In the realm of romance, there are all sorts of couples: opposites who attract, soulmates who almost resemble each other and unlikely pairings who just somehow click, to name a few. But something fascinating happens when two highly driven creative people come together in a totally unique way. Such is the case of Clara Bensen and Jeff Wilson, a writer and an academic entrepreneur who met and quickly embarked on an extraordinary adventure together. The story of their courtship has earned quite a few headlines and, since Clara’s a writer by trade, it naturally wove itself into a book coming out this year. Read on to meet the second couple in our new Creative Mates series, which features dynamic duos doing interesting things worth talking about (and sometimes even swooning over).
MEET THE COUPLE: JEFF + CLARA
While those who know Jeff call him by his given name, lots of other people know him simply as “Professor Dumpster.” That’s because he spent a year living inside of one as part of The Dumpster Project, an environmental education program hosted by Huston-Tillotson University. Having authored dozens of scientific journal articles and completed postdoctoral work at Harvard after receiving his PhD in Environmental Science from the University of Canterbury, Jeff knows a thing or two about living quarters and their relationship to the environment. That’s why he founded Kasita, a company that’s developing smart, modular urban housing solutions that will cost about half the price of a typical studio apartment.
And as for Clara, she’s a professional writer and consultant who handles social media, marketing, content production, publicity and strategic planning projects for clients ranging from non-profit startups, app developers and technology consultants to authors, sculptors and academics. An essay she wrote about her whirlwind (read: eight countries in 21 days with zero bags) travels with Jeff, entitled “The Craziest OkCupid Date Ever,” was published on Salon in 2013. Another essay, this one about being in a relationship with a partner who literally lived in a dumpster, ran in 2014. As a result of the buzz surrounding their story and the work she’s done since it spread, her travel memoir will hit shelves in early 2016.
HOW THESE CREATIVES DATE
While they met online, it’s the date Clara and Jeff went on around the one-and-a-half-month mark that really set the course for their future together. “Right after I met Jeff on OkCupid, he invited me to join him on a 21-day ‘travel experiment’ from Istanbul to London,” Clara explains. “The idea was to explore total spontaneity — no reservations, no hotels, no itinerary. We hardly knew each other. It was only after I nervously said ‘yes’ that he informed me he also wanted to try the trip with zero baggage. We spent three weeks drifting across Turkey and the Balkans in the same clothes we boarded the plane in.”
“It’s hard to top that one,” Jeff says when asked about the most creative date they’ve ever been on, aside from the obvious. “We always joke that all our future dates are doomed if we break up.” But for all the planes, trains and automobiles they’ve boarded, there’s still room for a subterranean adventure: “Another experimental date we’d like to try is spending a whole day on the New York subway without ever going above ground,” he says. “Like, maybe we’d start in Grand Central Station and just get on whatever train happened to be on our right. Get off. Choose a new train. Explore random stops. There’s so much going on underground. We could eat down there, listen to live music and people watch.”
HOW THESE CREATIVES WORK
Clara and Jeff may have separate careers, but as it turns out, their divergent paths and personalities actually tend to balance one another out. “Our personalities are so radically different, and we draw on those differences to our advantage,” Clara says. “Jeff is a super extrovert with an outbound orientation towards the world. He comes up with a weird new idea every five minutes and needs my help sifting through what’s worth bringing into reality and what needs to be thrown in the discard pile (like the time he decided he was going to live on nothing but canned black beans). I help him strike a balance between thinking big and staying grounded.”
Jeff agrees. “As a writer, Clara has a deeply inward focus,” he says. “If she helps me filter what I throw out, I help her process and filter what’s coming in from the outside world. When she’s stuck in her head, I know how to pull her back out. On the days when she doesn’t leave the house, I’m the one that’s like, ‘Okay, put on your shoes, we’re going for a walk.'”
Looking inward vs. facing outward is a common theme that differentiates the couple’s approaches to their jobs too. “I feel so lucky to be able to indulge my curiosity via writing,” Clara says. “If I run into something I want to understand (like right now, I’m interested in the neurobiology of fear) I dive in, interview people and string words together. I get paid to explore my own questions. Jeff’s entrepreneurial work requires so much exposure to different corners of the world. He brings me into contact with people and environments I would never otherwise meet — my life is so much richer because of it.”
And while their approaches may be different, it turns out there’s one major parallel: a sense of adventure.
“As an entrepreneur, I like the thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen next,” Jeff says. “When you’re heading towards a new frontier — in my case a new, undefined form of housing — you’re whacking away at your own path. There’s no roadmap. I like that Clara is an explorer too. She explores in her mind. It suits her.”
HOW THESE CREATIVES HANDLE COMPETITION
“I’ve never been jealous of Jeff — in part, because we have such different feelings about attention,” says Clara, who considers herself to be a reclusive soul. “I’d be satisfied to work in a cave and pop out every few years to drop off a manuscript (that’s not how publishing works, but a girl can dream). The thought of fame makes my stomach hurt. I mean, just about everyone enjoys success, but I enjoy it at a certain remove, whereas Jeff enjoys standing in front of a huge audience to present a fun talk he probably wrote on the drive over. I’m like, no thank you.”
“Yeah, I’ve never had a problem with the spotlight,” Jeff echoes. “I’m good at exploring ideas by being playful and causing a scene (which is her worst nightmare). Jealousy just isn’t a problem. We promote each other constantly. And beyond that, we feed off each other’s creativity and success. It’s symbiotic.”
The spotlight, though, is something Clara may have to take a deep breath and step into soon. Her book, No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love & Wandering ($19), is already receiving positive reviews, and is available on Amazon and in bookstores nationwide.
Do you know any creative couples we should feature? Tweet us about them at @BritandCo and they might appear in a future Creative Mates column!
(Photos via Clara Bensen)