Not for nothing but will the account guy in New York who keeps busting my chops about my smelly tennis sneakers please just knock it off?
But I get ahead of myself. Today, I want to talk to you about rituals and the role they play in the creative process.
You know. Rituals. Like Nomar Garciaparra, the ace Boston Red Sox shortstop, when he does that weird little ceremony of his at the plate.
Have you seen this? The tapping of the wrists in just such a way. The tugging at the batting glove. Every time up, it’s the same thing. Other athletes have similar quirky stuff going on.
Admittedly, this is not normal.
In fact, a skeptical person would call this Obsessive-Compulsive behavior. Yeah, maybe. What I see is a guy who’s just trying to get himself into that singular place in his head where he can do his thing.
Creative people, at least the ones in advertising agencies, tend not to talk about this much. The quirky stuff that primes the creative pump. The little oddities that, like it or not, some of us just can’t seem to start a project without. Ratty college sweatshirt? Check. Shoes off? Check. Venti cinnamon chai? Check. Fading Panavision baseball cap from that shoot in Bosnia? Check.
We don’t talk about it because, well, who wants to be Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets? Creative people, we are indeed, but Obsessive-Compulsive sociopaths? Well, I don’t think so.
Nevertheless, I’ve found a few courageous creative souls out there who aren’t afraid to admit that ritual can be a pretty big deal.
Twyla Tharp is the preeminent choreographer of her generation. I know this because it says so on the dust jacket of her book, The Creative Habit (Simon & Schuster, 2003). Every morning, Ms. Tharp gets up at 5:30 and does exactly the same thing. She gets dressed. She goes downstairs. She hails a cab. She tells the driver to take her to the Pumping Iron Gym in Manhattan where she works out for two hours. “The moment I tell the driver where to go,” she says, “the ritual is completed.” Could be raining. Could be snowing. The Hale-Bopp Comet could be falling in Central Park. Doesn’t matter. Twyla Tharp will be out there on the sidewalk, hailing that cab.
This is Twyla Tharp, for God’s sake. If ritual plays such a big part in her life, well, I got to thinking. Maybe there are some advertising creatives out there with their own stories. Little things they do to get their heads in the zone.
This is what Luke Sullivan, group creative director at GSD&M and author of the wildly popular Hey Whipple, Squeeze This (John Wiley & Sons, 2003), has to say: “I can’t have music on, if I’m writing for TV. If it’s print, I can handle music, but there can’t be any lyrics. For years, I could only write with a special kind of mechanical pencil. In college, it was Flair Pens. This was before they added that white ring near the tip, which wrecked the whole experience. I dropped ’em, never looked back.”
Anyone who works at Fallon in Minneapolis knows Bruce Bildsten’s feet almost as well as they know Bruce. “I absolutely find it impossible to get in the groove until I have my shoes off and my feet up. Then, and only then, do I think clearly and creatively. Luke Sullivan used to say that he felt intimidated when he saw my bare feet perched on my desk.”
Memo to agencies pitching against Fallon: Get some glue into Bildsten’s shoes. Now.
For John Vitro of Vitro/Robertson, hitting a bookstore or two before he plunges into a new project seems to do the trick. “I like to spend some time flipping through books, magazines, CDs. It doesn’t even have to be related to the topic I’m thinking about. There’s just something about the visual stimulus. It’s probably avoidance, but I almost always leave looking forward to beginning the assignment.”
Ari Merkin is creative director at Fallon New York.
“My ritual dates back a ways. It’s called Sabbath. As an Orthodox Jew, it’s the one thing that keeps me from burning out creatively. Basically, it forces me to just completely shut down, just get my mind totally off of work for one day out of the week. I honestly don’t know how I would operate without it.”
What about clutter? Some people are paralyzed by it. Downright constipated. Put them in a room with so much as a paper clip out of place and they freeze up tighter than a Joan Rivers facelift. Tom Monahan, founding partner of Leonard Monahan, Before & After creative coach and author of The Do-It-Yourself Lobotomy (John Wiley & Sons, 2002), has a different take. “I need my desk to be cluttered. The messier the better. Kind of the way I need my head cluttered. I can’t handle neatness.” Of course, Sullivan says just the opposite, so go figure.
A while ago, Houman Pirdavari was working with an agency and their French fashion designer client. Seems the guy was impossible. They figured, what the hell, the guy thinks he can write his own ads, let him write his own ads. Naturally, they brought in a freelance art director to work with him. That would be Houman. “The pressure to perform and actually justify my presence became more and more intense, until somehow, I came through. And it was by going through the oldest ritual I know—I waited until the last minute.”
Sometimes, even when we don’t think we have a ritual, we have a ritual. “I’m probably not your best interviewee.” Kevin Lynch of Hadrian’s Wall in Chicago says this because as far as Kevin knows, he doesn’t have a ritual. “I mean, this past weekend, I wrote a really nice ad on the back of a mortgage flyer while nursing a hangover at my in-laws.
“The week before, I wrote a really nice ad at the office with the music blaring, while taking a break in between dart games. The week before that, an art director and I did some really nice work while people-watching in a coffee shop. Nah, I don’t need no stinking rituals.”
Let’s see. Hangovers. Loud music. Dart games. Coffee shop people. I don’t know, Kev. And I’m just speculating here, OK? But what if the hangovers and the music and the darts and the coffee people, what if that’s the ritual? Not saying they are, not saying they aren’t, but, you know, what if?
And then there’s Jamie Barrett. For a long time, the Goodby Silverstein creative director has been generating some of the most brilliant work in this or any other universe. And you know how he does it? That’s right. Blinders! “I sit down at my computer, put on wraparound sunglasses and a baseball cap low and tight over my eyes.
“Like blinders on a racehorse, is how I look at it. Works OK for me. Hopefully, if I break a leg while concepting, no one will get a gun and put me down.”
Come on, Seabiscuit!
Of course, next to Roald Dahl, we’re all pretty much hacks when it comes to creative rituals. The way I understand it, Roald did his writing in a shed behind his greenhouse. Always at the exact same times every day. Until lunch, which was always the same. Norwegian prawns and half a head of lettuce. It gets better. Dahl wouldn’t write a lick until he snuggled into a sleeping bag, pulled it up around his waist and settled himself down into a beat-up armchair. He had to put his feet up on an old suitcase filled with logs which, needless to say, he had to have roped to the legs of the armchair so it was always at the perfect distance. It gets better still. Dahl said he always wrote—with six yellow pencils in a jar beside him—on American legal paper. A thermos full of coffee and an electric pencil sharpener were also vital. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. There were heaters aimed at his hands in case it got too cold. Then, and I mean only then, did he write.
What was that I said about Garciaparra?
As for those tennis shoes I mentioned earlier: It’s kind of like Bildsten and the feet thing. I’ve got to have comfortable feet. Thing is, comfortable for me isn’t no shoes. It’s a certain pair of shoes. Wilson Pro-Staff. They’re like, what, thirteen-years- old? Fourteen? I don’t even know if they make them anymore. Not that it would matter. I have never changed the laces. I have never had the soles replaced. The leather is wrinkled and paper thin. Lyndon LaRouche has more support than these shoes. They are stained with grass and oil and things I cannot and would not attempt to describe. They smell. They are fetid. And that’s fine with me. I have never so much as run a sponge over them. And I will not start a project without them. I simply won’t. I suppose one day they will disintegrate in the middle of a campaign and my heart will skip a beat, but then I’ll remember the duct tape in the basement and life will go on. ca