Gay Talese’s advice for aspiring Journalists

 

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Gay Talese at his typewriter

 

Gay Taleses piece on Frank Sinatra titled Frank Sinatra Has a Cold is regarded by Esquire as one of the most influential magazine pieces ever written in the history of journalism and a pioneering example of what came to be called New Journalism. When I read that piece along with his other writings such as a story of New York Times obituary writer named Alden Whitman and the history of The Paris Review, I paused and pondered: All of his writings are non-fiction, dealing with heavy facts and real characters, but are written like short story. How did he even do that?

In conversation with Longform Podcast in front of a live audience at NYU, Talese answered my question. He generously shared his secrets of being who he is–one of the most well-respected journalists of our time. Although Talese’s counsel is aimed at aspiring journalists, it is replete with wisdom that applies as much to journalism as it does to any other intellectually and creatively ambitious endeavor.

The transcript is below (He starts sharing his advice at 00:38:20)

Interviewer: You graduated college in 1953. If you’re graduating from the University of Alabama today, you’re 21, how would you navigate this world today? How would you do your thing in 2013?

Mr. Talese: […] the way I worked then as a reporter is what I do now. I don’t think I have changed except get older. I don’t think I have changed a bit as a journalist. Doing your research more than you ever need, doing in person, looking at faces, never using a phone–if you can avoid it, and showing up. I am unannounced sometimes. Just show up. Just knock on the door.

Interviewer: You are still showing up?

Mr. Talese: Showing up is a part of it. [And] making good impressions […] And I tell you, I’m not selling clothes today, but I tell you, being well-dressed, it does not hurt when you knocking on the door try to appeal to strangers to give you their time and to ultimately let you inside their lives, so you can learn who they are and write knowingly about them. And write with respect about them as well. This is so important. We are not talking about journalism-put-down. We are not talking about snarky kind of stuff. We are talking about respectful reporting of people that might have been overlooked but have something to say, maybe has not been said or maybe it has not been said by these people in their own way of saying things. But it’s the way of quest for knowledge, expanding the table of interest to people who normally are not heard from, except statistically. Making people who are unknown people worth reading about and describe them in a way that a short story writer does. That’s all it is.

Interviewer: You get those people to reveal things about themselves […] How did you develop that kind of trust?

Mr. Talese: […] journalism is going on a date. You start with respect, reverence to know people. Gradually telling about yourself as you’re inquiring about them. Second date, a little more. Third date, a little more. Fourth date, more and more. And in my case, the first knock on the door, If I am allowed in, is telling them why I wanna talk to them. I have a reason on knocking on doors. I wanna see a certain people […] And I’m sincere.

Interviewer: […] you’re upfront with them about what you’re doing?

Mr. Talese: Yes, I have always been that way […] What I’m saying is being there. It’s pursuing your curiosity. Presenting yourself as a respectable person and a person that respects others and good manners […]

Here is the full interview with him:

 

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Gay Talese reading a newspaper

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Gay Talese.

 

Images: portrait of Talese via (Andrew Romano)

 

 

Choosing Curiosity over Fear: Elizabeth Gilbert on Creativity

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Elizabeth Gilbert. Via: (ABCNews)

Elizabeth Gilbert has never wanted to be anything else in her life but a writer. When she was young, with nothing but a candle, under the dim lights in her room, she took a vow to be a writer. She was married to writing. Until now, she is still a writing’s faithful wife. For almost two decades of her career as a writer, Gilbert has done so much more than one could have imagined. Her memoir of a journey that she embarked on following to her devastating divorce titled Eat Pray Love was a wild success. Prior to Eat Pray Love, when she was still an obscure writer, she had published a novel about Maine Fishermen and a short story collection. She had also done a deep investigation of the live of Eustace Conway, an eclectic man who abandoned the comfort of his suburban environment to live in the wilderness of Appalachian mountains. His story appeared in her book titled The Last American Man (Her essay about him on GQ is epic). In 2013, her most ambitious novel came out. It is a novel that revolves around the live of Alma Whittaker, a brilliant female botanist living in the 19th century. Recently in 2015, she had just published her newest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, a self-help book for aspiring creators, not necessarily for those who will devote their lives to the arts, but it is a guide for “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” 
 
In conversation with Krista Tippett in her show, On Being, Elizabeth Gilbert was invited to share what she knows about creativity. They started off the conversation with the distinction between passion and curiosity. Gilbert is not a fan of the word passion–one of the most overused words in today’s lexicon. The reason is simple for her. The word passion gives so much pressure and too daunting for people who are still uncertain about their aspirations in life. Instead of advising people to start following their passion, Gilbert invites others to trust their curiosity, wholeheartedly.
She said:
“I think curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it’s a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes not so available. And so when we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there is a great deal of pressure around that. And I think if you do not happen to have a passion that is very clear, or if you have lost your passion, or if you are in a change of life where your passions are shifting or you are not certain, and somebody says, “Well, it is easy to solve your life, just follow your passion.” I do think that they have harmed you because it just makes people feel more excluded, and more exiled, and sometimes like a failure.”
 
Gilbert loves to follow her curiosity. It has led her to discover the main ingredient for her newly published novel about a female botanist living in the 19th century. The idea of this story started as she was obsessed with gardening. Being an ardent gardener herself, she started to grow curious about the history of every plant that she had in her garden. Her curiosity about plants and their history amplified. As a result,  she decided to write a novel about the live of a female botanist from 19th century.
 
Living in a culture that glorifies passion over curiosity, Gilbert spoke to Tippett about the reason why people are ambivalent to follow their curiosity:
 
 
“. . .and I think the reason people end up not following their curiosity is because they are waiting for a bigger sign. And your curiosities sometimes are so mild and so strange. And so–almost nothing, right? It is a little trail of breadcrumbs that you can overlook if you are looking up at the mountain top waiting for Moses to come down and give you a sign from God.”
Author Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert. © 2006 Ryan Donnell. Via: (RyanDonnell)

One of the interesting stories that Gilbert shared in this conversation was when the idea that she had hoped would give her a book went suddenly missing and strangely was captured by her beloved novelist friend, Ann Patchett.
Gilbert initially set out to write a book about a middle aged spinster woman and her adventurous Amazon expedition. She neglected the idea for so many years because things distracted her mind and she eventually wrote a completely different book. When she returned to her initial idea of this book, she had realized that the vital impulse of the book had disappeared. In other words, the idea left her. It was not too long after she had lost the idea, she met the novelist, Ann Patchett. Patchett told Gilbert that she had been working on a novel about a middle aged spinster woman and her Amazon expedition–the exact idea that Gilbert once had (This idea became Patchett’s novel  State of Wonder).Gilbert was shocked. It was a revelatory moment that made Gilbert believed that once an idea feels neglected, it will seek another human collaborator because every idea longs to be made.
 
Gilbert said:
“Ides are conscious and living, and they have will, and they have great desire to be made, and they spin through the cosmos looking for human collaborators.”
 

We often think of creativity as experience that can only be cherished by the originals, the gifted, and the privileged. In fact, Gilbert believes that our world has been altered for millions of years by our ancestors who shaped or altered things as they liked and everyone, regardless of who they are, has a tremendous agency within themselves to voluntarily participate with creativity. Believing that creativity is a “shared human inheritance”, Gilbert spoke to Tippett:

Ms. Tippett: And it seems like people are coming — a lot of people come to you with precisely that longing [longing to be creative] and feeling of being left out of the experience of creativity.

Ms. Gilbert: Yeah. Most people are left out of it, which is not even the right way to say it. Most people are cast out of it because I think it is innate. And I think the evidence that it is innate is pretty airtight. And that evidence is multifold, but here’s some pieces of it. One, all of your ancestors were creative–all of them. You and I and everybody we know were descended from tens of thousands of years of makers.

The entire world, for better or for worse, has been altered by the human hand, by human beings doing this weird and irrational thing that only we do amongst all our peers in the animal world, which is to waste our time making things that nobody needs, making things a little more beautiful than they have to be, altering things, changing things, building things, composing things, shaping things. This is what we do. We are the making ape. And no one is left out of the inheritance of that. That’s our shared human inheritance.

And another really strong piece of evidence is that every human child is born doing this stuff innately. It’s an instinct. There’s no child that you put crayons and paper in front of who doesn’t get it, what you’re supposed to do. No four-year-old boy was ever sat in front of a pile of Legos and said, “I don’t know, I’m just — I’m not feeling it.

I do believe that creativity is not exclusively reserved for the recreation of the privileged. This suddenly makes me think of the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in which he said that if a person’s deficiency needs such as psychological, safety, love/belonging, and esteem, have not yet fulfilled, the road to self-actualization (the fifth level of the pyramid) that consists of creativity, is a little bit hard to obtain. I have heard that his theory has received a lot of criticism as it lacks of scientific grounding, but it gives us some perspectives to think about.

 

 

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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Via: (Storify)

 

Believing that the most authentic creative process is a collaboration between one’s own diligent labor and the invisible magic hands of inspiration, Gilbert spoke eloquently:

“It’s [creative process] a collaboration between a human being’s labors and the mysteries of inspiration. And that’s the most interesting dance that I think you can be involved in. But you are very much an agent in that story. You are not just a passive receptacle. And also, it is not entirely in your hands. And standing comfortably within that contradiction is, I think, where you find sanity in the creative process if you can find it.”

At the end of the conversation, Gilbert shared the technique that has helped her to get through the unglamorous and dull part of a creative process:

“What gets me through those 90 percent of it being boring part of creativity without turning it into angst anymore — and I say “anymore” because I used to do it — is that faith that the work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through me. And so when it’s not coming, and it’s not working, and it’s not being good, and I’m stuck in a problem around the creativity, it’s a very important shift in my life over the years to not think that I’m being punished or that I’m failing, but to think that this thing, this mystery that wants communion with me is trying to help me.

And it hasn’t abandoned me. It’s nearby. And it wants — it came to me for a reason. That’s what I always think when I’m working on a project and it’s not working. I think — I will speak to the idea and say, “You came to me for a reason.” But in the meantime, I’ll come to my desk every day with the faith that you are also at my desk every day.”

I have a literary debt to Gilbert. She has taught me to sit in discomfort whenever I can not solve a narrative problem in my own writing. She certainly does not wait for any inspiration to strike. Eat Pray Love and her six other best-seller books would have not flooded bookstores, had she waited for any inspiration to dictate her to write. Her work ethic reminded of a line from E.B. White, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

To enjoy the full conversation between Tippett and Gilbert on creativity, treat yourself with this podcast:

 

Also, do not forget to read Gilbert’s wise thoughts on self-kindness, and her Ted-talk is one of the things that have altered my relationship with creativity.

 

 

Elizabeth Gilbert on self-kindness

 

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Elizabeth Gilbert

 

In conversation with Krista Tippett of Onbeing, the phenomenal writer of Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, shared her life-changing experience of four months she spent in India that taught her about self-kindness and letting go of self-loathing that had been a toxic for her life for years. We falsely often equate self-kindness with weakness. To Gilbert, without self-kindness or as she would say, “friendliness towards our selves”, the road to self-transformation might be a little harder to attain, or even unattainable. 

Ms. Tippett: . . .what are you learning about that you did not know before about what it means to be human?

Ms. Gilbert: . . .I feel like everything we want is on the other side of this dark river of self-hatred that is so prevalent in ourselves and in our culture. . .And I see self-loathing everywhere I look in so many different forms. And it’s so — it breaks my heart. And I also know self-loathing because I have been in it. Anybody who’s been in depression knows what self-hatred is. In many ways, depression is — the best definition of it is anger turned inward. So, there’s this battle that’s going on within you where you become a rival of yourself and an enemy of yourself. And what transformed my life about that journey that I took with Eat, Pray, Love were those four months that I spent in India where I had to be alone with myself, and we really made a peace accord. And when I say myself, I should say my selves. Because we’re not a self, we’re selves.

And one by one, I really went around to all my selves and we shook hands and made peace with each other and said, “We’re not going to operate against each other anymore. This has got to be a better neighborhood to live in. [laughs] We have to put down the weapons. We have to put down the old complaints. We have to put down the perfectionism. We have to put down the judgement. We have to put this stuff away because we’re doing such tremendous harm to this poor being, Liz, who has to carry this war around within her.” And so, I really came away from that trip having befriended — and the word “friendly” — I keep using it in this in conversation. And I use it a lot.

[. . .]

Ms. Gilbert:. . . That you’re a friend not only to the world, but to yourself. And there, you can find your way home, I think, in almost all circumstances. I hope. [laughs] Because I don’t know any other way. And that’s the best I’ve got.

To enjoy the full transcript of this remarkable conversation, please visit: (OnBeing)

The full podcast is below, exploring Gilbert’s insightful ideas on how to live a creative life which she describes as “choosing curiosity over fear”.

 

Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York in Conversation with Debbie Millman of Design Matters

 

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Left: Brandon Stanton via (Huffingtonpost). Right: Debbie Millman, taken by Ryan Essmaker via (thegreatdiscontent)

 

I have always been aware of the presence of Humans of New York on the internet ever since 2015, especially on my Facebook newsfeed. However, it was not until this March of 2017 that I came to know Brandon Stanton–the creative and compassionate soul behind Humans of New York through a podcast Design Matters by Debbie Millman .This is when my admiration of him not only as a photographer but as a creative person slowly escalated. He is not merely taking pictures of strangers on the streets of New York City, yet he also captures their stories and repackages them for public as a reminder that humans are essentially walking living and breathing invisible stories.

Right after he got fired from his job as a bond trader in Chicago, to occupy his vacant time as an unemployed, he bought a camera and taught himself some basic photography. To develop his sensibility as a photographer, initially he would find something that he thought was beautiful and photograph it from 20 different angles, giving him almost 1000 new photos everyday. Then in 2010, he came to New York City with the counter-intuitive goal of, as he said in his website, “photographing 10,000 New Yorkers on the street, and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants.” At the same time, he became curious about the people that he photographed and began asking their stories that later he would include their stories as quotes on the photos.

Gathered here are some of my personal topics that both Stanton and Millman were discussing on the podcast. Some of the topic being discussed: the start of Humans of New York after Stanton got fired as a bond trader, Stanton’s thoughts on enhancing social skill, his personal philosophy about time as the most precious resource that one can possess, Stanton’s recipes to inspire people to reveal the subterranean part of who they are, and his sobering perspectives on human reality.

 

 

People might think that the approach that Stanton does for his work mirrors his personality as an extroverted man. Little did everyone know, when he started doing this project, he was fearful of approaching strangers. After gradually pushing himself to interact with strangers everyday, his social skill grew. In this podcast, he argued that the popular belief that says people are either born as extroverts or introverts is false. Social skill, he said, just like any other skill, is something that can be cultivated.

Being social is a learned skill. I am remembering now the context in which I had said in Reddit when somebody was asking me for advice on how to talk to other people. And in high school, I was starting all these clubs (student government president, homecoming president, a founder of spirit club) but I was like a social person and I was kind of assume that this was some inherent quality of me–I was just an extrovert, I was social, and that’s who I was. And then when I went through more an introspective phase where I was reading a lot, spending a lot of time alone, then when I started to re-engage with the world, I did find that I was kind of awkward at certain situations in a way that I had never been before. That’s what made me realize that being social, like anything else, talking to people, communicating with people, is something that can be developed just like any other skills, just like algebra or spelling. . .”

He shared that the destiny calling of Humans of New York emerged the day when he found himself as a laid off bond trader.

During that time when I was working as a bond trader, all I was thinking about was the markets. I was just obsessed with it but I did not view myself as somebody who just wanted to make money–that was not my personal identity. I viewed myself as a creative person who was going to build this cushion of security and then make a pivot and then do creative things that I love. . .I am going to make my money first and then I am going to pivot. During those two years, once I finally lost my job, I looked back on those two years and I had lost that time and did not have any money to show for it and so I thought, more than the physical time that I needed, I needed mental time, I needed the freedom of the mind to do things that I want to do. And so [although] I was so afraid of getting fired, the day that I got fired, it was strangely a relieving day because suddenly I had all of this thought-energy and I could start thinking about “What do you really want to do?”. . .and it was through that thinking that the idea of Humans of New York eventually emerged.”

 

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“I want to change the world, but I don’t know how. “”Do you mind if I give you a piece of advice?” “Sure.” “Read books by people you disagree with.” Via (HumansofNewYork)

 

For people who are bravely willing to put their art-works out into the world, criticism is inevitable. Brandon Stanton is not easily discouraged when he gets criticized from people. When people reject him as a photographer, he truly believes that his true role behind HONY is a story teller. HONY, at its core, is a collage of human experiences, captured through his camera and powered by Stanton’s exquisite love for story-telling.

“I take a little bit pride in it [when people criticize him]. Because obviously Humans of New York is so successful and the fact that I am not that technically proficient, I think it shows that it is something deeper than some sort of technical proficiencies that makes it powerful. I view Humans of New York as storytelling and I view the photography as subservient to the story telling. The photography is only necessary to the point where it helps to tell the stories that I am trying to tell. I take that as my identity and [when] someone criticizes my photography skills, it is very easy for me to shrug off.”

Behind every artist’s wild success, there are always unheard stories that no one knows but the artists themselves. These are the stories that make them become the artists that we hear, see, and praise. For Stanton, his early beginnings of HONY were hard days. When he moved to New York, he knew nobody, but he had the goal of photographing 10,000 people on the street of New York City. His daily persistence for years eventually gained a lot of attention, not only in the U.S but all over the globe.

“I had $600 coming in every two weeks from unemployment benefits and that was enough to maybe pay my rent and eat about two meals a day. And so I lived in a room in a sublet in Bed Stuy [Bedford-Stuyvesant], which just had a mattress in the middle of the floor. There was no furniture, nothing on the walls. I did not go to bars, I did not go to restaurants, I did not go to movies, and I did not go to anything. All I did was photograph. So that mixed with a few odd jobs, mixed with some loans from my friends, was enough to keep me afloat for about a year and a half.”

On his personal philosophy of time as the most valuable resource that people can have, Stanton said to Millman:

“I think so much we are oriented to think of time as a means of accumulating, not just accumulating material things but accumulating degrees or extracurricular activities or things that will look good in job interviews. We view our time as a means to accumulate things that will help us reach our ends. [And yet time is] not only a resource itself, but the most valuable resource that you have is what you do with your time. And say okay, “I am going to put that front and center, and I am going to not try to use my time to structure a life, but I am going to put time front and center and try to make the decisions that are necessary to where I completely own my time.”

 

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In a particularly New York scene, this man was doing puppet shows based of the short stories of Franz Kafka. He had a very young assistant who blew into a saxophone during all the pivotal scenes. Via: (HumansofNewYork)

 

Besides believing that time is the most precious resource to hone our crafts as an artist or cultivating our dreams, he believes that humans are simply collages of stories that they have woven across the years. When people think that they are deprived of material things to offer to another humans, they simply forget that they have innumerable stories that they can offer to others. Stories can be the greatest gifts.

Debbie Millman: Brandon, how do you inspire people to tell you these intimate vulnerable stories about the deepest part of who they are?

Brandon Stanton: There are two things: One, you ask. And two, you accept that some people will not [willing to share their stories]. The reason of Humans of New York is so hard to replicate is because you have to be willing to do it over and over again until you find the person that is willing to share. . .There is a validation that comes with somebody really taking an interest in your story. And for some people, their stories all they have–their marriage failed, the lost their jobs, all they really have to offer is their stories. . .”

This perhaps, the topic that makes me pause and reflect about my constant interactions with people in my life. Truth is not always truth with the capital T, and it has so many rich layers that most of us do not even acknowledge their existences. To be willing to go deeper than the person’s exterior self and dissect his or her interior self, for me, is an act of courage.

Debbie Millman: Do people scare you with some of their stories — do you hear things that frighten you?

Brandon Stanton: There is a large range of human experience. . .I think that the truth, and this is a dangerous line to draw because you get into moral relativism. But I think that the truth is always exculpatory. That if you dig down into why this woman strangled this eleven years old girl, you learn about her paranoid schizophrenia which she did not know was schizophrenia. She thought [there] were people talking to her and then if you dig back even further than that, you find out about the uncle who raped her every night, from the age of 7 to 11. And you start realizing that these people are acting with the information that they had about the world, and they are speaking in the language that they knew and once you dig down to that level, everything can be explained.

Debbie Millman: It’s a very compassionate, very generous view of humanity.

Across the years since its inception in 2005, Design Matters has interviewed almost 200 creative thinkers across disciplines from artists, architects, poets, brand consultants, writers, bloggers, and so on. Some of my favorite episodes are: Maria Popova of BrainPickingsKrista Tippett of On Being, Seth Godin, Maira Kalman, Tim Ferriss. The lists are endless.       

Please enjoy and do not forget to download Design Matters on ITunes.