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My Creative Life

How An Offbeat Side Job Can Supercharge Your Creative Process

The former art director of McSweeney's talks about his adventures moonlighting as a Lyft driver, and how it's inspired his work.

How An Offbeat Side Job Can Supercharge Your Creative Process
[Photo: Flickr user Alfredo Mendez]

For the past seven years, editor and designer Brian McMullen had a dream creative job as the senior art director and one of the senior editors at literary and humor publisher McSweeney's. He founded and ran the company's award-winning kids' book department, McSweeney's McMullens (where he published his own book Hang Glider and Mud Mask in 2012), helped to launch food magazine Lucky Peach, and oversaw much of the creative direction of a brand known for its unique and dynamic visuals. And in his spare time, he's a Lyft driver.

Brian McMullen

"Lyft has offered me a drastic change of pace and scenery," says McMullen. "I think it's probably useful for all creative people to put themselves into new and strange situations from time to time."

Even though he left behind the regular paycheck this summer ("I left my job at McSweeney's so that I can pursue, with fuller gusto and recklessness, my own work as an artist and writer," he says), McMullen's work as a Lyft driver is less a side job than an experience to feed and recharge his creative life.

"I signed up on a whim in May 2013, having taken a couple of rides. I've always liked to drive—I find it relaxing, a nice change of pace—so I gave it a shot," he says. "My rule, since the beginning, has been that I'll drive only when I feel like doing it. I drive almost exclusively at night, and on the weekends. I've gone months without driving. Typically, I drive one or two nights a week. I never schedule my driving sessions. I just do it when I feel like it. And when I get tired—usually after about five hours—I turn off the app, come home, and fall into bed.

Photo: courtesy of Brian McMullen

"I love the driving, I love the mixture of solitude and conversation," he adds. "I love meeting a wide variety of smartphone users."

McMullen has used this mix of downtime and spontaneous interaction to further his creative work and thought process. While driving, he uses the short but unprogrammed gaps between passengers to work on drawings. He also turns items left in his backseat into inspirational found art.

Photo: courtesy of Brian McMullen

"I checked my backseat in March, after a night of Lyfting, and found this pair of panties and this unopened bottle of Evian water," says McMullen. "I kept these items paired like this as a kind of homemade/impromptu sculpture for a few weeks, until my wife grew tired of them hanging around and we threw them out."

And sometimes, McMullen's Lyft experiences directly contribute to his projects.

"When I was working at McSweeney's, I was invited by my colleague Sam Riley to contribute some writing to a humor book McSweeney's was creating with Portlandia," he says. "I wrote all of my work for that book on my iPhone, late at night, in between Lyft rides. Sometimes, a funny thing a passenger says will stick in my head, and I'll write it down and file it away. For example, one night a guy got into my car and began regaling his friend, who was also in the car, with anecdotes involving the drunken college exploits of a person named J.T. Flash. About halfway through this 20-minute drive, it dawned on me that J.T. Flash was the alter ego of the guy who was talking. Here was a stranger, in my car, telling heroic stories about himself in the third person. This is exactly the kind of situation that inspires me."

Photo: courtesy of Brian McMullen

And as a design creative, McMullen also has some words for Lyft's branding masterminds, whose own unique thinking attracted him to the job in the first place.

"As a visual person, I appreciated the gonzo quality of Lyft's pink mustache," he says. "Part of the genius of the mustache is that it isn't cool, and it doesn't really try to be cool. It just tries to stand out, and stick in people's memories. And it succeeds brilliantly on those terms. I think it's a shame that Lyft is phasing out the big dorky 'carstache'-style mustaches on the car grill in favor of new, cheaper-to-produce 'cuddlestache'-style mustaches that sit inside the vehicle on the dash. I'll always have a place in my heart for the big mustache. If you're gonna go dorky, you might as well go big."