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Exclusive Q&A: Ben Greenman Explains Why He’s Taking Over Times Square

Ten days, ten questions that ask you to take a step back and look at what’s been going on in your world: that’s the simple premise behind 10Q, a Web project from novelist and New Yorker editor Ben Greenman, British writer Nicola Behrman, and Amelia Klein, the program director for Reboot, a non-profit organization for Jewish creatives. Now in its second year, the site provides a space for people to reflect on the past year, examine their values, and imagine where they’re going next. Starting today you can preview the ten questions that they’ll be asking on a jumbotron in Times Square. Flavorpill caught up with Greenman earlier this week to ask him some questions of our own.

Flavorpill: Can you explain the religious roots of the project?

Ben Greenman: I met co-creator Nicola Behrman at one of Reboot’s events; they try to pair people in different disciplines to work on projects. We were talking through some issues: technology; how people don’t really have space to think in the same way they used to; how that might be corrected. The initial version of 10Q evolved out of that.

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time to think about the year that passed, and let go of grudges — broadly speaking it’s the same kind of thing as the New Year. You put aside whatever bad things have happened. A lot of things about the secular New Year have become problematic. Because of parties, and, you know, our friend alcohol, we leave the reflection part out.

FP: So why the decision to bring it offline as well?

BG: The jumbotron? Well, that’s sort of just a point of entry for people. The project still exists online, it’s just a way of getting people to notice, to push them toward the site where all the activity happens. Last year it was sort of a pilot program, although it ended up being a lot bigger than we thought it would. This year, as it goes much more broad, and as we’re trying to bring in lots of different kinds of people, we thought it’d be nice to have a place for everyone to see it. The questions will be there, one a day, for the duration of the project and will point people back to the website.

FP: Do you journal?

BG: Well the thing is, I’m a writer. It has varied over time — I mean, how much my writing is actually about me. When I was 15, I probably was doing a lot of personal journaling, and then there was a period where it was more important for me to start making those things into finished products, writing novels, etc. But yes, that kind of process I’ve always gone through. And one of the things about 10Q that is interesting is that a lot of the people in this group — the people who pushed behind it — were, broadly speaking, writers. They were working in film, or the stage, or they were journalists. We’re using language all the time anyway, it doesn’t mean that we’re better at it; it just means that process is probably —

FP: Natural.

BG: Right. But one of the things that I think we’re trying to work against is — there’s so much self-expression without introspection. It’s so much easier now to react to something immediately and instant publish it. We want people to think of what has been building up that they might not have expressed over the last year. I mean, people can use it however they want, and I’m sure people will read it very differently, but that’s one of the nice things about the questions.

But if I had to pick, I would rather somebody just sit down and think about the question, not for six hours, but for, you know, ten minutes. Realize, “Oh, I guess I’ve become too distant from my sister. You know, that hadn’t really occurred to me until I sat down and worked through this.” That’s the hope.

FP: The concept of keeping the responses for a year, and then emailing them back to participants — what are you hoping to achieve?

BG: There are three levels of disclosure. You can either be sealed from the group and nobody has to see it at all. It can just come back to you after a year. You can also share anonymously, or share with attribution. And people, again depending on how they’re using it, or how much of an exhibitionist they are, they choose. But if you choose the most personal level, you just wait, and then a year from now, you get them sent back. That’s kind of a more delicate, less intrusive version of the, you know, write “I want to lose five pounds” in an envelope, and then seal it and open it next January 1st. This is the first year people are getting responses back; that’s one of the interesting things, to see how the people who did it last year react.

One of the things we’re trying to figure out is how to keep that sense of private space. We’re trying to avoid people using it as a way to measure themselves against others. You go read somebody else’s blog and that person is complaining about whatever, and there’s a picture of their apartment, and you think, “Hey, that looks kind of big for Fort Greene, that’s not fair.” Maybe we’ll have a one week period in the winter where people can browse the responses at the half-birthday of the process and take them back down again. We have a million nominations for how to deal with that, and we’ll just go through them all and see which makes the most sense.

FP: How did you guys come up with the questions?

BG: We purchase them from a corporation. [laughs] We basically did a first draft of them. We knew we wanted to have roughly half looking backwards at the year that finished, and roughly half looking forward to the year that hasn’t happened. We listed out everything, and we tried to make them neither too specific nor so generic that people didn’t have to really say anything. We tried to avoid directing where somebody’s thinking goes. So we drafted them all out, circulated them among a very small focus group, and tinkered a little bit with the tone and language, to make sure that everything could elicit a response from everyone and nobody felt excluded. And it’s still open. It says right in all of the literature that we’re sending out this year, if somebody wants to suggest an improvement, or an alteration or a replacement of the question, then they’re welcome to do that. It’s kind of open source in that way.

Are you going to do it?

FP: It sounds intriguing.

BG: Last year there were people who by the ninth or tenth question were saying within the answer that the process really shaped and informed the way they think about their year. Which is great, it’s great to hear, but it’s a little surprising.

FP: OK, well now I’m definitely going to do it.

BG: Yeah, it’ll totally change your life. It might. You’ll be unrecognizable to yourself.

Want to participate too? Sign up for 10Q here.

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