The Power of Storytelling international conference in Bucharest just concluded its fifth edition in October, and thanks to conference founder Cristian Lupsa, editor of the nonfiction journal Decât o Revistă and a 2014 Nieman fellow, and his colleagues, Storyboard will bring you transcripts from some of the two-day conference’s sessions. The theme of this year’s event was: a sense of place.
Our fifth featured speaker is Esquire writer and National Magazine Award-winner Chris Jones. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of his remarks from the Cluj edition of The Power of Storytelling Conference.
I’m going to show a very brief video called Beast of Turin, a trailer for this documentary that was made by these people who restored a very old car, a Fiat S76, made in 1911. This trailer says a lot to me about the creative process and how these things work. [Plays video.]
I almost don’t have to say anything, I’m tempted not to, but the engine firing up is what people see when you build something. I’m a writer, but this applies to anything – your story, your statue, your app, your magazine, your photographs. They see the engine lighting up, but they don’t see everything else that happened before that. And that’s the process. That’s how this stuff gets done.
So we’re going to talk a bit about this, I’m going to make nine rules about creative work. Why not 10? Because I’m being creative.
Rule number 1
The first one is – and this is where I’m supposed to say there are no rules, but that’s bullshit – there are many rules and you need to follow all of them. It is nice to say there are no rules and you are completely free to create whatever it is that you wish to create. But I don’t want to lie to you; we’re all friends here. There are so many rules. There are laws of physics. For an engine to work, you need a carburetor, you need exhaust lighter, there are parts that you must use for that thing to light up.
There’s a structure to good work. Jacqui [Banaszynski] talked about the tools in the toolbox. You need those tools. You need to learn the rules so that you can break them. You need to keep the rules that are really important – they’re sacred. They’re like the laws of physics. Structure always matters. There are certain things that you must obey.
I have a friend – he’s an idiot – and when we were young, he was probably 17 or 18 and he bought a guitar and he said: “You know what, I’m not going to learn the chords, I’m going to play what sounds good.” What sounds good are the chords. You can noodle on the guitar as much as you want, but you need to learn the chords to play the guitar. That is true. For any creative art, there are laws that you cannot break.
Another thing to pay attention to is that there are many talented people who’ve come before you, who have made mistakes that you do not have to make, because they made them on your behalf. You can learn from them. You can watch them. You can see them. Part of your job absolutely as a creative person is to push the boundaries. Right, we always hear that in English? “Push the boundaries!” “Push the envelope!” The boundaries exist. They exist and if you push against them, like that red line, it’s too bad if you’ve crossed it. The boundaries exist for a reason.
Rule number 2
You will be ferocious in your appetite. The thing that you love, the thing that you want to be, you need to look at everything that anyone else who loves that thing has done before you. One, you need to know what’s possible. Can you imagine trying to make a movie having never seen a movie? And I hear from people who come to me all the time that want to be writers, but they don’t like to read. I kick them in their teeth. So the dumbest thing I can imagine is saying: “I’ve never seen a movie, but I’m going to direct one. I’ve got this really cool idea for this long shot where we’re going to walk through kitchens, follow these people.” And you’re going to say: “Well, Martin Scorsese already did that.” And they’re going to say, “Wait, who?”
And that is why you have to consume everything. It teaches you what’s possible. It also teaches you sometimes what’s not possible. You read something or see a piece of art or a photograph and someone tries something and you’re going to be like “that does not work” and you’re going to have to figure out why it doesn’t work.
And then you take the things that you feel the most, the things that you love the most, the writers you love the most, the photographers you love the most, the artists you love the most, and you keep those. You make those talismans. You make those the stars in the sky that you’re guided by. You’re not stealing from those people – that is plagiarism; that is bad. You’re being influenced by those people. You need to keep all those things close to you. I have many sentences from many stories I’ve loved all around my desk, because it reminds me what I want to do. I want to do that.
Rule number 3
Having said there are rules and you have to obey certain things, number 3 is: There’s no right process to creativity. It’s the number one question I get asked when I talk to young writers: “What’s your process?” By that, they mean how do I write, and for me, my process – and I kind of almost hate that word – is that I write at night. I write in the pitch black. I write with music on. I write from 10 at night until 3 or 4 in the morning. Those are my peak hours. I write slowly. I go back after I’ve written a paragraph and I’ll read it again. I go back, and I’ll read it again. I go back, and I’ll read it again. I don’t outline. I just tell stories the best way that I can. I often start with the ending. Blah, blah. None of that matters to you. You need to find the process that works for you.
In Bucharest, Michael Paterniti, one of my favorite writers, was there, and he talked about how he starts writing at 5 in the morning. So, I’m going to bed then and Mike Paterniti is waking up. And that’s okay. If you need silence, that’s okay. If you want daylight, fine. If you’re one of those weirdos who can do their work in a coffee shop, while everyone is talking around you, you can do that.
You need to find a place that allows you to do your best work. Because the problem with being creative is – Jacqui talked about the muse – there kind of is such a thing. There are times when it works better than others. Everyone who is creative can explain that moment when everything is going and you lose track of time and you stop feeling and your legs are gone and you couldn’t give a shit if your house is burning down, you’re just going. That hardly ever happens. But you need to find the time and place that give you the best chance to be in that zone. To be open to the universe. To just flow right through.
When I watch that video with the mechanic, I think, what does a mechanic feel when he walks into that shop? I bet he walks in there and he goes, “I’m going to do some work. I’m going do some good work today.” And I feel, I don’t know this man, but I feel like he’s made that little universe perfect for him to fix that car.
Rule number 4
Rule number 4, and I will be stricter about this rule: You must be disciplined. There’s this notion that artists are crazy, and they just create. And they throw paint at things. And I’m a magician, and now I’m a wizard, and WITCHCRAFT! And I sacrifice lizards on fire.
Any good creative person I know is so disciplined you would not believe it. They are freaks about what they do. If you’re a writer, that means writing every day, that means dedicating time to write, that means dedicating time to read, that means: “If I have a deadline, I will hit that deadline. If my editor has asked for 4,000 words, I will produce 3,999 words, ten minutes before that deadline.” It is work. Jacqui again touched on this – Jacqui is also a wizard. It’s labor; it’s not magic – it’s magical.
You have to be single-minded about what you’re doing and today I fear – because there’s all this shit going on, phones, your things, your kids – you can’t focus. You need time to focus. Clean your place, sit down, and do some work. One of the reasons, one of the many reasons I’m in love with this mechanic is that he’s wearing a tie; he wears a tie to go work with that car. He’s doing his job. He’s a professional. He’s going to make something good.
A very good friend of mine said, “All writing advice, or creative advice can be boiled down to one three-word sentence: ‘Ass in chair.’ ” And then he walks off the stage.
And that’s pretty much it. You’re not going to write a freaking thing if you’re wandering the streets. No words will get written. You can pretend you’re contemplating – that’s a nice word. “I’m contemplating what I’m about to write.” No words will appear unless you’re sitting down, ass in chair.
Rule number 5
Like success, you will take your time. That mechanic – in that moment when the engine fires off, that engine hadn’t been fired in a hundred years, a century. He’d been working at that car for 10 years. That car is beautiful because he put 10 years of work into it.
When I was young, I was very stressed. I had ambitions – you know, I wanted to be good. And a bunch of my favorite people had done amazing things when they were 24 years old. Norman Mailer wrote “The Naked and the Dead” when he was 24. Bruce Springsteen wrote “Born to Run” when he was 24. Newton discovered freaking gravity when he was 24. I turned 25 and I was still in school. I hadn’t done anything. Well, I really wanted to kiss a girl.
And sometimes creativity is that lightning bolt that you read about or that you see in the movies, when someone gets struck by inspiration, and they’re sleepless for 24 hours and they create something great. Ninety percent of the time, it comes in pieces. You’re working in pieces. You create a whole. Good work takes time. Lots of time. You might do the best thing you’ve ever done when you’re 85. You’re laughing because you know I’ll be dead.
One of my favorite people I’ve ever met is this magician. Have you heard of Penn and Teller – do you know who these guys are? Penn is a giant, loud man, and Teller a very small, quiet man. And Teller does this trick called “The Red Ball.” Penn walks out on stage and says, “This trick is done with a single piece of thread.” Then Teller comes out on the stage, and this red ball that is following him across the stage. He makes it run over a park bench. He makes it jump over his head. He puts it through hoops. He throws it into the audience. The audience throws it back. This ball goes everywhere. I watched it going on and I thought, “How is he doing that?”
And I talked to a trick maker who was doing these amazing tricks (believe it or not, it is a job, making tricks) and I talked to him about that trick, and he said, “I know how they make every trick. I know every trick. I don’t know how Teller does that trick.”
Teller does that trick with a single piece of thread. It’s not a lie. He has a piece of thread tied to him and he is making that thing dance. How does he do that? He spent three years – after every single show in Las Vegas he worked on the stage. He rented a cabin in the woods to work on it some more. He went to a dance studio in Toronto with mirrors to work on it some more. He was finally ready to go. Teller told me, and this is my favorite quote that I’ve ever received, so I’m going to say it twice: “Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”
“Sometimes magic is just someone spending more time on something than anyone else might reasonably expect.”
Rule number 6
That means, rule number 6: You must be honest with yourself and you must love what you do. Because people who do love what they do will kick your ass. They will beat you every time. And if you don’t love what you’re attempting to be, if you’re not doing it because inside your chest you are driven to do this thing, you’re not going to make it. You won’t be obsessive enough. You won’t be single-minded enough. You won’t put enough time in. You won’t be good. It is so important to love the thing that you’re trying to create.
Again, going back to that video, every time I see it I see a different thing. The care that every one of those parts has been given; he painted the nuts that no one is going to see, that are buried deep inside the engine. They are bright red. He painted every one of them. What do you think? Do you think he loves cars? Do you think he loves what he’s doing? Do you think he’s obsessed with the details of combustion? Do you think he knows every molecular, chemical reaction that is going on inside that engine? I think he knows everything about cars that there is to know. And that’s how he did what he did. He loves it.
Rule number 7
The work will not always love you back. And if you’re asking that, you’re going to be disappointed. It will rarely meet your expectations of yourself. If all the other rules apply to you, if you love this and you’re putting your time and your heart into something, you will hardly ever be satisfied. It will hardly ever work out the way you think.
I’ve written hundreds of stories – thousands, if you count all my newspaper coverage. I like six of them. And that’s the matter. And I think that’s true for most of us. We’re all modest when we say, “Oh, I never do anything good.” Most of the times I’ve fallen short of what I wanted that thing to be. Because creating something is not math. I’m not good at mathematics. There isn’t necessarily a right answer. There isn’t some perfect “the answer is six – yes, perfect.” It’s not like that. You can always keep working. You can always change the sentences. You can always expose it a little less or a little more. There are a thousand things you could do and you’re never going to look at it and go, “Oh, I got that!” But very occasionally, you will.
And the other thing, and this is bad news, is good work doesn’t always win. And that is something else you also have to anticipate in this world. It wins for you, you know when you’ve done something good, you know when you’ve created something you’re proud of. But we all know, when we put something out in the world, sometimes it is not the cream that rises to the top. Sometimes that’s going to happen to you. So if you put your hope into how other people feel about what you’ve done, into how other people might react — oh, does it hurt. It hurts when you work really hard at something and it goes out there and you don’t hear anything, or you hear, “I hate that.”
You can’t let the outside world dictate how you feel about something that you’re proud of. Only you know that you did the work that you’re proud of and you’re pleased with this thing. It doesn’t matter; you did it.
Rule number 8
If you’re a creative person, you will be lonely. There will be nights when you’ll feel completely by yourself. The creative work is quiet work usually. I don’t know about anyone else, but I can’t do my best work when my kids are around.
It’s quiet work. The party comes after, when you get to launch the book, when you get to fire the engine and everybody comes over to see it. But how long has that guy spent in that freaking garage by himself?
Again, that is part of the deal. The other part of loneliness is that sometimes you feel crazy. Sometimes you will feel like you’re doing something that nobody cares about, that it doesn’t matter, because nobody is going to read it, nobody is going to look at it. And you’ll think, “God, I wish I had a normal job. I wish I’d been a plumber. I could deliver water and food to other places – it’s a very tangible and noble work. I could do that. It could be fun.” You’re going to have those conversations in your head all the time because you’ll be spending so much time alone, and it adds to that doubt and criticism of others, creeping in.
And then it’s good to be lonely. You’ll be lonely, but sometimes that’s really good, to be alone.
Can we watch the video again? Just watch it again and notice if you see anything different, as we’ve had this conversation. [Plays video.]
One of my favorite parts about that video is that after the engine fires up, 10 years after he’s been waiting for that moment and 100 years the engine has been waiting for the moment, it takes like five seconds where he’s like “Yaaay!” and then he goes and adjusts something. He goes to the top and he says, “Well, that’s not quite right.”
So when you’re sitting and asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?”– do you think he didn’t have moments of doubt when he spent 10 years working on that car? I’m suspecting he had nights when he thought, “It’s not going to start.” I’m suspecting he had times when he felt incredibly lonely, working away in his garage at night. But, deep down – deep down – I bet he knew the engine was going to start. He believed it was going to start.
Rule number 9 (and the most important)
Believe. You’re going to do this. You’ve got this. It’s going to be okay. You’re going to make something really good. Nothing good has ever been made by someone who did not believe at their core that they were going to make something good. It’s part of the deal. You need this. It’s the essential to what you do.
Sometimes I ask myself, “What is creative work?” I guess it’s very hard to define it, because the word is so big, but for me it’s like when you build an object or an experience that puts life where there wasn’t life before. It transmits emotion, makes one laugh, makes one cry, makes someone feel great about themselves, makes someone feel different about the universe, makes someone fall in love, makes someone act, and that is creative work. It puts life where there wasn’t life before.
And this conference for me is a miracle. When Cristian asked me to come here, five years ago, I said, “Hell, no, I’m not coming to Romania.” Four years ago, when I finally came, I was like: “Holy smokes, look at this place!” This conference is like a factory that manufactures belief. It’s fantastic. It’s been such a privilege to come to this conference in Bucharest over the years. Every year I need this, because it makes me feel like I can do this. It’s my little reminder that I can do it. You can do it. We can do it. Thank you.