A Bad Haircut (and 10 Things That Will Make You More Creative)

Left: 1999, Right: 2015

On the left is a picture of me and my family in 1996, outside the Bundaberg rum distillery in Queensland Australia. I’m top left. Rocking some of my older brother’s clothes what looks like a stethoscope but is actually a machine operated rotating lollipop, and a fiercely androgynous bowl cut.

This second picture was taken just last year, again with my family in Canada. Hiding under that hat is the result of a $15 haircut from a nervous Spanish lady in Bushwick. There are a number of similarities: mostly the above ear layers, and symmetrical family formation. But of the differences, there is only really one of note. In 1996, the look was intentional. In 2015, it was completely mortifying. As we all know, the only way to rock an obtuse haircut, is with creative confidence. Something I had coming out of my ears in 1996, but by 2015, seemed to have lost along the way.

So…what do you do when you lose your creative confidence? And how can you find it again?

1. Eavesdrop on the MTA…but also everywhere

There are always at least a couple of obnoxious talkers in every train carriage, and if you listen in, it’s generally so good. The most recent subway conversation I witnessed was between two girls, clearly good friends, chatting about how how funnyyyy it was that they were coincidentally living in the same apartment building in the West Village, and only was it when they moved out that they met. Never once did they even smile at each other. The whole time they were laughing about how crazy that was. Meanwhile, I’m sitting there thinking what the fuck is happening to us? I think about my apartment building. The only time I ever spoke to my downstairs neighbor was to yell to him off my fire escape that his bonfire was smoking me out. So I’m now planning a personal essay on hosting a potluck, via under the door invitation, with whoever in my building is not too creeped out to join.

2. Read about stuff…but also be present

Hectic crime stories can be especially helpful for mystery writers, hinting at possible motives, and forcing the writer to ask questions about the plot. The same goes for non-fiction writing. I read en masse everyday, and ponder what impacts these developments may have the topics I write about. I find that if I stuff my subconscious with as much information as possible, it seems to start spilling out into ideas and stories. But you definitely do have to cross check real life, with digital life. I recently read an article online that was essentially a condensed version of Steal like an artist, if you’ve ever read that book. I was then complimenting my Culinary Director at work, who’d just put up an epic new dish at our Fall tasting. And he was like ‘thanks dude, but I stole it from my Sous’, and he went on to tell me recipe borrowing happens allll the time in the food industry. Originality isn’t about cooking what’s never been cooked in a strict sense, but it’s about the unique way in which each chef gives expression to his or her culinary influences. So I’m now about to run a piece on finding inspiration in the kitchen when night after night you’re pumping out the same handful of dishes.

3. If it ain’t broke…develop a series

When you write, illustrate, or perform something that receives attention and acclaim, the tendency is to want to cling to it, and that retention theory is often criticized. But I don’t think that’s always such a bad thing. When I really love a topic, and I think it’s powerful, I develop it into a series. By fleshing it out into a number of articles, it’s a way for me to get deep on a topic, add structure to the old editorial calendar, and take the pressure off if I feel like I have nothing in the tank.

4. Drop the phone…and take a walk

Inspiration is kinda like a cat. Sometimes you can pat her, other times you can’t. But then she’ll jump into your lap and you wish you had a pen. Whenever I’ve found myself sitting around hoping for great ideas to come, it generally just ends in an instagram like fest. But by just being in different places, random stuff almost always sparks something. Just the other day while I was walking home from work, I counted only three people not staring mindlessly into their phones. The only reason I noticed this, was because I had left my phone in the fridge that morning when I was getting milk for my coffee — still works. People often argue that replace the iphone with a cigar and it’s same thing different era. But to me, that argument is void for one reason: smoking was designed around social interaction, whereas the iphone allows you to avoid human contact at all costs. And it goes beyond tech. Just think how many times you’ve chosen to scarf lunch at your desk, rather than sit with some random strangers at a communal table. This interpretation of the world, when applied to the food industry, lead to an investigative piece on solo dining: why it’s good, why it’s bad, and how modern restaurant design is actually enabling it.

5. Dimly lit rooms are your friend

This is not so much about finding inspiration, but developing it. Kinda like a Polaroid. Sounds absurd, but by essentially minimizing all sensory input, you’re forced to use your imagination, think through the angle, the interesting bit, the unanswered questions, what the interviewee was really trying to say. That way, by the time I get to my laptop, I’m not just staring at a blank screen.

6. Write as much as you can from memory

My first ever editor back in Australia once gave me the tip to write as much as possible before referring back to an interview. Doing this not only forces you to listen more actively in the interview, but it means you’re taking more of a narrative approach, rather than just regurgitating facts and quotes. It also means you can easily summarize the main point without getting distracted by the ebbs and flows of your interview notes.

7. Keep a diary… especially if you got nada to say

Every morning, before I look at my phone, scroll instagram, or open slack, I write precisely three pages in my diary (I also get up at 5 and do most of my day’s work before 1PM, but that’s another story). It’s a practice I adopted from Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. I really think a lot of human emotions, like happiness, can be cognitively generated. Whenever I was in a bad mood as a kid, my mom would tell me, that when I woke up tomorrow, I should just make the decision then and there to be happy, and to choose the kind of day I wanted to have. This obviously sounded preposterous — but as usual, she was right. Writing like this, helps me organize the crazy jumble of thoughts in my brain, and approach the day with clarity, and optimism. I always end the entry with one thing I’m grateful for, one thing I need to work on, and something I’m excited about (‘cos I am a big stinky cheeseball).

8. Edit your edits… and don’t be a cliché

The other day I had a freelancer email me with a pitch to write an essay on her experience living on a farm. To me, the old escaped Brooklyn to be in nature, is kind of a modern cliché. But turning her personal experience into a set of tools designed to ease the universal fears of trying something new, is an angle most people can relate too. Saying don’t be a cliché, is kinda a cliché in itself — very meta. But noticing them is a good thing, and something that only comes with tons of edits, and a few outside opinions. It’s an opportunity to turn something kind of old hat, into something unpredictable and memorable.

9. Fight for something

Rage, if channeled can be a really great motivator. I mean, the whole concept of Dirt came out of being truly enraged by the food industry, and the way famers, workers, cooks, and chefs were being treated and paid. Being truly passionate about social change is a tremendous and everlasting source of inspiration for me.

10. Be ok with where you’re at…and embrace feedback

a. My roommate came home from a yoga class the other day with some really poignant advice from her teacher. She was getting the class into some kind of intense pose that makes you feel like your flying and dying at the same time, and told them to just acknowledge the limits of their bodies, and be ok with that. Pain only comes from the angst and anxiety produced when we wish something was different from how it is. I’ve recently starting selling some of my cooking on the side. I don’t have an LLC, and honestly, I’m still not happy with one of the recipes. But wishing I could be a better baker, was not going to make me one. How are you supposed to know if your food is good or not, if no one’s even allowed to taste it? And I think same goes for writing. You just have to put out your best, and acknowledge that someone else might have something really valuable to say about it.