October 25, 2023 / CPOVs
CP Abroad With Clark Shepard
Clark Shepard, Associate Creative Director
A writer has two jobs: observe and report.
I call it sponge work. You go into the world, you soak in every little insignificant detail, you wring it out onto the page – and little by little you come to understand there are no insignificant details. There are tiny little fragments of brilliance. Each and every one of them, the smoking gun leading us to something true and honest and human and real. Sure, maybe I’m assigning too much academia and empathy to a profession that is ultimately responsible for this Quizno’s ad, but let’s not forget it’s also the same profession that gave us Dr. Rick. And make no mistake: There would be no such Doctor without the sponge work.
Anyway, here I am burying the lead like a cooking blog you have to scroll through pages of “My husband’s laser tag obsession is ruining my life” just to find the recipe. Hi, I’m Clark Shepard, Associate Creative Director here at Connelly Partners, and I lived in Ireland for September as a part of our CP Abroad program. As I sit here and reflect on that experience – with incredible gratitude I might add – I keep coming back to one word (and yes, it’s a call back from one entire paragraph ago): Observation.
Is observation paramount to a writer’s success? Yes. Am I awesome at deploying it all the time? No. Why? Well, my therapist refused to be quoted for this blog post, but I think it comes down to this: nothing dulls the sensors quite like a routine. The same breakfast, the same commute, the same conversations with the same people – every day – it’s a restrictor plate on the lawn mower of creativity (weird metaphor, but I just mowed). So the prospect of leaving that routine of creature comforts behind was an utterly stomach-churning, terrifying, world-upending…relief. As I sat on the 7-hour flight from Boston to Dublin, in between viewings of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and a Masterclass on how to appreciate wine (turns out I was doing it wrong), I gave myself a challenge. A challenge to set aside the roles I play in my everyday life (a shameless entertainer with a need for validation in any and all forms, for example). Quite simply, I made it my mission to step back and listen up.
So I sat on barstools across Ireland, listening to people complain, and laugh, and express gratitude, and go on first dates, and also one or two last dates. Strangers taught me rugby on the fly, and let me join in the camaraderie of pain and euphoria and more pain during the World Cup. When I forgot to pack a raincoat on my first weekend trip to Howth, I sought shelter from a storm in a hole-in-the-wall pub. I ended up spending 6 hours there – just listening.
I hopped a 4am flight to London one morning and watched its city streets wake up. In the afternoon, I took the Underground to Tottenham to see my beloved Hotspurs in action. What I felt, sitting by myself in a stadium of 70,000 fans, was oddly anything but alone. After trailing for 98 minutes, they tied it up in electric fashion. Two minutes later, they scored again – producing from the crowd the single loudest sound I’ve ever heard (and the loudest, highest-pitched sound I’ve ever made). Strangers were grabbing me by the sleeves as I blindly grabbed back. A dad and his teenage son both bear-hugged me. Oh, and a woman, who could not have been a day younger than a full century, open-mouth kissed me. I called home to my wife, explaining in great detail that my mouth had remained shut for the duration. It was the latest winning comeback in Premier League history – she understood.
Later on in my trip, I took a tour bus from Galway, full of the most touristy tourists you’ll ever see, to the Cliffs of Moher. Though I spent hours weaving through the foot traffic of the path, and weaving through their conversations as I did, I might have only said three words the entire day. They all happened at the same moment, as I reached the preeminent cliff’s edge. I believe the words were “Holy F****ing Sh*t”.
For a month straight, I did the sponge work. Consciously at first, but then it just became second nature, as if my primal code was wiped back to its factory settings. When I got back to the States, I felt lighter. Not literally of course – Ireland operates as though potatoes are vegetables and Guinness has electrolytes. I felt lighter with this newfound proof that every second of life is fascinating if only you remember to tune in. I went to Ireland to become a better listener, and I might have accidentally become a better writer in the process. For that I’m grateful.
*Raises a Guinness*
To doing the sponge work.