From the monthly archives:

October 2008

What’s it called?

by Matt Blair on October 29, 2008

in Life Cycle of Ideas,Process and Workflow

I’ve been thinking about the Michael Ondaatje quote I posted recently, and why it’s so valuable to avoid framing our ideas before we know what they are, or what they will become.

A canvas can just be an untitled canvas. A tune in your head can be sung again. A photograph is automatically given some sequence of identifying numbers as your digital camera tucks it away on a memory card. And an idea can be quickly scribbled on a napkin or an index card.

But when using a computer to capture a critical point in an unframed argument, a section of dialogue between two unnamed characters in a before-first-draft play, or a fragment of poetry, we are often forced into answering the question “What is this?” before we are really ready to do so.

Deciding what to name something, and consequently where to put it, can quickly become an idea-threatening distraction. While struggling to hold a still-forming thought in our heads, we are confronted with an array of questions: “Is this part of something I’m already working on? Should it be? Am I missing a connection to something else? Is it even relevant to anything I’m doing? Maybe I should just write it down? But what should I title it? What folder does it fit under? Should I create a new file for this? Maybe even a new folder? Could this become an entire project, all on its own?”

Such questions are necessary at some point, but these are questions ‘about’ the idea, and the ‘about’ part of idea work comes later, not when ideas are first poking out above the surface. You wouldn’t expect a two-day old or even a two-year old child to know what university she would like to attend, and whether she plans to major in theoretical or applied physics! Why do we expect to know the future of our still-forming ideas?

So if you are sitting at the keyboard, and you feel a new idea coming on, what do you do?

My Approach

I keep a text editor (such as TextMate or Notepad or Word) open on my computer all the time, always a click away, with a file that is already named and saved for the current month.

I call my main file “idealog” and add the year and month to the title. When brainstorming on specific topics or projects, I sometimes use separate files I call “buckets” as though I’m sorting apples or fish. Other possible names include:

  • seeds
  • sprouts
  • idea journal
  • inbox
  • nursery

Pick a word or metaphor that works for you.

When something pops into my mind, and I don’t know where to put it, I flip over to the text editor, type the new idea at the top, and save it. I usually add a date, too.

A few weeks later, when I’m in a more editorial mood, I go through this collection of nascent thoughts and decide what to do with each of them. If I’m working on a deadline, I might review these notes more frequently, but I always find that letting ideas sit for a while gives me a more nuanced perspective on how and where they fit in.

The key point is to to avoid the urge to categorize when ideas first appear in your head. Ideas need the space to become without constraints, which means they need a place to emerge, even if they don’t yet have a name.


How Paul Krugman Works

by Matt Blair on October 26, 2008

in Life Cycle of Ideas,Quotes

What might ‘creative silliness’ have to do with the dismal science?

Paul Krugman won the Nobel prize for economics a few weeks ago, and in the midst of all the coverage, I stumbled across an essay on his old MIT site titled How I Work. It’s not clear how long ago he wrote this, and many of the technical details about economics are over my head, but there are some generalized ideas that are worth extracting, particularly his four rules for research:

1. Listen to the Gentiles

“But always remember that you may have gotten the metaphor wrong, and that someone else with a different metaphor may be seeing something that you are missing.”

2. Question the question

“In general, if people in a field have bogged down on questions that seem very hard, it is a good idea to ask whether they are really working on the right questions. Often some other question is not only easier to answer but actually more interesting! (One drawback of this trick is that it often gets people angry. An academic who has spent years on a hard problem is rarely grateful when you suggest that his field can be revived by bypassing it).”

3. Dare to be silly

“What I believe is that the age of creative silliness is not past. Virtue, as an economic theorist, does not consist in squeezing the last drop of blood out of assumptions that have come to seem natural because they have been used in a few hundred earlier papers. If a new set of assumptions seems to yield a valuable set of insights, then never mind if they seem strange.”

4. Simplify, simplify

“Fortunately, there is a strategy that does double duty: it both helps you keep control of your own insights, and makes those insights accessible to others. The strategy is: always try to express your ideas in the simplest possible model. The act of stripping down to this minimalist model will force you to get to the essence of what you are trying to say (and will also make obvious to you those situations in which you actually have nothing to say).”

(I pulled these excerpts from his extended explanations of each rule.)

You can read the full essay here.


Creative Life, Rich Life

by Matt Blair on October 25, 2008

in Background,Life Cycle of Ideas

What does it mean to live a rich life?

Today’s global financial uncertainty makes that question a little more meaningful than it might have been two years ago, or five, or ten.

I recently changed the motto of this site, to reflect some clarification in my thinking.  I don’t want to simply promote the idea of creativity as some discrete activity we engage in every now and then: in those early morning hours we’ve dedicated to writing, or when we stand brush in hand before a canvas, or when we are in a brainstorming session, trying to explore vast, uncharted areas of our minds.

I want to expand the notion of creativity, until it hits its only natural boundary: the scope of our entire lives. I want to explore it as an attitude that can and will infuse every waking — and sleeping — moment in our lives, and inflect our every action.

In other words, it is not something that is separate from or takes place in the context of  “real life.”  It is real life.  And it is a critical ingredient of a meaningful life.

Practically speaking, what might this look like?  There is no single ideal of a creative life.  What feels dynamic and generative and inspirational for me, might drive you mad, and vice versa.  We can find out what works for each of us by exploring and experimenting with various combinations of six core aspects of creativity:

  • Our skills of perception and awareness of our senses
  • The persistence and volition needed to maintain a creative approach to everything
  • The tools and techniques that we use to work within our own life cycle of ideas
  • The role of culture and beauty in living a meaningful life
  • The way we contribute our unique points of view while collaborating with others towards common goals
  • Sharing our ideas and participating in the global cultural conversation


Not getting stuck at the start

by Matt Blair on October 17, 2008

in Quotes

“I always write the beginning at the end. It’s the last thing I write because then I know what the book is about.”

– Michael Ondaatje, in Susan Bell’s book “The Artful Edit”

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Internal Dialogues

by Matt Blair on October 14, 2008

in Exercises

As darkness falls earlier each afternoon, a mug of hot coffee, a slice of pumpkin pie and a pile of books can seem a lot more compelling than trudging through cold drizzle to the gym. On days when I plan to go exercise, I often notice an internal battle of wits unfolding with increasing (though benign) intensity in my head: one part of my brain tries to come up with reasons not to go exercise, while another part of me responds with ever more creative reasons to stay on track, as it were. Here’s an excerpt:

A: Isn’t that book of contemporary poetry from the Middle East and Central Asia due back at the library tomorrow? You haven’t even read any of the Uzbek contributions! Maybe you should stay here and focus on that.

B: The fine is only twenty-five cents, and you can’t possibly read two hundred pages by tomorrow, gym or no gym.

A: Hmm. You haven’t finished that article for the website yet. Maybe you should stay here and work on it?

B: Maybe fresh air and a little sweat would change your perspective on that paragraph that’s not working.

A: But your feet are already cold, and it’s only 47 degrees outside!

B: Jump on an elliptical and they’ll be warm in no time, I guarantee it!

So far this autumn, the fitness-advocate part of me has been winning, but I can see the drops of rain on my window, and know the conversation isn’t over yet. And I’ve still got to get through winter.


  • What internal dialogues do you have going on at the moment? What impact do they have on your decision making and creative approaches to problems?
  • Are the conversations filled with facts, or feelings, or rhetorical flourishes? Does the nature of these conversations more closely resemble a bogged-down bureaucratic meeting or question time in the British House of Commons?
  • In general, do you consciously pay attention to the details of such dialogues, or does paying attention to the details make you more inclined towards intuition and impulsivity?
  • Do you externalize these dialogues to family or friends, including their ideas and opinions in your thought process before making a decision? Or do you like to reveal only polished conclusions?


  • Choose an internal dialogue that you are having in day-to-day life: about a creative problem or a career change or planning a trip or even what to make for breakfast. It can be a big decision or a minor one.
  • Focus on that dialogue, and write down as many of the statements you ‘hear’ as you can.
  • Look at what you’ve written, and try to identify the different ‘voices’ or characters in the conversation. How many are there? Are all of them serious, or are there a few imps and hecklers in the mix?
  • Try to understand the roles of each interlocutor: what sensibilities and inclinations and desires inform their statements?
  • Which characters come up with the better arguments? Which are more creative? Which is most authentic?

Remember: sometimes the boring voice might be right, while the creative one leads you away from your goals.

That said, I’m off to the gym!

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The Ordinariness of Arnold Schoenberg

by Matt Blair on October 5, 2008

in History,Inspirations

My high-school piano teacher was reluctant to coach me on anything written in the 20th century. It all seemed just too decadent and non-sensical to her church-musician ears, except maybe Bela Bartok, who had the excuse of ‘ethnic’ explorations.

A few years later, I was learning Arnold Schoenberg’s “Six Little Pieces” for piano. Schoenberg was modern, I was told, and to many of my musical teachers and mentors, it was thought he represented an ending: the end of beauty and achievement in the Western tradition. It would be ugly from here on.

As I studied this music, I came to some conclusions of my own. These pieces barely made sense without reference to previous centuries of European musical tradition. Indeed, what was remarkable to me was not how different they were from what had come before, but how similar.

In what ways?

  • The meter was 3/4, the same as the Bach minuets I had learned as a I child.
  • The rhythms used quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes. No extremes here.
  • Who was to play the music? A neatly-dressed, serious-minded and well-trained pianist.
  • For whom? An audience seated in the dark, quiet and appreciative — if a little alienated.
  • The instrument was the piano, the same instrument that dominated European music in the 19th Century.
  • How was the piano played? Fingers on the keyboard, just like Beethoven.

So what was different? The harmony and the shapes of the melodic lines.

Schoenberg was an incrementalist, not a revolutionary, and much of the music he wrote was a natural progression, an expected permutation — perhaps long overdue — and not a radical departure or complete reinvention.

Why is this sense of ordinariness still important to me?

It reminds me that the details we pay attention to determine our sense of innovation.

The musical establishment was focused on the particulars of harmony and melodic shape, and any experimentation with those core elements was a radical act. For me, considering the sweep of global music in the 20th century, and anticipating the 21st, these experiments seemed relatively unremarkable.

I always return to this perspective when thinking about how a project relates to tradition: which parts are best left as they would be assumed and expected to be, and which parts could be essentially and profoundly different? And when I’m working with or for someone else who might be more traditional: which aspects are defensibly different, and which aren’t worth fighting for?

It reminds me of the interplay between familiarity and confusion: give an audience just enough of what they know to understand the context, and just enough innovation to surprise and delight.