I’ve started a new project that’s going to overlap with this blog! My wife Pepper Proxy and I are doing a podcast called Baffling Cyclops. Baffling Cyclops is going to be a discussion of whatever I’m obsessed with that week. It’s intended to be a fun, funny conversation about weird stuff.
Future episodes will cover crow funerals, cults, clowns, creativity, and Dandan noodles. The open-ended concept means that if we go off on a tangent, and we do go off on tangents, it can still be an entertaining story or topic. If I feel like it relates to creativity or marketing enough, I’ll also follow up with a post.
The first is an expansion of the story I wrote about serving Mick Jagger in a toy store. I cherry-picked details for the essay I wrote and this goes into more detail about Mick and the store where I worked. Not only that, but you get to hear about the time Pepper got fired from her job as a Christmas elf.
I’ve embedded the episode at the end of this post.
You can also sign up for the show notes in newsletter form. The notes will include pictures and links to topics mentioned for further exploration.
When I moved to Seattle in the mid-’90s, two months AC (After Cobain), I worked downtown at a large boutique toy store. It was an impressive place, two floors, multiple rooms and secret passages full of toy overstock that extended out under the street. To get the job I had to talk to a stuffed gorilla and endure the humiliation of being referred to as one the “Elves” that worked there. Even the break room had a sign that said, “Elf Break Room.” Being 6′ 5″ tall and called an elf added an extra schmear of humiliation on the bagel of hopelessness that was my life at the time.
One of the nice parts of the job was getting to meet the celebrities that shopped there. The biggest of those was Mick Jagger. It was during the Stones’ Voodoo Lounge tour, not that I had any idea they were in town or that they had an album out called Voodoo Lounge. I was a young snot at the time, unimpressed with the Rolling Stones. They were nothing compared to The Pixies or Guided By Voices, why should I be impressed with Mick Jagger? Hell, he’s not even a Beatle.
I was alone in that opinion at the toy store. The other staff scattered, terrified to talk to him, in awe of his fame, whispering about him behind piles of stuffed bears and shelves full of puzzles. I volunteered to help him because no one else would. I introduced myself and he indicated that I should make myself available to him while he shopped. He did this not through speech, but through a series of minute facial changes that wealthy British people have developed over centuries of colonization and oppression of the lower class. One twitch of his famously over-sized lips and I knew my place.
The female owner of the store approached him and I thought her head was going to split in half from the size of her smile. “Mr. Jagger,” she said, “I just have to tell you how much your music means to me. I lost my virginity to one of your songs in the back of a 1965 Chevy convertible. ‘Jumping Jack Flash!’”
“That’s very sweet of you,” he muttered, indicating with a slight flare of his right nostril that the conversation was over and that she should leave him alone. But, to her it was as if he had swooped her off her feet, carried her out side and made love to her. That simple sentence flushed her cheeks and made her eyes roll back in ecstasy.
Then he began to shop. At first, I didn’t understand his method of shopping. As he entered each new room of the store, he would begin taking things off the shelf and stacking them in the middle of the room. As he left, I would start putting them back, cursing at him under my breath for making a mess. Then, it dawned on me I was supposed to be carrying these items to the register for him.
Three times during this process women stopped him and described a sexual experience they had had that somehow connected to his music. I imagined that this must be his life — middle-aged women describing sex to him as he went about his daily business. To him, it must be like the sun shining or gravity, an unavoidable part of the landscape. I wondered if he even heard them anymore or if it was just a staticy buzz that surrounded him like the low hum of a swarm of mosquitoes.
Only once did I feel that he broke through this cloud and spoke to me not as a sales clerk but just a human. In the book room he turned to me and said, “Is this the latest Magic Eye book? I love them, but I can’t remember if I have this one.” Magic Eye, if you don’t remember, was a series of books with pictures of a seeming series of random lines and dots that if you stared at them in a particular way formed a three dimensional picture of an object.
I told him it was.
“Don’t you love these books?”
I had to admit that I couldn’t see the pictures in the abstract mess on the page, and he looked at me in a very concerned way.
“You just need to relax your eyes and not stare directly at it. Let them unfocus. Yes, that’s it, just like that.”
He held the book open and I looked, following his instruction. There, in full three dimensions, stood a unicorn.
I told him I saw the unicorn and he smiled and shut the book. He went back to his aloof manner.
I checked him out and he wrote a check. (Oh, I don’t need to see ID from you, Mr. Jagger!) As soon as he stepped away from the counter the owner grabbed the almost $1000 check and said that she would never cash it, she would have it framed and hang it in her office as art.
My eyes turned to the sidewalk. A chubby 45-year-old tourist in a track suit had stopped him. Her face was flushed under her overly-moused hairstyle. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but I imagined she was telling him about heavy petting to “Mother’s Little Helper” in the back of a pickup truck on her parent’s farm.
If I met Mick Jagger now, I wouldn’t relate a sexual experience to him. I would tell him that he is the person who taught me how to see the picture in the Magic Eye.
Listen to my podcast Baffling Cyclops for more detail about this story.
What happens when your usual audience isn’t there? The pandemic has created an interesting problem for people in creative jobs. The team that would usually give you feedback or be there to support you is either unavailable or only available in a limited way. Even if it’s just a series of delays and video meetings, the way your team works has changed.
For me, I have had to step up being my own audience. I have to laugh at my own jokes, which is as uncomfortable as it sounds. No longer can I try out three or four marketing ideas quickly and get feedback on what works.
So far, that means those ideas are more conservative. I am still working on trusting myself to go to the edges of acceptable without trusting someone else to let me know if I’ve crossed a line. Also, it means not discarding ideas immediately, but saving them to try when I can run them by someone else.
Also, as you can see in the picture above, I have set up a series of cyclopean coworkers to look at me while I work. Just being able to use them as a mirror, they’ve got a pretty weird point of view, lets me be a bit freer in my flights of fancy. Their judgmental gaze also helps keep me on task.
How about you? Have you had any problems with your creative life in quarantine? Do you have any solutions that have helped you work more effectively? If you already work alone, do you have any advice?
He sets it up that there are 30 plumbers in the huge audience and he worked up something just for them. After the lengthy setup, he gets to the punchline.
This infuriated the supervisor, so he went and got Volume 14 of the Kinsley manual. He reads to him, “The Langstrom 7″ wrench can be used with the Findlay sprocket.” Just then, the little apprentice leaned over and said, “It says sprocket, not socket!”
The audience is quiet and Steve Martin says, “Were the plumbers supposed to be here tonight?”
The joke, of course, is that he is taking something intensely specific, intended for only a few people and presenting it to thousands of people. I’m guessing this is how he felt about most of his jokes, they were things that were funny to him, and he was mystified that other people were laughing.
If your audience is small and specific to you, do you need to simplify what you’re saying to appeal to a big audience?
Wouldn’t communicating something to your specific audience, in a language only they would understand, make them feel special and included? Wouldn’t it eventually attract more people to you? After all, being bland and easy to understand doesn’t lead to lasting success.
If you have a clearly defined group that you are doing your work for, it’s in your best interest to communicate in a way that sometimes excludes people that are not in that group. Take a chance on being misunderstood by the rest of the world so you can make your own group feel understood.
He said that learning new skills was like being a hermit crab. If you don’t already know, hermit crabs don’t grow their own shells. They take abandoned shells from other animals and use them to protect the soft and delicious parts of their body from predators. And it works well.
However, as the crab grows, it has to find new shells and, each time it switches shells it’s vulnerable and exposed.
A crab can stay in a smaller shell for a long time by starving itself and growing slowly into the shape of the shell which will eventually cover just a tiny part of the exposed portion. Not a good long term plan, but definitely the safest route in the short term.
Every time you try something new, you’re like a crab moving to a new shell. Running naked and unprotected between your old self and your new self. But, to grow, you have to take that chance.
A lot of people never take that chance. Once they find their safe shell, they stay there and make an effort not to outgrow that shell. Are you starving yourself so you don’t have to change?
To grow quickly, it means changing shells often. That means leaving yourself vulnerable to being a beginner, admitting you don’t know things, and failing at something. The stakes are probably lower than you think. You might damage your pride or be embarrassed for a while, but it isn’t life and death.
At work, we have a wall of all the catalogs our company has put out in the past 36 years. We’ve been shifting them around on the walls so that we can put up the latest. As always, the new location has caused everyone to look at them with fresh eyes.
“I can’t believe we put that on the cover!”
“We sent that to 100,000 people?!?”
Our main catalog designer, Scott, went through them with me pointing out his personal choices for highs and lows. Then, he turned to me and said, “You know, it’s not every job that leaves a record of everything you do.”
That really made me pause and think of all the work I do that leaves no discernable footprint on the world. Tweets and emails that fade moments after they’re sent. Meaningful conversations that disappear.
Do you have a trophy case for your work? I think this is especially important if your work doesn’t leave a discernable remnant. Authors can point to a row of books and toys designers have shelves of toys. What can you point to?
While the number of followers you have or mentions you get might be impressive, I think physical objects that represent accomplishments are important. Reminders of past achievements can really motivate you to keep going.
The other side of this is also important. If someone has done something for you, did you send them a thank you? Is there a way to give them something small to remember you by?
I had done online dating for a long time. I used to have a screen name that was very sort of vague. I put FunnyThoughtful. Lots of responses, too wide a net. I changed my name on OkCupid to Hogbook, because I liked the idea of a book about hogs called Hogbook. One guy answered, and we’re married today.
I think everyone experiences the desire to try and make the things they create more appealing to everyone, but that’s like trying to date everyone. Don’t you want to narrow it down to just the right people?
If you’re doing good, specific work, that kind of broad marketing hides what you do rather than advertising it.
What can you do to make sure that the right people find you? Being too broad in your approach may make you invisible to the audience that you are trying to attract. Market yourself in a way that describes what you do in a specific way so that when someone comes into contact with it they have enough information to be attracted or repelled.
I find when you start to ask people for advice on creative projects they immediately suggest getting rid the thing that is unique about the project because they haven’t seen anything else like it or it doesn’t appeal to them. If you’re opening a restaurant that only service blueberry pancakes and you call it The Breakfast Place you’ll get more people in the door. But, they’re going to be disappointed once they’re inside and they’re going to suggest that you start serving scrambled eggs and waffles. If you call your restaurant The Greatest Blueberry Pancakes in the WORLD, the right people are going to show up.
Don’t be afraid to make something that some people don’t like. As long as the right people like it, it’s going to be successful.
When I’m stuck in a bottomless pit of anxiety, trying to be creative seems like an impossible task.
The swirl of whatever story I’m telling myself seems inescapable. The same thought either repeats or gets even worse than the previous thought. It can be miserable.
The truth is that I am being creative, it’s just that every bit of creativity I have is being used to prove that I’m miserable and that the worst possible outcomes of a situation are the most likely. In fact, I’m writing a whole novel in my head about how miserable I’m going to continue to be. It has incredible detail, and the plotting is so exquisite it seems 100% real to me.
Just think about how much creativity it takes to ignore every positive piece of evidence about yourself and create an argument for your own failures. It’s like you’re the prosecuting attorney at your own trial.
There are lots of strategies that help: meditation, looking at pictures of sleeping tapirs or taking a long walk with my wife, to name just three. But, the best way forward for me is getting started on the work.
This often means just working with the anxiety. Writing it down or singing it or giving it to a character instead of myself. If I can define the story as real, but just one part of who I am it seems much more manageable. For me, writing it down is the first step in moving through it. If I can externalize it a little bit, it becomes less all-consuming.
T.S. Eliot said that “anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.” Your anxiety is the spring you drink from to fuel your creativity, but you can quickly drown in that spring if you can’t stop drinking long enough to breathe.
Take a breath and get started. Start with an action that expresses your anxiety, but then allow for other realities to exist.
Use your imagination to solve your problems if you can, but if you can’t, use it to escape from them for a while.
The first step in telling a new story is realizing that there are other stories that can be told.
You’ve written your idea down and you’re working on it, but have you given it a name?
Just yesterday we got to see the majestic launch and booster landings of Falcon Heavy, the SpaceX rocket. What an inspiration to see that many humans work together to create something new. My heart skipped a beat when the two boosters landed together like perfect synchronized dancers.
Even the name is wonderful, Falcon Heavy from SpaceX.
It got me thinking about how important it is to have a name for the project that you’re working on. When a group of people is working on a project, it’s an identifier and unifier. It helps a team to form. No matter how disparate their responsibilities are they can instantly know that they are working on the same giant project. However, names have the same function if you’re working on something alone.
It doesn’t have to be the same name you’re going to use for the final product, it’s just an easy reference for you to collect ideas and work around. It’s so much easier to work on Falcon Heavy than it is to work on “the Mars rocket project.”
You may not have a team working with you, but you still need to define what you do. Remember that part of getting work done is marketing it to yourself. You want your work to be appealing. Giving it a great name or working the goal into the name is a big motivator to working on something even when the work is tedious or difficult.
It’s much better to think to yourself, “I have to work on Genius T-Rex” or “my million dollar vacuum cleaner idea” than it is to tell yourself you have to slog away on chapter seven of your latest writing project or tinker in your workshop. The name can change, it doesn’t have to reflect the final product at all, but you can still get all the benefits of having that name while you’re doing the hard work.
Never underestimate the power of a good name to increase your chances of completing something. And even if you’d don’t complete it, it’s still going to look better in your drafts folder than a file called “novel” or “screenplay.”
Give your project a name that appeals to you, looks good on your calendar when you schedule time to do it and would make someone curious if they saw it over your shoulder. You may even find that naming the project changes it for you. It may make it more real and less abstract than it was before.
Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside. The space in our heads will stretch to accommodate them all. The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need. – Grant Morrison
How big is your infinity?
Don’t just give say the word “endless” and stop reading. It’s a decision we all make, whether consciously or by default, to define the scope of what we’re willing to imagine. How big is the space inside our heads? For most people that space is pretty tiny.
Picture the unexplored parts of your thoughts as an endless dark museum full of wonderful and sometimes scary things, but you can only see as far as the light from the flashlight in your hand extends. Do you let yourself be fooled into believing that there is nothing beyond what you can see or do you acknowledge that the darkness is there waiting to be explored?
The light in your hand is your bravery in facing that fear. It could be a sparkler, a flashlight, or a sun; it’s up to you.
It’s a safe choice to let another person explore those dark parts and just marvel at their ability to produce things you’ve never seen before. J.K. Rowling created the world of Harry Potter, and now you can imagine yourself there. Stephen King writes IT, and we can dress as Pennywise the clown for Halloween. But, are you willing to step into an unexplored area and create something new?
You can create your own worlds within that infinite space so you can feel the security of a safe space, but never forget that you’re the one defining the edges.
Logic can hold you back. Rules can hold you back. Shame can hold you back.
An entirely new world might just be a few steps into the darkness. The answer to your question might be behind the closed door that you’re afraid to open. Imagine your head as a series of Russian nesting dolls, except every time you open one, the one inside is larger than the one before. They’ll just keep getting illogically and impossibly getting bigger and bigger.
Set a goal to explore a bit more of the infinite space inside your head. Go somewhere silly where crab people buy hats at a craberdashery. Experiment with somewhere more serious, where a trip to the grocery store becomes a life-changing spirit quest with a 2-liter bottle of diet ginger ale as the holy grail. If you’re truly brave, open the cellar door of your brain and descend that stairway.
You can spend your whole life exploring and never see it all.