An Interview with Hugh MacLeod of

Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod of talks about creative sovereignty, the business of art, and the pursuit of blinding moments of clarity.

AC_MacLeod-280For people who haven’t read your book yet, can you share one or two of its key themes?

HM: The book’s called Ignore Everybody. I first published it on the blog under the title How to Be Creative. And it wasn’t really an instruction manual — I wasn’t telling people what to do. I was talking about the landmines I hoped they wouldn’t step on because landmines are expensive to step on.

My main thesis is that when you first have a good idea, there’s no one who can really tell you whether the idea is good or not. For it to be any good, it has to be so out there, there’s no point of reference. Also, really good ideas, once they’re executed, tend to alter the power balance in relationships, and people are very conservative about changing power balances. I think it was chapter 4 where I said that good ideas have lonely childhoods. The initial loneliness of a good idea is to be expected.

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An Interview with National Novel Writing Month’s Chris Baty

NaNoWriMo's Chris Baty talks about why novel writing is like pick-up basketball, how to make your creative work a priority, and The Year of Big, Fun, Scary Adventures.

Chris Baty

Photo credit: Susan Burdick

How does National Novel Writing Month define a novel?

We define a novel as a minimum of fifty thousand words of fiction. Which is just kind of a ridiculous definition, but it creates a sense of structure, and the boundaries of the game are set. That’s about as close as we want to get to coming up with a definition for it. Leaving it malleable and open fits in well with the idea that, really, what we want to do is be sort of a creative kick in the pants for everybody.

We get a lot of emails saying, “I’m doing X. Am I allowed to do that in your contest?” And the answer’s usually, “Well, as the official keeper of the Great Rule Book of Month-Long Creativity Escapades, the answer is no, but as somebody who understands the joys of making stuff, we’re gonna pretend we didn’t get this email, and you just go about your business.” [laughs]

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Category: Writing

An Interview with the Exploratorium’s Adam Tobin, Part 2

The Exploratorium's Adam Tobin talks about what makes a great toy and shares ruminations from a Muppet colloquium.

AC_Tobin2-280Dan Brodnitz: 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.

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An Interview with the Exploratorium’s Adam Tobin, Part 1

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

Adam TobinDan Brodnitz: 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.

DB: 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.

DB: How did your parents respond?

AT: They encouraged it — it meant that things around the house might get fixed that otherwise wouldn’t. I remember I was seven or eight years old and somehow I was the only one in the house that could fix our stove.

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An Interview with Dana Reinhardt

Novelist Dana 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 dialog into IM.

Dana Reinhardt

Photo credit: Chelsea Hadley.

Do you have a writing routine you hold to?

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.

Is there an outline you work off?

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.

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An Interview with Blizzard’s Chris Metzen, Part 2

World of Warcraft's Chris Metzen talks about the ingredients of good interactive story-telling, the power of tribal creativity, and why Blizzard's game makers will never put rubber nipples on Batman's suit.

Welcome to the second part of this interview with Blizzard VP of Creative Development Chris Metzen. If you haven't already read Part One 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 MetzenWelcome to the second part of this interview with Blizzard VP of Creative Development Chris Metzen. If you haven’t already read Part One 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.

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

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.

How do you typically kick ideas off?

CM: I just get geeked up walking into a room where we all sit down and jam. (I use the term “geeked up” a lot — like you’re just out of your mind for an idea.) I’ll throw out an outline of, “Here’s where I’d like to go” or “Here’s a rough painting.” And then we’ll all sit around and absolutely sculpt a grander vision. My ideas are usually kind of the initial spark, but I’m surrounded by a really good team. We’ve been doing this for a long time together. Instincts are honed and there’s a great chemistry, so these guys wind up taking ideas and just running all the way down the field with them.

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An Interview with Blizzard’s Chris Metzen, Part 1

World of Warcraft's Chris Metzen talks about the power of spinning ideas, and how he got his big break on a bar napkin.

This is the first part of a two-part interview. Be sure to also check out Part Two to hear about the ingredients of good interactive story-telling, the power of tribal creativity, and why Blizzard’s game makers will never put rubber nipples on Batman’s suit.

Chris Metzen

How do you explain to non-gamers what you do for a living?

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.

What were some of your big influences growing up?

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.

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An Interview with Ianthe Brautigan

Writer Ianthe Brautigan talks about applying fiction-writing techniques to memoir, the power of cookies, and rising up to contribute your best.

Ianthe Brautigan

Photo credit: Nancy Bellen.

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

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.

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

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.

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

Well, you just are set free. Because you’ve been writing short stories and working in fiction-land, maybe starting novels that you discard, you develop your muscles for description and for structure.

How much of the way you approach structure and description in memoir writing is driven by the linear flow of events versus stepping back and applying a frame to life?

Well it has to be truthful. Memoir has to be truthful. Like, [if] you were speaking about your father and the way that he taught you to jog, that’s a memory that’s very clear in your head. And you know that that’s truth. If you just wrote that down, in three sentences it would be done. But if you wanted to write about that as a chapter of a book or as a turning point in your life, it would be longer, and you would reach into the tools that you’ve learned as a fiction writer to make that scene work.

You would start to go, where was I? What was there? Were there trees? Was there grass? What kind of tennis shoes was I wearing? All those details, which are real, evoke incredible memory for you as the writer, so you’re able to get the soul, you’re able to get at the heart of what you’re trying to write. But at the same time you’re painting a fictive picture.

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An Interview with Keri Smith

Artist and author Keri Smith talks about why she writes creativity books, the importance of play, imperfection, and impermanence in her work, and why we need to aim for "the all-consuming place."

Keri Smith

Photo credit: Jefferson Pitcher.

What got you started making creativity books?

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.

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An Interview with Adrian Belew, Part 3

Musician Adrian 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

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.

Is there anything you’ve learned about the creative process that’s surprised you?

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.

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

No — strangely it’s not something that I think artists sit around and discuss, although perhaps they should. It’s more to me just the doing of it. In King Crimson, for example, every time we approach a new record, we set up a lot of obstacles to challenge ourselves with. For example, we will say, “Okay, we’re only going to use these few things. Out of all the things we can use, out of all the time signatures or all the chord changes or all the tones or whatever you have on your palette, these are the things we’re gonna use. We’re gonna take this box of twenty-four Crayons, empty it out, and only use these six.” I think, sometimes, challenging ourselves all the time, that’s what it’s all about.

I learned that technique by reading about the way that Stravinsky wrote. That was just a bit of information that somehow stuck with me — that you could do that — you could put parameters around what you’re doing, and it would help focus your creativity.

Almost the entire opposite way of working has worked a lot for me as well. A lot of times I come in the studio and I just start on something — I have a sound and I just start playing something. And then I build from there. It’s not preconceived. It’s not all a target that I’m even shooting for. It’s just free-form, and you create something out of it.

So between those two things — one’s a very disciplined way and one is a kind of haphazard way — I think that’s where most of my work exists. [laughs]

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Category: Music/Dance