Finding Community at CreativeMornings

DC in 2012

In DC people run and they run often. They are offensively fit. And in the Summer of 2012 it led me to wonder, as I looked up from a browser over-tabbed with job openings, "What do they do, that allows them limitless time to glisten with sweat all year round?" On my worst days, I envied their purpose. For someone to run so steadfast, they must have discipline, drive, a direction in life as defined as the veins on their calves. Meanwhile, I sat resigned to an empty word document and overtaxed browser.

One day, a breakthrough. It struck me clearly, as I biked home along Pennsylvania Avenue. I realized that I had done it: I had convinced someone I was a Graphic Designer. Sure, it was seasonal work, but I was elated that I could simply put Designer on my resume with a position, with responsibilities. The hard part was over, I thought. And from now on, I had relevant "experience." Though I had done layout in magazines, one-off posters and illustrations, it was all freelance. I had never done design full time. So I began thinking: if I could convince one team that I was a Designer, and they hired me, everything would be easier.

My assumption was right, for the most part. In the fall, after my summer position ended and the runners rolled on their compression sleeves, I joined a communications team at a think tank. They were in the midst of an ambitious shift in strategy to reach broader audiences through their digital presence. For someone who grew up in Baltimore, a witness to the disparities created by an economic caste system built on racial prejudice, I wanted my work to engage with social equity issues. So to me, joining a public policy research group, marrying those interests and my design skills, seemed a perfect union.

And yet as the days passed, I felt something achingly familiar to the times spent wallowing over job postings at that cafe. I still felt like a phony. I didn't feel like I was out sprinting headlong into my goals, I felt like a charlatan, a trickster who convinced not one, but two non-profits that he was a Graphic Designer. What the hell was I doing here, anyway?

It goes without saying that, yes, I too have Imposter Syndrome. I suppose it's expected when you come from a generation reared on high expectations validated by standardized tests. It is also what's more succinctly described as "privilege." Delusions of being derided a fraud and outed as an imposter don't come from thin air. It's when we feel we have something to lose that we fear failing the most. Yet not everyone has the privilege of fearing failure. That said: to those experiencing it, the feelings are real. For me, in my first full-time design position, fear of exposure issued from every task and every deadline. I took it home with me. It wiped my vision that things would now get easier. Proving to myself I belonged in a creative job, now suffocated me.

Introducing CreativeMornings

My friend and roommate at the time told me about CreativeMornings, a breakfast lecture series started by Tina Roth Eisenberg in NYC that now holds events in cities worldwide. The introduction was more a, "Hey, there's this illustrator I think you'd like and he's giving a free talk next Friday morning, wanna go?" Yes. Of course! And then, while poring over his Instagram, this guy's awesome! I have to see him. But fear persisted: I never went to design events like those hosted by AIGA, because I wasn't sure I belonged. CreativeMornings is not that kind of community, I'd soon learn.

Going to see Chris Bishop of PBS speak at my first CreativeMornings, as I'd write later, made me, "feel so invigorated by my environment. To be surrounded by creative individuals felt very comforting that I am in the correct industry." I remember taking frantic notes as Mr. Bishop spoke so casually about his experience. And while I envied his easy-going authority over his work, the accessibility of his story and his jovial demeanor put me at ease. Chris Bishop then shared some of his work at PBS: a caricature of himself driving a cheeseburger car.

It wasn't just Mr. Bishop's talk that awoke a sense of belonging. That happened as soon as I walked into CreativeMornings. As I filled out my icebreaker name tag, warmed by earnest small talk from other first-timers, or entered the queue for coffee learning the backstory of my neighbors, it became clear that without any artifice there was a shared experience that made meeting other people a joy. Walking out of the talk, I began plotting how I'd return next month for whomever they had. I'd make it the month after that, too. I became hooked.

Photo Credit Kate Warren

With each talk, I looked forward to the host, Joel, as he waxed poetic on the theme, or the guest speaker who'd turn the same theme on its head. I'd meet more inspiring and unique individuals who were warm, friendly, and willing to share their passions with me. I wrote about these experiences and tweeted them out. And—to my surprise—Carly Ayres (then of Chief Content Officer at CreativeMornings) invited me to write on the website's blog.

Picking up and moving to Oakland

Eventually, my time came to an end in DC. I was moving west to Oakland, California, with no plan for a job besides the desire for one. But before I repopulated my browser with tabs for apartment or job postings, I visited the CreativeMornings site to learn about the Bay area's chapters. Joel the DC host put me in touch with Ivan and Stuart, the hosts of Oakland and San Francisco's chapters, respectively. And, within the first week of being in Oakland, I was in Pandora's offices getting a welcoming hug from Ivan Lima. Though I had traveled thousands of miles away from what had been my home, when that morning's speaker, Esther Pearl, hacked the format with her talk "The Privilege of Failure," I knew I was in the right place.

At CreativeMornings Oakland, I plugged into a familiar community, one that brings out the heart and soul of the creative class. And since hearing talks from several chapters across the US, I've reveled in the multitudes of creativity. I learned that creativity is not a career path or goal, but a friend, enemy, and driver for those who choose to pick it up. I realized that back in DC, calling myself a "Designer" was never and should have never been the goal. Belonging was always the path, and a community was the means. Learning from my peers at CM has allowed me to identify how to build that fulfillment that's eked at me since as long as I can remember. And no! I'm not there yet, but I'm certainly much better armed.

Some, but not all, of the CM Oak team!

These days, the Oakland CM chapter supports me in both my personal and career pursuits. I consider the friends I've made through volunteering and meeting attendees the lifeblood of my time here. It is a distinct pleasure I have now, to recognize with familiarity the lit up and nervously expectant faces of newcomers, and I relish in the newness they experience. Then I get to sit back with my friends and listen to inspiring talks by my family in the Bay.

In their recently minted manifesto, I think the headquarters in NYC nailed what makes CreativeMornings so great. It goes:

Everyone is creative. Everyone.

A creative life requires bravery and action, honesty and hard work. We are here to support you, celebrate with you, and encourage you to make the things you love.

We believe in the power of community. We believe in giving a damn. We believe in face-to-face connections, in learning from others, in hugs and high-fives.

We bring together people who are driven by passion and purpose, confident that they will inspire one another, and inspire change in neighborhoods and cities around the world.

Everyone is welcome.

Supporting CreativeMornings

Lately I've taken to visiting other chapters, like that in my hometown of Baltimore, or when on a trip in LA to support Jon Setzen's 5 years organizing in Los Angeles. Showing up at the event meant the same nervous energy I had back in DC. This time, it was over meeting Jon's crew, Sally Rumble, and Tina Roth Eisenberg. It was, of course, overblown in my head. Meeting them was like meeting any other member of the CreativeMornings family.

Group pic

CreativeMornings has supported me in ways I didn't know I needed. If you had struck up a conversation with me back in that DC coffee shop, I would have bemoaned that I would give anything for a job. And yes, while having jobs has been fulfilling, what I am most grateful for is the clarity of aligning my creative impulses with my desire for purpose. This I found in a family brought together by a free monthly meet up.

If you want to get involved, find your nearest CreativeMornings chapter. If you want to volunteer at an event, reach out to the people making the magic happen at your next talk.

Currently, the Oakland Chapter is gearing up for our 2nd Summit in Austin, TX. You don't have to, but it'd mean a lot to me if you donated to our Kickstarter. It's helping hundreds of our volunteers descend on Austin so we can make each month more fun, more inspiring, and more inclusive.

CM Kickstarter

Also, in addition to my newfound sense of belonging: I became a runner. I ran my first half-marathon this month.

Zion Half Marathon

Photo credit to Kate Warren, Timothy Kempf, and the lady in Zion who took our photo by the canyon.

What I'm Reading, Battleborn

Claire Vaye Watkins

"At the end, I can't stop thinking about beginnings."

The story could begin anywhere, the author Claire Vaye Watkins lets on in her 2013 book Battleborn. In Melvillian style, flourish the opening story to her 2012 collection of stories on Nevada resists to begin. "Or begin the story here," she says, and then later, "Or here. Here is as good place as any." Like the characters within, the narrative belies its responsibilities to its readers. Family, friends, lovers or otherwise, relationships are not taken for granted. They are equal parts labor and unsettling for the reader. It's a bullfighter's pose, and like the gold miners who watch in the story The Diggings, perched in the treetops from afar, the matador is capable and willing to execute the bull at any time. There are no assumptions that the author relaxes on.

From the first story, Ghosts and Cowboys, our narrator's cavalier dismissal to the characters around her, including the ever-hovering presence of the "Razor Blade Baby," puts the reader in the unfamiliar position of critic. We watch with uncertainty as she glosses over the loss of her mother, the notoriety of her father, and, if you're not paying attention, her blood relation to the ghostly figure living above her. When a love interest pursues her in the story, you're weary of his advances. It is not, however, because he comes off disingenuous. It's the distance our narrator puts between herself and her emotions that make his pursuit hollow. So it's a little deafening when her ghostly follower acknowledges, "Claire... I could be your sister." The conceit is not devastating because of its reveal, instead it's a flattening feeling of the obvious connection Claire shares to her sister living next door with an unspeakable history.

Paying attention is the key experience reading Battleborn. Like the prospector in the desert, or wayward Italian teenager outside the shine of Vegas, without your gaze transfixed on the horizon, you wouldn't see the heatwaves issuing from below.

In the second story The Last Thing We Need, you follow the one sided correspondence of a Thomas Grey, who stumbles upon the roadside scattered possessions of a Duane Moser. As each letter goes without response, Mr. Grey's building curiosity is matched with his ever unfurling privacy, as he lets on more intimate details of his own life. His desire to relate to Moser is equal to his want of understanding. The driving force of his obsession in knowing why Moser left it all behind, is personal. As the story resolves, it's clear that in knowing, Grey would be released from grappling with his own direction forward.

Grey's story serves as mimesis for the reader's encounter with Claire Vaye Watkins' Nevada. For me, the detachment Ms. Watkins engenders in her landscapes, wells within the reader a desire to connect. You empathize with the heartless as they observe emotion in others that seems so out of control to you. She surprises you by showing you your capacity to indifference, through the eyes of her narrators.

In Rodine Al Nido, where four underage friends masquerade as College Freshman under the gaze of the Vegas lights, their one girlfriend, who is given no name (simply described as the girl), receives unimaginable trauma at the hands of drunk anonymous men. Her friends not only watch, but are complicit in their insobrietous dismissal of the girl's sexual assault.

The young woman's sexual assault is not served in a dramatic fashion, either, it occurs with the matter of factness of a sprinkling of rain on a cloudy day. It is environmental, conditional, common place. Meanwhile, the reader's sits restrained behind the subdued eyes of the girlfriends watching with detachment as their friend's shirt is lifted while she sleeps. "We're having fun," they drone.

The emotional high of the story, instead, rests on the end. The narrator observes their girlfriend sob one day in class. The day. The day two planes plunged deep into the belly of the World Trade Center. She's moved by the girl's tears. She isn't moved because of her feelings. She is moved that, "a person can change in an instant." She then thinks of her own benefit, that the tragedy will take her from school, "as if she doesn't know the instability of a tall tower, a city's hunger for ruin."

"As if this weren't what she came for."

The story ends, as if a beginning were not the demands of any of Claire Vaye Watkins' stories, but the ruin within we searched for.

Virginia is Pho Lovers

Nom on the Vietpuns

Growing up in Baltimore in the 90s (gasp) in a Vietnamese family, our culture vis-à-vis food never felt mainstream. I recall envying my peers' lunches of Dunkaroos and Ham sandwiches, while my "smelly" meal of Bún Thịt Nướng cast me as the outsider, not worthy of a lunchtime trade. These days, when I scroll through my Instagram feed, I grin with amusement imaging those peers now precariously standing above a bowl of Bún bò Huế, or plate of Bánh mì, trying to square their meal perfectly for an audiences of complicit hearts.

Despite my classmate's shaming, I adored Vietnamese food. Access to quality ingredients and lack of Vietnamese restaurants in Baltimore then, made home-cooked meals from my Vietmom a rare and auspicious occurrence. In order to prepare those meals, though, we had to travel far to exotic lands to acquire them. It's probably where my love of Virginia began.

Northern Virginia is (and was then) known for their Vietnamese grocery stores, restaurants, and Bánh mì stalls. The diaspora of Vietnamese refugees consolidated in Virginia and radiated from there for the East Coast. Crossing the border to Virginia was probably the first road trip across state lines I ever took as a kid. The grocers had the palm sugar, noodles, tamarind pulp, coconut milk necessary to concoct the flavors of my Mom's far away homeland. But I didn't need to see Saigon, the smell of ginger, coriander, and the site of hanging pig's heads and ducks was enough to take me there.

On the hour drive back, I'd wipe my sticky fingers on our Dodge Caravan door, taking in slowly the taste of the bright red, candy sweet meat from within the sticky buns my Mom gifted me and my brothers. Sated, staring out at the trees lining 495, it's then that I fell in love with Virginia, the prospect of Virginia, and the haunt of returning.

That's why I made this shirt honoring my connection to Virginia through the lens of Vietnamese food. I'll always remember those trips as not the gateway to something new, but a reminder of our origins.

I raise a bowl to you Virginia!


Hello Jekyll.

Alright here we go. Welcome to the latest @sadbumblebee site! Lovingly built in Jekyll (so I can party like all the cool kids).


Cat is Man's Best Friend

After performing this story at Shout Storytelling, I was invited to compete at my first storytelling event in Oakland.

Every third Thursday at Awaken Café, Story Showdown hosts slam style storytellers for a $400 cash prize! :money_with_wings:

I went woefully overtime with my story about my violent cat, Trudy. But, the experience was fantastic and it was my first time feeling so confident stepping on stage.