Question of the Week: Creative Process
This week's question for our authors is actually a handful of questions about process: Can you write (or illustrate) anywhere under any circumstances? What do you prefer? Do you have a special pre-writing/illustration ritual to prime your thought flow?
Unfortunately, I need very specific circumstances to be able to write. It can't be too early in the day (my brain needs a little time to get rolling), and I need absolute silence. I've tried many times to write with music on in the background, and it's always a fail. I also happen to be the father of two kids, so the end result of all of these factors is that my ideal writing time starts at around 9 p.m., and can often go until 1 or 2 in the morning. Once I start, I lose all sense of time and space, so the icy beverage I pour at the start of each session is typically untouched and watered down by the time my body finally quits and I head off to bed.
Three decades of experience tell me that design is a collaborative process, with lots of stakeholders involved. I always say that there are lots of folks who can make pretty pictures, but navigating the journey to market requires a particular skillset. There’s an initial rush of creativity, accompanied by appropriate research. I wring this part of the process dry, pushing my ideas way too far before pulling the best ones back and eliminating the ones that clearly don’t work (or won’t help the client solve their problem).
This is my first step, and it’s always the same. There’s some comfort in repetition and the eventual “OK, I’m there” moment. I’ve spoken with musicians about this, and have received affirmative, knowing nods. Ice Cube has told me on multiple occasions that creating what he does musically is similar to successful design. “We work it out, beat it out,” he said.
Next, I progress to what I call the sausage making, when the work leaves my perfectly constructed bubble and skids toward the chaotic middle. We are all familiar with the re-entry of a space capsule back to earth, where the vessel and its occupants need to withstand G-force pressure and hellacious temperatures. Strap yourself in and surrender to the process, steering the vehicle as best you can without losing sight of the landing point. Less dangerously, my process involves revisions — a creative director coming back with comments on composition, color and typography. We go back and forth over multiple rounds until, eventually, we arrive at a place where everybody is comfortable (or we start to run out of time).
Designing for sports — the vast bulk of my work — means that the end product might show as large as a stadium scoreboard at high resolution, yet needs to reduce to avatar size. It might be sculpted into metal, burned into wood, painted on grass or ice. It has to be able to animate on scoreboards and broadcasts. It needs to embroider successfully and, most important, it must win over the hearts and minds of sports fans, the most ardent brand loyalists on earth.
Before the pandemic hit, I enjoyed travel. I couldn’t write under any circumstance, but in just the last couple of days I came across something I wrote for SABR during a few hours’ down time in Ukraine, after a day trip to Chernobyl. In season, I do a lot of writing during baseball games, whether I'm watching in person or on TV. I have trouble paying attention to the game, trying to squeeze out a sentence before the next pitch, and don’t always succeed. With the crack of the bat, I have to look up and try to discern where the ball is headed. It’s not as much fun watching a game when I’m doing this. I try to force myself to stop, but it’s tough being a workaholic.
During the offseason, when there are no games to put on, despite having a background in the music business and a playback device near my computer, I never remember to put on music—except for one radio show each Saturday morning, Hillbilly at Harvard, which I’ve been listening to since the 1960s. It’s not music to work to; it’s music I enjoy. I could enjoy a lot more music, too. I just forget to put it on.
Silence is golden. I do my best work early in the morning or late at night when there are no interruptions by barking dogs, ringing phones or political door-knockers — especially from the wrong party. I rarely listen to music when I work, because I usually have the whole thing written out in my head in advance. That probably stems from my old AP training, dating back to 1969, when we actually used typewriters. I got used to the sound of the teletype, another machine that has followed the buffalo nickel into the dustbin of history, maybe because it drowned out the traffic noise on the busy street below. I still have to write from the press box, or at least I did in pre-pandemic days, but the sounds of the ballpark are soothing to my senses.
There are ideal writing conditions, and then there's reality. I prefer to be alone with silence or instrumental music going. In reality, I can write just about anywhere that circumstances demand, but the thing for me is that when I'm writing a lot, it goes well. When I'm writing less ... well, it's uglier. Writing is like exercise that way, I guess. You have to get into shape and then maintain your routine and your discipline. At least I do.
My state of mind determines where I work and what I listen to, if anything. I rent an office in a dull, old building in San Rafael, where I have a table, a chair and a desk lamp. The walls are covered with notes and printouts below index-card headings that guided me through the last chapters of Intangibles. On the floor are short stacks of books I used for research, and a large basket of papers in manila folders. No wall-hangings or plants. No personal mementos. It is the sparest of workspaces. When I'm there, I want total silence. Just me and my thoughts. But days on end of such solitary work can feel like a punishment. Before the pandemic, I could head to one of several coffee shops that are like second offices to me. I’m lifted by other people’s chatter and energy. I drink lots of lattes. At each café, I have identified the table with the best mojo; if it’s taken, I bide my time elsewhere, ready to leap when it clears out. If, as I'm writing at a cafe, disaster strikes — by which I mean the arrival of a loud-talker — I listen to classical music in my earbuds until peace is restored. Now, however, most cafes aren't open for indoor seating (where I can plug in my laptop), so these days I'm in the office. Unless I work in the guest room at home, where the sweet shouts of, “Babe, have you seen the scissors?” and “What are you thinking about dinner?”' waft through the door, immune to the highest decibels my earbuds can offer.
My creative process is pretty methodical. I wait until I have all my relevant research and interview transcriptions for a given chapter, and then parse through it to create a general outline. From there, I then start writing.
My rough draft is, well, rough. Basically just getting thoughts down on paper. After that, I give it a day or two before multiple rounds of edits until I have the copy where I want it.
I tend to write sections/chapters one by one, as somewhat self-contained pieces. Once the entire project is written, I look at it from a 30,000-foot view. That way I can edit for the overall themes and through-lines I want to emerge.
As far as my environment, I need to be by myself at my desk, listening to relaxing piano music or movie scores. Both calm me down, focus me and get my creative juices flowing.
Working from home in a house with two kids offers inherent challenges to productivity, but pre-pandemic I could at least count on them clearing out during school hours. Now, school hours are at home, and needs are constant. I’m trying really hard to divest myself of the mindset that, once I start work, it’s what I’ll be doing, uninterrupted, for the next few hours. Otherwise, I’ll drive myself crazy, and then I'll drive my family crazy. So when my 15-year-old daughter asks if I'll walk around the block with her before she starts her day, or my 12-year-old son comes in to see if I'll toss a football in the street with him for five minutes before his next Zoom session, I lean into it. Painful as it might be to tear myself from whatever flow is happening at the moment, once I’m outside I can’t help but recognize it as a unique moment, special to our time and place — the sweet result of an awful situation — that is worthy of embrace. And so I do.