the modern art folks. To this day, I work in the fashion industry, and I spend a lot of time abstracting fashion and beauty and nature.

CV: How does fashion illustration work -- when you're working on an ad, for example, what are you working from?

Creativity interview with musician Dan Wilson
photo credit: James Minchin.

Welcome to the second half of this two-part interview with musician Dan Wilson (Trip Shakespeare, Semisonic), whose new solo CD, Free Life, was just released by American Records/Columbia. If you haven't already read the first part, be sure to check it out to hear about the summer day Wilson wrote his first song, the key role titles play in his songwriting process, and why art is a volume business.

Dan Wilson on the Web: Dan Wilson.com, Dan Wilson on MySpace, Free Life


CV: I'd heard Semisonic's song "DND" several times before learning that "DND" referred to the "Do Not Disturb" signs in hotels. I wondered what your thoughts were on how much you want to let your listeners in on the particulars behind your lyrics?

DW: This is an important question. I'm torn about it. On the one hand, I'm a talkative guy who has a lot of ideas and they naturally come out in my lyrics. So I often am tempted to explain my songs, or at least tempted to lay out for interviewers (and through them, listeners) the thoughts or ideas or stories behind my songs.

But on the other hand, I have a vivid memory of being a kid and reading an interview with Paul McCartney wherein he said that his song "Jet" was about a dog. Not only that one, but "Martha My Dear," that one was about a dog, too. These were two songs of his that I loved, and I was just deflated by the revelation -- I had had my own mental images of the people in both those songs, not that they were visually detailed, but a kind of "songish" vision of the people and the stories. And to learn that these people were dogs was such a letdown.

Now, Sir Paul has every right to write songs about his dogs, I've got no problem with that. But in learning that those particular songs were about dogs, I was suddenly deprived of my own pleasant illusion that they were about people. And somehow they shrank in my mind as a result of being explained.

Another factor in all this is that I often don't know what the songs are about until long after I've written them. This makes it tempting to share the interpretation -- since in my mind, my explanation is as good as a listener's. But on the other hand, once I've given my interpretation of my own song, it has the quality of being "the last word." And sometimes, the fans come up with the coolest interpretations of their meanings - way cooler than the interpretation or intention I might have had.

So I try to curb my impulse to explain my songs, lest I shrink them in the ears of fans.

CV: Is there any aspect of the creative process that still intimidates you?

Creativity interview with musician Dan Wilson
photo credit: Steve Cohen.

Dan Wilson first made his mark with Trip Shakespeare, a Minneapolis-based band featuring Wilson, his brother Matt, bassist John Munson, and drummer Elaine Harris. The four produced a catalog of songs noted for soaring harmonies and a quirky sense of humor that was often matched with an unusual slice of hyper-drama. After Trip Shakespeare, Wilson and Munson teamed up with drummer Jake Slichter to form Semisonic. Throughout the late '90s and into 2001, Semisonic produced shimmering pop, including the hit song "Closing Time," nominated for Best Rock Song by the 1999 Grammys.

Since Semisonic, Wilson has worked with musicians ranging from Nickel Creek to Mike Doughty (Soul Coughing). In 2007, he shared the Song of the Year Grammy Award with the Dixie Chicks for their hit tune "Not Ready to Make Nice." Most recently, American Recordings/Columbia released his long-anticipated solo record, Free Life.

This is the first half of a two-part interview. When you're done here, be sure to check out the second half, in which Wilson talks about how he wrestles with how little (or how much) to let his listeners in on the particulars behind his lyrics, the benefits of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and the creative challenges he faced mixing his new album.

Dan Wilson on the Web: Dan Wilson.com, Dan Wilson on MySpace, Free Life


Cecil Vortex: What's the first song you remember writing?

Dan Wilson: I can't remember the title of the first song I wrote, but I do remember the day. My family was up in northern Minnesota on vacation on this particular clear, hot, summer day. I think I was twelve years old. My parents had bought me a guitar, maybe for my birthday in May.

My parents listened to The Beatles the whole time I was growing up: Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. So the first book of sheet music they bought me was Beatles Complete. I think my brother Matt and I had been figuring out the chords in the book all summer. I believe that it was Matt's idea to write songs -- so he wrote one and I wrote one. We did the songs bit by bit over the course of the afternoon on our parents' bed. In between "songwriting" we'd run out to the ditch by the road and play war with our plastic army men.

When we were done with the songs, we wrote out the lyrics on typing paper, with the titles boldly written on the top of the sheets. Very official. I'm trying to remember them but I can't. I liked Matt's more. The lyrics of mine seemed not so great to me. But the melody was satisfying -- I remember thinking it sounded like a George Harrison song. Which I guess tells us which Beatle is mine.

I think the impulse came partly from just wanting something to do on a summer day. But also, once you have a bunch of the chords under your hands, you start to realize that "I can do this too."

I told a painter friend of mine once that the reason I made paintings was often that I'd seen someone else's painting that I liked, and I wanted to have one for my own. My friend replied that Picasso said the same thing: He'd see a masterpiece in the Louvre and say to himself, "I can do that! I want one of those."

CV: Did you generally write songs on your own back then, or collaboratively with your brother? And what was your creative process like?

Creativity interview with comic book writer, illustrator Matt Wagner
Photo credit: Greg Preston.

Welcome to the second half of this two-part interview with Matt Wagner, award-winning comic book writer and illustrator, and creator of Mage and Grendel. If you haven't already read the first part of this interview, be sure to check it out to hear Wagner talk about the birth of Mage, and why comic book creations often look like their creators. You can find it here.

Matt Wagner on the Web: mattwagnercomics.com


CV: I recently read your Batman run -- the "Dark Moon Rising" books. Could you describe where the idea for those books came from?

MW: They’re actually based on two of my favorite Golden Age Batman stories from the late ’30s and early ’40s. They’re both pre-Robin stories -- before Robin shows up. “The Mad Monk” is in Detective Comics #31 and #32. #31 you’ll recognize -- it has a very famous cover; it’s a huge image of Batman looming up over a small castle in the foreground. There’s a moon behind him, and he has absolutely ginormous bat ears. In fact, when you look it up, you’ll go, “Oh, of course -- that cover.” The other one, “Hugo Strange and the Monster Men,” was in Batman #1.

Part of the fun of playing with somebody else’s toys is the challenge of trying to tell a story where some of the playing pieces are already in place on the board. In the world of Grendel, in the world of Mage, I’m the absolute god. Whatever I say happens, happens, and there’s never any question. With Batman there are many other aspects to consider. [Also,] any work I’ve done for DC, I always like to work early in a character’s career because I hate the giant, extended, huge continuity crap you have to deal with in their world. And I’ve just always liked primary-motivation stories.

So I decided there was a missing link in the early Batman tales, where we needed to see his transition from Batman Year One -- the Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli classic storyline where he’s fighting just thugs and mobsters -- to his more established litany of costumed crazies that eventually becomes his absolute normalcy, you want to call it that [laughter]. And so I decided to take these two early stories and revamp them into a modern setting. I wanted to dig deep into the actual origins of this character.

Those early primal Batman tales are neat because the conventions that have since become established as being comic-booky were fresh and new and were based more on a pulp tradition than what we think of as comic cooks. And they were just so unfettered and raw. So I took those and tried to squeeze them into DC’s continuity and make them work.

CV: What's your creative process when you're tackling a project like this -- what sort of thought bubble might we see over your head while you’re at your desk?

Creativity interview with comic book writer, illustrator Matt Wagner
Image (c) copyright Matt Wagner.

Matt Wagner is a comic book writer and illustrator, best known for his original comics Mage and Grendel (winner of three Eisner awards) and a five-year run on Sandman Mystery Theater, as well as for recent stints on Batman and on Trinity, a three-issue miniseries featuring Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

This is the first half of a two-part interview. Be sure to also check out the second half, in which Wagner talks about how Mage is like a Zen journey, and what makes for good comic-book storytelling.

Matt Wagner on the Web: mattwagnercomics.com


Cecil Vortex: Were you a storyteller as a young boy?

Matt Wagner: I was. My father, and this dates him quite a bit, used to say I was vaccinated with a Victrola needle because I was very talkative…. My parents like to tell a tale of when I was quite young. I must have been five or something like that. We had literally -- I kid you not -- a door-to-door Bible salesman come to the door one day selling these lavishly illustrated Bibles. We were going through it and I was pointing out all the illustrations and saying, “Oh, look this is Noah, this is Jonah, Jesus” etc., etc., and we got to a picture of Adam and Eve in their loincloths in the Garden of Eden and I turned to my dad, apparently, and said, “Dad, Tarzan!” [laughter] So I think I was doomed for this profession from the very beginning.

My mother was an English teacher before she became a full-time mom, and a huge proponent of reading, so she made sure I was an early and vigorous reader. Coupled with that was the fact that I was an only child. I grew up in the middle of Pennsylvania in Amish country -- we lived out away from most other houses…. I drew to entertain myself because there wasn’t much video entertainment in those days. I think we had probably three or four TV stations initially. And so I was a vigorous reader and I drew. And comic books were both writing and drawing all rolled into one and just became the magic quotient for me.

CV: So you were headed for comics from the start?

Woke up this morning to find that some wonderful human being over at Yahoo had selected us as Yahoo Picks' "Pick of the Day." If you've discovered this site through that review, welcome!

The artist interviews to-date include: poets Kim Addonizio, Maggie Nelson, and Bob Holman, web innovator Ze Frank, musicians Jonathan Coulton and Van Dyke Parks, choreographer Natalie Marrone, authors Lemony Snicket and DyAnne DiSalvo, visual artists James Warren Perry and Tucker Nichols, clown and playwright Jeff Raz, standup comic and sitcom writer Howard Kremer, cartoonist Dan Piraro, columnist Jon Carroll, and screenwriter/director John August. Scroll down to peruse the interviews from most recent to least-most-recent.

You can also subscribe to future interviews -- I'll be posting a new one every week or two. Upcoming interviews include comic book creator (Mage/Grendel) Matt Wagner, musician Adrian Belew, and World of Warcraft storyteller Chris Metzen.

Thanks a lot for dropping by. If you get a chance, be sure to leave a comment to let us know what you think,
-Cecil

C_CV_Kim_Addonizio.jpg
Photo credit: Joe Allen.

Kim Addonizio is the author of three books of poetry from BOA Editions: The Philosopher's Club, Jimmy & Rita, and Tell Me, which was a finalist for the 2000 National Book Award. Her latest poetry collection, What Is This Thing Called Love, was published by W. W. Norton in January 2004. A book of stories, In the Box Called Pleasure, was published by Fiction Collective 2. She’s also coauthor, with Dorianne Laux, of The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (W.W. Norton). And her new novel, My Dreams Out in the Street, has just been published by Simon & Schuster.

Addonizio’s awards include two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, a Commonwealth Club Poetry Medal, and the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award. She teaches private workshops in Oakland, CA.

Kim Addonizio on the Web: kimaddonizio.com, My Dreams Out in the Street, What Is This Thing Called Love


Cecil Vortex: When did you first start to identify yourself as a writer?

KA: I remember my first unfinished work. I wanted to write a novel when I was around nine. I wrote ten pages. It was a mystery, I think. I don't remember why I stopped -- probably because it was too hard. I remember writing a short story at fifteen and being eager to show it to my dad, who was a sportswriter.

CV: Do you remember what drew you to writing poetry?

KA: I wrote down my feelings in lines in high school and after, but it was hardly poetry. I seriously started trying to write it in my late twenties. I think poetry drew me to it -- I think I was always meant to find it.

CV: How has your creative process changed since then?

C_CV_Tucker_Nichols.jpg
photo credit: Lisa M. Hamilton.

Tucker Nichols has had solo exhibitions at ZieherSmith Gallery (New York), Kunstpanorama (Luzern), Lincart (San Francisco), and the Brattleboro Museum (Brattleboro, Vermont). His work has been featured in numerous group shows internationally, including Rocket Gallery (Tokyo) and John Connelly Presents and the Drawing Center (New York). An exhibition of recent work will open in September 2007 at ZieherSmith Gallery.

Nichols' book of drawings, Postcards from Vermont, was published by Gallery 16 Editions last fall. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Believer, Zoetrope: All-Story, and the New York Times. He also maintains an excellent image-of-the-day website called "What A Day."

Tucker Nichols on the Web: What A Day, Postcards from Vermont, online gallery


Cecil Vortex: How would you describe your creative process?

Tucker Nichols: Recently I realized I'm trying to make work that freezes a moment in time that I would otherwise discard (or refine to make look like other images already in the world). In a text piece, that means writing something down that I'd otherwise pass by and then making a drawing of it later where it's totally out of context. Or coming up with something slogan-like on the spot and painting it across a storefront window.... Planning a drawing is tempting, but I've found it rarely works for me.

With my abstract drawings, it's more of a puzzle where I make up the rules as I go -- like, what would it look like if everything's being pulled to the edge on the left and there can only be two things and they have to be really different. I'm always trying to stop short of a completed thought because once it's fully formed, it tends to lose some of its juice for me. Early thoughts have so many different possible outcomes; I prefer thinking about where other people might take them.

And then sometimes I have to draw a glove or a ketchup bottle or a branch because it feels like the right thing to do, and to not draw it would be adhering to some arbitrary rule about what kinds of things I am supposed to draw and what kinds of things I am definitely NOT supposed to draw. The early parts of thoughts don't obey rules very well.

CV: Are there particular tools that you rely on to gather and develop new ideas?

An interview with cartoonist, comedian, and fine artist Dan Piraro
Image copyright (c) Dan Piraro 2007.

Dan Piraro's Bizarro was first syndicated in 1985 and currently appears daily in around 250 markets on four continents. Bizarro won an unprecedented three consecutive Reuben awards from the National Cartoonist Society for “Newspaper Cartoon Panel of the Year,” in 1999, 2000, and 2001. Since 2002, Piraro has been nominated each year for their highest award, "Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year." In 2006, Abrams Books published Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro, a retrospective that includes cartoons, fine art, commercial illustration, and images from his sketchbooks and comedy shows.

Piraro’s one-man stage show, The Bizarro Baloney Show, is a multimedia performance featuring stand-up comedy, songs, puppets, cartoons, animation, audience participation, and onstage improv drawings. In 2002 it won "Best Solo Show" at the New York International Fringe Festival. Piraro also works as an activist for animal welfare, public health, and environmental concerns. In 2007 he became a regular contributor to Veg News Magazine, with a monthly humor article on vegetarianism, veganism, and animal rights. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Ashley Smith, a full-time animal welfare activist. They both sit on the board of Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in Woodstock, NY. (woodstocksanctuary.org)

Dan Piraro on the Web: bizarro.com, fine art gallery, Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro


Cecil Vortex: What do you think is the key to good cartoon writing?

Dan Piraro: I have this ongoing effort to create humor in fewer words because I'm very wordy. I always have been. I was that way in school. When a teacher would say to write a 500-word paper about something or other, I would write 750 just because I'm a wordy person. So something that I've done over the years, especially in recent years, is try to reduce the number of words in my cartoons just because I think it's funnier to say things simply and quickly than to over explain. But my cartoons still tend to be pretty wordy.

One of my favorite cartoonists in the world is Sam Gross. He's most notable from the New Yorker magazine. His work is just fantastic and he rarely uses words. And when he does, it's almost never more than three or four. I'd love to be able to do that, but it's just not the way I think.

CV: There's some kind of irony in somebody who feels they write too much creating a single-panel comic.

An interview with author Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket

Photo credit: Meredith Heuer 2006.

Welcome to the second half of this two-part interview with Daniel Handler, author of the best-selling An Unfortunate Series of Events, a collection of books for children, as well as three books for adults: The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, and, most recently, Adverbs. If you haven't already read the first part of this interview, in which Handler talks about making the switch from poetry to prose and why he loves it when things are going badly, you can find it here.

Daniel Handler on the Web: Adverbs: A Novel, lemonysnicket.com


Cecil Vortex: The plot for A Series of Unfortunate Events is incredibly rich. How did you approach plotting the series and how much of the plot was worked out before the first book was published?

Daniel Handler: Some of it was planned. And then more and more of it was planned the more I wrote. I'm a big outliner and note-taker, so I had a bunch of things [worked out in advance], but I also left myself room to improvise. I didn't want A Series of Unfortunate Events to feel like a coloring book that I had to fill in for the next few years.

So I would think, "Well, the twelfth book is going to take place in a hotel, and it's going to have this kind of revelation and this kind of action," and then I would say, "Okay, that's enough that you know. That's five books ahead or four books ahead." Every so often I would make a note of something specific that I wanted to put there. But I tried to discipline myself to be undisciplined. I wanted to get there and feel like there were all these vistas to explore, and not that it was a specific path that I'd already assigned myself.

CV: Reading the last book in the series, which deals in part with the trade-offs between security and personal freedom, I wondered if what's been going on in the real world was informing that?

An interview with Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket
Photo credit: Meredith Heuer 2006.

Daniel Handler is the author of the bestselling A Series of Unfortunate Events (under the pen name Lemony Snicket), a collection of books for children. He's also written three books for adults: The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, and, most recently, Adverbs. In addition to his writing, Handler's an accomplished musician and has played accordion on a number of recordings including the acclaimed 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields.

This is the first part of a two-part interview. You can find the second part, in which Handler talks about plotting A Series of Unfortunate Events and how real life influences his work, here.

Daniel Handler on the Web: Adverbs: A Novel, lemonysnicket.com


Cecil Vortex: Do you remember the first thing that you wrote that you felt, "Well, that's something"?

Daniel Handler: By the time I was in college, I was writing a lot of poetry that was being published in tiny journals and was winning little student prizes and things like that. And I think that was probably the first time that I began to think of myself as a writer who was producing work that was of merit, at least for the age that I was.

I actually visited my high school literary magazine yesterday -- I grew up in San Francisco. And they had found some of my old poetry on file and given it to me. And it was pretty interesting to read. It was lousy of course. But I felt like it still had some respectability to it.

It was two poems that I had written shortly after I had started having sex, and so they're both about love and sex. And so of course they're mortifying. But they have an air of detachment, I guess, and one of them rhymes. And it's interesting to me that I was already trying to find an acceptable format for perhaps embarrassing ideas.

CV: Do you still write poetry?

An interview with screenwriter and director John August

Photo credit: Jen Pollack Bianco.

John August's feature directing debut, The Nines, premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. As a screenwriter, John's credits include Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish, both Charlie's Angels movies, and the upcoming Shazam!. He also wrote and co-produced Go, which debuted at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. For television, August created the short-lived show "D.C." for The WB, along with pilots for Fox and ABC.

John is a frequent advisor to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. He also runs a website aimed at budding screenwriters, johnaugust.com -- an exceptional and highly recommended resource accurately subtitled "a ton of useful information about screenwriting." Born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, John earned a degree in journalism from Drake University in Iowa and an MFA in film from the Peter Stark program at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles.

John August on the Web: johnaugust.com


Cecil Vortex: You've written an impressive number of scripts over the last several years. Were you always this creatively productive?

John August: I've always written, but it wasn't until I started approaching writing as a full-time job that I really felt any mastery of it. Sometimes I'm an artist, but mostly I'm a craftsman. I write for very specific purposes, and I can sort of switch it on and off. That came with experience.

I think "productivity" is a pretty limited concept. If you're writing a lot, but you're writing crap, that's not particularly helpful. I think what I hit in my early-to-mid 20s was a sweet spot between Getting Stuff Done and Getting Stuff Perfect. My first drafts are pretty strong. They feel like the final movie. Some writers do what they call a "vomit draft," which is long and messy, then edit it down. I don't. I write the script that could be shot.

I labor pretty hard over each scene in its first incarnation. I play the entire scene in my head, in a constant loop, until I really feel I know it. Then I do what I call a "scribble version," which is a very quick-and-dirty sketch of the scene, handwritten, which would be indecipherable to anyone but me. Then I write up the final scene from that.

In terms of the number of scripts with my name on them, that really comes from picking projects carefully. The frustrating thing about screenwriting is that you can spend a year working on a project that never gets made, and it's like you never wrote it. I like to say that my favorite genre is, "Movies that get made."

CV: What drew you to screenwriting, as opposed to other kinds of writing?

An Interview with columnist Jon Carroll

Photo credit: Terry Lorant Photography.

Throughout the 1970s, Jon Carroll worked at magazines and papers that ranged from Rolling Stone and the Village Voice to Oui and WomenSports. Since 1982, he's written a regular column for the San Francisco Chronicle that you can find on the back page of the "Datebook" section -- more than 250 columns a year at 900 or so words a column for a total of 5+ million words and counting.

Jon Carroll on the Web: SF Gate, Subscribe via RSS


Cecil Vortex: Over the past twenty-five years, you've written well over six thousand columns. Were you always this creatively productive?

Jon Carroll: There are a lot of writers in a collateral branch of my family -- John Gregory Dunne is a cousin of mine, and his brother Dominick Dunne. And my father was Irish, and of course there's a tradition there. And I put out a neighborhood newspaper when I was nine. In high school I worked for the literary magazine and the annual and the newspaper, writing for all of them. And I was sort of the all-purpose go-to guy for captions and intros and all of that stuff that needs doing and nobody else wanted to do. And I loved doing it. I still love doing it.

Here's a story: When I got to the Chronicle, I was nineteen and I was working on a section that no longer exists called "This World," which was sort of a news round-up section…. The first day I was there, I was given assignments, and the idea was, you'd turn it in and they'd give you another. And I did six stories. And an old hand came over and told me to slow down, that I was making the rest of them look bad, and that I should know that my quota was around three. So I took it to heart. I didn't want to piss anybody off. So I did the three.

CV: When you moved into column writing, was that a relatively easy transition?

An interview with musician Van Dyke Parks

Photo credit: Rocky Schenk.

For over four decades, Van Dyke Parks has worked as singer, lyricist, composer, arranger, producer, and sessions player on an astonishing assortment of projects, collaborating with everyone from Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, and Bruce Springsteen to U2, Laurie Anderson, Frank Black, and Joanna Newsom. His own albums, starting with Song Cycle (1968) up through Moonlighting: Live at the Ash Grove (1998) have cemented his reputation as an eclectic, inventive songwriter and performer. Parks is perhaps best known for his work as lyricist on Brian Wilson's legendary SMiLE, which was begun in 1966 as the follow up to the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and released nearly four decades later in 2004.

In addition to all this, Parks has been composer and arranger for numerous movie and TV scores, and has written three adaptations of the stories of Brer Rabbit, published by Harcourt Brace -- Jump!, Jump on Over!, and Jump Again!

Van Dyke Parks on the Web: vandykeparks.com, Old Koton Industries


Cecil Vortex: Is there anything you've found that helps get you into a more creative mode?

Van Dyke Parks: Yes -- smoking is good. Smoking is very helpful. But it's deadly, so today is my second day without smoking. I stopped smoking on Sunday, having smoked for years.

I think that smoking is a very good thing to do -- it's got the association with the Indians; it's a peaceable thing. But like much else that the Indians gave us, we abused the privilege. And so, in my case I must simply stop. I'm too old to smoke. But I do believe that nicotine provides a great creative thrust….

In all the work I do, throughout my life, I've emphasized how fortunate I am to have people around me, and I kind of confirm what my father once said to the school at Andover when they asked if I showed any signs of creativity. My father wrote a letter to them as they were considering me for admission to that school; he said, no, my son has no creativity, but he has reactive abilities that are phenomenal and very useful. I resented that, perhaps -- that my father said that. But I have found basically that it could be true, that I have a reactive ability.

I've always characterized myself in press and so forth as the "beta participant." But in fact, now that we're alone, I can say without fear or bravado, that I feel humbled and validated that you would ask me about the creative process. It's almost as if I am a creative person. And I think all of that is just due to the fact that I have a great work ethic. I hammer at it. I sweat bullets. I pursue it. Wanting real talent, I compensate for it with something far more precious -- sheer will.

I remember when I was a child in New York, I went to see a play by William Saroyan. I happen to know his wife through a live television show I acted on as an obedient boy. At any rate, I met Saroyan. And I asked him about the creative process. I wanted to know because I was so stunned by his work -- he presented a vision of California that helped lure me to California in my later adolescence. And he talked to me about "getting the cat up the tree" -- getting something to happen and resolving it, and so forth. And I asked him about how inspired he must be, and he said no, no, it's all due diligence. Everything is just absolutely irrational tenacity.

CV: In terms of that tenacity, are there any mental tricks that you rely on to get the work done?

an interview about the creative process with children's book writer and illustrator DyAnne DiSalvo

Photo credit: Brian Butler.

DyAnne DiSalvo has written seven children's books and illustrated over forty, and has worked with numerous authors including Beverly Clearly, Mary Pope Osborne, Jean Fritz, Jane O'Connor, Patricia Reilly Giff, Jean Marzollo, and Amy Hest.

Her trademark theme of helping neighborhoods has been featured on "Reading Rainbow" (Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen) and in theater productions (City Green). She received a Congressional Commendation from the State of New Jersey for her book Grandpa's Corner Store. Awards for her illustrated work include the Society of Illustrators' "best of children's books" for 1986, 1987, 1991, and 2000. She's currently working on The Tree Wars, a novel based on the heroic preservation of a historic site of trees in Haddon Township, New Jersey.

In 1995, DiSalvo was chosen as one of thirty international artists to study in Barga, Italy, at the "Mostra di Incisioni." She also plays rhythm guitar for the power-pop rock band, Smash Palace, which tours internationally and has had songs featured in movies including Who's Kyle, starring Gary Oldman, and the independent film The Meeting.

We spoke by phone in February 2007, with snow still on the ground.

DyAnne DiSalvo on the Web: dyannedisalvo.com, smashpalacemusic.com


CV: Your creative output is pretty striking, with dozens of children's books to your name. Is there anything that you attribute your productivity to?

DD: Well, I try not to judge myself. I try to be "my own best friend." [laughter] Which is a lie. But I try not to get too wrapped up in the difficulty of the moment because I'll just wallow in that for as long as I like, feeling bad for myself. So what I do is, I read. I play music. I have conversations with my friends about poetry or writing or whatever they're working on. I walk my friend's dog. I travel a lot. Whatever fills up that time. And I'm always thinking about my story, whatever I'm doing, as I'm doing it. And I think that's incredibly helpful. I just allow myself to never lose sight of my art-piece and to live life.

CV: Do you ever worry about burning out?

an interview about the creative process with musician Jonathan Coulton

Photo credit: Emily Rawlings.

Jonathan Coulton sings songs about workplace zombies, ennui-afflicted clowns, self-loathing giant squids, and devotees of a certain Swedish prefab furniture store. In 2005-2006 he recorded and published a new song every week as a free podcast called "Thing a Week." A few of these songs have become full-fledged internet smashes, including his folky cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back," a visual ode to Creative Commons called "Flickr," and "Code Monkey," the anthem of software designers everywhere.

Coulton releases all his music under a Creative Commons license that allows for file sharing and copying, as well as non-commercial derivative works. And his community of fans has rallied around him to generate airplay on hundreds of podcasts, create a library of music videos, and even set up gigs through Eventful.com.

In addition to his singer/songwriter work, Coulton produces a weekly interview podcast for Popular Science Magazine as their Contributing Troubadour.

Jonathan Coulton on the Web: JonathanCoulton.com, Thing a Week Podcast, PopSci Podcast


Cecil Vortex: In the course of the year you spent working on Thing a Week, did you develop any techniques that seemed to help you tap your creative side?

Jonathan Coulton: I wish I could say that I developed a sure-fire strategy for writing a song. That's one of the things I was hoping would come out of Thing a Week -- that I could somehow discover a process that worked every time. But it was always different.

I spent a lot of time walking and riding my bike, mumbling under my breath, making up lines about things I saw or thought of. Ideally, one of those lines would be interesting enough to stick with me and grow into something. Sometimes I would get inspired early in the week and the song would sort of write itself. Other times I would think and think all week, and Friday would find me with no good ideas.

The one thing I did learn was that even the good songs have a point when they feel awful -- for me there's always this deep valley of self-doubt when it seems like I should stop writing and abandon the idea. But sometimes even the songs that started with bad ideas would have a very strong finish, and I would find that I'd pulled something really great out of nowhere. Not always -- there were certainly some songs that never really got good. And I think that's an important part of the process too -- you're going to write some clunkers for sure, but you'll never really know unless you write them. Starting a song is easy; finishing it is a lot harder.

CV: How did you stay focused and productive, particularly on those days when you were feeling a little less inspired?

an interview about the creative process with choregrapher Natalie Marrone

Photo credit: Stephanie Mathews.

Natalie Marrone received her Master of Fine Arts degree in choreography from Ohio State University in 1998. That same year she founded The Dance Cure, a contemporary, all-female dance company based in Columbus, Ohio, and began her field research on southern Italian folk dance. Her work has been recognized by the Congress on Research in Dance, the National Dance Educators Organization, the Greater Columbus Arts Council, the Italian Folk Art Federation, the World Dance Alliance, the American Italian Historical Association, and OhioDance.

Ms. Marrone has served on faculty for ten years in higher-education dance programs and as a guest choreographer and master teacher for universities, public schools, national commercials, live television, and professional academies. In addition to her work with The Dance Cure, she's currently the jazz dance director of New Albany Ballet Company and recently developed Dance Decisions Inc., a new business that coaches young dancers through the process of choosing a university dance program.

Natalie Marrone on the Web: The Dance Cure, Dance Decisions


Cecil Vortex: Where do you find the inspiration for your choreography?

Natalie Marrone: Eighty percent of the time, the music is what feeds me information. It may not be the music I wind up using, but for me, any kind of inspiration starts with a visceral response to sound and wanting to move to that sound. And the sound isn't always a beat, although I love rhythm and using polyrhythm. When a soundscape comes on that's speaking to me, it's almost like I have a socket and it plugs in and I know that I need to go from there.…

One of the things that always inspires me is a person's story as it's written on their body -- especially as it's written on their face. I might not have a job soon if this Botox thing continues. [laughter] I look at people. I look at their physical shape and I look at the way they move. And just for an instant I can almost be inside their being. It's always something about the story in the lines, the wrinkles -- the story of their life is written there. I need to sit at the local coffee shop and just look at people and watch them walk. And feel their walk.… The other thing I really need is in-nature time. I get a lot of sensibility about movement just from the wind sometimes or from sensing the path of wet leaves underneath my feet.

CV: Are there any other day-to-day activities that you've found helpful?

Welcome!: This interview is part of an ongoing series of chats with artists about their creative process. You can find the full set of interviews, including musicians Van Dyke Parks and Jonathan Coulton, and SF Chron columnist Jon Carroll, all at www.about-creativity.com. You can also subscribe to future interviews here. Thanks a lot for dropping by, -Cecil


an interview about the creative process with designer, humorist, and teacher ze frank

Photo credit: Scott Beale / laughingsquid.com.

In 2001, Ze Frank achieved net notoriety when a birthday party invitation entitled "How to Dance Properly" became an early viral video. This spark led to zefrank.com, home of a host of projects, including interactive flash toys, animations, essays, videos, and a wide variety of collaborative ventures. Over fifty million people have visited zefrank.com to date. From March 17, 2006 to March 17, 2007, he wrote, produced, and starred in The Show with zefrank, a wildly creative online daily video program.

Frank's an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Parsons School of Design, and SUNY Purchase. As a speaker at events like the TED conference, PopTech, and Flash Forward, he covers topics ranging from the new creativity to contagious media to airplane-cabin safety cards.

We spoke in February 2007 as his year-long run on The Show neared its conclusion.

Ze Frank on the Web: zefrank.com, The Show with zefrank


Cecil Vortex: Are there any techniques that you use in your creative process that help you generate new ideas?

Ze Frank: Self-awareness is one of the big keys. If you read a lot of the psychology literature on creativity, one of the only real, solid correlations with being able to shift your creative output is the belief that you can change it. So for me -- I think I picked this up in a Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi book -- I've spent a long time just trying to figure out the kind of cycles that I go through, trying to pay attention to the different kinds of states that I find myself in.

There are times when I feel like I'm craving what I call unsolvable problems, and I have the kind of energy you need to move forward into uncharted territory and brave that side of things. And then there are other times when that seems like the most difficult chore in the world. So I've also gotten pretty comfortable knowing when I need to pick up solvable problems. Programming definitely fills that void for me. Also illustrating, doing little illustrations, things like that. This is a long-winded way of saying that I think I've got a range of techniques that feed into how I'm feeling at that particular moment.

CV: Do you have any day-to-day habits you rely on?

an interview about the creative process with poet, teacher, impresario Bob Holman

Recently dubbed a member of the "Poetry Pantheon" by The New York Times Magazine, Bob Holman has previously been crowned "Ringmaster of the Spoken Word" (New York Daily News), "Dean of the Scene" (Seventeen), and "this generation's Ezra Pound" (San Francisco Poetry Flash). His latest collection of poems, a collaboration with Chuck Close entitled A Couple of Ways of Doing Something, was exhibited at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum during the Venice Biennale and published by Aperture in fall 2006.

Holman ran the infamous poetry slams at the Nuyorican Poets Café from 1988 to 1996. In 1995, he founded Mouth Almighty/Mercury Records, the first-ever major spoken word label. In 1996, the TV series he produced for PBS, The United States of Poetry, won the INPUT (International Public Television) Award. He is Visiting Professor of Writing at Columbia School of the Arts, Founder/Proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club, and Artistic Director of Study Abroad on the Bowery, a certificate program in applied poetics.

Bob Holman on the Web: The Bowery Poetry Club, Bobholman.com, A Couple of Ways of Doing Something, by Bob Holman and Chuck Close


CV: Are there any habits or tactics that you use to help feed your creativity?

BH: I'm a poet, I guess, because the tempo of a poem fits into my life. If I had a different kind of discipline, I'm sure I would write infinitely long novels. Poems ride along on the tip of your eyelash and can come and go in a blink. It's important that you be there when they want to happen. And the way to be there is to give yourself time to percolate; you can read, you can walk, you can sit there and dream.

The other part is to be ready when they are. Which is to say, a notebook and a writing implement are your passport. I love writing in darkened theaters and at art museums. But it's also important to have [these tools] beside your bed so no dream gets lost.

CV: What do you do when you're feeling creatively dry?

an interview about the creative process with painter James Warren Perry. Image: Santuary #3

Sanctuary #3, 42" x 72" acrylic on canvas, private collection. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

James Warren Perry is an independent realist artist living and working in Northern California. His work has been featured in over 100 exhibitions at institutions around the world, including Riverside Art Museum; Palm Springs Desert Museum; Museum of Art, Kochi, Japan; Masur Museum of Art; Art Museum of Los Gatos; Bolinas Museum; Texas Artists Museum; United States Embassy, Reykjavik, Iceland; Oliver Art Center; Stanford University; University of the Pacific; Merced College; and the State of California Attorney General's Building. He's the recipient of a full fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center and a Marin Arts Council Individual Artist's Grant. His artwork has been featured in numerous publications, including New American Paintings, American Artist, and Artweek.

James Warren Perry on the Web: Jameswarrenperry.com


Cecil Vortex: What helps you generate new ideas?

James Warren Perry: Travel is a wonderful way to feed your creativity. You're taken out of your normal context and can assess things in your daily life from a different point of view. I paint all over the world. When I'm off in Southeast Asia and then come back to Northern California, the shapes that seem very familiar to me on a day-to-day basis somehow seem quite exotic.

CV: Do you have any day-to-day habits that you rely on?

JWP: I'm really glad that you used that word -- "habit." Honestly, most artists that I know who have had sustained periods of productivity -- people who have made careers of it -- are very regular in their working habits. They just get up in the morning and they do it. Getting in the habit, that's the thing that will sustain you much more than the stereotype of the artist who's in the throes of creativity.

If you look at how artists have been portrayed in films, most of it's not great. [laughter] I always think of Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life. He's in the throes of madness. Most people I know that are pretty darn good artists, they're just somehow regular people. They just get up in the morning and work.

CV: On your website you talk about the importance of quieting your mind and giving focused attention. Are there any techniques in particular that you use to accomplish that?

an interview about the creative process with standup comic, sitcom writer, rapper Howard Kremer aka Dragon Boy Suede

A graduate of the American Academy of Drama, Howard Kremer has performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live and Comedy Central's Premium Blend as well as at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, the Montreal Comedy Festival, and top comedy clubs around the world. He'll be performing at the upcoming Coachella Festival in April, 2007, and his half-hour comedy special airs on Comedy Central on April 6th. One of the stars, cowriters, and cocreators of MTV's Austin Stories, Kremer has sold nine original sitcom pilots to HBO, ABC, NBC, FOX, MTV, and Comedy Central. As Dragon Boy Suede, he performs and records filthy, funny, infectious rap.

Howard Kremer on the web: Dragon Boy Suede on MySpace (adults only)


CV: What techniques do you use to help you come up with new ideas?

HK: I take walks. I find that if I'm stationary, sometimes it's not going to happen. I take drives. I'll force myself to go to bed if I'm not tired, because if I lay there and toss and turn then I get ideas. Other than that I have -- I guess they're formulas? I'll change one thing. I'll look at an object or a situation or a show and just change one thing about it. What if oranges were square? What if Gilbert Gottfried was the star of 24? If you change one thing in a dynamic, it changes all the other relationships, so you start to be able to abstract it and look at it in a different way.

CV: Does listening to music help your productivity or get in the way? For me, for example, taking a long walk without music can be a big help.

HK: Oh completely. An iPod, or even having the radio on in the house, or if you're going for a drive and you have a CD in, you're just not going to really create during that time. Which sometimes is good because you have to absorb too. Joe Strummer said that -- you have to have input to have output.

CV: Can you describe the creative process you use when you're working on a sitcom script? Is there anything in particular that you do to stay focused and get your work done?

an interview about the creative process with poet, author, teacher Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson is the author of The Red Parts (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2007), a nonfiction book about her family and criminal justice, and a critical study, Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (University of Iowa Press, Fall 2007), as well as four books of poetry: Something Bright, Then Holes (Soft Skull Press, Fall 2007), Jane: A Murder (Soft Skull, 2005; finalist, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir), The Latest Winter (Hanging Loose Press, 2003), and Shiner (Hanging Loose, 2001; finalist, the Poetry Society of America's Norma Farber First Book Award). She's taught literature and writing at the Graduate Writing Program of the New School, Pratt Institute of Art, and Wesleyan University, and is currently on the faculty of the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.

Maggie Nelson on the web: Amazon.com, Simon & Schuster, Soft Skull, CalArts


Cecil Vortex: Can you describe your creative process?

Maggie Nelson: I have few to no patterns, and even less dogma about how to write, or how I write. Poetry tends to come to me naturally or not at all. I spent years trying out different exercises and forms like most everyone, but the truth is that I don't do that anymore. It may sound mystical or retro or simply depressing, but I increasingly feel myself to be a hostage to poetic impulse. I usually have to wait until a poem comes along, or until I see what's there to be written, as Robert Creeley once put it. For me a poem often begins as a constellation of words coursing through my head like little electric shocks. This often happens when I'm in great pain or pleasure, doing laps in a pool, or in the bardo between sleeping and waking. I don't know why. The words feel like irritants in the soft lap of an oyster, as Henry James had it. Then the pearl -- if one could call it that with a straight face -- starts to congeal around the irritant. A snowball in the muck.

As for non-poetry projects, that's a different story. Usually I do a lot of reading or research until something takes possession of me. I think of research like throwing lots of crap in a cauldron -- bones, feathers, blood, everything -- and turning up the heat: eventually it has to come to a boil. (Whether you make something edible is a different question.) Or, let me put it this way: Often a baby in a subway station will scream back at a loud train hurtling through. If you send a train of information hurtling through your brain often and fast enough, and if the train screeches loudly enough, you may eventually find yourself yelling back.

CV: Are there any techniques that you use to spark new poems or gather up ideas?

an interview about the creative process with clown, actor, playwright, teacher Jeff Raz

For the last thirty years, Jeff Raz has performed internationally with circuses and theaters including The Pickle Circus, Lincoln Center Theater, Dell'Arte Players, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and the Marin and S.F. Shakespeare Festivals. Since 1990 he has written ten plays and two solo plays. His television work includes Live From Lincoln Center and Disney's The New Vaudevillians.

Raz is the founder and director of the Clown Conservatory, a program that has trained some of the top young clowns working in Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloize, Ringling Bros., and other circuses around the world. He's currently performing the lead role of "The Dead Clown" in Cirque du Soleil's Corteo.

Jeff Raz on the Web: Jeffraz.com, The Clown Conservatory


Cecil Vortex: Do you have any techniques you use to help you get into a more inspired mode?

Jeff Raz: You know, I usually don't think in [those terms] because I've made a living doing this since I was 15. I'm kind of a blue-collar guy in that way. I go to work. The way I look at it and the way that works for me is, I just keep plugging ahead.

I started as a juggler. As a juggler, you can always get up and throw the balls. Or you get up and you throw the clubs. No inspiration needed. Throw the damn things. If they're in the air, wonderful. It they're on the ground, throw 'em again. It's kind of simple.

When I write a play, what I do is, once I've got the research going and I've got it floating around in my head, I'll try to write the whole play in a week. Just write the f****r. And it's terrible. (I got this from Annie Lamott, from her book Bird by Bird.) So I just do that, and then I can edit it, which I do better than creating from whole cloth. And again, both of those [steps] are kind of designed to make sure I know what the job of the day is. I don't do well waiting for inspiration.

Now, the other morning I was working ten-show weeks, which means I'm on stage for twenty-five hours a week, which is a huge amount of stage time. I get done at 11 o'clock. I get home and the turnaround between Saturday night and when I have to be back on-site at 11 o'clock putting on makeup the next morning is the tough one. And then we had a cabaret after, so we actually had an eleven-show week. I was getting really tired. But sonofabitch if I'm not up at 6:30 on Sunday morning with ideas about the show.

CV: And why do you think that is?

Regular visitors to this site know that I'm quite literally 175 years old. What you may not know is that just five short years ago -- at the ripe old age of 170 -- I had a series of micro-epiphanies regarding the creative process, the most important of which was this:

I'd always thought art was about sitting around, waiting for inspiration to strike. As a result, I did a lot of waiting and not that much creating. But it turns out, art and inspiration don't have to (entirely) work that way. You don't have to just wait. There are actual techniques you can use -- habits that help drive inspiration, ways to tackle a blank page and to catch ideas as they spark through the day. Why didn't anyone tell me that before? Like, when I was 140?

Anyways, hoping not to lose any more time, I began to gather up a personalized set of these techniques -- what seemed to work for me. And then I started to wonder, what techniques have other artists come up with?

The result of that question is this here brand-new cv.com feature: "Conversations about Creativity." Over the next several weeks, you'll be hearing from dancers, poets, computer graphic effects artists, illustrators, stand up comics, musicians, and a host of other creative professionals about how their creative process works, how they deal with dry periods, and what they do to stay productive, keep their work fresh, and generally tap their personal woosh.

The first interview goes live tomorrow, and new ones will follow each Thursday. In the future, if you ever want to jump straight to the Creativity in Practice page, you can bookmark it right here.

I've really enjoyed these initial interviews, and I feel like I've learned a lot already. I hope you'll enjoy 'em too and come on back for more.

Tomorrow: a conversation with Jeff Raz, clown, actor, playwright, teacher, and the star of Cirque du Soleil's Corteo.

-Cecil

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About-Creativity is a series of interviews with artists about their creative process.
Cecil Vortex has those interviews along with my own writing and tunes plus the occasional group-read of a challenging tome.

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Air
Baez, Joan
Bauhaus
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Beirut
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Berlin
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Fountains of Wayne
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negativland
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Plays Monk
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Redman, Joshua
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Richman, Jonathan
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Semisonic
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Squeeze
Stone Temple Pilots
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Television
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Thinking Fellers Local Union 282
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Uncle Tupelo
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Violent Femmes
Voice Farm
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Wainwright, Loudin III
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Wilco
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X
Yellow Man
Yo La Tengo
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