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2011 is a big year for Studio 360.  We’re celebrating our tenth anniversary on the radio and online — time flies, we know — and we’re marking the milestone with a foray into another medium: the printed word.

Spark: How Creativity Works will hit bookshelves on February 15.  Written by Studio 360’s long-time executive producer Julie Burstein, it’s a how-to guide for summoning your inner artist – with advice drawn from Kurt’s decade of interviews with some of the greatest creative minds of our time: including Richard Serra, Chuck Close, Isabel Allende, and Patti Lupone, among many others.

To get you in the mood, we’ve got a sneak-preview: Kurt Andersen’s foreword.

[Amazon] [Barnes & Noble] [IndieBound]

***

I graduated from college with no job in the offing and no desire to return home to Nebraska. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to live in New York City, hang out with people doing creative work, and get paid for doing creative work myself, but that I didn’t know how to act or sing or dance or play an instrument or draw. When I was twenty-one, that was the extent of my career plan. And oddly enough, I’ve executed it in all its half-assed, unkempt glory for the last thirty-five years: I’m a New Yorker; my friends are mostly writers and artists and filmmakers and musicians and designers, and I’ve earned my living in pretty much every creative field that doesn’t require me to make music or draw. Or dance.

But it was just a decade ago that I had two back-to-back aha moments that finally explained my zigzagging professional path to myself and also made me understand the prerequisites for creativity.

The first lightbulb went off when I read an essay called “The Amateur Spirit” by the great scholar and writer Daniel Boorstin. The main obstacle to progress is not ignorance, Boorstin wrote, but “pretensions to knowledge. . . . The amateur is not afraid to do something for the first time. . . . the rewards and refreshments of thought and the arts come from the courage to try something, all sorts of things, for the first time. . . . An enamored amateur need not be a genius to stay out of the ruts he has never been trained in.”

Here was a supremely credentialed prince of the Establishment, the ultimate professional intellectual—Rhodes Scholar, Ph.D., professor at the University of Chicago and Cambridge University, museum director, Librarian of Congress—arguing in his seventies that while professionalism of the good kind (knowledge, competence, reliability) has its place, it is the curious, excited, slightly reckless passion of the amateur that we need to nurture in our professional lives, especially if we aspire to creativity in the work we do.

A few months later I found myself interviewing my funny, brilliant friend Tibor Kalman, the graphic designer and multifarious auteur. A transcript of our conversation would appear in a monograph about his work. He was forty-nine and when we talked he knew he had only months to live. Tibor had always been smart about the nature of creative work, but now the wisdom was pouring out.

“You don’t want to do too many projects of a similar type,” he told me. “I did two of a number of things. The first one, you fuck it up in an interesting way. The second one, you get it right. And then you’re out of there. I have sought to move into as many other fields as possible, anything that could be a step away from ‘graphic design,’ just to keep from getting bored. As long as I don’t completely know how to do something, I can do it well. And as soon as I have [completely] learned how to do something, I will do it less well, because what I do will become more obvious.”

I realized my entire professional and creative life so far had been conducted in a similar way, by indulging the amateur spirit: I’d repeatedly, presumptuously barged into jobs for which I had no credentials or much specific training and then worked extra hard, hoping that my rank inexperience might somehow be transmuted into interesting innovation. I’d had no experience writing radio and TV news scripts (for NBC, my first job), or about politics or crime (for Time, my second job), or about architecture and design (also for Time), and when I cofounded Spy magazine (my fourth job), I had never edited anyone’s writing but my own, or run a business. Ditto when I wrote and produced prime-time network comedy specials (for NBC), wrote an off-Broadway revue, wrote a screenplay (for Disney), and sold my first novel (to Random House). Professor Boorstin and my friend Tibor had convinced me retroactively that what I’d done by accident, going from interesting gig to interesting gig with no real strategy, had a philosophical basis.

Shortly after that double epiphany, executives from Public Radio International and WNYC called me out of the blue and asked if I might be interested in hosting a new program they wanted to create about the arts and entertainment and creativity. Really? Me? My total on-air experience consisted of having been interviewed a few times about books and articles I’d written. Host a weekly show on public radio? Were they serious? I’d done plenty of things I had no standing to do, but no one before had ever invited me to do something I had no standing to do.

That’s not completely true. Twenty years earlier, a theater director had called me out of the blue and asked if I might be interested in playing the lead in his upcoming production of Othello. Really? Me? My total acting experience consisted of playing Captain Hook in a grade school production of Peter Pan. And also, I am, um, er, Caucasian. Was he serious? Well, as it turned out, um, er, uh, no: he’d meant to call an (African American) actor named Curt Anderson. Wrong number.

But this time, it turned out, the public radio grown-ups really had intended to call me, and not the veteran radio personalities Curtis Andreessen or Karl Andrews or Carter Andrazs. They were serious. And that’s how I came to help invent and host Studio 360.

What we do every week on Studio 360 is try to show how creativity works by means of individual case studies, by talking at length and in depth to some of the world’s most talented people about how and why they do what they do. And for this book we’ve distilled the most relevant wisdom from my hundreds of conversations to create a kind of plain-English master class about the difficult, exhilarating process of pursuing one’s creative passions. It’s Creativity 101 featuring guest lectures by visual artists and designers Chuck Close, Denise Scott Brown, and Robert Venturi; filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow, Ang Lee, Mira Nair, and Kevin Bacon; writers Richard Ford, Joyce Carol Oates, John Irving, and Tony Kushner; musicians Patti LuPone, Rosanne Cash, Robert Plant, Yo-Yo Ma; and many other artests. Maybe you’re an artist or would-be artist yourself; maybe you’re an amateur singer or painter or writer. If so, consider this a collegial primer on how some supremely talented and successful people unleashed their talents and achieved their successes. But I’m also convinced that there are plenty of valuable, hard-won lessons about living and working creatively that can be applied to almost any life and any job. Or maybe you simply want to enjoy an unbuttoned, intimate look at the life and times of a few dozen cultural superstars. If so, enjoy.

What I’ve realized after talking to this remarkable pantheon of creative people for our five hundred shows is that what I learned from Daniel Boorstin and Tibor Kalman a decade ago is true of pretty much all work worth doing, especially creative work: the prerequisite for doing exciting work is to be excited about it yourself, reaching to do or make something that you haven’t done or made before and which seems at least a little scary, just beyond your comfort zone. E. B. White famously wrote that “no one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” The same goes for people who want to do any kind of creative work.

As soon as I adopted this paradigm of the amateur spirit just over a decade ago, taking risks to try new things, staying out of ruts, refusing to be paralyzed by the fear of imperfection or even failure, opening myself to luck—that is, once it became my conscious MO rather than simply the way I’d unthinkingly stumbled through life—I began spotting other members of the club, such as Danny Boyle, the director who made 127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, and eight other feature films. “Everything after the first one,” he told the New York Times, “is business. There’s something about that innocence and joy when you don’t quite know what you’re doing.” And Steve Jobs, talking about the unexpected upside of being purged from Apple nine years after he founded the company. “The heaviness of being successful,” he says, “was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” A period during which, among other things, he founded the amazing animation studio Pixar.

I’m not much of a religious person, but if forced to choose I’d probably go with Buddhism, because its practitioners write and say paradoxical things, such as this line by the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” That’s what Tibor was getting at, and Boorstin and Boyle and Jobs. And Richard Serra, as he explained a few years ago in a conversation on Studio 360, which we’ve included in Chapter 2. “I’m just going to start playing around,” Serra told me about his decision to abandon painting as a young man, “without the faintest idea of what I was doing.”
I learned how to make a national radio show by making a national radio show in the company of people who knew lots more about radio than I did, especially Julie Burstein, my executive producer from 2000 through 2009. Having written for TV and radio and the movies, I knew how to write sentences for the voice and ear rather than the eye, and I knew how to tell stories. But I learned how to have a new kind of conversation, in which I uttered sentences that parsed and contained a minimum of ums and uhs and you knows, conversations in which I seldom interrupted but nevertheless took the lead.

Moreover, in creating Studio 360 with Julie and the rest of our team of producers, I had the same goal as when I’d created magazines and websites and produced TV shows and written novels—to make a thing that I would want to read or see or hear even if I’d had nothing to do with it, and that was unlike anything extant. For me, that’s also how creativity works, when it works. In this sense, creativity is selfish—but it derives from what I call “good selfishness,” something like good cholesterol.

In the ten years that I’ve hosted the show, I’ve had more than a thousand conversations with some of the most creative and interesting people on earth. Many of them have surprised me. Before I met Susan Sontag, for instance, I was terrified. She’d been a hero of mine for decades, and her assistant had informed my producer that “Ms. Sontag does not suffer fools,” just in case I happened to be one. But our hour-long talk turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever had—and the only one for Studio 360 that generated a handwritten thank-you note. I was very differently surprised by the novelist and journalist Nick Tosches, who did his best to offend me and then, failing to do so, left the studio for a smoke halfway through the show and never returned. I was surprised when Gore Vidal remembered he had once threatened to sue me for an article I’d published about him, surprised when Twyla Tharp started crying, surprised when Rosanne Cash became a close friend, and surprised when Neil Gaiman asked me, years after he’d appeared on the show, if I would write a piece of short fiction for an anthology he was editing—and thus last summer I published my first science fiction story. Once again, I’d never done it, didn’t know for sure if I could do it, but did it anyway, and was pleased with the result. Such is the terror and delight of trusting one’s amateur spirit, being willing to be lucky and seeing where creativity takes you.

— Kurt Andersen
August 6, 2010

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Prejudices: The Complete Series
by H.L. Mencken

This is the handsomest set of the essays that made H. L. Mencken famous. Mencken was indignant about a lot of things, and he did not hold fire. Many of his reference points are forgotten, but it’s still bracing to read Mencken’s vitriolic attacks on what people of his time (and ours) hold sacred. We have plenty of outraged conservatives and a few indignant lefties, but nobody alive today can use “democratic” as a pejorative. If Mencken came back to life today, we’d crucify him.

– David Krasnow

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Requiem for Steam: The Railroad Photographs of David Plowden

David Plowden spent his childhood obsessed with trains. He would ride them just for the thrill of it, often without any direct destination in mind. A couple years ago, Plowden told Kurt “I rode all over the place, to the despair of my uncles and aunts and my mother’s friends who said, ‘What’s he going to amount to?  He rides trains!’  And my mother said, ‘I don’t know what he’s doing, but he does.  Leave him alone.  He’s gathering grist for the mill.’”

You can hear their full conversation here:
[AUDIO=http://audio.wnyc.org/studio/studio011108f.mp3]

Plowden began taking pictures of steam engines because he knew they were becoming obsolete and he wanted to make sure they were well-documented — he had no intention of becoming a photographer.  By his his twenties, photography (documentary and art) had become a career — he assisted O. Winston Link and worked closely with Ansel Adams, among others greats. Plowden’s travels by train eventually led him to the Midwest, where he made a distinguished career capturing the beautiful expanses of the Great Plains, as well as the desolate railroad towns the once welcomed the railways.

Requiem for Steam is Plowden’s love letter to the steam engine, full of moving portraits of the machinery, the rails, and the people he’s met on a lifetime of journeys.

– Max Bass and Jenny Lawton

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How to Train Your Dragon
Starring Jay Baruchel and Gerard Butler

Pixar is still tops when it comes to animation, but don’t overlook Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon, recently out on DVD. The movie’s unlikely hero is Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, a scrawny Viking who uses brains over brawn to befriend a wounded dragon.  The real star, however, is legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who directed the 3-D flight sequences.  The whoosh-bang joy of fire-breathing dragons soaring through the sky is a reminder of why we still go to the movies.

– Derek L. John

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The Roots are busy:  they play every night as the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, drummer Questlove has over one million followers on Twitter, and last month the band released Wake Up! a collaboration with John Legend. It was their 10th studio album in twenty years and the second released this year.  Clearly, The Roots do not press the snooze button.

Wake Up! covers soul hits from the 1960s and 70s by Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, and Baby Huey among others.  Legend’s smoky and soulful voice blends with The Roots acoustic sound, the songs have a Motown feel to them but the lyrics (sometimes slightly tweaked) have a poignancy that feels relevant in 2010.

In  “Our Generation”, originally recorded by soul singer Ernie Hines, Legend sings:

Hope of the world is in our generation
It’s all left up to us to change this present situation
Take caution from our elders, don’t make the same mistake
Let’s fill the world with love, and get rid of all the hate

The Roots have a gift for embracing all genres –try to catch their “Freestylin’ with The Roots” bit on Late Night, a genius display of musical improv. This album is a showcase for that versatility. They take the funky grooves  of Motown and effortlessly transition between rap, spoken word, and reggae.  In the lead single “Wake Everybody”, Common raps over a gospel chorus leading into another chorus by Legend and vocalist Melanie Fiona.

Amid a sea of strong covers, the album’s one original tune stands out.  In “Shine” John Legend sings: “can’t eat if we don’t feed them, can’t read if we don’t teach them.”  And the  song’s call to action will reach even more people than just dedicated Roots and John Legend fans: it’s a featured tune on the soundtrack for Waiting For Superman, the new documentary about the state of American public education, opening around the country October 8th.

–Max Bass

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Dub Kweli
Max Tannone

The latest mash-up album from New York producer Max Tannone is both relaxing and inspirational. Tannone combines reggae beats from artists like Michael Prophet and King Jammy with lyrics by “conscious rapper” Talib Kweli. The juxtaposition of smooth reggae melodies and Kweli’s edgy social commentary works surprisingly well, and pays tribute to the Jamaican artists who influenced the birth of rap itself.

In 2007, Kweli stopped by Studio 360 and talked with Kurt about Black Star (his duo with Mos Def) and his early days in hip-hop.

– Max Bass

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Special Moves
Mogwai

This new live album from post-rock darlings Mogwai might sound better than their studio records. The effects-laden guitar melodies tower a bit higher, but the inevitable crash of drums and strums is more deafening than ever. Special Moves is a collection of great songs spanning the band’s entire career, accompanied by a DVD of gorgeous, black-and-white footage from a performance in Brooklyn. For the uninitiated, live albums don’t normally act as good introductions. In this case, one could make an exception.

– Stephen Reader

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