From the monthly archives:

December 2008

Poetry is…

by Matt Blair on December 22, 2008

in Quotes

Poetry is a voice of dissent
against the waste of words
and the mad plethora of print

It is what exists
between the lines

It is made
with the syllables of dreams

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, What is Poetry

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On second thought…

by Matt Blair on December 15, 2008

in Exercises,Life Cycle of Ideas

Allen Ginsberg popularized the aphorism: “First Thought, Best Thought.” For me, “first thought, worst thought” is more typical. Sometimes I can barely even parse the phrases I’ve scribbled down on notecards!

I don’t mean to say that Ginsburg is wrong, just that we don’t all think and create in the same way. More importantly, different projects require different techniques. Sometimes our first thought fits right into the flow of our work, and at other times, the first iteration offers only the merest hints of what a new idea could become.

I’ve learned that giving an obviously flawed “first thought” too much weight can actually discourage me from working on it at all. I can become intimidated by the sense that my first attempt is close to the idea’s full potential, and that additional effort can only yield incremental improvements or ornamental refinements.

Developing those initially unpromising fragments requires time, craft, patience and an ability to set ourselves free from any sense of reverence that might hinder our ability to explore what it is we are really trying to say.

I recently heard Jay Allison, series host of the revived This I Believe speak at Wordstock. The radio series features 500-word essays in which people “from all walks of life share the personal philosophies and core values that guide their daily lives.” On the submission page of their web site, below the space for entering an essay, there is an additional text area titled “Reflections”, with the following instructions:

“Please tell us what it was like to write your essay.
Was it an easy or a challenging experience?
Please limit your response to no more than 500 words.”

Allison explained that the thoughts submitters share in this “Reflections” box are often both clearer and more powerfully written than their submitted essay, and frequently form the basis for the show’s collaborative editorial process. In other words, the essayists can become so caught up in their first thought that they can’t say what they really want to say until they are given a new blank space to fill.

At times, creating can be like trying to knit a warm pair of socks, and ending up with a big tangle of yarn. We have to choose: Am I going to stick my cold toes into the middle of this mess, tell myself it is a pair of socks and imagine the warmth? Or am I going to consider that first attempt a gorgeous abstraction, hang it on the wall as art, and make a real pair of socks?

Questions

  • In day-to-day life, do you tend to be more spontaneous or more deliberative?
  • When working or thinking creatively, are you the same way?
  • Do you feel like you are uncovering or discovering something that already exists, or are you consciously constructing something?
  • Has the first attempt at working on a new idea ever become a stumbling block for you? How did you get around it? Was it difficult to do so?
  • If you find yourself with multiple “first” drafts of an idea, do they tend to be similar or different? How do you negotiate the differences between them to work on the project? Do tensions emerge that slow you down, or do the differences accelerate the process?

Exercise

  • Start working on a brand new idea, and capture as much of it as you can in twenty minutes or less. This could mean twenty minutes of free-writing or drawing or talking/singing/ranting into an audio recorder. However you want to do it, as long as it is a format you can review later. The goal is to create an artifact of your idea, and then put it away.
  • Repeat the same process at least four more times, with at least twenty-four hours between each repetition. Don’t look at your previous attempt, don’t borrow or cut and paste. As much as possible, start from scratch, capture the idea quickly and put it away until the end of the exercise. (You don’t have to ‘store’ the idea in the same form. If you made a recording yesterday, you could write phrases on notecards today.)
  • After you’ve done this five times (or more) let all the different artifacts you’ve created sit for a few days.
  • Pull them all out and review them. How did your expression of the idea change over time? Were there core elements that kept recurring? Did the underlying ideas become clearer — or murkier?

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Completeness

by Matt Blair on December 11, 2008

in Quotes

I like to say that I write poems for a stranger who will be born in some distant country hundreds of years from now. This is a useful notion, especially during revision. It reminds me, forcefully, that everything necessary must be on the page. I must make a complete poem — a river-swimming poem, a mountain-climbing poem. Not my poem, if it’s well done, but a deeply breathing, bounding, self-sufficient poem. Like a traveler in an uncertain land, it needs to carry with it all that it must have to sustain its own life — and not a lot of extra weight, either.

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook

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Travel as Art

by Matt Blair on December 5, 2008

in Books,Inspirations,Senses

By the time I read Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel I had already seen most of the fifty United States, visited more than a dozen countries and even lived abroad for a couple years. In all those places, and while moving between them, I had a lot of time to think about how and why I felt this urge to see the world.

The ideas in de Botton’s book gave additional nuance to some of my conclusions, caused me to reconsider others, and to re-imagine the act of travel and motion, of physical and cultural transposition, as an act of creativity — an artistic endeavor.

While his book is ostensibly about travel, there are a number of ideas contained in it that speak directly to living a creative life. Here’s a brief look at three.

Transformation and Return

There is an abrupt and inescapable challenge that is familiar to both mystics and creators: to return from the transcendent to the mundane, while maintaining one’s enthusiasm and clarity of purpose. If we are working deeply in ideas that matter, we will be changed by the experience, yet we must then re-enter a world that is unchanged and indifferent until we figure out how to share that experience.

de Botton reflects on this after returning from a trip:

“It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we are essentially are.”

Or who we aspire to be. The friction of our surroundings can keep us from wild excursions and ill-advised adventures. But it can also constrain our growth, our sense of self, and scuttle our attempts at self-definition and re-invention.

Yawning at the Unthinkable

In 2008, flying is a routine part of life in the developed world. Over the years, there have been many flights during which I’ve buried my head in a magazine or a book before takeoff, and not noticed much else until the plane was on the ground, a time zone or two away.

But de Botton reminds us what we are missing on such flights:

“In the cabin, no one stands up to announce with the requisite emphasis that if we look out the window, we will see that we are flying over a cloud, a matter that would have detained Leonardo and Poussin, Claude and Constable.”

For most of human history, the distance and difficulty of getting a close look at a mountain peak has made it a rare experience, one that had to be earned by great risk and extreme discomfort. Shouldn’t we be be almost embarrassed that today we can glance out a window, look down on a snow-capped peak, and then close our eyes again, begrudging our inability to fall asleep easily?

Wonder doesn’t require mountains or stars on a moonless night, so much as it requires our attention.

The Mind-set of Travel

Our travel experiences depend on both our attitude and the places we visit. Could it be that physical motion is not required to have the experience of travel? Could we bypass the hassles of the road entirely, and still increase the intensity of our lives by applying a traveler’s mentality to our own surroundings?

The most local form of this idea would be to observe our own room as though it was an unfamiliar and unstudied place, as Xavier de Maistre did in his book “Journey around My Bedroom”.

de Botton summarizes one of de Maistre’s insights:

“…the pleasure we derive from a journey may be dependent more on the mind-set we travel with than on the destination we travel to. If only we could apply a travelling mind-set to our own locales, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than, say, the high mountain passes and butterfly-filled jungles of Humboldt’s South America.”

Travel is a way to develop our perceptive skills, and these skills are the best kind of souvenir: they require no extra space in the luggage, and can be put to use daily after we return.

“Once I began to consider everything as being of potential interest, objects released latent layers of value. A row of shops that I had always known as one large, undifferentiated, reddish block acquired an architectural identity. There were Georgian pillars around one flower shop, and late-Victorian Gothic-style gargoyles on top of the butcher’s. A restaurant became filled with diners rather than shapes. In a glass-fronted office block, people were gesticulating in a boardroom on the first floor as someone drew a pie chart on an overhead projector. Just across the road from the office, a man was pouring out new slabs of concrete for the pavement and carefully shaping their edges. I boarded a bus and, instead of slipping at once into private concerns, tried to connect imaginatively with the other passengers.”

Travel is not only about where we go, but who we might become, and the details we notice along the way.

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Creative Economy

by Matt Blair on December 3, 2008

in Quotes

Creativity — it starts when you cut one zero from your budget. If you cut two zeros, it’s much better.

Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil

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