On Jada Yuan and Getting Through Eighteen Rounds of Edits

You’ve probably never heard of “Jada Yuan,” but you’ve heard of the people she’s interviewed: Steven Spielberg, Taylor Swift, Mindy Kaling, Stevie Nicks, to name a few. But who she knows is not what makes Jada interesting – it’s what she writes; Jada is Contributing Editor for New York Magazine, and she is one of my favorite writers.  

Jada is a storyteller – and I want to find out how she got so good at her craft.  

I discovered her skill a year ago while doing research about Taylor Swift for an article. I’d read dozens of articles about Taylor by the time I got to Jada’s piece, but hers felt instantly different. It was the first article that made me feel like I was in the room, sitting on the “burnt-orange velvet sofa” with Taylor Swift, in a “sprawling two-story penthouse” surrounded by “jewel tones” and a “rosewood Steinway grand piano.”

If, as Joan Didion says, “writing nonfiction is…like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing,” then Jada is a sculptress who paints her clay once it’s been fired.

In the Taylor Swift piece, Jada could have simply listed what Taylor was wearing that day (it was an article for Vogue, after all) by writing something like ‘Taylor was wearing a dress by rvn.” Instead, she paints a scene, and lets us decide what it means:

“…when I ask Swift who made her black knit tank dress, she has no idea…Swift turns to me for help. ‘I don’t know—do I have a tag in there?’ she asks, lifting up her fluffy fair hair and leaning her back toward me. rvn, the tag reads. ‘My stylist put it in my closet,’ she says, burying her face in her hands.”

When I read this I’m not thinking about clothes at all. I’m thinking about what it must be like to sit on a burnt orange sofa with someone who has clothes magically appear in her closet. I’m wondering what it’s like to live a life where having a reporter on your burnt orange sofa is so normal and comfortable that you lean your neck to let her check your tag. To this day I still think about the phrase "fluffy hair" - it's part of a collection I have: words that sound like music. 

The more I read of Jada’s work (a variety, from pop culture reviews to exonerated prisoners), the more I see that this is what she does; she doesn’t assume something is interesting because it’s well known or sounds click-worthy. She looks for more. It feels like she doesn’t want to waste your time, like she doesn’t write for a paycheck alone – like she wants to make sure she says something, like she wants to give you something for your time.

In short, she’s an artist, though she might not call herself that.  

I call Jada for an interview a few months after falling in love with her writing. She answers the phone and I reiterate all of the above, telling her how much I appreciate her as an artist; she responds with an incredulous “Really?” in a voice that rings with kindness and the soft tones of the kind of introvert you can find me talking to for hours in the corner of a hotel ballroom when I’m supposed to be “networking.”

Her “Really?” is cradled by an unassuming lilt. Her disbelief in her own artistry is not a request for praise, nor a testament to someone who doesn’t know her worth. It’s feels like the first smell of jasmine on a summer night in Florida; the revelation that someone in her late thirties can work on a craft for years and still be surprised by a compliment, or may not totally see herself as an artist. There's a part of me that wants to feel sad, that a woman like Jada should always feel like an artist - but the truth is, I find it a relief. It feels new to know that you don’t always have to feel like an artist to make art.

I answer Jada's “Really?” with a resounding and happy “Yes.” and she explains her incredulity a little more: “It’s weird being like a journalistic non-fiction writer. I’m in it, but I’m not really in it...it’s not like being a novelist and it’s just you on a page.” I recognize this comparison in my stomach – the ‘I can’t draw so I’m not an artist.’ The ‘I’m not creative because I write non-fiction.’ The ‘the true creators are those who create something out of nothing. I am not a real creator. I am not creative. I am not an artist.’

“It’s weird,” Jada continues,” I’ve never really thought of myself as a creative person…someone in the arts, but sort of on the periphery…I think that’s also what journalists are: we’re always on the outside looking in.”

But it’s what Jada sees when she’s looking in that makes her an artist to me.

I tell her how I feel about her piece on the exonerated prisoners, a piece you could argue she wasn’t “in” at all, since she chose to let the prisoners tell their own stories. But I find her artistry in the very choice she makes tell their stories in their own voice, and in the details she doesn’t edit out, like in Jeffrey Deskovic’s retelling of his experience on the day he was released from prison, after 16 years, for a crime he didn’t commit. See if you can spot my favorite detail, or better yet, choose your own: 

“In the morning, when they opened my cell, they told me they were transferring me. I knew that that meant I was going to court…the guards wanted to put the handcuffs and the chains and all the manacles on me. And I asked them, ‘What are you doing all that for?’ That’s when they told me, ‘Well, the judge might change his mind.’ They brought me to the holding area in the courthouse in White Plains. Doubts start coming into my mind. They gave me this brown-bag lunch, which had like an apple and terrible sandwiches in it. One of them was just a dry cheese sandwich and the other was like a bologna sandwich and you could tell that things had been made early that morning so the bread was soggy. I initially put the thing aside. But as more time is going by, I start thinking, Well, damn, I might need this, actually. I might be going back to the prison afterwards, and by the time I get there, lunch is long since over. So I ate the damn sandwiches.”

I tell Jada how many writers might cut the description of the sandwich, how it could seem like an irrelevant or boring detail. To me, the sandwich is everything.

I think about the kind of interviewer it takes to get a well-told story like this, to make someone feel relaxed enough to remember the sandwich, to feel valued enough to repeat it.

Jada is an artist because she recognizes the literary in the mundane. Jada is an artist because she doesn’t cut the soggy sandwich.

She is creative. She is good. And she’s been working at it for a long time. She wrote her first book in middle school: “I wrote a book in 6th grade…[with] vivid scenes in a haunted house, and a character named Fatso Bratso.” The book was 40 pages, and much of it took place in Nantucket, which Jada laughs about when she remembers she’d never actually been but had always read about Nantucket: “I was an indoor kid in New Mexico, and it’s really hot and desert-y…so all I did was read.”

But despite all the reading, writing, and imagining, Jada didn’t plan on a writing career, the same way someone who grows up swinging on swings doesn’t think about making swings a full time career. Reading and writing were simply forms of play – ways to stay cool in the desert.

Jada won creative writing contests and wrote poems throughout the rest of her schooling, but writing is not the career path she envisioned. Non-fiction “stories” of a different kind caught her attention; after high school she majored in History at Yale University where she was assigned a writing tutor, Fred.

Jada saw Fred a lot in college because, as she explains, he’s someone you'd see “anytime you had a paper and you were struggling to figure it out,” and by her own admission, that happened to her a lot: “I had five hours until deadline and I hadn’t written anything; I would go in and he’d be like, ‘wow I’m really worried for you.'"

I can't help but start to imagine that voice in my head as my own personal "Fred" - wow I'm really worried for you you haven't finished your book yet. Wow I'm really worried for you what are you doing with your time. Wow I'm really worried for you why is this taking so long?

And yet, Fred sees something in Jada’s procrastinated writing. “At some point he mentioned that he thought I should take this non-fiction writing course.” Jada takes both of his writing classes and joined the magazine he ran at Yale called The New Journal, where she is immersed in an intensive writing environment: “everything went through 18 rounds of edits.”

Eighteen rounds of edits. Eighteen rounds of edits. Eighteen rounds of edits. Would it annoy you if I repeat that eighteen times? I kind of want to. But I won't. You get it, I know. EIGHTEEN! Ok. That was the last one. I promise. It's just I can't help but be obsessed with this idea of editing. Editing is painful the first time, let alone the seventeenth. And yet I think it's what makes an artist good. But what I feel like they don't tell you is that when you're in edit number fifteen you feel like I AM THE WORST AND I AM NOT AN ARTIST AND I'M OBVIOUSLY A TERRIBLE WRITER SO REALLY I SHOULD STOP NOW. I feel like it's those who can keep going in that space who get really good. The goal perhaps not to stop the voice, but to simply make it to eighteen despite it. And then, to do the really brave and impossible thing: start again with edit one. 

Being immersed in an intensive editing process at one of the best universities in the country can make Jada’s path seem deceptively straightforward: combine her early fiction writing (e.g. "Fatso Bratso"), interest in non-fiction stories (as a History major), and ivy-league-writing practice, and botta-bing-botta-boom she has found her perfect career and will be a journalistic non-fiction writer for the rest of her life! Easy peasy.

Except that’s not at all how it happens.

Jada enjoyed her time at her college magazine, but she didn't feel any grand calling towards a journalistic non-fiction career. She graduated college and returned home to New Mexico: “I didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted to do for a job. My mom was like, ‘Well, you’re not living here for the rest of your life, so we’re getting you on a plane.  You can stay with your grandparents for a couple weeks [in New York], and then you have to find an apartment and figure out your life.’”

Jada is pushed back out of the nest, into the city.

Following a vague interest in film Jada started off doing a series of unpaid script development internships in New York. She found it fun, but as she put it, “I couldn’t live without any money.” Any artist knows this song well.

So she started applying for any job she thought would pay the rent, walking her resume around New York. 

She brought her resume to New York Magazine because of one of those seemingly innocuous moments that sometimes start entire career trajectories. “I’d never read New York Magazine. I just went because my mom’s friend had it in her apartment and she said, ‘Why don’t you apply for New York Magazine?’”

Around that same time an assistant at New York Magazine had just told her boss that she needed to leave her job right away, but her boss told her that she had to find her own replacement first. Enter fresh-out-of-college Jada, resume in hand. The assistant offers Jada her job on the spot. 

But Jada got a higher paying offer that same day from another job she'd applied for at American Lawyer. Jada had done a law internship as part of her History major and was considering law school – she applied for the American Lawyer job as sort of“a waylay station before I had to go to law school…sort of about trying to be the ‘good girl’ that I thought that I needed to be, which meant that I probably ‘should’ have gone into law.”

As I'm reading this part on my eighteenth edit of this piece Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez's lyrics dance into my head: "that perfect girl is gone..."

Jada remembers walking into the office at American Lawyer and realizing “I don’t want this to be my life. And no disrespect for anyone who works at American Lawyer. It was like, ‘Am I really going to be writing stories about lawyers?’ I just couldn’t do it.” I picture Jada walking out of American Lawyer with a clear cape cascading down, following her down subway stairs, the ends collecting new york grime but the windows of the subway car crackling with icicles. 

Jada chose the New York Magazine job even though it paid a lot less than the American Lawyer job (and neither paid very much). I ask her why she didn’t take the higher paying job and she explains: “Lots of people leave college and know what they want to do, but I had no idea.  It took a really long time to figure it out…I knew deep down I didn’t want to be a lawyer.”

I think about the times when I have no idea where I’m going or where I even want to go next in my career - when all I can do is move away from the things I know for sure I don’t want. But often that leaves me feeling more lost than ever, like I'm stuck in a manhole (or womanhole?) with a bunch of construction workers peering down like, eh, lets just leave her there, we have no work for her up here. 

But for Jada, the rest is a dream come true: she takes the assistant job at New York Magazine and an editor quickly notices her creative brilliance and within a few weeks she is interviewing Spielberg!

Ha.

Nope.

Jada spends the next four years “answering phones…filling out healthcare forms…writing contracts and paying writers.” Jada remembers: “It was definitely a drag.”

You know what's coming now right? Four years. Four years. Four years. Four years. 

Eighteen rounds of edits. Four years of filling out healthcare forms. The things that make a writer that no one ever quite tells you. 

What gets someone through those four years? For Jada it was the creative atmosphere and sense of possibility: “We were in a very creative office…[the assistants] sat right outside the editor’s offices….[and the editors] would walk out of meetings and just hand us small things to do – really tiny assignments – and those just built on each other.”

For four years she hangs on every tiny assignment, writing whatever she’s given, doing the grunt work. Waiting, hoping, writing, waiting, hoping, writing, filing, filing, writing, writing, filing, filing, filing, filing, writing, writing, writing, hoping, filing. 

So many dues being paid in the only currency accepted - diligence and difficulty.

Jada and her fellow assistants take on any writing assignment they can get on the side, building their skills, all the while longing for the next step – to be summoned out of the assistants desk and into a full time writing job.

Four years after Jada is given the assistant job, one of those full-time writing jobs opens up.

It goes to an outside hire.

This happens again and again and Jada and her fellow assistants feel crushed. “When is it our turn?” they wonder.

Then another full-time writing job opens up (a listings job in charge of chronicling upcoming events in a particular category, like sports) and this time an assistant is promoted.

That assistant isn’t Jada.

“I was so mad!” she laughs as she remembers watching her friend get the job she wanted, “I was happy for her, but she got the jail break, and I didn’t get it.”

Jada was friends with the editor who had just made the hire, and she was comfortable enough (and frustrated enough) to walk into his office and express her disappointment at not being given a chance to move forward. His response: “'I hate to tell you this but you’re never going to get that job…I’ve seen your sports listings - they’re great - but they’re like twice as long as they need to be.  We have to keep cutting them down…But you’re really good at interviewing people and you should just do that.'”

Jada's long profiles are what drew me to her. I love that her writing is not pithy, I love that she does not take shortcuts to keep up with our shortening attention spans. Her articles are what gave me the hope I needed to start this long form blog, hope that maybe people don't read long stuff simply because the writers haven't taken time to edit it eighteen times. Hope that there's still a place for words without gifs. (No shade to gifs though.)

So when the editor tells Jada the reason she isn't getting promoted is because her writing instincts lean towards detail and length, skies open up and Jada finally sees what she was always meant to do. She hugs the editor and they ride unicorns along a rug of rainbows all the way to the features office where she promptly gets a job interviewing people full time and…you already know where I’m going with this, right?

Here is what actually happens next: “I was so pissed off...I spent another year doing the editorial assistant thing.”

Another year.

But those editor’s words stayed with her. “I took it to heart.”

Jada is patient. She works hard and continues to take any writing opportunity available, even if it isn’t necessarily what she “dreams” of doing.

Another full-time position opens up at the magazine in party reporting. It’s still all about concise writing, but this time it’s also about interviewing people at least, so Jada decides to apply.

She gets the job. 

Jada spends the next few years going to elite parties, asking celebrities questions and getting quotes for the magazine. She interviews. She writes. She starts managing a whole team of freelancers and interns. She works until 4am most nights. And despite having a job that revolves around parties, her social life dissipates.  

Prince was a catalyst for the next turning point. “One of those [4am] nights, Prince had a book party that I was invited to where he was playing in an apartment, and [because of my job] I missed Prince playing a concert in an apartment, and I was like, ‘This cannot be my life anymore.  I cannot do this.’”

First world problems, amiright? But Jada isn't whining about missing one elite event because her job has her at another. The Prince Disappointment was about something else entirely. 

Jada realized the job she was doing was close and yet very far from the art she longed to do. After that night she realized, “I do not want to be the person who is telling people what to do or managing them.  I want to be the person there.  I want to be the person who is seeing things and writing about it.” It can seem like a simple revelation, even an inevitable one knowing what Jada does today - but when you're living this part of your life its all fog and these kinds of epiphanies are fresh batteries for a flashlight that's burnt out.

And like most career turning points, this one for Jada “came out of frustration.” Frustration is a prickly guide, but a guide nonetheless. 

I notice that Jada never seems to let the frustration keep her from building thousands of hours of practice in her craft. Even in the frustration, when her days and nights were consumed with managing others and doing her job, she took every opportunity to do writing assignments on the side: “I was writing every single day and every single night.” Because 10,00 hours of working on a craft on top of a day job is always oodles of fun, right? Jada tells the truth about this part of craft development: “…it was exhausting.”

And even though so many of her words are rejected, like that time she spent five hours working on a 250-word sports listing about a dedicated group of fans in Harlem and it’s cut to 30 words, she keeps trying. She keeps writing.

Her dedication is eventually noticed. She starts to get assigned mini profile pieces which turn into bigger culture pieces which eventually turn into full-length features. “It was sort of gradual,” Jada remembers, “you start voting with your feet. You do the things that you want to do and then eventually those become the things that you do.”

After years and years (and years and years and year and years) of grunt work Jada is finally doing work she completely wants to do, in a craft she cares about, and everything about it is perfect and wonderful. Right?

Well...

“The process of writing is terrible. It’s so painful.  It’s the worst thing in the world.  But the idea of writing is great, and it’s also a compulsion…it’s just the way that I am, and I can’t stop it, so I might as well go with it.”

Jada explains how her compulsion is also part of a joyous chase: “That’s the great thing about writing…you can always go over a sentence again and find a word you can cut or find a different way to say something… I do think there’s a time when you should let it go and just be happy that’s it out in the world, but the process of learning how to be a good writer, you can go to the grave working on that.”

I don’t know how we get to where we get next, but somehow our conversation about the pursuit of mastery turns into a conversation about rejection. Maybe because rejection is so good at matching the pace of ambition.

Jada tells me about a rejection that gutted her during her time party reporting: “It was right after my grandfather had died, and I was going out to parties and having to put on this thing where I’m cheerfully going up to celebrities. [One night] we were all trying to wait for Kanye West. Kanye was supposed to show up and he literally walked into the room and walked out, and we sat around and waited an hour for that to happen…[so now] I really didn’t have anything to write about for this party.”

Ever the professional, Jada looked around for another idea and spotted a well-known super model. “I went up, and I was like, ‘Hi, I’m Jada from New York Magazine.  Just a couple quick questions.’ And she agreed to it...I had this really innocuous question.  It was something like, ‘Have you ever not sat front row at a fashion show?’ And she was like, ‘That’s a really stupid question.  I can’t believe you’re asking me that.  Why are you wasting my time?’ And I held it together for another two minutes, and then I just ran off and cried, and I was like, ‘What the f--- am I doing?’”

Jada remembers the blow, how personal it felt at the time. I ask her how she feels about rejection now. “I don’t think you ever get over it…I would be surprised if there was anyone [rejection] didn’t hurt…whether it’s rejection when you’re trying to interview someone or a bad comment on an article, or no one reads the article.  I still experience it constantly…[but] it helps…[when] you can’t picture yourself doing something else.”

She also tries to remember the mantra “It’s not about me.”

We talk next about rejection’s close cousin, self-doubt. It’s “just always there,” Jada shares. I ask her a question that means a lot to me: What keeps you writing through the self-doubt? I don't realize it but I'm holding my breath waiting for her answer. I don't hold it for long because she doesn't hesitate. 

 “Guilt, probably."

I laugh one of those laughs that spray water.

“Guilt” is the last thing I expect Jada to say, and yet it feels immediately and deeply true. Guilt has kept quite a few projects alive when all I wanted to do was kill them. I wonder for a moment if this is true for anyone else. I start to imagine a new kind of Oscar acceptance speech:

I’d like to thank my manager, my agent, but this award is really dedicated to guilt! Thank you guilt for getting me out of bed to work even when I hated myself and everything I was working on. I couldn’t do it without you guilt (tears up) and, guilt, I just wanna say…(cue exit music).

Guilt gets Jada moving on a project when she feels unsure, but what gets her all the way to the finish line is knowing she’s good at what she does. Guilt can morph into confidence, excitement even.

Jada credits great people in her life for helping her build the kind of confidence that pushes projects past the breaking point: “I was able to get past a lot of [self-doubt] by having other people around me who believed in me.  It’s really sort of a fake it until you make it kind of thing, and it really helps if you have other people who see something that you can’t see yourself.”

While we can’t control who might see something in us we can be that person for someone else. I try to remember to tell the artists in my life what I see in them. We need more artists, and emerging artists need at least one person to tell them what they see  – or they will most likely stop during the crucial but very painful parts. They still stop at edit sixteen. It’s a survival mechanism. Any sane person will stop. 

Jada found ways of thinking that also helped slowly built her confidence during the editing process. She'd say to herself, “Maybe…you didn’t write it the way that you wanted to, but you got some good quotes.  So feel ok about that, and then have the confidence that you always get good quotes…and then try and work on the [other] parts...[but] concentrate on the thing that you did well.”

Jada does a lot of things well today, and if you don’t believe me, ask Stevie Nicks.

Three years ago, Jada was assigned a profile on Stevie. Fear gripped her as she knew so little about Stevie Nicks or her music. But Jada got right to work and started with research, letting herself be drawn to what she found most compelling. A question beings to emerge from the heaps of research that Jada grows desperate to answer: Why does Stevie Nicks mean so much to so many women?

Jada spends the next four months trying to answer that question (she has to fight to keep extending the deadline because she is so dedicated to getting it right). She finishes the piece. It reads like a song. Some of my favorite ‘lyrics:’

“Look to the shawls…”

 “ …a woman transformed, wrapped in fringed silk…fine fabric unfurling from her delicate shoulders like the banner of an advancing army, heralding not just a song but the coming of an event…”

“…those shawls have magic in them.”

Jada rarely hears back from the people she writes about, so when two weeks after it publishes she hasn’t heard any feedback from Stevie Nicks’ camp, she isn’t surprised: “In this business you really don’t expect to hear anything.”

After the article publishes Stevie Nicks plays a show nearby and Jada wants to go. She reaches out to Stevie’s assistant whom she’d gotten to know from the piece and nervously asks for tickets. Jada remembers the assistant’s response: “’Oh yeah.  Stevie loves you. Please come!’” 

Jada shows up with a friend and enjoys the show – somewhere along the way she has become one of those women Stevie means something to.

Stevie sings her songs and Jada and her friend watch the shawls. “Landslide” is up next, Jada knows, because she’d seen the show in rehearsals; Stevie dedicates “Landslide” to someone every night.  On this night, Stevie places her gloved hand over the mic and begins her dedication:

"I always kind of save this for people who I consider to be family or really my closest, closest friends…I would like to dedicate this song to a girl, a lady…Jada. She wrote the most beautiful article about me She followed me around for three days. I thought, 'She's 35 years old, she doesn't even ... ' [but] come to find out that she got it. She got something that no one who has ever written about me has ever gotten. I'll never, ever forget it. It lives in my journal."

Jada bursts into tears. Her friend grabs her phone and starts taking pictures of Jada crying and all the people around them start asking “‘What?  Is that you?  Is she talking about you?’”

“It was really…really crazy,” Jada remembers. After the show Stevie invites Jada backstage because she wants to talk to her more. “Stevie Nicks is herself a beautiful writer.  That’s why people connect with her songs.  She’s a poet.  So for her to see something in that was really special, and also to acknowledge…I put so much effort into it. I really wanted to do a good job, and I had.”

As a creative, it doesn’t get much better than that: “I was high on it for a couple weeks.”

So Jada The Writer lived happily ever after and never doubted herself or her writing again!

The End. 

Roll Credits.

I thought about actually ending this piece there. There is satisfaction in the perfect ending, maybe because real life is ongoing, messy, a continuity of plot and conflict, sometimes painfully devoid of dénouement. But at about edit seventeen I realized that the story just doesn't end there. And at least all that messy continuing is also evidence of something to be thankful for - if you’re still struggling, it means you’re still alive.

It means you’re still trying.

It means your story isn’t over yet.

And neither is Jada’s.

Self-doubt returned, even after the Stevie Nicks Moment. “Then this huge wave of self-doubt came through where I was just like, ‘That’s the highest that it’s ever going to get.  Where do I go from there? I can’t top that piece.’ And I haven’t.  I’ve written other pieces that I think are good but…”

Jada’s favorite piece of advice about the highs and lows of creative work came from a therapist who told her: “It’s about batting averages…you have to just be a baseball player and the best baseball players in the world, they strike out.  They strike out.  Every once in a while they hit a home run and that’s a great moment. But if you’re going to choose this to be your life…if you’re going to keep putting yourself out there, you can’t expect greatness every time.  But you can expect some really good satisfying moments, and you just have to keep working toward that.”

Luckily, it’s the “working toward” that Jada finds most satisfying. It doesn’t mean there aren’t still days when writing feels terrible, it just means she’s learned that somewhere on the other side is something worth the frustration.

an excerpt from my book...sort of

I’ve been working on a book about dreams for almost three years. And today I’m sharing an excerpt from that book. Well, kind of. It’s actually a rough draft. I’m sharing it now because this book has already taken almost three years and it might be another three until it can be held in two hands.

I needed to send it off and out, just to remind myself that that’s something that can be done.

I’ve been alone with this book for so long and so today I’m sending a little bit of it out to you – not because you need it, but because I need you.

You can read more about the book here. It's still very much in the works, but what I can tell you now is this: It’s a book about dreams, and the people who go for them. It's also about your dreams. Not what you should do to reach them, but what you can do. It’s not about doing things that will always work, but about things you can do when nothing’s working.

It's about the hope of seeing what isn't there, and trying to make your ideas real. Whether it turns out exactly how you envision is not the point. 

This is not a book that pretends dreams always come true. Or that dreams are even always worth pursuing. Or that dreaming is a thing you should even do. Only you decide that. But it is a book about what can be.

It's also a book written by a young woman whose dream is to be a professional writer, for whom this very book is her attempt at making her a dream a reality, an attempt that has been fraught with frustration. And yet, despite all the turmoil and cynicism and fifty-million times I've wanted to give up so far, I remain fascinated by the reality that despite all the pain and injustice in the world that there are still people who take a good hard look at it all and work towards what can be instead of what is.

I interviewed 120 people who had a dream come true in their life. The book will be their stories, and mine.

Below is one of those stories.

Thank you for being here. Thank you for reading this. Sharing it would mean the world to me. And you can also click here and scroll all the way down to enter your email address to be notified when the book becomes a thing you can hold in your two hands. Thanks for holding it for me now.  

....

rough draft excerpt from a book about dreams and dreamers

by Isa Adney

But what if...no one wants to hire you for your dream job?

 

Dave Elsey

 

dream: become a professional monster makeup artist for film.

 

 

“For years I was sleeping with monsters by the bed. You know how people talk about having monsters under the bed? I had monsters by the bed.”

 

 

preface

I wish you could hear Dave Elsey’s voice. It’s all kindness and wonder, wrapped up in an accent that makes me long for the two weeks I spent across England in my third year of college, climbing up moors with sheep everywhere, eating jacket potatoes in places called the “Red Lion,” and trying chana masala for the first time in London.

Also there was the Monet room, which I stumbled upon while lost, roaming the giant halls of the National Gallery in London, the art museum guarded by giant bronze Lions in Trafalgar Square. I stood in the exact center of the Monet room, equidistant from each painting, and slowly walked closer until my breath touched the paint. Then I’d step back to the center and walk towards the next one, letting the details slowly reveal themselves, each painting changing with every step.

Talking to Dave Elsey was kind of like standing in that Monet room, allowing me to walk closer to a story that always felt elusive – the story of someone who has won an Oscar - the story behind the thirty-second speech that the music tells us must stop for commercials.

I watch all the award shows because of the speeches. From that I collect names in a notebook on my phone, names of people I would love to interview one day (Octavia Spencer, Don Hall, Viola Davis, Tommy Kail, Common, Brie Larson, Lin Manuel-Miranda, Cynthia Erivo, Ava DuVernay…) There are 29 people on the list.

I wonder about things like how they sustained themselves through the times when they were pursuing a career in something as unstable as art, pursuing something as impossible as being a full time actor, writer, producer, director, musician, special effects designer, makeup artist….artist.

I think about things like that when I watch awards shows and after movies. I’ve been one of the last to leave the movie theater long before the promise of easter eggs and post-credit scenes. My easter egg hunt was always in the names, in the jobs that scroll slowly, each representing a person who made the film possible, and maybe even a dreamer who chose a profession with no stability, no guarantee, and probably no paycheck for a while.

In the upcoming live action Beauty and the Beast film (for which Dave Elsey crafted The Beast) there are jobs like: 

wigmaker

fake teeth designer

drapesmaster (I love that someone’s job is to master drapes, drapes! This is a thing, people!)

leather worker

standby carpenter

snow and ice dresser

“Practical Electrician”

“additional electrician” (I do not know the difference between the two, but I do know that I love that Practical Electrician gets capital letters and I wonder if there should also be an Optimistic Electrician or a Delusional Electrician, just to keep things spicy. Hollywood - you’re welcome).

jewelry modeler

set driver

payroll clerk

ballroom coach

etc

etc

etc.

Credits go on for a long time, right? Movies are their own little ecosystem for this one moment in time. And all the names that scroll are people, with stories and lives and skills that all converged to make this one big thing.

And I can’t help but wonder if the majority of them have stories like Dave’s, stories of pursuing a thing that is a little bit crazy, a profession that is pretty unlikely, a thing that requires getting really good at something you may never ever get paid to do.

And yes, I’m sure there are people who scroll by on the credits who got their job because their uncle works in the movies, and, ya know, that’s cool too. I mean, hey – if I had an uncle in the movies I’d be pretty excited to be hired to be the

weather consultant? (wait, I’m probably not qualified for that if they require more than iPhone-weather-checking-skills…um…how about the

construction nurse? I have band-aids in my purse. Hm. No?

standby carpenter? Ah, but then they’d never want anything to happen to the main carpenter because the standby would always hammer nails crooked and also know nothing at all about carpentry. Oh I know!

stand-in for Emma Watson! Yes? When they need to figure out all the lighting stuff. I could stand there and make conversation with the Practical Electrician. And I think I’m about Emma Watson height…Oh wait…I just looked it up, we’re not close in height at all. But…I like books, and Belle, and Harry Potter and gender equality, so…. (Ok - I think I’ve been fired by my imaginary movie uncle.)

But what if you don’t have a proverbial movie uncle and your dream is to be a professional artist, to get paid to do your art?

Dave Elsey’s dream was to be a professional artist, a professional monster makeup artist at that. And what I learned from interviewing Dave, what I learned about what he did to pursue his dream, inspires me to keep going even when the dream feels more impossible than ever, even when I feel like maybe I’ll never be any good, like maybe I’ll never get my art to have that thing I really want it to have, like Ira Glass says

“…it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good…A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit…And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work… it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.”

Ira then goes on to say that this is all normal and encourages us to fight through the gap. The pain of the gap, as I like to think of it. 

But what does it really feel like in the gap, when you don’t actually know if you’ll ever be any good, when the gap feels like a ditch you’ve dug for yourself?

I interviewed Dave years ago now, and his is the story I think about the most whenever I’m in the gap ditch. I use it like a sword to fight off all the doubt, all the phrases that creep up through the dirt:

Give up now.

Working on your craft is a waste of time.

Art is stupid.

No one will pay for this thing you’re doing ever because it’s trash. You are trash. You are a trash person.

Get a real job.

Seriously.

Get.

 A.

Real.

 Job.

Stop this.

Stop this NOW!

GROW. UP.

Dave’s story reminds me that sometimes you just have to outrun those voices by working on your craft, by closing the gap.

This is Dave’s story. A story of a name that has scrolled through credits on films like Little Shop of Horrors, Star Wars, X-Men, The Wiz Live, Mission: Impossible, and Beauty and the Beast. But most of all, a story about the audacity required to turn childhood play into profession, the necessity of newspaper-tearing grandfathers and letter-answering monster-makers, the hours upon hours of practice required to close the gap, the drive to subsist on craft services alone, and the joy that comes from making something from your imagination – using your own two hands to turn idea to reality, fun to form.

Dave Elsey

Right away I notice Dave still talks with childlike joy about his craft. He loves makeup and monster movies, and he’s loved those things ever since he was a kid. He never missed a Saturday of Dracula or Frankenstein, the Saturday night double bill of monster movies, a regular occurrence on TV at the time. “I was just fascinated by monsters and creatures and that actors could make themselves look so different. And I really wanted to be able to do that.” The way a person could be transformed to look like a thing that did not exist in reality fascinated Dave. He wanted to transform people with makeup.

He did that thing that children can do. He saw something. He loved something. He imagined something. He did something. He played.  It could almost be called practice, but there was no prescience of what is required of professional artistry, only a desire to have fun, to start doing the thing he wanted to do, without permission. “I just would experiment on myself and try to do buildups with plasticine [a kid’s play-dough-like toy] on my face.” He had no idea at the time that his plasticine days would lead to him to one day win an Oscar.

Initially Dave didn’t even know you could transform people as a living, he just knew it was all he wanted to do and all he wanted to read about. But when he wanted to make people into monsters for a living there weren’t easily accessible books and definitely no Google (the guys who invented Google were still just kids themselves, relying on books). To find information about the craft he’d fallen in love with, Dave had to rely on paper, and the kindness of a grandfather. “My grandfather used to tear out bits [about horror films] from newspapers and stuff and give them to me.” One day his grandfather un-crinkled a center spread about “the guys who made the monsters” and gave it to his grandson.  

That torn out newspaper changed Dave’s life.

“I [read it and] went, 'That's something you can do!'” Dave remembers with revelation and the joy that comes from that moment you realize maybe the thing you love more than anything in the world could actually be a job. 

“I didn't realize that that was a job that you could do, or something that you could learn, and I thought, 'Well, there must be books on this!'”

But there weren’t that many books. “It was incredibly difficult to find anything written about it at all.” So Dave transformed himself into a kind of Google monster, scouring papers, magazines, and bookstores for any and every tiny piece of information he could find on making monsters. He collected any articles he could find and read them over and over and over again. He studied his art and the artists who came before him. He was looking for a path and to learn from those who had worn it.

He closely studied the photographs of the monster men featured in the articles too, usually in their workshops: “I'd look at the photographs under a magnifying glass; if there was a shelf behind a makeup artist I'd look along the shelf to see what kinds of things he might have.” Dave was, in his own words, “back engineering,” trying to “work out how it was done” by noticing the supplies on the shelves.

I don’t tell Dave at the time but when he says this I realize I’ve done this before too. Whenever an artist I like tweets a photo with their personal bookshelf in the background I always press my thumb and pointer finger slowly away from each other to zoom in to see what books they own. Sometimes I buy those books and read them. Sometimes I wonder if this is weird. I don’t have the answer, but I like that at least now I’m not the only one who zooms in.

Dave too takes note of the supplies he discovers beneath his magnifying glass and buys them. His drama teacher, Mr. Malcolm Morrison, had noticed Dave was into makeup and had taken him to the Charles H. Fox store (established in 1876), just 40 minutes from Dave’s home in the east end of London. “I had an allowance - like a tiny amount, [and it] used to take me months to save up to go down to the makeup store to buy stuff. And then when I'd get there I'd have to choose really carefully what I was gonna get, and make sure it was something really necessary, [because] some of the stuff is like one shot kind of stuff – use it and it's gone.”

The scarcity of allowance breeding creativity.

So Dave had a new routine. Discover new supplies. Save allowance. Take a bus to Charles H. Fox. Experiment with new supplies. Repeat. 

It reminds me of learning the scales that time I took band class in 7th grade. I was first put on the tuba but it swallowed me up. Then, the clarinet. My cheeks hurt and my lips got numb and I hated how much my back hurt from having to sit up so straight for an hour, not letting it lean against the seat, and playing the same thing every day. The scales. Up up up up up uppppp, down down down down dowwwwn. I quit band.

But I didn’t like the clarinet the way Dave liked makeup. The liking the scales can keep you in the seat long enough to get to play the good stuff, maybe eventually making the good stuff up for yourself. 

The people who ran the makeup store started to notice Dave’s love of makeup and consistent presence and practice. “There weren't any other kids going in there, it was all professional makeup artists.” Young Dave would ask them questions about makeup and start conversations with them, and eventually when they started getting new supplies in, they’d tell Dave, “'Look we just got this stuff in, we don't really know what it does. Why don't you take it home and play with it and then you can come back in and tell us what it does and you can have it for free?'”

Dave loved this, and started making his own creative offers. “I struck a deal with them, I said, 'Okay, what if I make stuff for you, like rubber noses or chins and cups and like false teeth and stuff like this? I'll make that stuff for you, and you pay me, but you can pay me with materials.' They agreed. “That was basically the first paid makeup job I ever had…they'd pay me in makeup.”

Dave didn’t quit band. He did his scales. He also never stopped reading, always looking for more material, more articles about makeup artists. “I became a bit obsessive…I'd look everywhere and try to gather every little piece I could.” One day he found a book called Making a Monster by Al Taylor and Sue Roy. “It was all about makeup artists, so I was like, 'I have to have that.'

This happens to me all the time with books; but I can go from the ‘I have to have that’ to reading the first sentence of that book in a matter of seconds on my Kindle. But Dave had to start by making phone calls to book stores in hopes one might carry such a niche item. “With some difficulty,” Dave remembers, he finally tracked down the book at a place in London called Forbidden Planet. They had the book - but only one copy. “I got up straight away and went down there…I was terrified somebody else would pick it up.”

But Dave got it.

He read through the whole thing immediately, soaking up all the names of all the makeup artists from past to present, “and right there at the end,” he remembers “almost as a kind of [a] post-script, there's a thing about this kid who's also doing makeup called Rick Baker.” Rick had done makeup for films like King Kong, Star Wars (episodes VI and V), and a Michael Jackson music video (“Thriller”).

Dave didn’t think much of it, but when a little while later he starts reading one of the snippets he’d found from the back of a magazine, he recognizes the name “Rick Baker” because of his book. Dave’s information gathering was starting to produce connections, webs, maybe even a path to something, though he still didn’t know what yet.

The magazine snippet said that Rick Baker was working on a movie at Elstree Studios in London, and the concept was a revelation for Dave. “I was like, 'Oh, it's a studio! You can just call a studio. And I can get their address and I can send him a letter!'”

So fifteen-year-old makeup-obsessed Dave wrote Rick Baker a letter. “A little letter,” as Dave remembers: “I wrote to him that I was a big fan of his work, that I had seen the 70’s King Kong…and that it had made me want to create stuff. I saw that he was a young man like me, and that he had achieved so much.”

I can’t help but get stuck on the phrase, like me – how powerful it can be when we see people we relate to doing something we dream of. It also reminds me of the inverse, how hard it is when you don’t see anyone like you in the places where you aspire. It’s why trailblazing is bloody business.

Rick had blazed a trail for Dave, and Dave had done the work to find the breadcrumbs. And while Dave was excited to write the letter, he knew he wouldn’t hear back from someone like Rick. But he wrote the address for the studio on the envelope and sent it anyway.

I can’t help but wonder if Rick, an artist himself, recognized another artist in that letter, recognized someone willing to do the work. Because Dave’s “little letter” received a two-page response from Rick, ending with an invitation for Dave to call.

Dave was surprised to receive the letter and while he was thrilled at a response, he was also terrified: “I was incredibly nervous and very, very afraid of what he might say.”

Dave dialed the number Rick gave in the letter, and Rick said: “‘Look, why don't you come down [to the studio] and I'll show you around.’”

Dave took the day off from school and went to Elstree Studios to meet Rick Baker. “Career days” can seem like a trite tradition in schools, but I have yet to meet someone who cannot point to that moment where they encountered a person doing a thing they wanted to do and how it changed everything. 

Dave arrived at Elstree studios, assuming he’d shake hands with Rick, hear about his cool life, and be on his way. “I thought it would maybe be for an hour or something.” But instead, “It ended up being an entire day.”

Rick walked Dave around the studios and showed him all the work he was doing for the film Greystoke. “It was a Tarzan film and he was making all the ape suits for it and I just thought it was absolutely amazing. It blew my mind.”

But it also made Dave realize something, a prickly awareness most dreamers must contend with early in the journey: “I was a long way away from being able to realize my dreams.” The distance between him and Rick, between his experiments and professional movie projects, between doing something after school and doing it for a living, felt like a great chasm.

It reminds me of one of my favorite Sara Bareilles lyrics: “Compare where you are to where you want to be, and you'll get nowhere…”

I heard those lyrics for the first time while folding clothes in my bedroom, still wearing pajamas at 2pm, frazzled from raising a puppy and frustrated with writers block. I knew I should have been working on my book, or the article that was due in a few days, but instead I opted to fold clothes while listening to Pandora. The truth is, I was devastated. I was not where I wanted to be. I was still reeling from graduate school rejections and feeling like I was not really good enough to be a writer. I felt unwanted and untalented and ungrateful.

Then Sara’s writing snuck into my room. Her song, “Uncharted,” bounced off the walls in my room and, for the first time in my life, I understood what people who said music “got them through” something actually meant. It was the first time I stopped what I was doing to just listen to a song. 

“Compare where you are to where you want to be, and you'll get nowhere…”

I mulled over the lyric for a year. I loved it, but I also wrestled with it. I’m writing a book about dreams, after all - the very concept of projecting where you want to be from where you are, and trying to close the gap – trying to get somewhere.  But getting nowhere? Hm. That sounded sad. "But what Sara sang felt so true, every time.

I started to wonder if the key word was compare, if the comparing is the part that can be discouraging, debilitating, halting -  the kind of comparing that leads to thinking that where you are now is somehow less than.

So perhaps exposure to what you want plus comparison can be destructive. But what happens when exposure meets encouragement? Rocket fuel.  

Rick didn’t condescend or puff himself up around Dave. He welcomed him. He taught him. He showed him around. He opened doors.

Hard work can help you find a locked door, but sometimes it’s only the kindness of a person on the other side who can open it.

Rick gave Dave a little notebook. “'Okay here's a notebook, here's a pen. I'm gonna tell you a lot of stuff, I want you to write it all down, cause otherwise you're gonna forget it. I'm gonna take you down to all the different departments in the shop, and show you all the different things.'”

Sometimes we need other people to show us all the things. Access is a commodity, and one of the greatest gifts.

Rick “was so fantastic and so great,” Dave remembers. He showed him all the things, and encouraged him to keep practicing the craft.

What helped Dave not feel too overwhelmed at the distance he still had to go was direction. Rick gave him something to do now. “At the end of the day he gave me a bunch of masks to take home, and he said, 'Just take these home, just practice sculpting them over and over again...when you can get the look like the sculpts I've given you, you'll be able to sculpt everything.'”

Rick gave Dave the sheet music. The scales.  

That meeting with Rick, Dave says, “completely altered the course of my life.”

Dave took the masks home and took Rick’s advice. “I probably spent next to three years sculpting them over and over again.”

Dave couldn’t find an art school for makeup artists, so he created his own. “I'd get home from school like at four o'clock, and then I'd work til midnight doing makeups, and then I'd go to bed, and then get up and then go to school and then repeat. And on the weekends I got to do it all day every day, so, just every single moment, every waking moment that I could get I'd try to do it.” Up up up up up uppppp, down down down down dowwwwn.

His family noticed. “I had great parents who were very encouraging of me, [but we] lived in a really small apartment. My aunt and uncle lived 20 minutes away and they had a house, and they said, 'Look, we can see that you're interested in this stuff…We'll give you a room in the house, you can turn it into like a little studio, and you can put all your stuff here rather than…screw up your mother's home.' That was amazing because then suddenly I could do stuff on a scale that was worth doing, and I could make a little bit more mess than I would have done otherwise.”

I can’t think of a dream that doesn’t require a space (real or proverbial) where you’re allowed to make a mess.

His aunt and uncle also had a spare bedroom that Dave would sleep in right next to the studio which led to a process he made up to determine if his art was any good; he calls it “night standing: You take the mask, and you set it up all looking great by the side of your bed, and then you go to sleep. And then when you wake up in the morning, you look over at the mask, and if it looks cool then you've done a good job, but if it doesn't look cool then you go argh; [either way] it's immediately apparent. So for years I was sleeping with like monsters by the bed. You know how people talk about having monsters under the bed? I had monsters by the bed.”

(When I write the first draft of Dave’s story I leave it open on my computer when I go to sleep and then review it first thing the next morning.)

At this point of the story I can’t imagine any kid doing more to become a professional makeup artist. I can’t imagine his practice and supreme focus and dedication not paying off right away. But the thing is, it doesn’t. All dreams hit reality, but it’s what they do at that point that separates them. The delusional dreams are the ones that ignore reality, the possible dreams are the ones that acknowledge reality, and try to harness it to create a new one.

Dave graduates high school and can’t get a job as a makeup artist. Reality: “There were a lot of union laws and things in England at that time, and it's very difficult to get in. Basically you had to have worked on a movie to get into the union, but you couldn't work on a movie unless you were in the union.” Dave was stuck in that vicious cycle anyone experiences when looking for their first job -  no one wants to hire you without experience, but you can’t get experience until someone hires you.

But Dave had already spent too much time working on his craft to be so easily deterred.

Dave hit his first wall, but he got creative. Using the research skills he developed as a kid he paid close attention to the industry, hoping to discover another pathway to his dream - and he found one. “There was an emerging art form called animatronics which is basically kind of working in the special effects field with makeup and stuff but it was more of a kind of a robotics and engineering side and I thought, 'I don't know much about that but I know just enough, I think, to get by.’”

Just enough. Sometimes that’s all you can do when you’re going for a dream. Find just enough to break in, to get by, to keep going.

He got a job in the animatronics department on the film Little Shop of Horrors. “[It] was a terrific training ground” he remembers.  He worked with a team on Audrey, “the singing dancing plant” in the movie, and “by the end of that I knew how to do animatronics too. I picked it up incredibly quickly because it wasn't far…from the other stuff I was interested in.”

Sometimes the wall leads to new skills, new crafts, new experiences you could’ve never dreamed of.

Now Dave had the movie experience he needed on his resume, but there was still a problem. “People thought that I was an animatronics guy now which is weird because I set out to be a makeup artist. [And] there weren't many animatronics jobs [either].”

Even after all that, Dave still wasn’t getting work.

 

 

The gap.

 

 

Those moments when no one wants to hire you. Those moments where you wonder if this means you aren’t any good. Or worse, that you’ll never be any good. If you are perhaps delusional. If perhaps you don’t have what it takes. If perhaps when you thought you were trying to create new reality you were just ignoring reality, and now it’s coming for you with a vengeance.

Dave remembers, “there was a really really rough year, a really rough year, where I hardly worked at all.” But of course everyone rallied around him and said “Keep going Dave we believe in you - never give uppppp!!!”

Nope. Instead people started to say the thing that most people who go for stuff know very well, the siren’s call to any dreamer when reality bites: “‘Maybe you should think about [doing] something else.'”

But Dave did not want to give up make up before he’d even really tried to do it professionally. Instead, he decided, “I’m gonna see what I can do.'” He hung in there. But he was running out of money.

Then a friend reached out, a friend he’d actually made during the Rick Baker tour of Elstree Studios, another young makeup artist named Steve Norrington. Steve became a very good makeup artist, but halfway through his career, as Dave tells it, “he said, 'I'm not gonna do this anymore, I'm gonna become a director.' And everybody said, 'Hah! Good luck with that, you can't just change careers.'

“So anyways he went off and he became a director.”

Steve reached out to Dave and said, “'Will you do the effects for me?'” It was for Steve’s first film, so Dave agreed to do it at cost, as long as Steve provided the materials, a little workshop, and just enough to live on.

Steve agreed, and the film indeed provided just enough to live on, even food. “Literally I was eating catering…I couldn't go out and buy food to live so I was eating just what the catering people were bringing around.”

That job helped Dave go from the little studio in his aunt and uncle’s house to his first professional studio, and after the movie ended he kept the tiny workshop at Pinewood Studios. But Dave was still struggling to find work as a makeup artist. No one would hire him to do makeup; they still only saw him as an animatronics guy. Typecasted.

So Dave decided to hire himself for the role he knew he could play, even though no one else seemed believe in what he could do at the time.  

 “[I thought] ‘I'll set up my own company and then I'll be the one that lets me do what I wanna do!’ I'll be the one that goes, 'Dave, why don't you be a makeup artist?’ ‘Oh, thank you very much, Dave I think I will!'”

Dave started his own business as a makeup artist and everything was perfect from there.

Just kidding. As Dave remembers it, “I had no money and it was terrifying.”

I imagine that anyone who’s invested in themselves or their art or their ideas has said the exact same thing at some point. Investing in yourself is terrifying. TERRIFYING. Like, monster-makeup-done-by-an-expert-monster-makeup-artist terrifying.

But sometimes that fear creates pressure that actually helps.

For Dave, the pressure of having to pay for his workshop at Pinewood Studios motivated him. “I thought, 'Well, this is sink or swim time.” He knew if he didn’t get any work, he would lose his studio. “It was a scary thing to do but I kept it on.”

That wheeling and dealing kid at the Charles H Fox makeup store had grown up and his propensity for creating makeup projects with a small allowance became an asset to his business. He started getting clients who really appreciated the high quality he could give them even if they didn’t have a huge budget. “If something [went] wrong when I was a kid, then I would have to pay for [it] myself, so [I learned] really quickly if you've done something and it doesn't work, that's your pocket money gone, and so you go, 'Okay, how do I not do that again?'” The lessons of entrepreneurship. The things you learn when the stakes are your own livelihood.

“The company took off, and I started to get a good reputation to be able to do realistic looking makeup and nice stuff on a budget…I got a few commercials, and then got some TV work, and then a few movies.”

His company ran on a variety of odd jobs like that for three years. Until one day when he bumped into a friend who worked at the Jim Henson Studios in a parking lot.  “[He] laid out a bunch of movies that they were doing there all at the same time which sounded great to me [compared] to my one commercial or whatever it is that I was doing, and then at the end of this big list he said, 'Oh we're also doing this other show, it's like a little sci-fi thing but it seems a little dated to me, I don't think that's gonna go.'”

But Dave, ever that enthusiastic kid, expressed his genuine excitement about the sci-fi thing. He thought it sounded cool. They finished catching up and said goodbye, Dave thinking nothing of it.

But about a week later, the Henson Studios guy calls him up and “says, 'Hey, you know you said you're interested in this [sci-fi] thing? Would you like to head it up?'”

I can’t help but think about that kid who unapologetically loved monster movies and spent time after school making masks – how a kid like that can grow up into a person who still isn’t afraid to express enthusiasm. Sometimes so much of growing up seems to be about bridling enthusiasm, slaying zeal, tempering eagerness. I love that Dave’s fervor leads to grown up job opportunities.

The Henson Studios guy asks Dave to head up the makeup and special effects for the sci-fi show, to be a creative supervisor for Jim Henson's Creature Shop, a role that requires knowledge of both animatronics and monster makeup. Which Dave had.

Dave said yes.

“‘Only thing is’” the Henson Studios guy said, “‘it's in Australia.'”

Dave had never done work outside of where he grew up. “The only locations I'd ever had were around Europe and the UK, so I thought, 'Alright, what do I do?'” It didn’t take long for him to decide. “Well…go!” He laughs as he remembers the decision to make the leap. Dave and his wife Lou, also a talented costume designer and special effects artist, moved to Australia. The sci-fi show, Farscape, went on for five years.

After the show they moved back to London, and Dave’s work was getting noticed. He got a call he never dreamed of getting. “George Lucas and his producer called me up and said, 'Would you be interested in doing Star Wars?'” Dave said yes. But the filming was in Australia. So Dave and Lou jumped right back on a plane for Australia, and the guy who couldn’t get anyone to hire him as a makeup artist is hired by George Lucas.

Dave feels lucky that someone like Lucas noticed his work, but he also believes that “having great luck takes hard work.

“Nobody gets anywhere doing nothing. None of these things really truly drop into your lap. You have to actually do the work and then that can lead to the next thing. You never know what the next thing is but you just keep trying to do work as good as you can and make everything you do better than the last thing that you did and in that way, you hopefully keep stepping forward and keep making more luck for yourself.

“And of course, there are the people who will continue to say, ‘Well, you know, maybe you should think about something else’ or will tell you along the way that there's no way that you can do what you're dreaming of. But you have to just keep going, 'No!' Tenaciously saying, 'No, no, this is what I'm gonna do.' And keep doing it.”

Dave keeps doing it. He does Star Wars. He doesn’t stop trying to get better.

In 2011, he is nominated for an Oscar for his makeup work on The Wolfman

Cate Blanchett announces his category, and opens the envelope. “And the Oscar goes to…

 

 

The Wolfman!”

 

 

Applause erupts and the camera zooms in on the back of a man with a very long, perfect, white ponytail cascading down the back of his suit, one in which the term “pony tail” suddenly makes more sense than it ever has before. But that man isn’t Dave.

Dave is getting up too, short brown hair cropped close, a huge smile, perhaps the same one he wore as a kid when he looked at himself in the mirror after molding plasticine to his face, walking a few steps behind the guy with the long white pony tail.

The man with the pony tail worked with Dave on The Wolfman. They’ve both won the Oscar together, and are making their way towards the stage.

The man with the pony tail holds his Oscar and speaks into the microphone first; he thanks his wife deeply and then turns to his colleague and says with overflowing joy and shine, “Go Dave!”

Dave holds his Oscar tight and thanks his colleagues and his wife, and then says: “It was always my ambition to lose an Oscar one day to Rick Baker…this is better.”

The man with the long white pony tail is Rick Baker, the young makeup artist who answered Dave’s letter, who invited him to Elstree Studio, who gave him all those masks to copy. Decades later, they win an Oscar together, as a team. They walk off stage, look at each other, and click their Oscars together, smiling. A toast.

Dave doesn’t sleep with monsters right next to his bed anymore, but he does still use the “night standing” technique in his work, the one he developed as a kid at his aunt and uncle’s house. “The Beast [from Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast] is in my workshop right now,” he tells me with the kind of joy you would think might wane after 30 years since his first job on Little Shop of Horrors. But he goes on with what can only be described as childlike wonder. “Once we get it all together and we get it looking cool, we ‘night stand’ it in the work shop: we set it up in a prominent place, and then we say goodnight and we all go home…[and] go to bed. And then in the morning, we come in and it’s all set up and looks cool. We’re like “Oh yeah! It does look good!” 

why throwing away my book plans felt so good

I've been working on a book about dreams since 2014. Think The Alchemist meets real people's stories. 

Today, while working from a gorgeous co-working space during an uncharacteristically rainy day in Southern California, I hit the restart button on the whole thing. 

I will forever refer to today as trash day. And folks, it feels so good.

You know that feeling when you bag up all your old clothes? And then that moment when they're out of your hands and in the hands of Goodwill or a friend? 

Mmm.

Bliss.

The freedom to start over (or go shopping). 

Right now the 'trash can' on my laptop has 70 files related to my book that will soon disappear forever. Documents such as "Dream Book Master Plan" and "Master Outline."

I never knew how great it would feel to trash a "Master Plan." 

As I wrote about in my last post, my book took a different direction than I originally intended. The turn was painful and confusing and it mostly consisted of a lot of guilt, self-doubt, thai food, and moving across the country to try to shake things up.

Today was the day of officially starting the book in its new direction. And a couple things took me by major surprise:

1) It felt so good to throw away my old plans.
I didn't even open some of the files. I just trashed them. Deep down I knew I needed to start over, unencumbered by original plans. I honestly thought I would have to debate about this, or that I would feel bad, or that I'd feel compelled to save it somewhere for later. But NOPE. I just trashed it and felt AMAZING. 

I thought I'd feel sad, like I'd wasted all that time on all those plans and ideas that ended up stalling me.

But in the trashing I realized that I'd never have gotten here without all those originals. So I thanked them for their help and then sent them on their way.

I also have Toy Story and Beauty and the Beast to thank. I've always been fascinated by the fact that both films' original concepts and story boards were completely trashed before they became the movies we know today. These stories were in the back of my mind, giving me courage to throw away, knowing that throwing away doesn't have to be a sign of failure, that it can be a rite of passage into a new level of excellence. 

I can't help but wonder if trash buildup is necessary for breakthroughs.

2) Sometimes when you think you've done nothing you've actually created 1,208 pages.
I have berated myself hourly for the past two years feeling like I'd 'done nothing' because I didn't have a finished book yet. I felt like I was wasting away so much time, like I was perpetually behind, like all I really had done was 'talk' about writing a book but hadn't actually done anything. The lack of a book to hold was messing with my head, making me feel like the book was still just an idea, like the idea that I'd actually worked on it was just something I'd made up to impress my friends. 

But after deleting and consolidating all the files that had built up for this book over the past few years I was struck by a revelation:

It turns out I actually had been working on this book all this time, even when I felt like I was doing nothing with it. 

Somehow, in all that nothing, I created 1,208 pages of content. 

I'd been researching and writing this whole time; I just wasn't giving myself any credit for it since the book wasn't living on a shelf yet. 

I felt great comfort knowing that sometimes you're doing creative work even when you don't realize it.   

So now I'm left with 11 delicious documents ready to take me into the next phase of this book, and a very warm feeling towards my laptop's very full trash can, which I'm going to empty right....

now.

Yes. I'm sure. 

And I'm not lying, as I'm writing this last sentence, this one RIGHT HERE, right now, at 2:36pm PST, the sun is making its first appearance of the day. 

when your creative project wants to be something else

I woke up today and decided it was time to scrap everything on my website (isaadney.com) about the book I've been working on for two years and rewrite.

Over the course of these past two years, the book became something completely different than what it started out as. 

If I'm being honest, at first I was angry and frustrated at my book for not going where I had told it to go, for not doing what I originally created it to do. How could it do this to me? How could it betray me like this? I spent all this time and money and told all my friends and family about it and then it just turned it's back on me and said "sorry Isa I'm not going this way anymore. You can either follow me or leave me here."

To be honest, there were months when I thought about just leaving that traitor to fend for itself lost in the woods. I seriously thought about giving up on it. 

But for some reason, no matter how hard I tried (and, seriously, I tried to give up on it), I couldn't. Deep down, I think I have the people I interviewed to blame. Their stories are what kept me moving even when I didn't believe in where I was going, even when I couldn't see a thing. In the end, I knew I couldn't keep their stories to myself. They needed to be shared, and that is why this book will exist. 

This morning, about a week after moving from Florida to San Diego with the intention of shaking things up and pursuing my art, I felt compelled to finally take the hand of my book again, but this time letting it take the lead, letting it go where it wants to go, be what it wants to be. It took a full stop. An about face. A move across the country. A lot of crying on various rugs. And a few steps backwards (those were the hardest).

But I can feel my book's hand in mine again, and we're moving. And while it's a path I never intentionally planned on, the movement is forward now, no longer backwards, and that feels like a win. And while it's still too early to tell, I have a feeling my book knows what it's doing, knows where it's going, and I'm just going to have to trust that. 

Dreams are funny that way -  they can set you off on journeys but rarely do they take you where you plan, rarely do they create the exact ending you dreamed about. Rarely are dreams about ends at all, I've come to think. I think they're about movement, changes, beginnings, and turn arounds. Around and around and around.

So below is what I rewrote this morning on isaadney.com/dreambook after a turnaround. I thought it should live here too since Creative Teacup is what kept me around long enough to get here. 

...

Excerpt from isaadney.com/dreambook

I am currently working on my second book, featuring the stories of 120 people who had an idea - a dream - and made it into a reality. I interviewed Olympians, founders, athletes, non-profit leaders, actors, producers, musicians, CEOs, Emmy-award winners, Oscar winners, Golden Globe winners, Broadway stars, moms, dads, undocumented immigrants, and a lot of really brave, curious, outstanding people - many of whom, through these interviews, became some of my best and most inspiring friends.

If you want to know more, you can read about the backstory and the book's current progress below. Thanks for being here. :)

...

In 2007 I won a $110,000 scholarship. In 2012 my first book was published. In 2014 I was flown to Harvard to interview as one of the top 50 applicants being considered for one of only 25 spots in a doctoral program in education.

While at Harvard I felt like all my dreams, and the dreams of my grandma who'd come to New York from Puerto Rico with nothing but the siblings she was raising, were coming true.

Until they didn't.

I didn't get in to Harvard.

And while many current students who'd so graciously helped me along the way encouraged me to apply again (one student said he had a friend who applied three times and then got in) something had changed. The rejection stung, but it also forced me to look at the track I was on. Was this what I really wanted?

I wasn't sure anymore, and I took some time to think.

I'm embarrassed to say I cried a lot. To say there are so many worse things to happen to people than not getting into Harvard is the biggest understatement in the world. But it still hurt. And it still made me question everything I was doing and where in the world I was going.

Though I knew I could always apply again and keep trying, deep down I knew what I imagine the admissions committee knew first: this wasn't really the program for me. My first book was about my college experience and applying to Harvard was me simply taking the professional track of education as far as I could, without ever questioning if I wrote the book because education was where I wanted to focus my career or if I wrote the book because I'm a writer, an artist.

I had to ask myself the question: If I'd never gone to community college would I still have written a book?

Deep down, I knew the answer was yes. I wrote a book about community college because I happened to attend a community college. I had found a community that inspired me to write, and so I did.

And I just kept going, assuming the community was the thing to stake my profession in.

But then I realized that that community needed the kind of leaders and change agents with administrative and political expertise and passion. It's what Harvard was looking for, and while I was close, I knew (and they probably knew) it wasn't really me.

I am a writer.

I am an artist.

I am a dreamer.

But I was having a hard time finding those things on online job boards and graduate catalogs.

What do I do now?

In the midst of trying to figure it out I kept coming up against brick walls. More rejections. More confusion. More and more and more of those little things that are impossible to describe but wear you down every day - those almost imperceptible moments that make you feel like you don't belong, like you should stop trying, like you are so deeply unwanted.

Dark questions started brewing and for the first time in my life I thought about giving up, throwing in the towel on this whole "trying really hard" business I'd employed (with relative success) my whole life.

What if if sometimes hard work isn't enough? I started to wonder. What if you can do everything right and still fail? What if even if you work twice as hard you can still walk away with nothing? What if hard work only works in a just system? And if the system isn't fair, why bother trying at all? What if this whole "go for your dreams" business is just a way to keep people from figuring out how messed up things actually are? 

For the past few years I had been reading almost exclusively about privilege and race, and while the beginning felt like a revelation of pure gold and insight, the deeper I got the more discouraged I began to feel. I felt powerless in the modes where I fell into the less privileged ranks and guilty and disgusted with myself in all the modes where I knew I fell into the privileged category.

It was, I know now, my first real crash against the "real world," a world in which "A" work can still receive an F, a world of competition, a world that gives mouth service to the concept of rewarding hard work and talent and goodness, but often rewards the opposite. A world of racial and gender inequality so deep and so disgusting that I felt achy from all the ways I realized it's affected me, but absolutely paralyzed in grief when finally seeing all the ways it had been and was continuing to affect those whose lack of privilege in so many areas was beyond my experience and understanding.

I'd like to say in these moments I felt inspired to change things, but the truth is, the deeper I got the more I wondered what the point was in taking any step at all. I started to feel like being a dreamer was the stupidest thing I could be. What, honestly, could I do? Why take a step if there are so many forces outside your control, so many forces affecting your opportunities?

I am a dreamer most days, though I've found the more I try to pursue my dreams the more cynical days I have. To say pursuing a dream is hard is an understatement. It's awful and there are times I have thought about scrapping this whole book because I didn't want to put anyone through what I was going through - pursuing a dream can be terribly painful.

But in the end, that's why this book is going to exist, because what got me through was hearing the stories of people who had pursued a dream and had it actually work out. They were people who had the audacity to look at all that is messed up and unjust and decided to be a dreamer anyway, decided to try anyway.

Dreams don't always work out, that's a given. In fact after spending the last two years researching and thinking about dreams I'd venture to say dreams probably fail so much more than they ever work out.

But to me, that's what makes it even more fascinating - that in such a crazy messed up world sometimes a person has an idea, an image that starts off in their head or heart, invisible and formless, and somehow, sometimes, that thing, that dream, takes form and becomes an actual reality. And even the dreams that might never reach full formation seem to continue to move people towards possibility.

It's funny that the concept of dreams and dreamers more often than not are stereotyped in our culture as being "wishers" on a couch somewhere. "Doing" is the thing to be revered. Dreaming for the soft, the still.

But what I have found is that dreams are movement.

To some perhaps the fact that dreams rarely come true is a reason to despise and discount dreamers. But to me, that's what makes them courageous. It wouldn't be brave if it was guaranteed.

And the fact that dreams do sometimes actually come true still amazes me, and I found that interviewing 120 people about a dream they achieved left me with so many inspiring reasons to keep moving, even without the promise of a perfect ending or a dream come true.

This book will share those stories.

As of right now (late 2016) the book exists in over three quarters of a million words, transcripts of all the interviews I did. I am still in the process of sitting with these stories and crafting them into the best possible thing they can be. I recently came across an author I love whose transcriptions for a similar kind of interview-based book were less than half of mine and her book took her four years. So, this is going to take some time, my friends. But I am in it for the long haul and am more committed than ever to making the dream of this book a reality.

...

It will be a while so if you want to put a virtual bookmark in this so you'll be emailed when there's a book to be read you can enter in your email by going to isaadney.com/dreambook and scrolling all the way to the bottom. And in the meantime of course feel free to keep up with me and this creative process, as well as see interviews with other creative people, here at CreativeTeacup.com. You can also follow Creative Teacup on Twitter. All the cool kids or doing it. I mean, all the too cool for cool kids are doing it. I mean, just, ya know, please? 

Seriously, though, if you like this please share it. Consider it your way of energizing me to finish this book. Sometimes the hardest part of writing is how alone I feel when I'm doing it. Your shares are my greatest form of writing joy. Thank you thank you thank you. <3