Where do you get your creative energy, and how do you keep it flowing? At a special live taping of Slate’s Culture Gabfest and Represent podcasts—recorded at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and sponsored by Dropbox—Editor in Chief Julia Turner quizzed the team on just that. How does film critic Dana Stevens stay motivated? What does culture writer Aisha Harris do when she gets stuck? And why does critic-at-large Stephen Metcalf purposely ignore his readers for half of his creative process? Here’s a rundown of their best tips, many of which can apply to just about anyone, creative or not.
Dana Stevens on what to do when you don’t know where you’re going
“Writing a book is like driving a car at night…You only need to see as far ahead as your headlights will show you.”
A prolific film critic, Slate’s Dana Stevens recently began working on a book about early Hollywood icon Buster Keaton—a project much larger in scope than a 900-word review. She says she doesn’t always know where the book is going, but she’s found inspiration in advice from American novelist E. L. Doctorow. “Writing a book is like driving a car at night,” Dana quoted, “You only need to see as far ahead as your headlights will show you. That’s far enough to get you the whole way.”
Whether you’re writing a novel or developing new software, sometimes it’s enough just to know the next step or two. Dana quipped that actually having a complete outline could possibly make her a stronger writer, but for her, the headlight approach works.
Stephen Metcalf on ignoring your audience until you’re ready to meet them
Most writing, you’ve got to lose the reader…You go down away from the sunlight really really far, and then you come back up, and as you find the reader, you’re somehow co-writing it together.
Former Hillary Clinton speechwriter and Slate critic-at-large Stephen Metcalf had a glib response to Julia’s opening question about his creative process. “I am neither creative, nor do I have a process.”
Still, he went on to emphasize how important it is to avoid giving people exactly what they want. “Most writing, you’ve got to lose the reader…You go down away from the sunlight really really far, and then you come back up, and as you find the reader, you’re somehow co-writing it together.” Steve says what readers secretly want is to be surprised, to read something fresh and unexpected. And the only way to do that is to go out on your own for awhile.
It’s a theme reminiscent of Tim Cook’s mindset in the world of tech—to make products “people didn’t know they wanted and now they can’t live without.” Or to put it in Steve’s words, “You don’t want to tell the reader what they already know.”
Julia Turner on finding the team role you do best
I’ve constructed my life to never write.
Slate’s editor-in-chief laughed after hearing her fellow panelist’s answers. “I’ve constructed my life to never write, and these people all write things.” She says she couldn’t turn off the part of her brain that thinks like the reader. Still, the fact Steve does more writing and she does more editing works just fine. It’s the perfect tandem for producing a surprising piece that nonetheless sticks with the reader.
Julia lives in a world of writers, but she’s found a way to contribute—and even lead—without doing as much writing herself. It’s a helpful reminder for people in any industry. What job can you do well, even if it’s not the first one that comes to mind?
Aisha Harris on what to do when you’re stuck
When you get stuck, just write.
Culture writer and host of Slate’s Represent podcast Aisha Harris rarely knows how she wants a new story to begin. But she’s learned that’s not a problem. “I start writing and then I finally find the lede, but I’ve already written 800 words, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to move this to the top of the page.’” Aisha trusts that her creative energy will find its way to the answer—she just needs to warm it up first. It’s advice she gives to anyone suffering from a creative block. “When you get stuck, just write.” Steve also thanked Dana for giving him similar advice. “If you’re really stuck, just write a sentence and make sure that it’s true.”
We’d like to thank Slate for giving us a window into their unique creative processes. Whether it’s burrowing their way underground before returning to the surface, or learning to do a different role to play to their strengths, these journalists have found distinct ways to tap into their creative energy. Let’s keep it flowing.
Listen to the full episodes here:
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