Writer, taste maker, curiosity guide, and intelligentsia provocateur. Apply any of these titles and Maria Popova fits the bill. Her work appeals to the left and right brain, historians, designers and psychologists alike because, as she shows us time and time again, these things are almost always connected. The home for Maria’s publishing, Brain Pickings has flourished. With success, comes growing pains and a need for a new “home”. (mt) welcomed her site onto our (dv) 4.0 server to ensure stability as more people discover her eclectic curatorial publishing. Now that she has settled in, we thought it was time to introduce her work.
Tell us about the beginning of Brain Pickings.
It started in 2005, while I was still in college, as a tiny email newsletter going out to the eight people at the startup ad agency where I was working at the time to put myself through school. I had noticed everything the creative team circulated for inspiration came from within the ad industry: Design annuals, viral videos by other agencies, cool commercials. I thought it extremely antithetical to any claims to creativity, this sort of limiting of curiosity to everything that’s already been done in that same field. So I started a simple weekly newsletter – every Friday, I would send out five links to five interesting things from disciplines other than advertising. Anything from an obscure Japanese short film to type design from the 1930s to the latest neuroscience breakthrough. To my surprise, these emails caught on as the guys began forwarding them emails to friends across wildly different disciplines – other creatives, lawyers, athletes, artists, writers. I realized there was a unique intellectual market for this kind of cross-disciplinary, connect-the-dots curiosity as a toolkit for creativity. So I decided to take it online, help it find a bigger audience.
The agency being a startup, they couldn’t allocate a designer and developer to help me out. So I took a night class, in addition to school and a full-time job, buried myself in tutorials, and learned enough web designed to bring it to life and get by. Then I just started publishing, one curated item per day Monday through Friday, pursuing my own curiosity and digging for nuggets of stuff that inspires, that gives you pause, that makes you connect dots you didn’t realize were connectable. Over time, it just found its audience.
What makes Brain Pickings different from other curatorial sites and why do you think people are so attracted to the content?
I think there’s something to be said for a cross-disciplinary angle that’s still underpinned by a common thread. For me, that’s the belief that our creativity is merely our ability to combine and synthesize different pieces of knowledge, memory, ideas, inspiration and other bits of information we gather over the course of our lives into remarkable new creations, new ideas. I see my role as content curator as a curiosity guide and enabler of this kind of combinatorial creativity, so I try to make sure the content on Brain Pickings reflects that, make sure it enriches people’s mental reservoirs with eclectic and diverse bits that help them build more interesting original creations.
I see my role as content curator as a curiosity guide and enabler of this kind of combinatorial creativity…
Maria, your work spans online and traditional publication somewhat seamlessly. How do you balance your practice to utilize the strength of each medium?
For me, it’s less about the difference in the medium itself than it is about the difference in audiences. I do my freelance writing because I enjoy having different outlets with different audiences, whether demographically, psychographically or geographically. Between Wired UK, Design Observer and The Atlantic, I find a great diversity of interests and engagement, as well as a wonderful way to cross-pollinate audiences and introduce the readers of those publications to Brain Pickings.
How do you find interesting content at its source, before others? What makes you decide to publish one particular finding over another?
The “before others” element isn’t a big factor for me. I have a serious distaste for newsiness and forced “coolhunting,” because I believe some of the richest, most compelling content is evergreen. Whether it’s the brand new work of an emerging photographer or fascinating footage from some vintage archive, what matters to me is what makes it relevant and timeless, why it needs to be brought to the foreground of our collective conscience – that’s what I try to do.
The decision as to what to publish always comes down to whether or not I can provide enough context and value to make readers interested in engaging with, sharing and linking to the Brain Pickings article rather than directly to the thing being featured – video, book, artist portfolio – itself. If I can do that – with historical background, additional reading, related dot-connecting – then it’s an article. If I can’t, then it’s a tweet at most.
Does working in a collaborative environment like Studiomates have an impact on your work? How so?
There’s a rare kind of energy about a place full of people who are, in one way or another, still “figuring it out.” I call it creative restlessness and I love it. It’s incredibly invigorating and stimulating. This being said, it’s often hard to concentrate at the studio, so when I have more immersive work – long form writing or an article that requires a lot of research or reading – I tend to work from home or my other office.
What tools do you use to organize your editorial life, be it for notes, blogging or web-building?
I keep a strict editorial calendar in Google Calendar, where articles are pre-scheduled days, weeks and sometimes months ahead. I use Evernote religiously to clip out quotes from my readings and sketch out ideas for new articles. I live and die by Google Reader, my number-one source of story leads, which is organized meticulously into folders and sub-folders of various thematic and priority taxonomies.
Brain Pickings runs on WordPress, but I don’t use the built-in HTML editor. I hand-code everything in Panic’s Coda, which I also use as my FTP client along with Transmit, and then copy-paste the finished HTML into WordPress after I run it through Gmail spell-check, which I find quicker and easier than any WordPress spell-checker plugin.
You recently joined the (mt) family. How are you settling in?
It’s been seamless and all kinds of wonderful. I’m thrilled to be a part of the family, and thank you guys for taking such good care of me – big love.
What are some of the challenges of running a non-profit website? Do you use typical marketing and sponsorships?
Whether or not to run ads is a very individual decision each publisher has to make. I made the choice very early on not to run any, because I felt it diluted the editorial focus and generally cheapened the experience, so I’ve been turning away advertising inquiries, including from a number of big-brand advertisers. Of course, it works for many publishers and I applaud them for being able to reconcile integrity with income. But readers have been incredibly generous – Brain Pickings is funded almost entirely through donations – and there’s something priceless, something really intimate about this sort of relationship that the transactional model of sponsorships can’t even begin to compare to. I use PayPal for donations and, in the form, there’s a field where people can leave a comment as they donate. The lovely, personal, remarkably heartfelt comments I’ve gotten through it over the years have been the source of the greatest payoff I could ever hope for.
A lot of people are curious about the voice of Brain Pickings. Tell us about yourself.
My background is curiosity, that’s all.
I could tell you that I went to school for communication, consumer psychology and creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, which I did, but I often say that my first month of watching TED talks gave me more inspiration, knowledge and “creative restlessness” to go and do something than four years of Ivy League education combined. I can also tell you that some of the most interesting people I know, running some of the most interesting and successful companies, have academic and professional background in something entirely different. Which is to say, I’m answering the background question only reluctantly, since I find the “foreground” of our lives – for me, that’s indiscriminate curiosity – far more formative than formal education.
My background is curiosity, that’s all.
I can’t seem to start a day without my coffee and blog browsing. Do you have a creative or inspirational morning ritual?
I actually just gave an interview about precisely that for The Atlantic’s Media Diet feature.
If you were going to write a book, what would the elevator pitch be?
It’s interesting you should ask this, actually. I’ve been approached by a number of publishers and literary agents over the past year or so, but I remain unconvinced that a book is the right platform for me. I love books from the bottom of my heart and am keenly interested in the future of publishing – I’m actually currently working on a project in that vein. But, in the meantime, what’s clear is that the traditional book business is struggling to keep up with new models for storytelling and engagement with the written word, that no one has quite figured it out yet, and that writing a traditional book in a landscape shaken by tectonic shifts is probably a misguided idea, at least for me at this stage. I’m much more interested in reinventing “the book” than in writing it.