It was bound to happen but this was perhaps a little more epic than we imagined.
MONTREAL, Canada- Sarah found out that I was in Maine and jumped on it. I’ve been promising to give a guest lecture to her class at McGill University for years, and now I had the chance to make it happen.
I had to do it — Hey, I’m a question on one of her class’s final exam.
Sarah Moser is basically my counterpart in new cities research. We both travel around the world visiting new cities, trying to put the pieces together on this brave new global movement that’s attracting trillions of dollars of investment. She works the academic side, I work the journalistic side, and from time to time we cross over into each other’s terrain — she’s handy with the journalism and I sometimes sling articles into academic journals. We feed off of each other’s work and sometimes share notes, but we’ve never actually met.
We’ve come close a few times: in South Korea, in Bangladesh, but it just hadn’t happened.
But now we had another opportunity: Montreal was only around five hours away.
In addition to giving a lecture in Sarah’s class I was also presented with the opportunity to be in documentary that was being made the CBC — Canada’s broadcasting company.
It was interesting how this opportunity happened: one of their producers read some stories that I wrote about new cities where I quoted Sarah and, being located in the same city, got in touch with her about a potential documentary. When she did this Sarah told her that I was actually coming to Montreal: perfect.
With Sarah Moser, McGill University
I got to meet Sarah for the first time on national Canadian television.
It was an action sequence where I was walking into the building, up the elevator, and then entering Sarah’s office, where we would have our epic first meeting.
I did my walk up, cooly removed my sunglasses as I exited the elevator, walked down the hall towards Sarah’s office … and walked right by it, sending the camera man — who was expecting me to turn — crashing into a wall.
I nailed it that time, delivering a corny joke upon arrival that Sarah didn’t get at first and the CBC will hopefully cut.
The lecture went well.
There is something that I really like about being up in front of people — the more people the better, the more cameras the better. It’s a strange, kind of maniacal love. It may sound strange, but it’s just the way that I feel things should be — perhaps my supply of narcissism is limitless; perhaps I just really love what I do and enjoy having the opportunity to talk about it.
Writers spend their days down deep in the dark hovels of their work. While you talk to people daily, interact, and make friends — writing is not a job for hermits — when it comes to having the opportunity to really express what it is that you actually do, what it is that you’re actually discovering, they are far and few between. Writers ask questions and listen — our opportunity to speak often doesn’t come until we’re up on the stage or in front of the cameras. This is how we perform.
It’s like being in a band: books and articles and blog posts are like albums and singles; going up in front of a classroom or speaking at a conference or being in a major TV documentary is kind of like playing a show.
However, there is another side to this that is a little more wussy. I just really appreciate the fact that people would take time out of their days to listen to what I have to say. Whenever I step up in front of a group of people I look out at everybody, I look them right in the eye, and I smile — I smile because I know that I am experiencing something that is rather special. It doesn’t have to be like this — people don’t have to come to listen to me, but they do because something that I’ve done makes them feel that I am worth their time.
When you feel this overwhelmingly appreciative, this overwhelmingly happy and in awe of what’s happening right in front of you, pernicious emotions — like nervousness and doubt — tend to have a hard time finding their way in.
The CBC filmed my lecture and later on I met up with them for a formal interview.
In the meantime I went out for lunch with Sarah’s students. I gave one of them an impromptu lesson on how to use a camera to meet people and find contacts. I found a girl from Yemen who had a really interesting style at a bus stop. We hung out for a while, I took photos, and we may have hung out more if I wasn’t putting on a demonstration — which was the point that I was trying to show.
I went out for drinks with Michelle, the CBC producer, after the interview. As soon as I saw her earlier that morning when we met for the first time — standing out in front of the apartment building I was staying in, dark sunglasses, leather jacket, hand on her hip, smoking … she looked like she was plucked from our collective imagination of what a journalist should look like. Tough, funny, smart, decisive, likable — with a long backstory that includes reporting on location from everywhere. It became instantly apparent that I could probably learn a little something from her. So I watched what she did and listened to what she said.
The fringe benefit of being interviewed by other journalists is that I get to watch them work. Journalists tend to work alone or in small groups — opportunities to actually watch them do their thing are rare. So whenever I’m in these situations I capitalize — I compare what they do against what I would do and when there’s a difference I ask why they did it that way. I listen to their questions and ponder why they asked them. I watch their demeanor and try to sluice off elements that I can use. I study how they handle their crews, how they set up their cameras, their lights, I look at the equipment they choose to use. I ask questions about the companies they work for, how they got into the positions they’re in, what else they are working on.
They ask me questions about whatever it is they’re doing a story on and I ask them questions about the nuances of their work. I guess that’s the trade.
It may seem strange that I would take such a receptive role in these scenarios, as I’m reasonably well established in my work — at least for the type of work that I like to do: I travel around the world reporting on what I want, I publish in big media, I get book deals with a good publisher, I get paid decently … But making your work an art means that there is no limit to how much you can learn, no bottom that will keep you from diving deeper, no restraint on how good you can get, no barrier to what you can accomplish. It also makes the work vastly more fun.
“You can never arrive,” Michelle said as we finished off our second gin and tonic. “You’re can never really get there.”