Warning! If introspection, attempts at defining or articulating the creative process, self tooting of horns, or year end reflections offends you in any way, Turn. Back. Now. Otherwise, please keep hands and feet, small children, pets, the elderly and Barack Obama inside the stationary cardboard box at all times.
A little over a year ago I descended from a mountain in Nepal and began to write down the experience. Simple. So I thought.
The Nepal trip came about because I was stuck.
Over the years, I had refused a lot of high paying jobs in the name of trying to satiate some undefinable, diffuse energy anchored in my chest. An energy I tried many times to describe but failed to find the right words. It’s an energy that was sometimes very hard to believe in, but one that demanded recognition. It’s the energy felt by anyone compelled to create. Do you know this energy? To embrace it is a nourishment. And my embrace of it had led me, seemingly, to a dead end.
Stuck, I embarked on my trip. And when I returned, I knew there was a story to tell — a story both about the trip itself, and, because I’m a big geek at heart, about the great new camera that saw it all.
I had dinner with some professional writer friends the night I published the Fieldtest. They all chided me for not selling it to a magazine. I could have gotten x amount of money, or y amount of prestige, they said. But I told them to wait — wait and see where this goes. I thought there might have been a special momentum behind it.
I was right. It was quickly obvious that this piece had struck a nerve in the photography community.
In a few days I had made more off Amazon referral kickbacks than any magazine could have paid me for the piece. And more people had seen the piece than the circulation of many magazines. I don't say this to boast, I say this because I had no idea this was possible.2 Furthermore, what magazine would have published a 4,000+ word essay by a noname nobody about traveling while pontificating on a geeky, niche camera?!
Here I had taken something very personal and private — travel — and wrapped it in a container that inspired a very non-trivial number of people to embark on their own adventure. Or consider an entirely new type of camera system. 3
This was my first macro-scale lesson in learning just how powerful selflessness in experience could be. The best way to describe that lesson? Holy shit.
You can replace 'experiences' with 'ideas' there, too.
Fieldtest also showed me that if you approach a subject from a genuine, constructive and open perspective, the nature of the conversation that will unfold (in the comments) will also be genuine and largely constructive. Despite a general trend towards the admonishing to remove comments, I've found the communities emerging in comment threads on this site to be as useful, if not more so, than the articles themselves.
This experience relit a belief in that diffuse creative energy I spoke about; the energy that led me, indirectly to Nepal. The energy of pure compulsion to create.
Fieldtest was then followed up with a quick video supplement, and then they were both promptly translated into Japanese. In February, the energy demanded I write more candidly about the experience in the mountains in Annapurna Moonrise. I suspect this is the essay I originally wanted to write but didn’t yet know how.
Books in the Age of the iPad began in September 2009. It was called “Books We Make” — and it was a short manifesto for the types of books I thought we should be printing. It was a distillation of the ethos that informed all the book work I had done over the previous six years.
It went through over seven revisions. It began with:
There are rare instances where something special happens between the printed page and the word. Instances where the topography of the page and ideas within merge, where a book is transformed from a shell for ideas into — as Bringhurst puts it — a sculpture of language. It’s on these rare cases that we, as bookmakers, need to focus.
I shared it with a few people but never released it publicly.
But in January, when Jobs announced the iPad, I dug it up. The diffuse chest energy demanded so. I reworked it — it wasn’t very hard. I was pissed off at the publishing world on a number of levels. Pissed off because they were eschewing — and lambasting — digital as a viable publishing medium, and pissed off because so many of them had their hands over their ears going lalalalala. Brick and mortar book chains crumbled, distributors dropped like flies, and they largely choose to look the other way.
Well, I was going to write something that would take their hands off their ears and make them listen. That was the energy with which I attacked that piece — not an energy born out of a poisonous anger, but an energy born out of the anger of watching a loved one fuck up. Energy culled from a deep belief in fundamental precepts for which publishing stood, and from a perspective that there were more effective and sustainable ways to go at it.
Books in the Age of the iPad was published on a Thursday night, Japan Standard Time. I got on a plane the next morning for JFK. By the time I landed on Friday it had been picked up by the New York Times, I had several offers from editors to write books, and my mailbox was overflowing with comments. It was by far and away the most popular thing I’ve ever produced (and continues to be so to this day).4
That campaign, punctuated by diving head first into a five-times a week Mysore Ashtanga routine, dominated May. We raised more than $23,000 on a goal of $15,000. Production of Art Space Tokyo filled June, and July was spent re-launching the book and writing up the whole process in Kickstartup. Running the Art Space Tokyo Kickstarter campaign was great, but what if I could inspire 1000 other people to do the same? And what if all that was required to do so was to clearly articulate the experience? I knew it would work — by now I had seen it work several times over.
All of these essays — GF1 Field Test, Annapurna Moonrise, Books in the Age of the iPad, Embracing the Digital Book and Kickstarter — were the result of listening to and believing in that diffuse creative energy. The lonely creative process was fueled by that energy, but a genuine desire to share, extend and magnify experience gave legs to the essays once completed.
2010 was the year of writing. A napkin calculation clocks in the number of words published on this site at around 33,000. This is a lot for me. There's easily double that number unpublished. If I've tried to do one thing with my writing this year, it's respect that 'publish' button in the backend. I tried (perhaps unsuccessfully at times) to ensure everything that got pushed to this site was relevant and connected to the bigger topics at hand.
Those 33,000 words include not only the big essays I've outlined above, but the smaller Satellite articles (like this one), too. Some of the highlights include:
Each one of these essays was excruciatingly hard work. Make no mistake, there is nothing easy about writing. It requires a tremendous amount of time and, often, blind belief in the output. The larger essays can take upwards of 50-100 hours to complete — write, edit, design, rewrite, whiskey, redesign, self-doubt, layout, cry, publish, promote, correct embarrassing invariable spelling mistakes.
But the act of writing each of these essays has led to a deeper insight into the subject at hand. Obvious, I know. But this is something many creatives simply choose not to engage. And it's a shame. Reflection through writing can illuminate the next step in a creative process which all too often feels like flailing aimlessly in the dark.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say an unarticulated experience or creative process is one left unresolved. By writing about your experience you close the loop, so to speak. When you publish, both the output of the experience (book, software, photographs, etc) and now the ability to replicate that experience is in the hands of your audience. That's a powerful thing. And I can say with absolute clarity, there is as much satisfaction in seeing your experience manifest in others as there is in the creative output alone.
The second half of 2010 was a full-on world-tour discussing all of the above.
It began with speaking engagements in August at the Apple Store in Ginza, and then Tokyo Big Sight for the Good Design Awards. In September I flew to London — popped into Paris for an intoxicating first visit — then hopped into a car in Slough to drive up to Wales for Do.
In that car, I sat next to one very unassuming Maggie Doyne. I asked her what she did and she shrugged and said, "Oh, I just help out kids in Nepal." Well, help out kids, indeed, she did do. If you want to talk about feeling that diffuse, impossible to neglect energy in your chest, talk to Maggie. Watch her Do Lecture for the backstory. Suffice to say she runs a 200+ child orphanage in Nepal. And made it happen before she turned 25. And she's just getting started.
I turned 30 in November and decided to gift ten years of education to one of her children. Together, with your help — dear followers and readers — we raised $3,000 in the blink of an eye. And little orphan Nani is now set for life.
So, to say Do Lectures was a highlight of this past year would be a gross understatement. The people I met there continue to inspire me. I’ll keep saying it ‘till I’m blue: attend if you have the means (and if you don’t, email me why you should be there and I’ll try to help you find the means).
October sent me off to Sydney for Web Directions South. At which I spoke on a giant stage, scarred out of my wits, arms frozen in a freakish tray-holding posture. It was good to know I still wasn’t over stage fright.
Books in Browsers, an amazing one day conference in October at the Internet Archive in San Francisco, opened my mind to the inspiring state of books in HTML (resonant output from that inspiration arriving soon).
At Adobe Max, I had the honor to share a panel with two amazing book designers: Henry Sene Yee and Ben Wiseman. Finally November brought — in collaboration with Book Builders West — a chance to champion the wonders of digital publishing to a room of traditional book publishers and printers, almost none of whom owned a Kindle or iPad. I think I may have scared them.
Along the way, Graham CopeKoga interviewed me on Brick Lane in London about my book design philosophy. Here's the interview — conducted while homeless men made faces at me, women screamed into cell phones, construction spontaneously errupted nearby and giant trucks rumbled and backed up next to our table. It felt like attempting to balance a chair on my nose while elfs tickled my belly.
And, of course, 2010 was rounded off by putting all of this theory and thought into concrete practice, working with the amazing, inspiring — preternaturally talented and positive — Flipboard crew. It's a collaboration that hits home to many subjects close to my heart. It's a collaboration about which much is still to be written (on my todo list). And it’s a collaboration with still much to accomplish.
A year ago, all of the above was latent. Nothing was written. No projects completed. No photos edited. No secured source of income. I had only a vague sense of how to get Art Space Tokyo republished. And at the end of it all I never imagined I'd be sitting here in California, working alongside so many talented folks, typing these words at this very moment.
Each step between then and now — nothing and all of the above — was characterized by one quality: belief in that diffuse, demanding creative energy. A belief strengthened a thousand times over by the support, readership, letters, books, cupcakes, links, beers and criticisms (both harsh and loving) by amazing folks the world over. My deepest gratitude goes out to you for that.
If the first half of 2010 was marked largely by creation in solitude, 2011 is shaping up to be the precise opposite. It’s the year of collaboration, humanity — taking time off from my closet sized box in Japan. Of building tools, finding a balance in execution, reflection and articulation — and teaching others to find that balance, too. I truly believe that embracing these three pillars predisposes us towards genuine and well considered output.
Do all of this while keeping an awareness of that energy in your chest.
Rinse and repeat.
This is 2011.