In response to my latest piece in the New York Daily News, a few top leaders have asked me to talk about ‘creativity.’ I think we’ve tried to discuss this in the distant past once or twice. The phrase I think more accurately describes what I try to do is ‘play of mind.’ So, what does THAT entail?
For the recent Daily News piece, an early aspect of the play of mind was my re-reading of Caro’s great book, Power Broker, particularly the remarkable chapter, One Mile. Last year, Matthew Marienthal and I attended a talk by Caro, not long after his short book, Working, was published. So Caro and that single mile and the East Tremont neighborhood in the Bronx were on my mind.
So were the themes of change and what I call our ‘hidden history’ – the many stories of impact by a wide range of groups and institutions, including our own, that never make it as ‘super stories.’ One of those stories was the SBC/Metro IAF effort to imagine, design, and align the forces necessary to create the Mott Haven Campus.
Finally, the current crisis was the intense context for the thoughts, readings, experiences, and intuitions swirling around. So that’s the first phase of my work.
One thing that I think is critical is just to be aware of these hints and notions. Be open to them. Let them move around in your head. Let them come and go. In the lead up to writing, I believe that calming my tendency to judge or focus, to force something out, is critical. Letting ideas, chapters, quotes, experiences, faces, voices, and comments float around a little more freely will seem awkward at first. But that’s where the ‘play’ of ‘play of mind’ begins.
How does the second phase look? There’s a story about the great poet John Milton, who was blind. Each morning he would rise early and begin to play with the next sections of whatever poem he was writing. He’d do that for two hours or so. Then his daughter would wake up. He would say to her, “Hurry, please, I need to be milked.” (Or something like that, although ‘milked’ was the exact term he used.)
The challenge is knowing when to milk yourself, so to speak, when to begin to take the readings, experiences, themes, quotes, and such and begin to nudge them into some sort of written or spoken form.
I don’t worry about how ‘complete’ those are. At some point, I know it’s time to put things down on paper; and I let it flow.
The first draft or first several drafts are, as I’ve often said, just like the first batch of pancakes – never as good as the later batches, but an essential first step on the way to the golden-brown pancakes to come.
The third phase begins when, once I have a somewhat reasonable draft (usually after three of four attempts), I run it by people I’ve worked with for many years. These are editors I trust and who know me and my tendencies – Sheila here, sometimes one or more of my kids, sometimes Greg Pierce, sometimes one or more of you, sometimes Josh Greenman at the Daily News (who contributed great suggestions, as usual, including the idea of listing other non-Metro IAF groups toward the end), and at other times Deb Chasman at the Boston Review (who edited Going Public and all of my essays in her magazine).
I don’t send a piece to all of them or all at once. For instance, if I send to Josh, I am, in essence, ‘submitting’ the piece to him and not sending it to other newspapers. If I send to Deb, the same thing, although there is usually a longer time frame to her accepting or rejecting a piece. I almost always get rejected at least once, and, frequently, multiple times, before a piece makes it to publication. Sometimes a piece never sees the light of day. That is all part of the process here. I don’t resent it. I trust my editor-readers. The only thing I would warn against is sharing with too many people and getting too many suggestions. This can be counterproductive. It’s key to pick and choose which readers would be most likely to help on which pieces.
The fourth phase is the polishing part of the piece. I’d estimate that the Daily News piece went through ten or so drafts – adding, then subtracting, then adding again, until it reached the right length (1600 words, a double op ed) and the right tone and flow. This is a nerve-wracking experience, even now, for me, after 55 years of writing for publication. It never gets easy or without tension. I just know that that is part of the deal.
Anyway, I think that this reflects how I get to something I feel is mostly right – playing around for a time, milking at the right moment so that you have a first rough draft, sharing with trusted people and getting the kinds of reactions that help me get a piece into shape, and then refining and sharpening for publication.
My sense is that this dynamic also applies to how we might think about themes and issues and strategies in the public arena.
I’d be happy to discuss this – by ZOOM, email, or old-fashioned phone – with anyone who has questions or better suggestions.