From the monthly archives:

May 2009

Ears Wide Open

by Matt Blair on May 31, 2009

in Audience,Exercises,Meaning

Learning to think and craft ideas, and to creatively express ourselves, is a contribution to our community and a way of participating in the conversation of culture.

That conversation is multi-directional: Developing appreciation for ideas and stories and experiences of other people, and the ability to pay detailed attention to them, are intrinsic to creativity.

For the pragmatists, yes, there are benefits: the ideas of others are nutrients to plow into your creative fields, and nourish the seeds of your own ideas.

But silence, observation and listening have their own rewards.


As creators, we are used to thinking of audience as a kind of target: who will see this or hear this, and who won’t? What are we trying to communicate, and to whom? Audience is that set of people we’d like to enthrall with our performance or ideas.

When we go to a gallery or a performance by other artists, we think of ourselves as members of their audience.

But audience has a meaning beyond groups of people. Its roots in the romance languages are the same as those for the word audible, and relate to hearing and listening. Audience isn’t merely a group you focus on or join, it is something you can give — the gift of your attention.

Giving an audience might bring to mind antiquated notions of royalty, of a higher class deigning to a lower one. Forget that association, or, even better, reverse it: in a world with so many stimuli clamoring for our attention, paying attention is an act of elevation.

If creative expression is a mix of thinking, exploring, articulating, crafting, presenting, sharing, and storytelling, the flip side of that process is listening, observing and absorbing.

The final exercise for May: Make space in your life to behold and appreciate the lives and stories of those around you.

Put down your pen, don’t go to the studio, don’t click the shutter on your camera, don’t put a fresh canvas on the easel.

Set your ideas aside for a little bit, get out of your own head, and let someone else fill it up for a while.

A Few Tips for Listening

Don’t judge, or wear your own opinions on your sleeve. You often learn more about a person if you are open and receptive, rather than framing the conversation with strong statements about who you are or what you do or don’t believe.

Focus on the details — in the moment. Don’t get caught up in taking notes, or thinking about your next piece, or thinking of their words in some other goal-oriented context. Leave your own projects and plans for another time. Listen without pre-text. Notice their cadence and emphasis: What catches their throat? What brings out a gleam in their eyes? What makes their eyelids flutter?

Don’t anticipate or interpolate. Don’t fill in the blanks and assume you know what you don’t know. Ask questions carefully — if at all.

Be patient. Don’t rush the other person. Part of making space is also making time.

Let silences happen. Let the other person unfold the stories they want to tell, the way they want to tell them. The best parts often come after pauses.

Practice empathy. Listen to understand another person’s perspective, not reinforce your own.

Show reverence. Both verbally and non-verbally, let them know you appreciate their time, and their sharing their life with you.

If you enjoyed this post, you may want to read past exercises.


In the northern hemisphere, the summer travel season is upon us. In addition to thinking about sight-seeing and noshing over the next few months, I want to encourage you to go here-hearing, place-touching and site-smelling.

That may sound a bit glib and silly, not only because of the wordplay and alliteration, but because it isn’t how we typically think of travel.

When people return from a voyage, they talk about the places they went, the people they met and the conversations they had. In terms of making sense memories, they may have lots of photos and videos, and tales of food and drink, from the fantastic to the horrific and everything in between.

Sound, touch and smell are often minor characters in the story. Maybe they took note of the smell of a particular flower, or the roar of a waterfall.

But did they touch anything they couldn’t have touched locally?  Did they hear anything they’d never heard of before? Was there a smell they hadn’t encountered anywhere else?

Like a Small, Insistent Earthquake

About ten years ago, I booked a ferry from Stockholm to Turku, Finland. I was expecting a modest little boat for the overnight journey, and was astonished to arrive at the port and see what was essentially a cruise ship looming a dozen stories above the water.

As we boarded, I noticed many of my fellow passengers with folded-up carts and large empty bags were all rushing in the same direction. Curious, I followed the clamor, careful not to get trampled. So much for Scandinavian reserve.

After several twists and turns, I rounded a corner, and ran into a store teeming with activity: Ah. Booze. Now it made sense.

I remembered reading somewhere that the ferries were popular day-trips or night-trips for those buying duty-free alcohol, because the taxes on both sides of the Baltic were so high.

As I turned to leave, the engines engaged, pushing the ferry away from the dock. The massive ship shuddered at the force required to overcome its inertia, and all the bottles began to clink softly against each other.

I entered the store and tiptoed as quietly as I could through the aisles, listening to the highs and lows of the bottles delicately tinkling amid the din of alcohol purchases. Imagine being in a wine shop or liquor store during a mild but continuous earthquake, with thousands of glass bottles barely touching one another.

It lasted several minutes, and it remains one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard.

Nose and Skin

To retrieve scent memories, I have to think a little more deeply. Here are two examples:

  • The aroma of olive oil extraction that fills the countryside in Andalucía, Spain in mid-winter.
  • The incense-infused wood in the Todaiji temple in Nara. I went there at least a dozen times while living in Japan, and every time, in every season, I was captivated as soon as I stepped over the threshold.

I really had to scratch my head to come up with a touch memory — I guess I need to pay closer attention to storing tactile sensations in the future! Here’s one:

I used to climb the hill behind the apartment building where I lived on the edge of the sprawl surrounding Osaka, Japan. The hill faced the west, and much of the trail was in the sun, but there was one little pocket about halfway to the top that didn’t seem to get any sun at any time of day. There was nothing visually distinct about this part of the trail, but the quality of the air was entirely different: fresh and dramatically cooler.

I always looked forward to that spot, especially in the heat of July and August. Better than any air-conditioning!


Before your next trip, get a pocket notebook. Divide it into three sections, however you like: Sound, Smell and Touch.

Even if you don’t have any travel plans, try doing this exercise on walks around your neighborhood or even the clothing aisles of a local mall. Seek remarkable sensations all around you, even in seemingly unremarkable places.

Every time you take a photo, sip a drink or munch a snack, make a point of entering something in each of these sense categories in your notebook.

Try to get in the habit of reaching for this notebook when you smell something or touch something interesting, in the same habitual way you might reach for your camera.

Describe the sensations in anyway you like: just tune in and capture it in some way.

(I’m a big fan of traveling with audio recorders, but for the purposes of this exercise, I want to encourage you to be in the moment, so please listen with your ears, not your microphone!)

And when you return, give your memories of these sensations top billing in the stories you tell: “You won’t believe what I touched this summer…”



Home Made Pumpkin Pie

“If you don’t need a new technique, then what you’re saying probably isn’t new…” — Philip Glass

I like pumpkin pies. A lot.

Over the years, I’ve baked a lot of them, trying nearly every recipe I can find, and I’ve been intrigued by the variations.

I remember one recipe that didn’t mention turning the oven on until after you’ve already put the pie filling together.

Pumpkin Pie in progress

Measuring is important, too (via marymactavish on Flickr)

Others merely list ingredients, followed by terse commands to mix and bake.

Of course, some recipes — especially the older ones — make assumptions about what ‘every homemaker’ should know about cooking and baking. Such stereotypes about audience are a topic for another time…

The recipes I’m drawn to carefully explain the steps: mix the sugar and spices first, then beat the eggs, add the pumpkin, stir in the dry ingredients, and slowly adding the evaporated milk, until everything is well-blended — but not whipped.

That’s the process I prefer. I’ve learned that without following the right order, you can end up with a mess of nutmeg clumps and unblended eggs.

Pumpkin pie shouldn’t be chunky.

Sequence matters.

After working with the same materials, in the same medium, for years, we have developed skills, and patterns and habits.  Many of them are good habits.  We are so used to our standard sequence that it becomes difficult to imagine other ways of doing it.

I would never do this, for example:

recipe #2

But maybe I should try it?

If you are creative in your work, why not re-create how you work from time to time?  Or at least try other ways, to gain a new perspective on why the methods you prefer actually work?


What sequences in your creative work are assumed or automatic? Which change the most from project to project?

When was the last time you had a major change in your process? What caused that change? Was it voluntary?  How long did it take to feel comfortable with the new change?

What’s the most inviolable part of your process? Do you preserve it for practical reasons?

If you had to leave any step out, what would it be? What if you had to leave two steps out?


On a single sheet of paper, make a flow chart of how you plan to turn your next creative idea into a project. This should be a linear map, from A to Z, from starting idea to end result, that shows every action you will take.

Next, write each step down on an index card, and stack them in order.  Go through the stack, and put a number on the back of each card to indicate the original order.

While looking at the numbered side, shuffle the cards.

Flip them over, and go through the new sequence. Identify any truly absurd or impossible series of steps.

For example, putting the raw eggs and bottles of spices directly in the oven is not going to make a better pie, and we can guess that without running an experiment.  Negotiate a little bit around the physical impossibilities, but don’t go too far with it.

Once obviously bad sequences have been eliminated, go through the new order step by step. Examine each transition. Could this re-ordering reshape your work in a useful or interesting way? Why or why not?

What does it tell you about the way you’ve been working? Does it suggest any experiments worth testing in your next project?

The point of this exercise isn’t necessarily to change the way you work permanently, but simply to encourage you to examine why you work the way you do, and at hint at some alternatives.

Be really honest about the possibilities, and if anything even slightly piques your curiosity, try it, and please share what you learn!

If you liked this one, I invite you to read the rest of the exercises on this site. I’ve been posting one a week through the month of May.


Zoë Westhof has me thinking again, this time about what it specifically means to change the world. (I encourage you to go to her site and join the conversation, or add a comment below.)

What does change have to do with creativity?

Changing the world is a particular form of creativity in which our chosen medium is life itself. Tactics for creativity and tactics for change largely overlap.

This connection between change and creativity is a segue-way into a new series I have in the works on the topic of why creativity matters. Consider this a preview.

Attempts at change benefit from a creative approach, both to imagine the kind of transformation you want to accomplish and determine the scope of your ambitions.

And creativity generates change — if not directly, at least as a side-effect.  What we create may be radically different or only a slight variation, but if it is exactly the same as what already exists, we wouldn’t call it creativity, we’d call it re-enactment or repetition.

Creativity is the driving force behind everything we do that’s different from what we’ve already done.

The Tactics

Read history: Learning more about the past will constantly remind you how dynamic the world really is, and how lucky we are — in so many ways — to be living in this moment.

For example: Did you know that the life expectancy for the working poor in mid-19th century Bethnal Green, London was sixteen?! (via Stephen Johnson’s Ghost Map.)

Study past change agents: Those who did it well and those who botched it.  What went right and what went wrong?

Look for unlikely allies: Find people who seem very different from you, but, in your chosen arena of change, want essentially the same thing.

Develop empathy with opponents: Why do they want to hold on to the very things you are trying to change?  How can you ease their valid fears, undermine their irrational fears, and at least partially co-opt them?

Draw clear lines: Determine those whose minds can’t be changed. Ignore them if you can, marginalize them and mitigate their effects if you can’t.

Don’t wait for someone else: Maybe they are waiting for you?

Get yourself stabilized first: Change is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to train and stay fit for the long haul. (See Bobby’s comment on Zoë’s post for a great example.)

Everyone has a role to play: All across the spectrum, from the radical marching in the street, to the contemplative researcher assembling the data to make the arguments that get people into the street, and everyone in between. Find your role, excel, and don’t waste time and energy fretting that you can’t do everything.

Don’t get discouraged by what’s beyond your reach: In today’s information environment, our sphere of awareness is vastly larger than our sphere of possible action. That’s a situation that sets us all up for disillusionment and despair.

We can’t individually fix every tragedy we know about.  The challenge is to stay connected at the global level, to the good and bad, while maintaining our momentum in making change on an achievable scale.

Challenge broad patterns and viewpoints, not just specific instances: Switching to low-power light bulbs is great, but if a public figure declares conservation a “personal virtue” you have an advocacy problem, not a light bulb problem.

Be open-minded: Change happens in unexpected and unplanned ways.

Beware of revolutions: Change that begins with a stated goal of shattering existing structures often spills a lot of blood, and what is shattered is rarely reassembled into something positive.  Most revolutions are disasters for just about everyone involved. (See the point above about studying history.)

Think of the world as malleable: something that can be hammered and shaped into new forms without breaking completely.

Beware of incrementalism: Tentatively proposing small change, and submitting it to a process of bureaucracy, negotiation and consensus-building is like running through the surf: you’ll expend a lot of energy, but you might not get very far.

Incrementalism is often a tool used by incumbents to shut change down.

Instead, make subtle and barely perceptible changes so far out of the range of expectations that they befuddle the establishment. Change the underlying reality before the status quo backers understand what you are up to, and put them in the position of defending a return to what has become an unpopular and undesirable past.

And don’t ask first.

Leave a trace: Leave No Trace is great for backcountry trails and Burning Man, not so great as a life philosophy. Your every action adds to your legacy. It is impossible not to have an impact. In every decision, try to make sure you bend the world towards your values, however slightly.

Slow and steady wins the race: Is it bad form to end a list of change tactics with a cliché?

Spread your ideas, and sow the seeds of the changes you want to see.

Just like art and culture, profound and lasting change is bigger than you and unfolds on a time scale longer than your lifetime.


The changes we’ve seen in the music industry, and those starting to happen in film and books, are part of a much larger shift in the way we craft and share ideas in a digital age.  It’s happening in fits and starts.

As William Gibson once said: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

On Friday, Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud did a show on the future of books. Listening to the parts I missed over the weekend, it seemed like a good time to pull together some thoughts on this transition.


First, what about the naysayers like Siva Vaidhyanathan, the University of Virginia professor who was a guest on the show? I have some of my own concerns about e-books, which I’ll address in future posts. For now, a general comment about those who tend to focus on the gloomier aspects of disruptive technologies.

Go back to the 1990s, and I’m sure you will have no trouble finding academic screeds against the horrors of DVDs: The players cost thousands of dollars, the discs are too expensive, the region-control scheme too onerous, the compression makes the video look awful, etc. There were, and are, some real downsides.

But think of the net effect: DVDs made visual culture vastly more available.

Where I went to college, a few video stores in town had a meager selection of foreign and underground films, and the student association occasionally played a foreign film, but that was it. The vast majority of film culture was inaccessible. If I lived in the same town today, the situation would be entirely different: I could watch more Iranian films in a week than all the foreign films I saw in four years of college. DVDs made that possible.

They have also allowed small filmmakers and film companies to distribute their ideas in ways that would have been far more cumbersome with VHS tapes. Video streaming, though still in its infancy, is changing this equation yet again.

Those decrying DVDs didn’t predict Netflix or understand the way a service like it could broaden exposure for even small and obscure films. While it’s essential to ensure that new formats increase opportunities for audiences and creators rather than simply empowering incumbents, we should also remember that we can’t envisage everything.

The Promise of E-Books

Layout: Many bibliophiles seem to grumble about layout and design of e-books, and it is rudimentary — so far.

But printed editions have their own shortfalls. There are 1775 poems in the paperback edition of the Collected Emily Dickinson, crammed onto 770 pages. It’s not uncommon for a four-line poem to be split over a page turn. Doesn’t each of these gems deserve its own setting, rather than being fractured into two sides the reader’s mind must reassemble?

Presenting each poem in its own space in a paper edition would likely require multiple volumes. With an e-book version, it would be trivial.

On the other hand, the Shakespeare app for iPhone displays 12 lines of text per screen by default — not exactly optimal for 14-line sonnets.

Supplemental materials, in situ: Imagine reading that well-formatted edition of Emily Dickinson, with a reference like the Emily Dickinson Lexicon a finger-tap away. Imagine flipping over to a scan of the original manuscript.  Or reading Herodotus, with every place name connected to ancient and modern maps.

Portability: On trips longer than a few days, I typically travel with 8-10 books. How can I know what I want to read in a week’s time, or longer?  Maybe I’ll need to read something by W.H. Auden next Thursday morning, and I just don’t know it yet?

E-books offer the promise of the kind of portability that’s now possible — and even expected — with music.

I’m under no illusion that listening to mbira music through tiny earbuds amidst the roar of a jet engine is the same as it is in a quieter environment with real speakers, or remotely comparable to being in the presence of the musicians.

In the same way, e-books don’t have to be seen as wholly replacing other formats. They could be just a convenient alternative in some situations. However awkwardly those sonnets are formatted, I still have them in my pocket while sitting on a cliff overlooking the ocean, without the inconvenience of carrying the paper version around.

Making notes: Searchable annotations and highlighting that let readers create their own idiosyncratic index of a work are just the first steps. What about dated annotations, so that I could see the notes I made when I read Brave New World in high school, and compare them to the notes I made when I re-read it two years ago?

And what about shared annotations? We should be able to see what a friend underlined or annotated, and view several sets of annotations at a time. Imagine how that would benefit study groups and book clubs. BookGlutton is already starting to build distributed communities around group reading and note-taking.

Extending this further, could difficult and complex works be made more accessible and enjoyable by overlaying sets of underlines, glosses, scribbles and marginalia by different authors and scholars, which could be turned on and off at the reader’s will?

Variable Length: Try to get a book deal with a paper publisher for a 38-page book, no matter how good it is.  You’ll have about as much luck as you would have had trying to release an 8-minute pop song in the 1950s.

Turnaround: E-book authors are writing editing and publishing, from idea to final product, in weeks.  The paper-based publishing industry isn’t set up for that. It takes months or years. (Obviously larger scale works take longer in both formats.)


We don’t think of books as a broadcast medium, but they have been. Author writes, editor shapes, publisher approves, and books are deployed. Marketing teams make deals for the most prominent places in the bookstores, and the rest struggle in obscurity.

For e-books to be revolutionary, they must be read-write-share. They must facilitate and strengthen culture as a conversation, in all directions: author to reader, reader to author, reader to reader.

All those dreams of making your own mix-and-match anthologies, of enterprising teachers creating curriculum mashups, of pulling together the perfect travel guide from ten different books and a dozen novels?

None of that’s on offer — yet.

However logical and obvious it seems, such hybrids upend so many business models that it probably won’t be offered voluntarily: it must be persistently demanded, both by readers and authors.

Pricing and Value

There has been lots of discussion about e-book price points, and this is a complex issue.

I’m actually working on another post about the way we price culture, so I’ll save most of my thoughts for that.

The transition to e-books is an opportunity to reconsider who provides the value in the process of getting an idea out of an author’s head, crafted into a great book and into the hands and minds of readers.  E-books change so many aspects of the journey from final edit to audience that it’s not just an opportunity to rethink pricing, it’s an imperative.

For the most part, current media pricing is based on physical objects and formats. A CD costs x. A paperback book costs y. A hardback book that’s been remaindered costs z.

Does such a pricing scheme reward thinkers and creators for the value of their ideas and the quality of their contributions? Or is it based on the size and wrapping of a pile of paper?

If we encounter low-grade corn oil and high-quality extra virgin olive oil, we don’t expect to pay the same for each just because they are both sold in bottles.

As readers, why would it make sense to pay roughly the same amount for a low-mental-nutrient book you skim in a few hours and a book that you read and re-read and refer to for years?  Wouldn’t it make sense to pay significantly more to the author and the editor of the second book?

I know there are complicated reasons for the current pricing structures, and my hunch is that many of those complexities have to do with the distribution of physical formats.

The inevitable transition to e-books gives us a chance to rethink how we value ideas, and and change the way we pay for culture so that it sensibly and fairly supports both the physical infrastructure of distribution and — more importantly — those creating and crafting the ideas that change our lives.


Larger Than Life

by Matt Blair on May 12, 2009

in Audience,Exercises,Perception



That’s probably all you need to get a particular music theme in your head.

It is a pattern found all around us, from the way we knock on doors to the way advertisers frame the ominous.  It might be one of the most recognized and over-exposed musical phrases in history.

The source? The opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C Minor.

To my ear, the loveliest and most under-stated presentation of that musical idea comes at the end of the third movement of that symphony:  Most of the orchestra has fallen silent, while the strings gently pluck a flattened version of the theme. And then it is reduced to a simple pulse played on timpani — one of the first moments in the Western “art music” tradition when percussion carries the main theme.

From there, the orchestra slowly reassembles around that insistent beat, mustering the bombast of the opening of the fourth movement.

It is an extraordinary moment, more than 20 minutes into the piece.

But how often do we get that far?

Daily life keeps us busy.  We’ve all heard that theme dozens or hundreds of times. The initial notes enter our ears, and, if only subconsciously, we think: Yep, I’ve heard that.

Now that I’ve pointed it out, there’s nothing to stop you from going directly to that part of the third movement on a CD or an iPod and listening to the transition.

And there’s the problem: that’s akin to walking into a concert hall with a full orchestra, asking them to pick it up 80 bars before the end of the third movement, and then disrupting them after a few minutes with a “Thank you, that’s enough.”

Described that way, it is absurd. But that’s how we so often treat great music and great ideas.

And by we, I mean me, too! I’m not saying it is easy. Even listening to the Fifth while writing this post, I cheated and started at the beginning of the third movement.  Sorry, Ludwig: You and I both deserve better.

There is an inherent beauty to this passage of the symphony, but what makes it profound is the twenty or so minutes that precede it.

If we encounter the passage as a 30-second excerpt, underscoring a particular emotion in a film, or by starting up the car after an hour shopping for shirts, we have an entirely different experience.

Art, Squeezed Into Life

We tend to connect with art that fits within our hectic and idea-saturated lives.

At 227 minutes long, “Lawrence of Arabia” sits gathering dust as we plow through shorter films in the Netflix queue. The Salman Rushdie novel that makes us wish we knew more about the Partition of Pakistan and India gets postponed, half-read.  Self-appointed critics describe a seven-minute pop song as “artistic self-indulgence”.

I’ve noticed that YouTube has warped my perception of short films: When watching something online, my hand rarely leaves the mouse. Barely thirty seconds in, I find myself grumbling: “If this doesn’t get interesting in the next 10 seconds, I’m on to the next thing.”

That’s not a disaster for most of the trifles on YouTube, but what if I subconsciously transfer that same sensibility to other experiences of art or music or film — or even human interaction?

The experience of beauty often requires sustained attention, physical expanse, perception of nuance and deep thinking.

When we “don’t have time” for such experiences, we will have less beauty and awe and inspiration in our lives.

Meeting Claudio

When I was eighteen, I had a chance to hear Claudio Monteverdi’s opera “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” performed on 17th-century instruments.

I had never been to an opera. I had never even listened to a single act of one, let alone a whole work. How long would it be? Would I get bored? Was it worth the time?

I went, and was enthralled from the first note. Monteverdi remains one of my favorite composers to this day. How much later in my life would I have discovered that music if I hadn’t gone that night?

We don’t have time for such experiences every day.

All I’m saying is give 220-minute-long Italian Baroque operas — or something like them — a chance.


Clear some space in your schedule for a big idea or big art. Set aside the time, make a date, and go to a specific place, if needed, to experience the enormous, however you define that.

Choose something you don’t typically have time to enjoy and absorb, and that you think might be humbling and awe-inspiring. It could be:

  • Something physically or sensually larger than you, like standing in the middle of a redwood forest.
  • Something on a timescale outside your everyday experience — like “Lawrence of Arabia”.
  • A complicated idea that requires intricate thinking and focused attention.

Seemingly small ideas and experiences can become enormous in our heads. An Emily Dickinson poem may seem small, but if it expands in your mind and occupies your thoughts for days or weeks, its import and impact could be enormous. Give yourself time to let a small idea grow in your mind.

The amount of our time and energy attracted to an idea is a much better measure of its size than word counts, duration, or physical measurements. The critical ingredients are time and the ability to focus.


  • How was this experience different from your typical day-to-day encounters with art and ideas?
  • Was it worth devoting the time to it?  Was it worth whatever hassle you had to go through to make the time in your schedule?
  • Will you do it again?  How often?


The Experience of Enormity

by Matt Blair on May 8, 2009

in Perception,Senses

In the mid-nineties, I was hearing a lot of buzz about the way CD-Roms and multimedia were going to “change everything”. (There’s a pair of words that should always be interpreted as a warning…)

I was working in computer art at the time, and I should have been excited by these developments, but I just couldn’t get into it. In my experience, these CDs were limited to trite little sound-effects, pixelated graphics and postage-stamp-sized video — when they actually worked. Remember what it was like to get video to play on a computer in 1994?

It was tiny. It was puny. It was so much smaller than the scope of our senses.

Was this really the future?

Then I saw Laurie Anderson on her Bright Red tour, and it was precisely the kind of rebuttal I had been yearning for.

Enormity: to be within, and to be enveloped. That’s what this new notion of “multimedia” lacked, and what the concert hall could still provide.


A gorgeous photo of lightning is not the same as the visceral experience of being in — and underneath — a thunderstorm on a summer afternoon in Alabama.

Seeing a film of people walking around a Richard Serra sculpture is not the same as standing in the shadow of one.

No photo or map conveys the cultural shock of the Reconquista as well as circumnavigating the cathedral built in the center of the Great Mosque of Córdoba.

Going there matters. Being there matters. But it’s not enough.

A Canyon

I have been enjoying Chris Guillebeau’s blog lately, yet I was a bit horrified to come across the Grand Canyon on the over-rated list in his post 9 Overrated Tourist Destinations (And 9 Great Alternatives).

Don’t get me wrong: this is a great article, largely because of the evenhandedness of suggesting alternatives for each overrated spot. His essay/manifesto 279 Days to Overnight Success is also full of excellent insights. The title alone is such a succinct blend of aspiration, pragmatism and volition.

Here’s how he described his experience:

I went there with my family last year, and my 16-year old sister and I had fun coming up with alternative names for the Grand Canyon. Our top choices were:
The Decent Canyon
The Not-Bad Canyon
The “If you’re 10 miles away, go and see it” Canyon

You get the idea. Technically speaking, the Grand Canyon is impressive, but there’s so much hype about it that it’s hard to live up to your expectations upon arrival.

So many people reacted to this that Chris recently added a comment to the post calling for a kind of truce on the subject:

1) I think we’ve discussed the Grand Canyon enough – some people love it, some don’t, and as for me I’m kind of in between. Each opinion is valid, but let’s move on.

Rather than jump into the fray, I want to use it as an example of how we experience enormity.

You can’t really see the Grand Canyon. No human can.

Instead, you go to selected viewpoints, gather information, and try to piece this phenomena together in your head. From this thin dossier, you try to interpret its meaning and significance.

Put another way, a human visiting the Grand Canyon is like a gnat visiting your ankle. Would you say the gnat understands you or your significance?

Such expansive sites and moments are sensually humbling because they surpass the limits of our perceptive abilities.

From any one vista, or by visiting a dozen in a single day, you are merely assembling clues about the nature of what is in front of you.

These clues help you construct a not-entirely-accurate mental model of a physical place, and that is ultimately where you visit places like the Grand Canyon: not in front of you, or beneath your feet, but in your mind.

When we finally arrive at a site we’ve imagined visiting, each sensation is compared to our expectations and the models we bring with us. We confirm some suspicions, invalidate others, and add unexpected nuance.

To truly perceive, we must leave our expectations behind. Otherwise, it’s all comparison.

Big art, Little artifacts

No matter how you go or where you stand, you won’t be able to fly through a place like the Grand Canyon and switch perspectives like you can in Google Earth. No matter how many times you visit, you’ll never capture each vista at the precise light conditions found in the 100 highest-rated photos of it on Flickr.

Do such tools and services take the magic away? Do they give us such a rich set of expectations and such a strong sense of having been there that real life — the sight and sound and smell of any particular spot — just can’t compare?

When technology delivers fragments and artifacts of sensory experience to our desks and kitchen tables and mobile phones, what does it mean to go somewhere anymore?

It’s worth noting that many of the commenters who disagreed about the Grand Canyon had immersed themselves in the Canyon by hiking into it or rafting through it.

Immersion seems to make a difference.

And that was the problem with the multimedia hype in the 1990s: we were trying to connect with big ideas by looking through the jaggy and unreliable window of a computer monitor and hearing tinny sound from little speakers, with no other senses engaged. We were outside, looking and listening in. It was too small for us to be enveloped.

Yes, computers have gotten better and faster and better able to convey beauty.

But a 24-inch screen and a great speaker system still offer mere hints and fragments of what the world is like.

Here is an image of a painting by Salvador Dalí:

The Hallucinogenic Toreador by Salvador Dalí

The Hallucinogenic Toreador by Salvador Dalí

You may have seen it before.  Did you know that it is four meters tall — taller than one person standing on the shoulders of another? Approximately 25-times the size it appears on your screen?

When we go to enormous places and encounter big art, we all have our own distinct experiences. When surrounded by something bigger than any one of us can perceive and comprehend, we notice different things, and we come back with different stories.

The collection of all of our stories continually reshapes the myths, and the myths reshape our perceptions.

The only way to judge the hype and keep the myth connected to the reality is to go there, and let the sensory richness of a place or an idea infuse your mind and body.

You still have to go there.


I have more posts drafted for the creative surplus series, but there are other topics that I’d like to be writing about, too, so I’m going to save those ‘surplus’ drafts for a continuation of the series at some point in the future.

Think of it as a series that has been renewed for a second season.

Until then, here are links to all of the posts in the first batch of the series:

  • I began the series by asking if we can have too many ideas. (And yes, my last post did encourage you to write down 20-40 ideas in ten minutes! Note to self: write about the value of contradictions…)
  • Next, I pondered the process of choosing our work when there are so many worthwhile projects and ideas to explore. (Do we have to choose? And will we know if we’ve made the right choice?)
  • I considered creativity as an ecosystem of ideas, and described two phenomena that can occur within such ecosystems: blooms and dead zones. (Don’t worry: recovery is possible.)
  • Then I claimed that inefficiency is culture. (With a visual assist from heirloom tomatoes.)
  • I made a distinction between the price of a particular art object and its long-term value. (And resisted bringing Duchamp’s Fountain into the post.)
  • And finally, I celebrated peculiarity. (Not much of a cliff-hanger for Season One. I’ll work on that.)

Throughout May, I will be doing more writing about the practical aspects of a creative life, including an exercise a week.

Which do you like better? The more abstract essays, or the more practical exercises and posts on process?

Please let me know in the comments, or by email.


Twenty Ways

by Matt Blair on May 5, 2009

in Exercises

Since I first read Steve Pavlina’s article “20 Ways to Improve” a couple years ago, I’ve made a habit of doing this exercise a few times a month as a way to continually re-assess what I should be working on and thinking about in my life, or in relation to my current projects.

Here is Steve’s intro:

“A simple yet powerful idea I learned from Earl Nightingale is to grab a blank piece of paper (or a blank computer screen) and brainstorm a list of 20 ways to improve. You can write down anything — ways to increase your income, improve your health, better your relationships, etc. The focus is on generating ideas to make your life better.”

Re-reading his article recently, I realized that I have interpreted the approach and intent a little differently to suit my own ways of thinking and working.

Subtle Tweaks

In his article, Steve says the exercise may take 30-60 minutes, but I rarely spend more than 10 minutes on it. I think Steve and I are generating different kinds of ideas, at different levels of detail. I try to come up with them as quickly as I can. Each one is a single sentence or maybe even just a phrase, and I try to write without thinking or pondering or editing too much. For me, the exercise is a way to get out of a contemplative or analytic mindset, and tap into my intuition.

I start by putting twenty dashes on the paper or in the editor on my computer, so I can quickly see how many I have left to go without counting.

The first dozen or so ideas usually come easy. I always seem to run out of steam at about sixteen. That is the moment to keep going! Often the most interesting and unexpected ideas appear after the easy ones, when I’m fidgeting and squirming and trying to convince myself that sixteen is good enough.

In Steve’s framing, the scope is life in general, but this exercise applies just as well to specific projects or areas of life. If it seems daunting to think about twenty ways to improve your whole life, start with a specific topic or project, or a challenge you are facing.


I keep all my lists in a single folder, so that I can go back and compare my newest lists to those I wrote a month or a year ago.  What keeps coming up?

I regularly review these lists to look for patterns, and summarize what I find: What items or themes keep coming up again and again? Are these areas where I need to focus? Or, more importantly, are there things on the list that I have been nagging myself about for months that, with time, I can see just aren’t that important after all?

For example, I had one item that kept surfacing in different forms for over a year, related to a new system of organizing notes and drafts for writing projects. Looking back on it now, I was actually fairly functional without trying such a system, and was hesitant to start work on the new system because of the time it would take and the disruption it would entail.

The consistent self-hectoring wasn’t providing any benefit to me. By writing it down and externalizing, I was able to see just how much it was bothering me, move it to the “someday I’ll work on this” list, and get on with my work with one less worry on my mind.

One final review tip: Don’t look at previous lists until after you have finished the current one.  I’ve found that if I review first, I’m inclined to think that something that was on a previous list should be on this list. If I haven’t done it yet, how can I leave it off? The goal of the list is to find out what you think you need to do today, in the current moment.

Beyond Improvements

When I was in elementary school, our report cards had three kinds of grades:

  • S: Satisfactory
  • U: Unsatisfactory
  • NI: Needs Improvement

Steve’s exercise is focused on the NI or the U categories: the parts of your life (or project, etc.) that aren’t quite working and need attention. This bias can make completing the exercise regularly feel sort of like continually getting a report card with all NI’s on it: You aren’t doing well, and you better pick it up, or you’re going to fail!

Running yourself down is not the point of the exercise, so I think it makes sense to offset the list of improvements with a list of twenty things you have already improved or that are going well. Spend time coming up with an equal number of items in the “Satisfactory” or “Much Better” categories, and make note of your accomplishments as well as what you could improve.


If inefficiency is culture, as I recently asserted, what is the effect of a nationwide preoccupation with efficiency? Isn’t that just another kind of culture?

When I use the word culture, I’m describing what I see as an ideal culture: a diverse and evolving conversation of ideas.

If enough people in a particular society decide that productivity is more important than quality, they are likely to adopt similar hyper-productive techniques and approaches. This can produce an abundance of something that is healthy in smaller amounts, but might not necessarily be good for us in large amounts. Overall diversity suffers. Culture suffers.

The Maize is All The Same

America grows so much corn that we don’t know what to do with it anymore, so we’ve starting stuffing it in every kind of food and drink we can find. After we ran out of ways to use it to fuel our own bodies, we started turning it into fuel for other animals, machines and manufacturing processes.

As Michael Pollan put it in a 2002 article:

“Even farm-raised salmon are being bred to tolerate corn — not a food their evolution has prepared them for. Why feed fish corn? Because it’s the cheapest thing you can feed any animal, thanks to federal subsidies. But even with more than half of the 10 billion bushels of corn produced annually being fed to animals, there is plenty left over. So companies like A.D.M., Cargill and ConAgra have figured ingenious new ways to dispose of it, turning it into everything from ethanol to Vitamin C and biodegradable plastics.”

No surprise that enthusiasts in South Dakota even assemble a ‘palace’ every year in its honor:

Mitchell Corn Palace

But if you want corn like this in the United States:

Corn in a market in Peru

Corn in a market in Peru

You are most likely out of luck. It’s harder to grow. It’s different. “No one” wants it.

But I want it.


Culture is the accumulation and assemblage of myriad small decisions: if individuals are making decisions based on their own interests and aptitudes and surroundings, the results will be varied and idiosyncratic.  Some pockets will be very interesting and fertile, while others are less so, but as a whole, the culture will be very rich.

Yet if individuals start to perceive that they are all solving the same problems and answering the same questions, they are more likely to adopt similar techniques and solutions. The results converge towards the middle of all possibilities, and the choices for everyone become more limited.

The scope of our knowledge as a society becomes smaller, our modes of thinking fewer and our perspectives narrower. Even our empathy diminishes.

This is the macro-effect of a society-wide surplus of sameness: We are less adaptable, not only as artists or thinkers, but as a community and a civilization.

In Praise of Peculiarity

I have some very specific, and in some ways peculiar, thoughts about the creative process. Some of my ideas are pretty solid, based on years of personal experience.  Some are nascent and emerging and subject to change. And most of them are still so tiny and tentative I probably haven’t noticed them yet.

I would never say that any of my ideas are the one way to do it — even for myself.

I delight in coming across ideas that point in an entirely different direction from my own.  I think, “Wow, that actually works for that person? I wonder why?”  Part of it is natural skepticism, but it is mostly curiosity.  We are all so different, and the more insights I’ve sought into the ways we perceive and process and think and work, the more nuance I find.

Peculiarity is Incalculable

To twist a cliché, creativity isn’t rocket science. And by that I mean that it isn’t a process that works by mathematical rules, according to testable concepts, with repeatable results.

There’s not one way to do it. There is no orthodoxy.

Creativity and art are natural heterodoxies, systems that encourage a flourishing divergence of thought.

One of culture’s most important functions is to serve as a repository for stories, perspectives and experiences. It is a storehouse which we can visit when we seek beauty or meaning, or encounter difficulty — both personal and societal. The more similar the ideas in that storehouse, the fewer our resources. The less diverse our models of what it means to be human, the fewer solutions we have to apply to emerging and present challenges. We are poorer.

This is why creative diversity and cultural richness matter.

Instead of techniques that generate a surplus of similar ideas, we need techniques and approaches that give us a diversity of ideas.

We don’t need questions that suggest similar answers: we need techniques and formulas and patterns and attitudes that yield an ever-changing series of new questions.

Related: This article is part of a series on creative surplus.

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