Share Your Stories with Maya Stein and The Creativity Caravan
Everyone has a story to tell and there are always people who will listen. Maya Stein speaks about The Creativity Caravan, adventure, daring and courage.
From being greeted by trees in the morning to picking up trash in the neighborhood, there is always a story waiting to unfold. Find out how The Typewriter in the Hallway Experience sparked the birth of The Creativity Caravan with Maya Stein. Learn to look for the experiences that makes you excited and what you can do to make things exciting for someone else.
Today, I am delighted to have Maya Stein on the show. Maya is a ninja poet. She’s a writing guide and a creative adventuress.
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Maya, how are you?
I’m wonderful. It’s nice to talk to you.
It’s great to have you on the show. Tell us about the place that you live in and why it’s a nice place to be?
I actually live in New Jersey. I’ve been here for about five years. I live about 30 minutes from New York City. That part is actually quite nice, to be approximate to a very busy city centre but not have to be in it constantly. I live in a house with a backyard. There’s a town park and there’s trees. It’s quiet in the evening. This is the first time I’ve ever lived in suburbia. I’ve always lived in smaller populated places and more remote. It’s taken some getting used to. I’ve got neighbours right next door. It’s not the same as being in the middle of the natural world. It’s a manufactured world but there are still trees so I’m happy about that.
Tell me about those trees. How important are they to you and your well-being in the day-to-day?
Trees are such wonderful metaphors to stay connected with and a sense of having deep roots but still reaching upward and outward. I think I’m typical Earth science so I like things that are rooted and fixed to the earth, and yet there’s a lot of potential and a lot of expansions that trees are capable of. I like to be around things that are bigger than I am. I love being in the mountains. I do love the oceans, the sense of expansion and age. There are some things with ancient feeling about trees. They know what to do. They survive things.
I love that on your website in your bio, you’ve got some really intriguing juicy details about your life and your creative experiences to date. You’ve lived in lots of different places. Would you tell us about some of the places that you’ve lived in and how they’ve informed the work that you do in the world today?
I was born in Nova Scotia, Canada. We moved from there to Israel when I was two. There’s an old family folklore about why we moved to Israel and why we even got to Canada. My dad was escaping the draft. There was that story of just being a stranger in a new place and having left his homeland in order to start afresh. We moved to Israel when I was two and moved to a kibbutz. I grew up in a very communal environment. I lived in a children’s house at the kibbutz that we lived in. The kids live communally in another house away from their parents, although we saw them all the time; we saw them every day. I think that was pretty formative in terms of navigating things, navigating strangeness on my own with my own sensitivities and my own wonderings. From there, we moved to Virginia which is completely different. Culturally, it was Southern Baptists. We are Jewish. Finding myself in a place of just complete… feeling upended. First of all, I was not a native English speaker so learning English was an interesting process. I think that has probably informed my work the most, in terms of why I became a writer. There’s this persistent journey of wanting to be understood, of wanting to express exactly what I see or how I feel, and a sense of there always being more to say, or sharper ways of saying it, or more clear ways of saying things.
I don’t know if we all have that one story that we always carry throughout our lives. For me, it’s the fear of being misunderstood. I think that I’m always trying to get it right. I’m always trying to find the right words, to pay attention to my own sensations. It’s the desire to pay such close attention that I can get it. I can get it, I can say it, and I can communicate it. I can tell you lots of other stories about the places that we’ve moved to, but I think that the moves themselves probably set the tone of learning how to orient myself in strange places. I always come back to this quote, “Wherever you go, there you are.” No matter where you find yourself geographically or experientially, you always bring yourself. You always confront yourself. Learning that lesson all over again, it doesn’t really matter where I am. I will always bring myself with me for better and for worse, my curiosity and my engagement with the world, but also some of my uncertainties and my judgments, those come too. That’s always been true.
That’s the beautiful thing about adventuring, exploring, and wandering about your neighbourhood or your country or the world is that you discover new and beautiful things, but it’s also all of the stuff that you thought you were leaving behind, it comes with you. It comes right with you. Sometimes being in that new place, it can really be challenging. You are forced to confront those facets of your personality or those emotional things that are challenging for you, but it can be cathartic if you’re prepared to embrace it.
I think the challenge and the invitation of either moving geographically or changing your circumstances or deciding to do something that’s new is that you have to shed your old habits. You have to incorporate the new landscape into the decisions and choices that you make, even the observations that you make. I think that we get sometimes caught up in how we used to be and we bring that piece to the current narrative. We apply those same behaviours to the landscape that we’re in, but if they know when to really apply, we have to reinvent. That’s the indication, “How can you reinvent yourself or reinvent your attitudes, mindsets, behaviours, or responses?” Because of the new circumstances that you’re in and accepting that newness, and accepting the reality that you may not be the same person and it’s okay. It’s okay to have moved out of a certain part of yourself.
After Virginia, I know that you moved to the central coast of California and then you were in San Francisco for many, many, many years. All of these moving and adventuring over your formative years has obviously influenced your approach and attitude and the work that you produce. In particular, what I love about your creative courage and curiosity is that you have conducted a number of pretty big and ambitious adventures over the last few years. Would you tell us about those?
In 2005, I started a poetry practice called 10-Line Tuesday. I decided to write a poem every Tuesday, a ten-line poem, and send it out to a small email group. I didn’t really think I’d be doing it for more than a year, but I actually continued to practice and I’ve been doing it since. It’s been 12 years now. In 2010, my list had grown to about 500 people. Most of them I didn’t know and I wanted to meet them. I wanted to know who was reading my poems every week. I decided to ask my readers if they would post me where they live for our writing workshop that I would facilitate. It was a very big move because I’m an introvert. The thought of going to a new place every day and being in front of the group and facilitating, it was completely new and frightening but I love the risk of that. I was in a place I was ready to push these boundaries or perceived limitations. I ended up doing a two-month driving tour around the States. Every other day, I stopped in a new place and met a stranger who had been pretty familiar with my work. There was a lot of disequilibrium in that relationship but that was the opening. They have been reading my poetry. I did not know a thing about them so that was the challenge one day, to find an alliance. Every other day, I met a stranger and I led a writing workshop. In some cases, it was two people. In some cases, it was 30 people. It was a wonderful, challenging, and growthful time where I just got be in touch with my own capacities. I was travelling by myself. I wasn’t leaning on anyone else in between times. I think that was probably the best that laid the groundwork for the next few projects.
A few years later, I rode my bicycle from Western Massachusetts to Milwaukee, Wisconsin towing a typewriter behind me like a trailer. That year, I was actually turning 40 and I thought, “How do I want to open this decade? How do I want to start this new chapter?” I saw a typewriter in a store window and it just transported me back to a time when I was about 12. This was when computers were not really being used. We had a typewriter in our house. It was in a hallway that was linking up all of our bedrooms. My dad started a short story one night, just a couple of lines, and invited my sister and me to add our lines. Every day we would walk by this typewriter and add a couple of lines. It was a big moment, creatively, for me because I always felt like I was in the shadow of my older sister. Here, I was given this platform to express myself. That was a really important time. I was entering my adolescence and here, I have this experience of freedom, creativity, and being myself. I saw this typewriter in the window and I wanted to re-enact with that experience and share that. The question was for me, “How do I create a typewriter in the hallway experience for other people?” I did some research about the typewriter and discovered it was invented in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I looked at the map and it was 1,200 miles away. I wonder if I could cycle from Massachusetts where I was living at that time to Wisconsin. I think it’s been the germ of the question that I ask, “What would happen if? How can I? What if I were to?”
I think when you start to say that, “What if I were to do that?” even if it seems ridiculous and inefficient, there’s faster ways to get to Milwaukee. But the questioning, the curiosity about the answer or even just the curiosity embedded in the question is the first clue that it’s actually something that’s possible in my mind. If you think it, it’s almost there. It’s at the tip of your tongue. It’s at the tip of being actualised. I think there’s been a few other projects I’ve done and more recently I’ve done with my partner. We did a tandem bicycle ride from Boulder, Colorado to Wisconsin a couple of summers ago. We wrote poetry on the road on our typewriters and collaborated with that project. Last summer, we did around the country trip called The Tiny Book Show. We created an exhibit of miniature books that we shared with thousands of people and taught many, many people how to make miniature books. We went to libraries, park centres, community centres, and bookstores. We just connected with a lot of people and introduced them to an unexpected experience. I think that’s the nature of most of my work to date is, “What’s exciting? What am I excited by? How can I shake this so that it’s exciting to other people?”
I’m really interested to know a bit more about the responses from those community members and the impact of their discoveries on how they viewed their neighbourhoods and their fellow citizens.
We probably all have something in us that wants to be surprised and delighted. I think over time, the experiences that we have, whether it’s work or raising a family or whatever it is, there’s a routine, sameness, or predictability about it to some degree. We know when we get up in the morning, “This is what it’s going to look like.” One of the really exciting things about doing these projects is that this was not part of the routine. In some cases, they would come up on me, set up on a street with my typewriter. It was not something when they turn the corner to go get their groceries or a cup of coffee, they didn’t expect to see a woman with a typewriter and a sign that said, “Write yourself here.” It was catching people happily off guard. It’s not for everybody.
One thing my partner, Amy, and I discovered is that not everyone is open to the experience that you have to offer and that’s all right. The purpose is not to make it so that everybody wants to do it or it’s appealing to everybody. The purpose is to be true to what your experience of it is and just offer it and share it. The people are open. The people are interested. There are people that are curious and engaged, surprised and delighted. Those are the people that will come to you. If one person comes and they have an amazing connective experience, that’s so valuable. To know that you can make that happen or you can facilitate that in another person’s experience, that’s plenty. I think one of the takeaways is for people who are living in those places maybe they have the instinct or impulse to make something new, different, strange or unusual to that place. All you really need is one person to say, “I love what you’re doing.” I feel we all have that. Maybe we have a memory of our first best friend when we were in a new school or something and you come into the community and you feel so strange and disembodied from the way things are and that one person who ventures forth and says, “Who are you?” That changes the narrative completely.
In all of these experimentation and facilitation, it strikes me that you’ve been generous and curious. How do you ensure that you stay well and connected to yourself and what’s important to you and your family when you are working with all of these different individuals, whether it’s in your neighbourhood or whether you’re on the road?
I think when you do something that’s public facing or if it involves people, if you’re that kind of person, it either energises you or can really take a toll energetically. Probably either way at some point, you reach your thresholds. For me, it’s really making sure that there’s enough silence at some point. There’s solitude, silence, or a place of remove and I can tell when I need it. I become attuned to my own energetic rhythm. There needs to be a time of the day or time of the week or certainly on these trips where there’s been intensity, that there will need to be a remove and a quiet. Otherwise, the coffers get emptied.
I think it’s very challenging to be a creative entrepreneur and try to run a business to do that because you’re constantly trying to do things. You’re trying to make things or talk about making things. There’s always a piece of the making process that you’re in, but I find it incredibly assertive to just do nothing, to try to take a break, to sit on the porch for an hour and just stare out the window, things like that. They should be easier than they are. What’s so interesting is how hard it can be to sit still. I think now especially because I have a family. I got married a few years ago and my partner has two teenage boys. I’ve got really completely different life than I used to when I lived solo in San Francisco. I had all the time in the world to restore and relax. Now, these are stolen moments because the house is busy and noisy. There are other itineraries going on and other people to worry about. That’s been a really big transition.
In your neighbourhood, are there any particular places you like to escape to when the household is noisy and crazy?
The last couple of years, I’ve been doing the 100-Day Project. I imagine you’re familiar with it. It’s hundred days of doing one thing and sharing that thing on Instagram, I guess, although I don’t always remember to do that. A couple of years ago, I did a 100-Day Project of finding faces in trash or creating faces out of trash. It was an excuse to take a walk through my neighbourhood and pick up trash because there was trash. The more I look, the more there is in a way. I thought, “I want to pick up this trash but there seems to be an endless amount. How can I create a moment here of creativity and also feeling I’m doing something beneficial for the community?” I would take these walks and I find trash and I could come back and make faces out of them and throw the things away. It’s funny because I was feeling disconnected with my neighbourhood, but having a reason daily to go out and find stuff in it, even if it was trash, it feels a reason to be in it. Sometimes, it’s just you have to be in it. You have to be putting your feet on the ground in the places that you don’t necessarily want to be in and they become familiar or they become interesting to you in some way.
Sometimes I think this place I live could be anywhere. Sometimes I walk out the door and I think, “I could be in Nevada.” There’s nothing to me that says, “This is quintessentially home.” The place I live, I don’t feel that way about it yet. I definitely felt that way about San Francisco. I would walk out the door and just feel in it. I would feel like I’m a part of things. It’s taken awhile here in New Jersey to feel that but it’s just time. I think there are ways to get curious about your neighbourhood by just even looking at signs. There’s a town park just down the street from the house. It’s one of the few places where I think people are slowing down. People walk through it slowly. They feed the geese or they look at the ducks or play in the playground. It’s nice to be around that.
It sounds like this lovely project was quite a mindful practice in a sense because you were really engaged in the present moment. Looking for the trash, it does a creative spark in the moment. It sounds very mindful but also a pretty fun way of looking after yourself and becoming more engaged in your local area.
Every day I would start in the immediate blocks that were in my neighbourhood, but after a couple of weeks I might have picked up all the trash or most of the trash. It’s a brilliant endless project. I have to venture further so I would keep walking. The radius will just get wider and wider. There’s a train trestle and there’s no trains really that come there anymore. It was this one day I remember just walking along the train tracks. It was really being somewhere else. At some point, you can’t really see anything except the train tracks that were surrounded by trees. People are clearly walking there because there are tons and tons of trash. I came up on this section with all these spray paint cans. There were collections of things. People were obviously settling in and just hanging out there. It’s getting this feeling like I was eavesdropping on something that had happened there in a way. I think that picking up trash gives you that feeling. You’re just catching something soon after it’s been disposed of. It gets me thinking, “Who are the people that used this? Who does these things? Who uses these things? Who forgot to throw them out?” Sometimes, I come up on those car air fresheners that dangle in the rearview mirror and I see a lot of those on the street. I just always think they’re fascinating. I was like, “What was the moment in the car that someone said I don’t want this smell anymore?” Those are great writing prompts, if you ever needed to look for something to write about. It’s like, “What’s on the ground? Where did they come from? Who used it?” You can certainly write a lot of fiction that way.
Where would you live if you couldn’t live where you are currently living or where do you fantasise about moving to, if you fantasise about moving anywhere else at all?
I fantasise about it all the time. There are a few places. It’s funny because there are parts of places that I love. I love the mountains and I love the trees. Vermont is a place that feels very soothing to me. I’ve been there many times. There’s something so lush and pertinent about that state. It just feels the perfect place to be a creative person because there’s not that many people that live there. You have to reckon with yourself. Another place that I’ve been to, it feels impossible to live there in a way, but the few times I’ve been I think, “This is just so soothing,” which is Hawaii. I’ve been there in the Big Island a few times. There’s something about that air. It’s so ambient. You barely feel it. There’s something about that where it’s never too hot or too cold. You’re just in relationship with the temperature in a completely neutral way. There’s something about that that’s very appealing. There are probably other places.
There are places that appeal for certain reasons. There are aspects of certain places. I’m conscious that actually some of that’s fantasy. I know the reality would be different and there are places that I just plain fantasise about living in.
The year I’ve turned 30, I was working at a job as an editor. I decided to go to England for three months. There’s something about England that I was really drawn to. There was a time when I was in college that I thought about going for a study abroad programme at the University of East Anglia and I just never followed it. Almost ten years later, I thought, “I’m going to go to England and spend some time.” I’d spent three months in or near England. I was in London for a long time and I loved being in London. That was my fantasy place. I felt comfortable there. It was easy to imagine moving there, being there, and navigating there. I thought it was just so beautiful. That’s one other place.
You’re making me happy because I’m biased obviously as a Londoner. I think this place is great. I momentarily considered living in other places but the reality is as I get older, being here in this place where I’m from is more and more important to me. I travel a lot each year. I love travelling and exploring new places and revisiting other more familiar places but here is home. London is home. I don’t see my life unfolding the way that includes me living somewhere else, but you never know. You’ll never know how life will pan out. One quick question I would love you to answer is what is The Creativity Caravan?
The Creativity Caravan is a business that my partner and I started about four years ago. We actually were very inspired by the Food Truck Movement. We are at a book festival in Georgia at the time. It was one of those questions, “What if we?” or “Wouldn’t it be great if we?” The question was, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could have instead of ice cream or food that comes out of a truck, it would be creativity, it would be creative experiences?” We wrote that down somewhere. It became a very concrete question. A few months later, we bought a vintage caravan and turned it into that very thing. Our business began as a mobile business and we travelled around offering various kinds of workshops and activities. Even though we were based in New Jersey, that was our mascot and it still is. We still have this business. We moved it now into an actual brick and mortar space. We have art and creative writing workshops. We have other kinds of events. We do a creative writing programme for schools. The whole Tiny Book Show came out of this work. We keep unfolding as a collaborative business. It’s wonderful to have a collaborative business with your partner. There’s also things where you don’t know where your relationship ends and where your business begins or vice versa. There’s lots of crossover but it’s very unique. We’re mutually invested in this work. We are also mutually responsible for its success or failure. That’s what it is.
We offer creative art experiences for kids and adults. Now, we have a brick and mortar space in the town next door to us in Montclair, New Jersey and part of the space is our galleries. We have gallery shows. We’ve been there now for about five months in the space. It’s a very different experience to have, the responsibility of having a shop than to do something that is more mobile and flexible. We have to be there all the time, keep it running, pay more rent, and all that stuff. It’s a really good push for us. Good push for our business, I think. It forces us to be inventive and reach out also to the community because our success depends on the community that we’re in. We’re meeting new people who might facilitate workshops in the space. We are partnering with artists and really getting very, very invested in the community events that are going on in the town and really wanting to be a part of everything that goes on there. It’s exhausting but the payoff has been great. The response has been wonderful. We’ve had just a lot of positivity around our being there. It really helps stay connected.
Final question is, what are you curious about right now?
A very big life event that’s happened recently is that my father passed away in April. There’s something about that loss that changes the way that I’m looking at things in terms of what am I engaging in out of habit or what am I engaging in out of connection and real investment. I’m noticing that there’s so much that we do without thinking. It’s conversations that we participate in, relationships that we find ourselves at or situations or events or whatever it is that we say yes to. What are we really saying yes to? What are we feeling yes to? What is the relationship between those two answers? Is it most of the things that we say yes to we really mean or are we really just doing things because we have to or feel guilty about? What is driving those choices? I guess I’m getting curious right now about looking more closely at my own commitments, whether it be with people or with tasks or with projects. To get really, really clear about what is meaningful. It’s hard because there’s a lot of chatter in the way. You can’t always do what you want. It’s not really about doing what you want. It’s ultimately about doing what you care about or to try to do that as much as possible. The ratio in my mind should tip in that direction. I’m curious about the choices I’m making and what I’m making them? What are they about? What am I making them for? Who am I making them for? It’s a big task but it feels good. I don’t know if it’s my father’s death or the time I am in my life in terms of creatively or professionally, or now because there’s kids involved. It’s a sharpening of vision, of clarity. I think it’s all sort of working in consort but those are some of the investigations that I’m making right now.
Thank you for sharing that. I’m sorry to hear about the passing of your father. I really feel much of what you said resonated with me and will resonate with many people listening. There’s something clarifying I think when you experience grief, whether it’s because you’re bereaved, whether it’s because there’s been some other life shift that’s causing you to feel that loss. It can be frightening but also liberating to explore these things. And really explore what matters to you and suddenly, there’s a clarifying process that I think you can find yourself in.
Thank you for being on the Urban Curiosity podcast, Maya. Where can people find you and more about your work?
Thank you so much, Maya.
My pleasure. Thanks, Clare.