Today we are talking to author – Elizabeth Hyde Stevens. Elizabeth has written some really amazing books. The one that I am most familiar with is, Make Art Money – Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m a writer and writing teacher, and I got there in a pretty conventional way, which is to attend an MFA program for writing. I remember when I took my application to the post office, and the man there said I shouldn’t be applying to graduate school. If I wanted to be a writer, I should go out and see the world. He said I should actually live so I have something to write about. I’m glad I didn’t listen to him, because I think everyone has a life that teaches them enough to write something meaningful. And what I got from my MFA program at Brooklyn College was really priceless, an introduction to the life of the working writer. It gave me a day job that could fund my writing, and I found I really liked teaching. It showed me how publishing works and how to get published. It was amazing. It gave me – for the first time – a voice.
I found your works by reading Make Art Money – Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career. What inspired your to write this book?
I usually say it was desperation – because I have so much trouble trying to make it, financially, as a writer. But when I think about it, it all started because I attended a grant-writing workshop at Brooklyn College, because they asked you to think of a sample project you could try to fund. I thought, if I had funding, I’d love to go interview the guys who made the Muppets – Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson.
I didn’t write that grant or interview them, but the Muppets-research idea started to germinate in my mind. What I really wanted was to go back in time and join them. Because jobs like that – creative cultures like that – are rare. I decided to start exploring it, what made it unique, and what made it profitable, with the hope of recreating – for my own situation in 2012. I dug up every article in the Brooklyn College Library’s databases about Jim Henson and the Muppets, and I made a big archive. Basically, I wanted to find “the secret” of the Muppets. I wanted a life like Jim Henson’s. I wanted to make art like Jim Henson and somehow get the money to do it. This book was a way of thinking through my own financial path as an artist.
That is amazing! What would you say is one of the biggest lessons you have gleaned from Jim Henson’s life and legacy?
To never give up. Henson’s work ethic was famous – he was a man racing against the clock. Sometimes he didn’t even sleep. That spirit stuck with me. When Jim Henson was pitching The Muppet Show, he got rejected by every major American network. That didn’t stop him. He just kept working and pitching his idea until he found traction. You can’t let the market tell you what it wants, essentially. You have to keep putting yourself out there until the market realizes it wants you.
So new readers might not know, but you are also a Harvard Instructor. I know you have taught a few interesting classes like “Muppets, Mickey, and Money”. What has been your favorite class you have taught and why do you love teaching?
I love teaching my current class at Boston University on about video games. My students are all gamers, so they’ve spent thousands of hours in these other worlds, other dimensions, other planets. Through their writing, I get to experience all that—without having to spend any more of my life in front of a screen. We look at problems of money and art in the gaming industry. But what’s really exciting to me right now is reading theories about what video games will be like in the future – with virtual and augmented reality – and imagining how our entire lives will become gamified in the future. The fitness industry is one example, with peloton virtual bike races and the CrossFit Games Open leaderboards, where technology lets people enjoy something more by making it more like a video game. Then there’s the idea that we will use virtual reality games in Uber cars, or augmented reality games with holographic glasses overlaid on reality. It’s really wild to think about the possibilities.
Tell us about your favorite book growing up and what is your favorite book as an adult?
Growing up, I loved the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. My mom read them all to me when I was little. Later on, I kept re-reading The Magician’s Nephew, because it was just so cool to me to see the planting of the tree that the wardrobe came from, how the lamp post got there, and to know that Narnia was just one world you could access through the reflecting-pool portals in an enchanted forest.
I think my favorite book as an adult is Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. I can still pick it up and be amazed by the diction, the plotting, the kindness, and the intelligence. The pacing in his stories seems to slow down time and let you think, existing as he did (especially after he went blind) in a world of pure intellect and beautiful sound.
Let’s talk about what has inspired you personally. Who was the person in your life that inspired you to be who you are and do what you do?
Well, you already know about Jim Henson. As a writer, I think I was most inspired by Kurt Vonnegut, who had such a powerful voice and made it seem like anyone could be a writer. Which is completely true. But in terms of how to live and be a human, I wrote my college admissions essay about my dad.
My dad took care of my mother for nine years while she suffered from a terrible neurodegenerative disease called Lewy Body Disease (Parkinson’s with Dementia), the condition Robin Williams had. It was heartbreaking to watch someone you love disappear. My dad kept bringing her to doctors, to new therapies, and then to an Alzheimer’s daycare, taking her on trips, feeding her. Being a caregiver is so hard.
But now, fifteen years later, my dad is really happy. He found a group of friends in the local folk music scene, and he runs a camera at a local music studio. He’s cooler than I am. Growing up with him as a role model inspired me profoundly. He’s not good with money, but he can strike up a conversation with anyone, because he’s so kind and positive. He’s like a big kid. When I was growing up, he ran his own business painting old houses, and he showed me how to paint and wallpaper. He had a huge record collection with Neil Young and the Zombies and Love. And all the Vonnegut novels I read were from his book shelf.
Can you tell us an inspirational saying or lesson that you were told that has really stuck around with you through life?
One thing that keeps popping into my head is JFK’s “we choose to go to the moon” speech. He promised the country we would go to the moon in that decade, an accomplishment which is mostly a symbolic gesture. The phrase I keep remembering is, “We choose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” When you’re in the middle of a long slog, as with a novel you for some reason undertake to write, it’s good to remember you chose that slog, and you chose it because it was a slog.
I love that speech and recently just heard it again during a documentary for NASA. One last question, it is time for our Moose Egg random question. Out of all of the Muppets and other Jim Henson creations, what character would best describe you?
I’m a real mix of all my favorites – Gonzo, Kermit, Rowlf, Ernie, Super Grover, Mokey Fraggle, Red Fraggle, Boober Fraggle – all the sort of laid back, yet driven weirdos who know their idiosyncrasies well, chase their dreams through it all, and live life on their own terms. Maybe it would be more illuminating to say the Muppet who doesn’t describe me – Elmo. I’m not naturally extroverted and confident. That takes effort for me, to overcome fear. I’m also not simple or happy-go-lucky like Elmo. I’m not comfortable being cute. I have big plans, like going to the moon.
Great answers all around! Thank you so much, Elizabeth for talking with us today. Be sure to check out Elizabeth’s website at elizabethhydestevens.com.
Thanks everyone and remember to like this site to see more interesting interviews as we continue to ask Questions to Inspire!