When I was sixteen, I worked occasionally at my grandfather’s delicatessen in Irvington, New Jersey. During one noon-time rush as I was filling an order, I went to ladle a bowl of mushroom barley soup from the warming tureen behind the counter. I plunged the empty ladle into the thick, hot soup and instantly learned two things I would never forget. Liquids can rush in to fill even a small void with surprising force, and never move too quickly when time is of the essence.
The shock of the hot soup burning me that day remains. In fact, I was lucky. It could have been much worse than welted first degree burns on my hands and face (to say nothing of a messy apron). But not long ago while working on a table-top video shoot with props floating in a tub of water, I recalled the fluid dynamics of that ladle years ago and slowed my hand. Though I had no risk of burning myself in the cool water, I did risk messing the carefully tended periphery of my tiny set with unintended splashes. There was no way to know now that soup tureen would inform my life on set in middle age, but suddenly, there in front of our lenses and lights, time folded together like an origami. I submerged my hand in the tub slowly, adjusted the background beneath the water, and smiled to myself knowingly.
Most creative people have deep, complex skills. Some know precisely where they learned what they know. Carpenters are not born understanding the vagaries of load-bearing beams, nor the nuances of counter-sunk flat head screws, but inevitably a day came where they learned. That doesn’t mean they necessarily learned as apprentice to a master. Sometimes the skills that matter most are intangible and grow from seemingly unrelated, thoroughly unexpected sources.
Most of us pick up all sorts of stuff throughout our lives, sometimes at the most unlikely of times. Sometimes artistic skills are learned formally, sometimes not. Sometimes they're passed down through generations, sometimes from teachers, sometimes from books, sometimes just from plain, dogged experimentation and practice. None of these is better than the other. Creative people share a trait about learning new skills, I’ve found, and it never matters what discipline may be. Creative people observe and inquire. They do not walk through life with blinders. They absorb things in ways they might not even consciously realize themselves. They may not observe all things equally, may not consider all disciplines with equal interest, but no matter how narrow or wide a creative person’s cone of experience, ordinary and extraordinary days both present endlessly new and surprising sources of inspiration.
As a young teenager I discovered a strange ability to tolerate self-imposed challenges better than some of my peers. Neither a particularly large nor athletically accomplished kid, I realized I could hike with a heavy backpack further, more consistently, more doggedly than many of my compatriots. I didn't think much of it at the time; I simply wished they wouldn't complain quite so loudly and spoil the walk through the woods. Over time, however, that realization presented itself again and again, and even now the idea alone sometimes sees me through challenges when the going gets tough. I can stay with this (whatever it is), stubbornly, and I will see it through.
I knew a guy in college named Pete, two years ahead of me. He taught me how to look people in the eye and shake hands like a man. I thought I knew how to do this before I met him, but one afternoon he told my nineteen-year-old self otherwise. I don't recall where we were or what we were doing, but I do recall how steamed he was when he let me have it. Upbraided at first, I realized a few weeks later than he had opened a gigantic aspect of adulthood for me. He also had the self-confidence to inform me, as a friend, that I still had a bunch of growing up to do, and that demonstration of his own self-confidence was a profound gift. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but in fact it was two gifts: I learned how to look someone in the eye and shake hands even if I wasn't feeling confident about the exchange, and I simultaneously learned how to be more confident by watching him handle himself confidently. He was capable of telling me something tough without wrecking a friendship.
You never know what you’re going to learn, or when, or from whom. If you're paying attention to your life, you'll pick up things that will resonate. Properly saved, smartly replayed, carefully considered, they’ll often even help you downstream when you least expect it. The thing is, you never know what they are when you're experiencing them for the first time.
I remember how Gary, my summer camp counselor with an expertise in rock climbing, advised me to avoid stepping on ropes or other nylon webbing. He brought it up as a practical matter. In fact he suggested this as a general rule about all gear, all the time, but he particularly emphasized it about ropes and webbing. Tiny bits of debris will gradually wear away at the fibers, he said, subtly compromising the gear--gear upon which I might need to rely on for every last bit of strength at some critical moment. Philosophically I gleaned a deeper lesson: do not step clumsily through the world, practically or metaphorically. Keep your space clean and organized. Move through your campsite, your kitchen, your work space, your world with intention and care. Complete a task and care about how you do even the simplest things. Bring attention to your life, and your life will suffer less wear and tear. The thought is simultaneously simple and profound.
From multiple writing classes with the poet Alvin Greenberg, I learned it's okay to love language without getting hung up in the complexities of language. Words matter, but they only matter when they mean something. He taught me to leave out extraneous junk, get to the point, but never at the risk of writing something dull or colorless. (Regular readers of this blog will determine if I absorbed anything useful.)
From an artist colleague named Susan I first learned the concept of layering images in a computer. A basic thing in the digital world, I'd had scant graphics exposure prior to getting a job that ironically required a deep knowledge of such stuff. Susan gently explained the basics, trusting me to do the harder work of figuring out what to do with the info she imparted. Like most things, the basics were purely mechanical. She could teach those relatively easily. But through her non-judgmental pointers, she reinforced my own sense of how to put creative ideas together. What she offered about the technical details of layering images early in my career depended much more on overall artistic clarity than anything to do with technical capability. That was a concept I had absorbed from a number of places before, but her reinforcement in the form of a tangible, mechanical process resonated and penetrated. That it also led to many important creative conversations and projects with her is practically beside the point.
From Gail, a seasoned, senior reporter at Minnesota Public Radio, I learned to keep my elbow pressed into my own ribs if at all possible whenever I extended a hand-held mic to an interview subject. It dampens any vibration and extraneous noise that might otherwise cause a rattle, and it reminds me that there are always little tips to doing ordinary things that newcomers might not immediately discover on their own. The novice thinks to hold the mic out as far as your arm can go. The experienced pro knows that your arm will get tired, and that it's always better to get closer to your subject if you can, too. The metaphor of getting closer to your subject is one that resonates again and again through time, even if sometimes you simply have to extend yourself beyond optimal positions.
When I was the Supervising Producer at a big news organization on K Street in Washington, DC, I saw how Charlie the Executive Producer used to scream and yell at staff. He ran the newsroom like an angry longshoreman, ready to throw down his tool belt and make fists. Did he teach me anything? Not really, or at least not about news. However, he did solidly reinforce something that I already knew, namely how I would try my best never to treat my own staff the way he did. There were far better ways to lead a team, and I’m grateful for the sour experience I had working for him. Sometimes the sources of our most powerful lessons are neither pleasant nor intentional.
I continue to learn from my father and mother. From them I've learned how to be inquisitive and curious, how to make decisions and how to form opinions, how to evaluate evidence, and how to weigh something's merit. I've learned how to play at my life, even as I’ve learned how not to trivialize my life. They’ve taught me to take what I do seriously, even as I seek out deep pleasures and satisfactions by giving something back to the world. From them I've learned how to maximize experience, how to recognize that each day matters, especially if those days will have some bearing and meaning on someone else. From them I've learned that the most profound pleasures come from interactions with other people in the world, and that those interactions have almost limitless possibilities for variation.
I cook. I write. I photograph. I garden. I laugh. I listen. I learn. Where does it come from? Sometimes the wellspring simply surprises me, and other days I nod my head in respectful remembrance. The balance of each day is an accumulation of past experience, and to forget our sources is to forget ourselves.