Musings + Essays

Creative Space.

By: Jen Shoop

Do you consider yourself creative? Under what conditions do you find yourself most creative?

If you answered “no” to the first question, may I politely agree to disagree? In another lifetime, I had the rare opportunity to work with the non-profit wing of the acclaimed design firm IDEO on a social entrepreneurship project in which we set out to design a digital tool to promote financial health among low-income youth on the South side of Chicago. The project was awe-inspiring, humbling, and challenging on many levels, but one ancillary benefit was that no one — no one! not even the stodgy funders of the project! — that directly participated in the work left without thinking, “Hey! I guess I am kind of creative.” IDEO’s team members modeled radical, playful, thoughtful creativity in everything they did, from the way they designed their work sessions (often belaboring the structure and order of operations) to the tools they used to communicate (everything on neon post-its, whose shape and functionality remind us that nothing is permanent, everything can be reconfigured, and that many an opus are composed of tiny, seemingly insignificant scraps of thought). It was one of my greatest professional joys, achievements, and experience to work with them. If you’re feeling as though you need to flex your creative confidence, you might enjoy this brief TED talk by the founder of IDEO, David Kelley. I had all of my team members and interns watch this video as a part of their onboarding experiences, and I used to hold regular IDEO-inspired “design sprints” to problem-solve with my team, often warming up with a whimsical exercise problem, like “imagine a colleague comes to you and says she just cannot get to work on time. Let’s walk through the design process to create a couple possible solutions.” It’s interesting to watch team members conduct interviews, sleuth out the underlying causes for tardiness, and then spin out a range of possible solutions, from a simple fix (like moving the alarm clock across the room so the dilatory party will be required to actually get up in the morning) to technical and complicated (designing an app to predict the precise arrival time of a bus arriving at a bus stop on an given morning).

At any rate, you are creative. Humans are inherently creative! Sometimes we just lack the provocation or tools or context to exercise the muscle. There is a section in mini’s book called Julia, Child that casts adults as “big, busy people who were weighed down with worries, who couldn’t remember the last time they climbed a tree or even rode a bicycle, who never watched cartoons and only read biographies.” A few pages later:

‘”I think the problem is not that the world is filled with too many grown-ups,’ said Simca.

‘The problem,’ said Julia, ‘is that too many grown-ups don’t have the proper ingredients.'”

I was thinking about all of this the other day while reading an interesting New Yorker interview with Michelle Pfeiffer (yes, she’s still around — just choosy) in which she comments: “Even when I was a kid I would go out into the garage and I’d find my dad’s tools, and I’d find an old block of wood and some nails, and some duct tape, and I would create things. I could stay out all day by myself. I made a pair of shoes out of duct tape and cardboard. I was very, very pleased with those shoes. I’ve always been happiest when I’m creating something.”

It’s funny because I write for a living, have run this blog for over a decade, and have always been working on something (including a lot of very bad fiction) — even as a child, well before the frame of this blog or any of my previous professional endeavors provided any sort of public platform for expression. And because of the experience working with IDEO, I have spent quite a bit of time (some might say…a nontrival amount) thinking about creativity in the workplace and how to nurture it across a team. And yet I don’t know that I have ever given any critical thought to myself as a creative, or to the measure of happiness the creative process affords me. Sometimes, writing can actually be painful, whether because I am working through a knob of emotion or stumbling over the right words or — as with fiction — positively overwhelmed and chewed up by the process of it. When I emerge from an afternoon of fiction-writing, I am drained, shell-like. I feel like a cartoon character roughly outlined in gray lead, empty and sketchy around the edges. I don’t love the feeling. But then re-reading what I’ve written later, as I smooth out the contours and tinker with the phrasing and trim the excess fat to which I am cloyingly prone, can be delicious. There is an as-yet-unpublished portion of Maiden’s Choosing that I obsess over — a part where Caroline discovers a branding on Buck’s arm — and I think of it at least five, six times a day. I cannot unsee or unfeel the moment, and I created that moment, and the entire thing blows my mind. How did that fictional moment and the very real energy nested in it come to be? Why has it so captured my imagination, my heart?

I don’t know the hows and whys, but I have a loose approximation of the where: in bed, in that liminal space between awake and sleep, when I drop the figure of Buck or Powell or Caroline or Violet in front of me and wonder what they might do at, say, a black-tie party, or a college date function. I have the broad outlines of the novel in place already, but it’s thinking through their movements and minutaie in very specific frameworks that brings color to the pallor of unborn fiction.

What about you? Where are you most creative?


+If this thread interests you, I have given several friends and colleagues a copy of the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. In brief snippets, the author provides small windows into the creative rituals of novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians from George Gershwin to Agatha Christie. Fascinating and mildly voyeuristic, the book makes the case that there is no one effective formula for creative practice.

+I will say, though, that the two most effective habits I have with regards to writing are a) publishing a lot and b) reading a lot. I write every single day, for hours at a time. Early on, I prioritized volume over quality, probably vaguely influenced by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier book, in which he makes the case that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness,” but also intuitively understanding that practice makes — well, not perfect, but better. Reading also refines my writing. I spend a lot of time unpacking the mechanics and style of other writers and teasing out what I like versus don’t and why certain elements seem to “work” while others fall flat. Sometimes, it gives me the courage to try something new.

+Who is in your personal canon?

+Why I read.

+How do you make time to read?

+Some of my favorite fragments from great books.

+Mini needs these vintage-inspired athletics shorts to pair with Lacoste polos (<<several colors on sale!) this summer.

+These are the coolest sneaks on the market for women at the moment. Slightly edgy/sporty, but trust me — downtown cred. Am I crazy or are the denim variations (collab with Levi’s) also kind of cool?

+These jeans have been VERY popular on le blog. Wear like sweats, but look like they have a fashion perspective. Pair with the NBs above and WOW.

+OK, these shades are seriously cool.

+Who doesn’t love a striped maxi?

+HRH Martha Stewart launched a line of puffy vests that have been selling like wildfire. I have to say, I’m into them.

+Just the cutest eyeglasses case.

+I’m generally allergic to shorts, but these are beyond.

+Sweetest heart-print crib sheets.

+Sweet new book for your little one’s library.

+Love the color combo of this striped sweatshirt for a little one.

+Gorgeous dresses for spring.

+Perfect coffee table.

+Still my favorite everyday lip color — glides on like balm and leaves just the prettiest glow. “Bare Pink” is my favorite color.

+Still some of these shearling-lined birks in stock for your WFH uniform.

+Mr. Magpie’s favorite sweats — should have included this in my most recent roundup of gifts for men.

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15 thoughts on “Creative Space.

  1. I love this reminder that we are all creative beings. It brought Henry Miller’s quote to mind: “To make living itself an art, that is the goal.”

    Also reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic”!

  2. Enjoyed this post and your insights on creativity. If you haven’t read/done it, Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” is powerful and transformative.

  3. I’ve been thinking about creativity a lot recently. For most of my life, I’ve never considered myself a ‘creative person,’ based on the fact that I am not particularly skilled at drawing or painting. But that definition of what it means to be creative is so limiting. I’ve been challenging myself to redefine what “creative” means. Thanks for sharing some good ideas to help with this (gradual) mindset shift!

    1. Also — thanks for sharing that TedTalk. On my list to watch now. I recently listened to this podcast with the former CEO (current Exec Chairman) and current COO of IDEO. They share so many good nuggets about the importance of design thinking, not only for the “creative” space but for all industries. Thought you and others might like it!

      (Full disclosure: I work at McChrystal Group, but I would listen to this podcast even if I didn’t — ha!)

  4. There’s a fantastic article in I think two New Yorkers back on what the post-pandemic office might look like (the age old tension between cubicle + open floor plan is sort of … dissolved, in one rendering). The part that really stuck with me is how ridiculous it is to come into an office to stare at a screen and do our best to block out our environment — something I spent much of my earlier career doing! Anyways, maybe a little tangential to your q of being creative, but the IDEO work made me think of it! Also, your note on the importance of the dailiness and volume of writing — which I agree with — has me really ambivalent about my own decision to write on the side, though yours takes the sort of guts I don’t think I have!
    Also: I keep thinking of NB as being a trump brand, but now that there is a new CEO, maybe it’s time for me to get over it, because I agree the offerings are looking sliiick these days!

    1. Hi Claire – Wow, had not even thought about that. Landon and I have been talking a lot about how different the future of work is looking…and what that will do on a macro scale, i.e., exodus from cities? the shuttering of various industries that rely on commuters? etc. So strange to think about how this pandemic has touched literally everything.


    1. No!! Thanks for the tip. The style looks right up his alley, and I’ve also been looking for a different brand of undershirt for him for awhile. He’s worn Ralph Lauren undershirts forever but I find the quality has degraded in the last few years! May try these instead. Merci!


  5. So interesting to think about this… it’s taken me many years and life experiences to recognize and appreciate my own creativity. I used to think if I wasn’t writing, painting, decorating, CREATING etc (all of which I did as a child) I wasn’t using my gift of creativity. Now that I’ve spent decades raising children, teaching little ones, and most recently opening and running my own preschool (which is now operating fully despite a pandemic!), I see that I’ve engaged creatively in so many different ways! Now that’s a thought that delights me. 🙂 Happy Friday, Jen! xo H

    1. Oh for sure — entrepreneurship and childcare require tremendous creativity! There are so many instances in both where resources are constrained and, well, necessity is the mother of invention…

      So glad this prompted this moment of self-awareness!!


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