Smokey Robinson • Barbara Kingsolver • Francis Ford Coppola • David Sedaris • Jane Goodall and other luminaries reveal the secrets to their creative success. Amy Tan talks about how she finds truth by writing fiction. Melissa Etheridge tells us how she channels her fire into her music. Pico Iyer shares how seeking stillness enhances his creativity. And Coppola discusses how he found the courage to make groundbreaking films.
In The Creative Spark, a collection of interviews prefaced by brief biographies, these luminaries join dozens of other voices to create a symphony of inspiration. Lucinda Williams talks about honesty and making every word count; Jane Goodall cites the value of persistence and believing in yourself; and Smokey Robinson heralds the timeless power of love songs.
For more than a decade, award-winning author Michael Shapiro (A Sense of Place) has interviewed many of our brightest creators. In The Creative Spark, musicians, authors, explorers, and chefs speak about what drives them, what helps them see the world in fresh ways, and what inspires them to turn their visions into art.
Shapiro’s work as a music journalist has led to interviews with legends including Graham Nash, Lyle Lovett, Melissa Etheridge, Jake Shimabukuro, Merle Haggard, and Jethro Tull bandleader Ian Anderson. And he’s spoken with creative masters in other fields, such as comedian Joan Rivers and author Frances Mayes.
Yet it’s not simply that Shapiro has had access to so many supremely talented people—it’s that he gets them to go deep. Moments into his penetrating conversation with Lucinda (her fans call her by her first name), she tells Shapiro about how decisions made about her mother’s funeral led to fissures in her family. From this achingly personal conversation, readers can glean fresh insights into why Lucinda has such a devoted following and why her songs open listeners’ hearts.
Unexpected revelations pop up in every chapter of The Creative Spark. Iowa folksinger Greg Brown isn’t a household name, but his fellow musicians revere his poetic compositions. Then there’s San Francisco Giants announcer Mike Krukow, who turns every broadcast into a work of art. Chefs, including SingleThread’s Kyle Connaughton, discuss how they’re transforming the way we approach fine dining and why social responsibility is essential.
Each chapter starts with a short biography of the creative person being profiled, then segues into Q+A. This collection brings together some of the best-known artists of our time with others who may not be as famed but who have valuable insights about living an artful life. The Creative Spark stands as a testament to human achievement, showing how creativity illuminates our world. And how it resides in each and every one of us, just waiting to break out.
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About the Author
**Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Medal Winner**
**Independent Publisher Book Awards finalist for A Sense of Place**
**Winner of the Bedford Pace Grand Award and Lowell Thomas Award**
Michael Shapiro is a heralded journalist known for the keen insight he brings to interviews. Working for leading newspapers (Washington Post, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle) and national magazines (National Geographic Traveler, American Way, Hemispheres), Shapiro has interviewed many of the most creative people of our time. He’s become known for his ability to forge personal connections with artists such as Smokey Robinson, Lucinda Williams, David Sedaris, Graham Nash, Melissa Etheridge, Amy Tan, and Lyle Lovett. These renowned innovators and many others share the secrets of their creative processes in The Creative Spark. Shapiro’s previous book, A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration (Travelers’ Tales) is a collection of interviews with the world’s top travel authors, including Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer, Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, Simon Winchester, Peter Matthiessen, and Frances Mayes. In 2017, Shapiro delivered a TEDx talk entitled “The Space Between” about how travel can narrow the gaps between people all over the globe and why that’s more important than ever. A native of New York, Shapiro graduated from U.C. Berkeley with high honors and now lives with his wife in Sonoma County, Calif. His National Geographic Traveler feature, about Jan Morris’ corner of Wales, won the Bedford Pace grand award. His story about sustainable seafood in Vancouver earned the 2016 Explore Canada Award of Excellence in the culinary category. He has contributed several in-depth interviews to The Sun, a literary magazine, including conversations with oral historian Studs Terkel and oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Both are in The Creative Spark. Shapiro has written about the Naadam festival in Mongolia for the Washington Post, tasted tequila in Jalisco for American Way, and spoken with Jane Goodall for O the Oprah Magazine. From 2011 to 2018, he wrote a weekly column about gambling for the San Francisco Chronicle and for four years had a column in the Chronicle’s travel section. He volunteers as a whitewater rafting guide and sea kayak trip leader for Environmental Traveling Companions, a San Francisco-based group that takes physically challenged people on outdoor adventures. In 2016, he co-led a river trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, rowing his wife and others through the river’s fiercest rapids, including Lava Falls.
Read an Excerpt
Amy Tan, author of the bestselling novel The Joy Luck Club , swims with sharks. This is not a metaphor for navigating the literary world; while visiting Isla Mujeres off Mexico’s east coast with a conservation group called WildAid, Tan swam with whale sharks, at 30 feet long and 20,000 pounds, the world’s largest fish. “We were in waters where there were quite a number of them. It was like a traffic jam,” Tan told me. Somebody would call out, ‘there’s one coming up behind you.’ You’d turn around, and there would be a huge mouth, five feet wide, coming towards you.”
Swimming with whale sharks was “inspiring, life-changing,” Tan said, but not because it’s perilous. “I think the most dangerous thing is (the possibility of) falling out of the boat and getting hit on the head,” she said. What so moved Tan was that she was able to get eye to eye with the largest fish on Earth and that she felt a sense of communion. “I had a number of them that stayed with me when I slowed down they slowed down and just looked at me the whole time they’re very curious.” It’s no wonder that Tan appreciates curiosity: Her books, from her landmark debut, The Joy Luck Club , to her recent novel, The Valley of Amazement , are creative explorations into her roots and the places that have shaped her ancestors and ultimately herself.
Born in Oakland, California, to Chinese immigrants, Tan lives in Marin County just north of San Francisco. She was co-screenwriter and co-producer for the film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club and played herself on an episode of The Simpsons. She’s appeared on NPR’s news quiz, Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me and was a guest on the PBS kids show, Sesame Street.
After visiting San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum for a Shanghai exhibit a few years ago, Tan saw a book in the gift shop about Chinese courtesans in the early 20th century. While leafing through the pages, she came across a photo of ten women, “which stunned me,” Tan said. The caption read: “The Ten Beauties of Shanghai.” They were courtesans who had won a contest in 1910. Five of the young women were dressed in the same clothes her grandmother wore in one of Tan’s favorite photographs of her. This is how Tan learned that her beloved grandmother, the woman she calls her muse, likely worked in a brothel. That led Tan to completely change the course of the novel she’d been working on.
The result is The Valley of Amazement , set at the dawn of the 20th century. Like The Joy Luck Club , it’s the story of a tense and painful relationship between a mother and daughter, and of the clash between East and West. The novel became a New York Times bestseller. Tan recently published a nonfiction book, Where the Past Begins (Ecco, HarperCollins, 2016) “about the mind of the writer, which is basically my mind, and about what’s gone on in my life, (including) the death of my father and brother in the same year.” In the book, she reveals how the events of her life have driven her to create the books she has written.
Though she doesn’t fear sharks, Tan faces another type of fear while writing, “a kind of existential terror, … that I’m going to fail according to my own standards and have that become public and … humiliating. Every writer has that. I’m sure I’m not the only one, and in fact I think I suffer less from that fear than most.” Tan decided to become a writer because otherwise “no one would ever understand who I really was and the thoughts that I had. I was trying to make sense of who I was in this world.”
As inventive as Tan is with words, writing is not her only creative outlet. A capable singer, Tan served as lead rhythm “dominatrix,” backup singer, and second tambourine with the literary garage band, the Rock Bottom Remainders. The group, which formed in the early 1990s, included Stephen King, Mitch Albom and Dave Barry, “retired” some years ago, Tan said. But like many rock bands they occasionally re-group for “reunion” performances, donating ticket proceeds to charities.
Throughout her life Tan has sought a deeper understanding of herself, but unlike many Northern Californians, she has not done so through prolonged psychotherapy. Tan says she sees some overlap between writing and therapy in that “you’re seeking understanding by remembering moments from the past.” But seeing a therapist didn’t work for her. “I’ve only been to a psychiatrist once, for about four months, and during that period fell asleep three times,” she said. “I really didn’t get anything out of it except a motivation to quit therapy. … I’m not paying this guy $200 to fall asleep.”
I spoke to Tan during her book tour for The Valley of Amazement.
How does your writing help you learn more about yourself?
Everything I’m writing about has to do with identity, self-identity. It has to do with the meaning of my life, with who I am and what I’m looking for. The predominant influence would be my mother, and that accounts for why a mother figure appears so often in my books. I cannot seem to get away from it.
Were you concerned about writing about a part of your ancestor’s life that some might see as not virtuous?
It was difficult not simply because of what the family would think. It was hard because my grandmother is my muse and I often feel her in the room with me. By even considering she might have been (a courtesan), I feared I might offend her, especially if it had not been true. And if she had been, I feared that she wouldn’t want people to know. I also feared that mother she died in 1999 wouldn’t want people to know. Yet I think that my mother and grandmother were strong believers in truth and that they’d think it (openness) is a good thing. I decided to write about courtesans because I could not stop thinking about that world. It is not a story, however, about my grandmother.
Violet, your central character in The Valley of Amazement , is half white and half Asian.
You have a girl who thinks she’s American and looks down upon the courtesans even though they’re like her sisters. Then she’s flipped into the other world. And she’s become that other half: Chinese. She’s become actually less than that other half if you’re Eurasian (especially in early 20th-century Shanghai) you don’t belong to either world. So she has really taken a tumble, and she has to remake herself. She has to understand and figure out who she is.
You pursue truth through fiction…
I realized later if I could describe what I felt, the complexity of it, the history of it, in a fabricated story of all things which seems paradoxical, that I’d find truth through creating fiction. I found something I’d written when I was 25 that reminded me of things I’ve thought about since I was very young, and that was no one would ever understand who I really was and the thoughts that I had. I was trying to make sense of who I was in this world. I had to capture it for myself and the best way I could do that was in a story.
Every single moment I’ve had is not a lost past, it is completely a continuum of who I am. All of these moments are who I am. Writing fiction is finding the meaning of my life, what I think, what I feel I have to remember, what I know about myself. The thing about writing is not the finished book that’s the end of the journey. … The most important, most satisfying, part is the writing. It doesn’t matter if I have to throw pages away. The whole time that I’ve been writing is part of it. … It comes from a frustration when I was young, and not having enough words to say what I felt.
Do you enjoy the process of writing?
I don’t like the word “process” it sounds mechanical as if there’s a process that’s coherent and organized, but it’s not. In the same way that our lives are often not coherent or organized, we have to make sense of them afterward, we have to find the connections and the associations afterward, and that’s what fiction can do. … I think a lot of it is finding patterns in life, those larger associations that grow as one becomes older.
Let’s talk about sex. The Valley of Amazement isn’t 50 Shades of Tan but are you concerned that because of the sex scenes, some people might take this book less seriously than your other work?
So many of my readers want that mother-daughter story and while this is a mother-daughter story, I don’t think they would expect the mother to be running a courtesan house and the daughter to be a courtesan. I don’t think I’ve had a sex scene in another book. There are people who do object to the sex. Some reader reviews say “Sex this is horrible.”
Was it difficult to write about sex?
I was afraid to write corny love scenes. I was also afraid that people would think they were peering into my bedroom, that this was my sex life, especially if they’ve seen photos of me dressed as a dominatrix (which Tan did while singing with the Rock Bottom Remainders).
You talk about secrets in your family can secrets be a gift?
I love the secrets. I thought ‘I’m done I’ve found out as much as I can about my family my mother has died.’ But after learning about my grandmother, I’m encouraged by knowing I probably will never be done finding out secrets in the family.
Table of ContentsIntroduction
Emerging from the Chrysalis
World of Wonder
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
Front Porch Songs
Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen
Reason for Hope
King of California
Francis Ford Coppola
Heart to Heart
Field of Dreams
To the Ends of the Earth
Songs from the Heartland
Walking on a Wire
How Sweet It Is
The People’s Chef
Hope Dies Last
Sending Down Roots in Tuscany
The Minstrel in the Gallery
To Boldly Go
The Godmother of Soul
Circus of Life
The Long View
Speaking for the Seas
About the Author
Something magical happened as I completed this book. One evening just before sunset I was in our backyard watering the planter boxes. On a stem of parsley I noticed a startling pattern of color, concentric rings of orange and black dots. Looking closer I saw the segments of a swallowtail caterpillar and could identify its tiny feet. For the next few days the caterpillar chomped on the parsley plant, absorbing energy for the next stage of its life. I placed a stick in the pot, at an angle to give the caterpillar a place to hang its chrysalis.
The caterpillar’s appearance felt like a message from the universe. For many months I’d been working on transforming interviews I’d conducted with some of the world’s most creative people into a coherent set of chapters. I’d distilled the essence of these interviews into a tonic of ideas about the creative process. And I’d written biographical introductions that sought to put each person’s life in perspective and offer insights about the sources of his or her art.
As I write this, on 2019’s summer solstice, our adopted caterpillar (my wife has given it the gender-neutral name Jordan) is undergoing a miraculous transformation into a butterfly. During the past week, we’ve watched the caterpillar turn into a chrysalis that matches the color of the branch from which it hangs, its striated brown camouflage the antithesis of the colorful creature it was just a few days ago. Yet it’s what is happening inside the chrysalis that is truly astonishing.
The caterpillar is dissolving, using enzymes to digest itself. It’s being broken down into nonspecific cells that can be used for any part of the butterfly. Yet some “highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process,” according to Scientific American. Each of these constellations of cells is programmed to build a specific part of the butterfly. There are imaginal discs for wings, for eyes, for legs, for every part of the butterfly. Typically, after about two weeks, a yellow-and-black swallowtail butterfly will crack open the chrysalis, dry its wings in the morning sun, and fly off seeking nectar.
Why bring up a caterpillar in a book about creativity? First, because it offers such a rich metaphor, and the name “imaginal discs” suggests that making art depends on imagination. And to prepare for its transformation, the caterpillar needs to first feed itself, just as a musician or author must absorb the thoughts and influences that come from songs, books, conversations, memories, and observations. Then many creative people seek to isolate themselves, cocoon-like, to escape the relentless drumbeat of popular culture so they can hear their own voices.
“What I noticed at an early stage was that the writers I admire are living a long way from the world,” the author Pico Iyer told me. “The great originals are originals because they’re living outside the received conversation, outside secondhand words and secondhand ideas, to some extent living in a space of their own where they’re able to hear their deeper self and come up with things completely outside the norm. I think that’s why they really shake us.”
Isn’t that what we crave in this era of information overload: songs or stories that really shake us and offer new ways of seeing the world, of hearing ourselves, of feeling, on a soul level, our deepest truths? That’s why I’ve chosen the 31 creative people in this book. They’re original, pioneering, dynamic, and insatiably curious. The authors, musicians, and others profiled in these pages could coast on their earlier accomplishments, but every one has continued to seek adventurous new avenues for igniting their creative spark. And those who are now deceased, such as Joan Rivers and Sharon Jones, worked until virtually the day they died.
Of course, seeking solitude to hear one’s inner voice doesn’t mean we should shut out those who came before us. As Iowa folk singer Greg Brown says, “I feel links back to a time that not much is known about. Songs, poetry, whatever you want to call it, that urge, it just goes way, way, way back there. And that’s a good connection to feel to life. It’s hard for me to imagine life without that.”
Which takes us back to butterflies. As author Barbara Kingsolver notes, monarch butterflies that travel from Appalachia down to Mexico may live for just a few weeks. During a migration, one generation dies and the next is born—several times. That means a butterfly “returning” from Mexico to Kentucky could be the great-great-grandchild of the one that departed months before. And yet it returns to the exact spot from which its ancestors departed. Scientists don’t fully understand this phenomenon, but perhaps the butterflies’ internal compass is cellular. To consider this in human terms: the knowledge, dreams, hopes, and prayers of our ancestors reside within us. ...
Innovative people have a brightness in their eyes, an inquisitive way of looking at the world, a desire to create things, even if those things are not tangible. But that spark doesn’t reside solely in people you may view as artists. It’s in all of us. “Surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. “I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure.”
Most of the people profiled in these pages had a moment when they made a creative leap, a commitment to make something new. They took a chance. As a whitewater rafting guide, I think of that moment when my boat drops into a rapid—there’s no turning back. You just have to navigate the rapids as best you can. That’s what it’s been like for many inventive people. They’ve pursued their passion, not knowing where it would take them. They made a commitment and stuck to it, day after day, until the song was written or the book complete. ...
Ultimately, The Creative Spark stands as a testament to the highest aspirations of human beings, showing how creativity enlivens our souls and enriches our world. And how it resides in each and every one of us, just waiting to break out.
Sonoma County, California
June 21, 2019