Julie Burstein is a Peabody Award-winning radio producer, TED speaker, and best-selling author who has spent her working life in conversation with highly creative people – interviewing, probing, guiding, and creating live events and public radio programs about them and their work. In her book Spark: How Creativity Works, she maps out some of the coordinates and dimensions of creativity. No one can exactly explain creativity, but Julie offers a tour through some of its essential byways; shining a beam onto its mysterious workings in a way that is illuminating and can help us find more of that dimension within ourselves, and put it to good use.
This week, we conclude our conversation about creativity with Julie:
One of the main things you do is create conversation through questions…which do you prefer – the quieter moments of conversations, such as listening and asking questions, or the lively moments of conversations, such as discovery and having revelatory moments?
I love them both! I’ve been interviewing now for more than 30 years and one of the key things I’ve learned is that I need to prepare ahead of time. The more you prepare, the more space you can create for both of those kinds of moments – the intimate along with the raucous – so the preparation has always been really important. The next key thing is preparing well enough that I can throw it all away, if need be, and follow the course of the conversation so that I can get to something that could even surprise me! The third key piece – and this was the hardest piece for me to learn, but is the most important – was to understand that when I’m interviewing someone, it’s often the first time they get to speak their own story in this way. I need to stay quiet to let them find their way to what it is they want to say. The hardest work is not what you ask, but waiting to see what happens, even if it causes discomfort, in order to let the interviewee feel what they feel. That’s what I often teach, is that you have to learn to stay quiet. When you do this type of work, the job is to remain PRESENT and to connect in the non-verbal ways we can connect with one another.
If someone is in an emotional moment and I can feel in myself the urge to defray the moment during this person-to-person conversation, I sometimes have to keep my hand on my leg to remind myself to be present and to slow myself down. Through our body language we can actually communicate so much.
You have worked with many creative people in your career – what was the most inspiring story that have come out of one of your conversations?
That’s always the toughest questions because there are so many moments! Rather than a particular conversation or story, let me tell you about what I love to do when creating conversations. I’ve done a lot of events and panels bringing people of cross-disciplines together. For Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts in Maine, I have been moderating a series about climate change in Maine, from the perspective of a visual artist, a climate and marine scientist, and a lobster fisherman in Maine. The scientist was able to help us understand climate change; the lobster fisherman was able to talk about how he’s experiencing it while he is out on the water; but what the visual artist did was help us feel it. Her work was inspired by ice in Greenland and had created large scale porcelain installations that don’t make us think, but make us feel. We needed to hear from all three of them to get a holistic understanding of climate change. The moments I treasure the most are when I have a sense of where there might be synchronicity between the stories from people of cross-disciplines. People from different worlds are starting to talk to each other and recognizing similar patterns in each other’s stories. A lot of the work that I’m doing now is oriented towards how I can create a space where something unexpected, but powerful can happen.
A few years ago I created an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I brought the Curator of Arms and Armors (Pierre Terjanian), costume designer from Game of Thrones (Michele Clapton), and a Japanese-American sculpture and artist (Miya Ando) who’s family was from a long line of sword makers for centuries. What was so exciting about that conversation was that they were all approaching the idea of protecting themselves from different perspectives. Miya spoke about her family history of Buddhist priest and sword makers, something that seem to be mutually exclusive, but she was able to articulate that both were about serving a higher purpose. That lead Pierre to speak about arms and armor from his perspective as a curator at the Met. Then, Michelle took us to an entirely different direction with costumes and explained how the things we wear can signify certain meaning to other people. As a costume designer, she can create that “coat of armor” through clothing and costume. I love these types of moments where concepts that you wouldn’t necessarily think can connect, suddenly you can realize how they are all woven together.
It’s not a particular story that has come out of my conversations, but these types of moments and situations that I’m working towards. Trying to figure out how to bring the right people together and create the best atmosphere so that the participants are comfortable enough to venture out of their familiar space and start thinking in a way they haven’t thought of before.
What is your best creation to date?
My kids, though I can’t take full credit! I have two sons – one is 22 and just graduated from college. The other just turned 19 and graduated from high school. What I’m most proud of is that each of them have grown up to be themselves, even with the pressures to conform these days. Both of them are artists – one is a writer and the other is a sculpture – and they have been able to keep that creative spark alive and sustain them personally. Creative space is so important to each of them, and it gives me a lot of hope for our world that there continues to be creative young individuals out there today.
Julie Burstein will be speaking at the 2017 Leaders Breakfast in Los Angeles.
Friday, September 15th, 7 – 10am
InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown
900 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90017
Sylvia Yoo, CID, LEED AP