I’m a firm believer the only reason anybody would ever roll out of bed before 9am is to catch a flight to a better place. Over the past few years (pandemic willing), I’ve broken my personal pledge on a monthly basis. What could possibly get me up at 7am to venture across town to be surrounded by a slew of strangers? Creative Mornings has been my secret little mistress.
Creative Mornings: Kansas City
A very loose community of creative types, Creative Mornings is a monthly meeting creatives listen to another creative speak about a scheduled theme. There are 226 chapters across the globe! In Kansas City, the locations have varied over the years, bouncing around from venue to venue throughout the city. Past hosts have included the Plaza Library to the old Westport High School (now a co-op work space) to the 21C Hotel and has now settled into comfortable digs at the Crossroads Hotel.
Upon arrival, you check in (a free sign up is required) and then grab a donut and a coffee. Then everybody mills about awkwardly through a sea of creatives. That’s the dreaded term coined by Richard Florida to describe upwardly mobile people who work in creative/adjacent fields and affect and populate urban areas, usually resulting in gentrification and the same artisan pickle shop or highly unique, artisan hand printed tea towel shop appearing in every single city in the country. I have pretty mixed feelings about the use of the word ‘creatives’ and people who similarly self-identify as ‘creatives’. Those rants are for another day (or one for the past)
After a good 30-45 minutes of stumbling mingling and ample yawning to stay awake, the Creative Morning begins in earnest. There’s a run down of the number of chapters, the groups’ mission statement, and shout outs to the sponsors. Then the month’s theme is introduced, followed by the guest speaker in short order.
The Depths They Plumb
Each month a sometimes bizarrely chosen and ambiguous theme pops up – ‘Depth’, ‘Silence’, ‘Lost’, ‘Muse’. The speakers are from all walks of creative life – from painters to writers to cooks to TV hosts and balloon artists. Each person crafts their own presentation to the theme and tells the story of their creative life.
There is a certain amount of a confessional writing feel to a lot of the presentations. The speakers are largely willing to peel back the layers and go to some raw places to share their journeys. Thankfully, most of the chosen speakers have had a wonderful knack to highlight the important lows and the transcendent highs of their stories, editing out all the useless unimportant fodder in the middle.
A lot of the speakers’ lives lend themselves to a great narrative. Artists usually trod upon lots of dead ends and rough spots until finding their fertile grounds. Silicon Valley would transmute these presentations into a dull, faux-inspirational TED talk. In only a way Silicon Valley can, TED talks are imbued with cheap anecdotes and trite messages. These safe, thin missives lack heart and the inherent presence of fear and failure. Fortunately, most of the Creative Morning speakers spend time showing their work. All the fishing, wandering, wondering and failures along the way are mentioned. Ultimately, it’s these failures that make them into what they have become and, to whatever degree, succeeded.
November’s guest speaker in Kansas City was Liz Cook. Knowing how Creative Mornings works, it’s clear why Liz is a great speaker about the month’s theme, truth. Liz Cook is a freelance writer who reviews restaurants for the Pitch, writes her own substack, and has work up and down the remnants of food writing online and elsewhere. She modestly introduced herself as one of types of speakers who needs an introduction. She ran through a brief history of her writings and food reviews, including some of the most notorious reviews, including her spotlight on sexual harassment in the service industry via her Port Fonda investigation.
Liz covered what it meant to review and critique food, and her dedication to fairness and truth. She takes her responsibility to criticism as a form of love. She acknowledged her ‘hater’ label, and her talk dug down into further levels. Liz’s dedication to the craft of writing and coming to terms on her own thinking, her writing’s sustainability, and her own knowledge of what her writing was trying to be.
Liz’s writing comes from a place of deep curiosity. Without finding her courage, she could never reach a curious enough place to write what she does, and write it so well. But still, as accomplished a writer as she has become doubts and fears are never far behind. She retold a story of one of her mentors on a job challenging his young staff of writers of just what the sacrifices meant to become a writer were. The threat of failing publicly, wasting time, effort, marriage, relationships, future, money – if you can contemplate those things, and still consider writing – perhaps, then, maybe you have a chance at a future.
This horrified Liz, and she confessed to having a full time job. I use the word confess because she meant it as such. There’s so much pressure on writers and artists to ‘pursue their dream’ and ‘sacrifice everything’ there’s a tendency for the drive for notoriety and fame to reduce smaller accomplishments. She explained, after years of internal debate, levels of success are somebody’s personal definition. Notoriety is the foil to fulfillment and joy.
Hemingway and Van Gogh are constantly held up as the examples of the desire and sacrifice needed to become a ‘great artist’. The great masculine uber- alpha male hunter, the lost soul almost incapable of living in society, are the worst tropes. Lost in that narrative is the joy that painting and writing can bring to a person. Over the pandemic, Shakespeare’s works were constantly held up as the baseline for creative output in a pandemic.
Liz’s speech brought up the fact that writing can just be a passion, and not a profession. The joy of honing one’s craft, the personal satisfaction of digging deep to find the courage to say what needs to be said. Without courage and curiosity, writing becomes safe, lazy, bad.
It’s a small thing I say during my drawing classes to every student. I tell them to just sketch a little bit here and there. Don’t do anything big, don’t strive for a perfect drawing. Make mistakes, but whatever you do, don’t turn your sketch into a job. Keep it as an actual fun activity. When you give yourself a job, you’re going to end up hating it. Liz brought up the same point – “when it feels like work, you’ve got a problem.” Do it on your own time, make it interesting to you. Write on your own terms, your own time and it will sustain you. That, is the Truth.
The talk was a great moment at Creative Mornings. Liz masterfully connected the dots through her career, highlighting the highs and lows, threading the needle past the doubts and delivering a spot on message. The crowd of creatives in attendance responded enthusiastically. The clock raced towards 10. Liz had a job to get to. Work waited for me in my studio. Some of the creatives lingered a bit, catching up with friends.
Eventually though, everybody went their own ways, back to whatever creative endeavor they have going on in their lives, to whatever degree of seriousness. In a month, they’ll be a new mix of creatives, a new speaker and a new topic. The speaker may or may not be as eloquent and thoughtful as Liz, but there will be interesting stories, some bitter truths, and an audience ready to go along for the ride.