Coffee with … Julie Burstein

Spark How Creativity Works by Julie Burstein
Spark How Creativity Works by Julie Burstein

Julie Burstein, a Maplewood resident, is a writer, media producer and host with a passion for creativity in everyday life.  In 2000 she created Studio 360, public radio’s premiere program about pop culture and the arts, hosted by Kurt Andersen.  They won a Peabody Award for their American Icons show about Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which can be heard here.  Studio 360 is produced by PRI and WNYC.

Over the years, she’s also worked as a producer and arts reporter at National Public Radio and with Terry Gross at WHYY, and she often guest-hosts for Leonard Lopate on his show on WNYC.  She led the Studio 360 team for many years, and the only thing that could take her away from the excitement of producing a weekly show was the opportunity to write the first Studio 360 book. Spark: How Creativity Works will be published by Harper this month. She also has a Spark blog, which can be read here. Baristanet’s Joy Yagid caught up with Burstein in Maplewood.

How did the book come about?

Like so many great ideas, this one began over a meal.  Bob Miller, who was then in charge of Hyperion, sat next to Kurt Andersen’s wife Anne Kreamer at a charity dinner, and told her he was a huge fan of Studio 360, the show that Kurt hosts and that I created and produced for many years.  She suggested that he publish a Studio 360 book — and a few weeks later Kurt and I were meeting with Bob to outline what the book might look like. Bob subsequently moved to Harper, and they’re publishing Spark (although he left Harper last spring).

Julie Burstein. Photo by Pavlina Perry

Have you written a book before? What was the experience like for you? Best part? Worst part?

I’ve developed and produced radio shows for many years, and hosted quite a few, and all of those ventures require a lot of writing.  But I had never written a book before, and was not sure I had the attention span for it.  One of the fantastic things about radio is how quickly you can go from idea to broadcast; in my years as an arts reporter, I could have an idea for a story in the morning and it would be on the news that night. I also had spent many years leading the wonderful team of Studio 360 producers. So I was a bit uneasy about the prospect of sitting alone in my tiny attic office at home, spending a year writing one book.  What surprised me was how much I loved it!  Writing Spark has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever undertaken.  It took time for me to learn how to write for the eye instead of the ear.  And I wrestled with every chapter — and learned that for each one, I’d reach a point where I thought “There is no way this is going to work, I’m going to have to start all over.”  But that was always a turning point — the next morning, after an afternoon of despair, invariably I’d figure out how to make the chapter sing.

You have quite a few well known creative people interviewed. Who left the deepest mark on you?

One of the most resonant ideas in the book for me is that deep challenges often lead artists to their most important work.  The challenge can take so many different forms: the painter Chuck Close talks about the severe learning disabilities that inform the way he approaches his work; Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford describes how he can’t read silently much faster than he can read aloud because he’s dyslexic, but that the need to slow down meant that he became aware of the rhythm and melody of sentences; singer and songwriter Rosanne Cash reveals a moment with her father, Johnny Cash, of private turmoil and forgiveness on stage. Most of us spend so much time trying to avoid difficulty, and sometimes lamenting the hand that is dealt to us. What these artists showed me was that often it is exactly what we struggle with that leads us to ourselves, and to our best work.

How were the interviewees chosen? How many made it into the book? Was it hard/easy to choose?

There are more than 30 artists, filmmakers, writers, and musicians in the book.  I looked for people whose stories were intellectually engaging and emotionally resonant, which is the criteria I use for radio, too.  Stories are most powerful when they both intrigue and move you, and these stories do both.  I also gathered the ideas around central themes that will resonate with anyone, not just artists: childhood struggles; the influence of parents, home and environment; how essential differences between partners can lead to strong collaborations.  What was most challenging was having to leave some artists out!  But nothing goes to waste — I’m using those stories in my Spark blog, which is about where art and real life collide.

In the Chuck Close interview he says “Inspiration is for amateurs and the rest of us show up and get to work.” How do you feel about that and the creative process?

I think he is right, to a point.  For me, sitting down to write every day was essential, though at times I found myself avoiding my desk because the work was very hard. Yet some of my best thinking happened at exactly the times when I was avoiding work, and connections and ideas would suddenly crystallize when I was cleaning the kitchen or staring out the window or taking a shower.  While I was writing the book, in ways I was always working.  In Spark, I quote Joyce Carol Oates, who talks about the essential nature of dreaming, and leaving space for that kind of work is as essential as sitting down at the computer.

Richard Serra mentions kids and how the just know how to play with his sculpture. Do you think kids have one up on us grown ups when it comes to creativity? Where do we lose our ability to play?

I’m so glad you asked about this, because play is one of the central elements necessary for any creative endeavor, but we often focus entirely on work. I think that young kids aren’t so worried about making mistakes, so they can play with just about anything, but this goes away pretty quickly when they get older.  It is even harder, as an adult, to give yourself room to fail, to make mistakes, but it’s essential if you’re going to try something new.  I write about my own struggles with this, how when I was younger I was a perfectionist — which led to terrible procrastination because I knew I could never do anything perfectly, and could blame mistakes on a lack of time.  What cured me was starting to work with clay and realizing that if a pot didn’t look like what I wanted, I could smush it up and start again.  That’s true for writing, too!  There were quite a few versions of each chapter in Spark. I love making something new, and know that for every thing that works there will be many, many attempts that won’t. But the rough drafts are necessary to get to the finished project.

After finishing the book – do you now know how creativity works?

What I know is that it works differently for everyone.  We can learn so much from the inspiring stories of creativity and struggle that these artists tell, but in the end each of us has to figure out what works for us, through trial and error — and play!  All of us have the potential to be creative, not just in the arts, but in every aspect of our lives.  What these artists’ stories show us is that paying attention to the world around us and getting over the fear of failure can open up endless possibilities.

Julie had one more final though before the conversation ended:

One of the other essential ideas I discovered in listening to all of the stories artists told about childhood is the importance of accidents.  Not necessarily traumatic accidents, although sometimes those had deep impacts on later work, which happened to the video artist Bill Viola who nearly drowned when he was six years old, and continues to find himself drawn to water imagery in his beautiful videos.  But also happy accidents, moments that could not have been organized or sought after, yet have a lasting resonance in a creative person’s life.  So many people talked of happening onto something that made a powerful impression — whether it was the filmmaker Mira Nair seeing street theater in India, and deciding to become an actress, or the photographer David Plowden talking about the boats on the East River he spent hours watching out his apartment window when he was a little boy, or poet Stanley Kunitz describing how he haunted the woods when he was young.   As a parent, this really hit me — that it’s great to give kids music lessons and swimming lessons and drawing lessons and all of that, but that what may really change their lives is something they encounter by accident, and by themselves.  That what may be more important than lessons is making sure that they have a rich trove of experiences on which to draw when they get older, that going for walks in the woods or exploring a new town or city are as essential as learning how to play the piano.

Baristanet has a signed copy of Spark for the first person to correctly answer the question below. Answer as a comment.

QUESTION: In her blog, Burstein writes about Ben Burtt, who was still a graduate student at USC when George Lucas asked him to design the sound for Star Wars. She says the first thing Burtt tackled was the sound that the light sabers would make. What machine inspired the humming noise that ultimately became the light saber’s iconic “voice”?

Photo of Burstein by Pavlina Perry.

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  1. All of us have the potential to be creative, not just in the arts, but in every aspect of our lives.

    I had a plumber once who fancied himself a creative genius, and all I wanted him to do was unplug my pipes.

  2. Another book on creativity to be read by people who write about creativity.

    NPR could use a little more creativity in its programming. How long, for example, will the Click & Clack Bros on Car Talk be given airtime. A Bahston accent is only funny for so long.

    ‘My car goes grrr when I turn it on’
    ‘Try going to a mechanic’
    ‘Ha ha hee hee, never thought of that, thanks so much’

    A Sandy ‘On Cars’ show would be much more entertaining than those clowns.

  3. “it’s great to give kids music lessons and swimming lessons and drawing lessons and all of that, but that what may really change their lives is something they encounter by accident, and by themselves.”

    So true! I look forward to reading the book.

  4. Light saber sound effect = “a combination of the hum of idling interlock motors in aged movie projectors and interference caused by a television set on an unshielded microphone.”

    Fantastic interview! I can’t wait to read the book.

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