What happens when your job is the muse, and then it stops
Plus five ideas to get your creative juices flowing
I have always felt summer to be particularly freeing — a holdover from childhood and blissfully long and unprogrammed summers punctuating the busy school year. Summers in New York, where I grew up, brought their own energy — erratic, electrifying, and unpredictable — where anything goes, for better or worse. The air is thick and humid but also laden with possibility.
So perhaps it is appropriate that only now, with summer fully underway, do I feel ready to emerge from my post-pandemic cocoon into my post-pandemic life. (I use the term “post-” loosely since the pandemic is in fact far from over, yet it’s safe to say we are entering a new phase.) It’s been years since I’ve lived in New York, but still I feel the same summer buzz as before.
It took a long time to get here. I quit my job back in October, and with it, cut ties with corporate office culture at large. Since leaving my 9-5, I’ve found myself moving through a humbling cycle — trying to be creative, failing, admitting defeat, doing less, and trying again. I struggled to balance childcare and creative pursuits, but also to figure out just what I wanted to write about. For years, I drew inspiration from my experience in the corporate tech world, writing about professional development (with a particular focus on leadership and EQ). In the process, I unwittingly narrowed my focus. Some call this carving out a beat or niche, and while it was useful to have a clear scope to draw from, it was also limiting; I drew so much inspiration from my professional sphere that I forgot about everything else.
Now, without a job to ground my work, what would I write about? I didn’t think to ask myself this question until I sat down to write and the words didn’t flow.
Nine months later, I’ve at least partially recovered from my work-induced exhaustion, and I am even beginning to find sparks of inspiration here and there. Sitting in a coffee shop, alone with my thoughts for the first time since March of 2019, I am reminded of all the things I know and love and want to explore. I remember how at home I feel in museums — public places of history and grandeur filled with strangers pulled closer by the gravitational force of a Cézanne or Krasner. I think about how living abroad and being the child of immigrants has shaped my sensibilities and sense of the world — how being on the outside makes you a keen observer of others and also builds empathy. I remember how much I love to read for pleasure — not for research or for betterment, but for sheer pleasure — and how this is one of the most restful and restorative, and yes, creative things I can do for myself. I am rediscovering those interests and hobbies day by day. I am finding inspiration from living.
It's not obvious how these topics will find their way into my work — and maybe they won't — but it feels good to invite them back into my world. As I rebuild myself from burnout, I feel like I am becoming whole again — real and messy and complex once more.
It’s this, I think — reconnecting with who I am beyond a 9-5 — that has helped me break through my exhaustion and sluggishness. Now, I am discovering I have more energy than before — not for bars, or restaurants, or parties (although those are nice, too) — but for ideas, new and old. My “roaring twenties”of post-pandemic life seems destined to be less about socializing, but instead a reawakening of the senses, a rediscovery of art and ideas that mean something to me.
I hope you find inspiration and renewed energy wherever you go, whenever you’re ready for it. Here are five things that are reviving and inspiring me this week, and awakening my creativity as a writer and person in the world:
“There’s a specific kind of joy we’ve been missing” by Adam Grant. My favorite encounters are often those in which you can be “alone together” with others — at a concert, surrounded by other music lovers; at the movies, where the audience’s laughter is contagious; in a coffee shop, feeding off the busy and focused energy of fellow thinkers, writers, and freelancers working away at their laptops. These settings are what sociologists call “third places,” where we can be both alone and in community at the same time. It turns out, there is a specific kind of joy associated with these places, a “collective effervescence,” that comes from being in shared spaces, where our emotions are positively influenced by the group’s. We can heighten our own experience, and, I’d wager, even our creativity, by being among others.
The Practice: Shipping Creative Work, by Seth Godin. Seth Godin has written nineteen bestsellers, so it’s safe to say he knows a thing or two about shipping creative work. Godin is laconic and unfussy in his advice (if Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic felt a little too woo-woo for you, The Practice might be more your speed). In particular, I appreciated Godin’s chapter on creative intent, and his admonishment to create for “someone, but not everyone.” He writes,
“Who’s the work for? It might be possible to please everyone, but courageous art rarely tries. Richard Serra doesn’t make sculptures for people who don’t like conceptual and contemporary art. Tiffany’s doesn’t make rings for people who think expensive jewelry is a rip-off.”
Thanks to the Internet, a creative’s work can be discovered by just about anyone— yet this also means that what we create can be easily judged, critiqued, taken out of context, misunderstood, or just not a match for what a given audience is seeking. That can make us second guess whether what we have to say is good enough — or palatable enough — for the masses; we might even water ourselves down in search of broad acceptance. But Godin reminds us of the downside of veering toward the generic, and urges us to get specific about who our work is actually for — “to be able to say ‘it’s not for you’ and mean it,” — to create work that is for someone, but not everyone.
“Cat person and me” by Alexis Nowici. In 2017 the fiction piece “Cat person,” by Kristen Roupenian, appeared in The New Yorker and swiftly went viral. The piece made an impression for its hyper-realistic details and its relatable if cringeworthy depiction of modern day dating. Turns out, some of the details were a little too real — in this piece from Slate, Alexis Nowici reveals “Cat Person” is in part based on her own life experience. Nowici writes about what happens when you borrow from someone else’s life, and what the limits and boundaries of fictionalizing another’s experience ought to be. It’s a complicated look at the relationship between fiction and nonfiction, the world writers live in and the worlds we borrow from. What happens when what belongs to the author also belongs to someone else? What happens when the story we want to tell isn’t entirely ours?
This writing advice from Ed Zitron, via Matt Weinberger, in a recent Very Fine Day interview. Ed Zitron takes up interesting territory as a journalist turned PR person who also writes. In this interview with Brad Esposito, he says:
I would say it took me a few months to find any voice or audience, which was difficult. I had a good friend, Matt Weinberger over at Business Insider… and he gave me advice that was basically: write more so that you can work out what works. And the only way to work out what works is to give people lots to read. I'm paraphrasing, because he said it way smarter than that. But it seems so obvious. It’s like: yeah, write a lot and you'll see what people like.
It does seem obvious, doesn’t it? A chef puts a lot of dishes in front of people to learn what flavors diners are drawn to. A teacher might experiment with a lesson plan to understand where students are getting stuck. In the tech industry “test and learn” is a mantra that might as well be tattooed on employees. As a user researcher in the industry, my job was to help teams test new ideas, concepts, products, and features with real people — to try a bunch of things out and then see if they have any real legs by putting them in front of an audience. Of course it would be the same with writing. Of course! Do the work, see what works, and go from there.
The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday, by Rob Walker. This is a trim and charming book filled with exercises for how to take your observation game to the next level. More than a series of tasks, it’s a creative practice and a lifestyle — a way of moving through the world that requires paying attention to what’s in it. This book is a reminder that looking around, looking up, looking away from our screens and into the world can spark new ideas where we least expect it. We get so used to noticing only a few things — our phones, inboxes, the news, our to-do lists — that we forget we can be inspired by simply focusing our attention elsewhere.
What’s inspiring you this week? Drop your current reads and ideas into the comments or respond directly to this email.
For more books that encourage self-reflection, creativity, and observation, you can check out my bookshelf on creative pathing.