Last night, I spoke with Wilson W. Smith III, Nike’s first Black shoe designer. I’m working with him on a separate but exciting non-fiction book project that captures his reflections on life through the lens of his design theory. I won’t go into too much detail about it now since the book is a work in progress, but the spark component of the theory is all about the origins behind a creative endeavor. This can be the proverbial “aha!” moment—a prodding from the universe and a call to action. For Wilson, all sorts of things have sparked his shoe designs—architecture, memories, people, songs, and faith. He dances with those inner sparks, overcoming fears and self-doubts to find a way to bring them to life through his chosen art.
In her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how our ideas are as present in our world as living organisms, and they have one goal—to come into creation. And like bacteria and viruses, these ideas require human hosts if they are to exist. “It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual,” Gilbert says.
The initial spark behind my book, Deficient, came to me in 2010 in the post economic crisis. I came across a short, comedic YouTube video where everyone was a superhero and wore ridiculous spandex suits. I loved the idea of flipping the superhero genre on its head and wondered what it would mean if the superheroes outnumbered the “muggles” among us with “normality” becoming the new bizarre. I didn’t want to get into over-the-top cape and spandex territory, though. I wanted the people, even with their supernatural abilities, to feel as real as possible.
That same year, I had dropped out of law school after an uninspiring three-week stint. I was also petrified about getting into a couple hundred thousand dollars of debt in the wake of the economic crisis. So I followed an inner voice that was telling me to explore the planet, connect with different people and cultures, and bring Deficient to life. I moved to El Progreso, Honduras, a tropical transit town surrounded by banana and palm plantations that welcomed me with the warmest (and sweatiest) of arms. I’ve always been fascinated by Latin America, primarily because of the Mexican origins on my father’s side. I minored in Latin American studies in college, and I fell in love with Latin American writers of magical realism like Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Amado, Jorge Luis Borges, and Isabel Allende.
While living in Honduras, I worked for the Organization for Youth Empowerment (OYE), an NGO that supported youth with the skills, knowledge, and tools to overcome various challenges in their lives, including poverty, gender inequality, discrimination, pressure to emigrate, and gang violence. As much as I loved El Progreso, it presented challenges to the young people who called it home. It sat in the shadow of a city that was then called the murder capital of the world. During the day, the markets were bustling, colorful places with baleada stands on most corners and where fruit sellers would greet me on a first name basis. As soon as the sun set, though, the scene took a haunting turn. The streets went cryptically dark, without a person to be seen or a whisper to be heard. Gang violence was common, poverty levels were high, and a shocking number of youth were classified as ni-ni—neither studying nor working. The solution for many was to take the perilous journey north to the United States in search of an often-elusive American dream. An unknown number would never make it there, with several returning with lost limbs from their train journeys or, in the worst cases, losing their lives along the way.
The sensation of powerless in the face of such extraordinarily difficult circumstances was very real, but so was the determination to persevere and overcome. Many of the youth I met possessed a sense of resilience that seemed supernatural. That resilience is what I believe we must all tap into if we’re to survive the tumultuous years of adolescence, though we require it in different measures given the size and scope of the challenges we face. My desire to capture this quality in a futuristic setting was another key spark behind the creation of Deficient. I wanted Alejandro to channel exactly what the young people of El Progreso embodied. I also wanted him to represent anyone struggling to make sense of growing up in a world that can be cruel and unfair—someone who looks everywhere but inside for the answers until inside becomes the only place left for discovery.
Honduras is where the first draft of Deficient came to life. I revised and edited the book over the course of a decade as I sought to find it a publishing home. Even after all that time, the initial sparks are still there—magical gifts from the universe that inspired my creative process. I’ll always be grateful for these sparks, and I try my best to honor and engage them whenever I’m fortunate enough to receive them.
What kinds of sparks inspire your creative process? How have you fanned those sparks and turned them into flame?