How I Launched a Creative Collective While Working Full-time

They don't call it a side hustle for nothing

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It was 3 a.m. in early January and I couldn’t sleep because of Samin Nosrat.

The Berkeley chef had recently debuted in “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” the Netflix series based on the cookbook that made her a star. She was bright and funny, with a knack for kitchen table talk. And now she was everywhere: interviewed on NPR, photographed in magazines, even showing off her buttermilk-marinated chicken on “CBS This Morning.”

This was great for Samin, but not for me. A month earlier, before her show was added to too many Netflix queues to count, I had asked her to be a speaker at a yet-to-be-launched event. With her newfound popularity, I worried she would say no. Perhaps if I just thought hard enough about her that night, she would say yes and I would fall asleep. Days passed before slumber came. “She loves it!” her agent finally wrote. “YAY!”

“Yay” was one way to describe what I felt. The other was relief. Samin was the first guest who agreed to speak at “The Box Sessions,” a creative gathering I founded that will be held from February 28 to March 1, 2020 at a retreat center near Santa Cruz, California. She will be joined by a lineup of award-winning filmmakers, artists, and original thinkers, including Jon M. Chu, the director of Crazy Rich Asians; novelist Jonathan Franzen; The Moth storytelling group; cartoonist and MacArthur Fellowship “genius” grant winner Lynda Barry; an award-winning a cappella choir; and a magician.

Everyone needs a creative community and each of us is creative even if we don’t think we are.

But I am getting ahead of myself here. Let me back up. In 2013, I took a year off from my job at The New York Times, where I have been a writer for two decades, and went back to college to study narrative filmmaking and voiceover at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Creative pursuits were a refuge from the drumbeat of corporate life. When I returned to New York I realized I had changed, but my life here stayed the same. So, I started a salon with my friends to harness the inspiration I’d experienced at school. We agreed to meet weekly by telephone to chart our progress.

One of us, a consultant, wrote a cookbook. A finance executive joined the board of a food bank. Our lives shifted. We acted as a natural support. Over time I distilled what I learned from the salon into these principles: everyone needs a creative community and each of us is creative even if we don’t think we are.

These became the foundation for The Box Sessions.

Last November, I began to flex my entrepreneurial muscle. I found a collaborator (1440 Multiversity) willing to host the weekend of speakers and workshops. A colleague, who knows I am fiercely self-reliant, warned me, “You can’t do this alone. You are going to have to ask for help.” So I asked an accountant to peruse the budget. I hired a lawyer.

I attacked the assignment with a reporter’s zeal. A friend hand-delivered a letter to Oscar winner Jeff Bridges. The actor, whom I did not know, wrote me back. (Maybe next year, Jeff!) I was invited backstage at a Mary Chapin Carpenter concert after I cold-called the singer’s manager. There, I asked her to perform at my fledgling enterprise minutes before she walked onstage.

During my years at the Times, I’ve interviewed plenty of celebrities. But it was the first time I had asked for something without the support (and appeal) of a storied media brand and the exposure that came with that. “For every person who says yes, you will have to make 20 more calls,” a friend who organized large arts events told me. In January, I revved up my email writing and phone calls, and used a week of vacation to head to the West Coast and meet potential speakers.

Nina Jacobson, who has produced everything from Crazy Rich Asians to Hunger Games to The Goldfinch (and who I have known for more than a decade), grilled me for half an hour in her Los Angeles office. I had breakfast with Jonny Sun, a screenwriter and creative researcher I’d read about. At the same time, I was juggling negotiations with The Moth in New York.

By February, I still only had Nosrat confirmed. And I started to get nervous. A friend forwarded an email on my behalf to Nick Offerman, one of the stars of “Parks and Recreation.” (The two were craftsmen; Offerman owns a woodworking workshop in Los Angeles.) I pestered my friend for a reply and, a month later, my cellphone rang. I recognized the deep baritone.

“Hello, this is Nick Offerman,” he said.

I told him about my father, who was a woodworker too and with whom I’d made a table when I was 12. I said I wanted him to inspire others the way my father inspired me. Offerman demurred; he said he didn’t see himself as inspirational. I disagreed. We chatted for about 30 minutes but, in the end, he was too busy to come.

It had been four months of evening calls and work-filled weekends. Shouldn’t I give up?

I hung up, deflated. I won’t go so far as to say I had a crisis of confidence, but I was low. It had been four months of evening calls, dead ends, and work-filled weekends. Shouldn’t I give up? But Offerman was encouraging even if he couldn’t partake. He treated the idea with respect, which propelled me forward.

In early April I sent an email to Jonathan Franzen, a National Book Award-winning author. Nine days later he said yes. In the following weeks I received commitments from The Moth, which agreed to teach a workshop and hold a Saturday night StorySLAM; Darla Anderson, who won an Oscar for producing Pixar’s Coco; Jonny Sun; and author Fred Dust who agreed to teach a workshop on creativity and fear.

What seemed dire a month earlier took on a certain momentum. The program was beginning to take shape. At the end of April, I heard from Carpenter’s manager. The singer couldn’t make it. Still, he told me to stick to my vision. I took that as further proof to keep barreling ahead.

Two months ago, I was at a coffee shop when I got a text from Nina Jacobson, the producer I visited in Los Angeles. She was coming. So, too, was Jon M. Chu, who was in New York filming In The Heights, a movie based on the Tony-winning play by Lin-Manuel Miranda. I let out a happy sigh, startling my server.

The Box Sessions is one of the hardest assignments I have ever had. And my passion sometimes felt like desperation. But with so much turmoil in the world right now, I want to create a place where people will be inspired to explore their creative lives. And I can’t wait to welcome everyone in February.

So what if that means having a few sleepless nights along the way? It's worth it.

Laura M. Holson is a feature and news writer at The New York Times and the founder of The Box Sessions.


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