From the monthly archives:

June 2009

“I think of all the different music that I have done and will continue
to do almost as photographs of my evolution, and just like
photographs, in some I may look great and in some I may not. What
matters to me is that I risk, I trust, I strive, and let things unfold
as they may.”

Azam Ali

I’ve been thinking about eggs, and the way we form ideas and release them into the wild.

My first thought was that ideas are like eggs in a nest, little orbs of potential that we fuss over and tend to and keep warm, until they are ready to hatch and emerge into the world.

But I don’t think that’s quite right. It doesn’t seem to reflect the experience that artists and innovative thinkers have when sharing their new ideas with the world. It’s too detached.

robin's egg

From the Inside (image by brungrrl on Flickr)

What if we aren’t outside watching over our ideas? What if we are inside? Not just inside the nest, but inside the egg?

Maybe our relationship to the ideas we develop is not one of parental vigilance but symbiosis?

We nourish our ideas, and our ideas nourish us. We grow through the exchange.

It might make more sense if we think of ideas not as something that we have or collect, but as something we are. An idea is something we become, at least during those initial stages of growth, before it takes on a life fully its own.

In other words, hatching ideas isn’t a process of anxious observation as our ideas enter the world: it is we who must emerge each time.

The Nature of Our Shell

What does this mean for our creative process?

The shell could be the walls of our studio, or the anonymity of a blogging pseudonym. It could be the comfortable praise of a long-time mentor, or the fears that keep us from expressing our thoughts. It could be the rounded womb of habit, or the way a well-used tool feels in our hand.

The opacity of a shell provides a kind of veil or disguise — there’s no need to be presentable while still forming. And its hardness provides protection from the elements, elements that might damage and inhibit growth before the life within becomes viable.

But the strength of the shell is illusory. Eggs are fragile. They need to be incubated and tended. And they are temporary.

The protection of a shell allows growth, to a point, and then it starts limiting development and warping growth.

Imperfect Debuts

At some stage in every career — in every project, even — there comes a time to emerge, to tap our way through the shell, and enter the world. And that can be a real mess.

We don’t know how the shell will crack, or how long it will take. We peck and peek, hoping we can leap out fully-formed and strutting like a big, beautiful peacock that has always been that way, or a poised and sedate swan, gliding without effort.

We want to instantly be and appear our best, not a wet stumbling mess, with bits of shell matted in our feathers, wondering how many times we’ll need to fall before we fly.

For perfectionists, it’s that much worse, because this moment is about the possibility of letting a whole lot of imperfection happen — in full view.

Good Morning World

A Wee Punk (image by vladeb on Flickr)

You have to trust that eventually, you’ll be remembered for flying, not the missteps and bad hair days you had along the way.

By leaving the shell, you lose its opacity and protection, but it’s impossible to walk, or fall, or fly or grow while you’re stuck inside it.

Whatever the project, big or small: make the first crack, then the next, until you can stumble out, take a spill, and then stand on your two new feet for the first time. Muscles will follow, then growth, then flight.

And it all starts with a tentative little crack.

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“The extreme irregularity of my life makes poetry out of the question, for the present, except for momentary violences.”

– Wallace Stevens, writing to Marianne Moore, 1927

Our lives are disjointed and fragmented. Devices chirp at us. The kale needs to be steamed before it wilts. The inbox refills as soon as it’s emptied. We’re out of milk.

Wouldn’t it be great to just sit down, without distractions, and work through a project until the ideas run out?

Most of us don’t have that opportunity as often as we like.  And when we don’t, we are fitting creative work and deep thinking into the gaps and spaces of our lives.

From time to time, we can slip into the studio for three or four hours at a go, but then it might be days before we have a solid block of time again.

The brain doesn’t have a pause button. We can’t easily put it to sleep and have it come back to life in the same state 10 hours or two days later. We are more complex than that.

Yet any change in the velocity of thought consumes our time and energy. The key is finding the most efficient method of braking and resuming speed.

The disruptions are inevitable. It’s how we handle them that counts.

Pressing Pause

One of Gretchen Rubin’s techniques is to stop writing mid-sentence. When I’ve tried to do that, it left me anxious as I try to put the work away, and bewildered when I picked it up again.

I’m not saying she’s wrong or I’m right. Solutions for putting your projects on hold are idiosyncratic, and you have to find methods that work for you.

Here are some of the techniques I find helpful:

Always do a wrap-up. If you know you have to stop working on something at noon, stop at 11:45 and spend that final fifteen minutes summarizing what you achieved that day. (Side benefit: Looking at this over time can help you realize how much you’ve accomplished when you are feeling ineffective.)

Also, what would you do next if you had the time? Make a list of three or four ‘next steps’ for the project. This doesn’t have to be as formal as it might be in a business setting. It might just be a note about which colors to add next, or a list of adjectives, or a mood — some invented souvenir to remind you where you were.

Empty your short-term memory. Have you ever been interrupted while sorting notes or receipts, and then later realized that you can’t remember the meaning of each of the piles anymore?

If you are editing or categorizing, and have to stop mid-stream, don’t trust that you’ll recall the details. Supplement your memory with notes and labels on piles and folders so you can build on the work you’ve already done when you have a chance to return to it.

Identify underlying questions. Choose two or three aspects of the projects you need time to think about, state them as briefly and simply as possible, and take them with you to ponder in the in-between spaces of the rest of your schedule.

I sometimes put these questions on a note card in my pocket, so I can pull them out in the middle of the grocery store, on a long walk, waiting for the train, etc. As you mull them over, don’t worry about coming up with definitive answers. Just steep in the questions.

Restarting

The ways to get started again are just as idiosyncratic, and many depend on the techniques you develop for pausing.

Refer to your next steps, mood descriptions, or souvenirs. As described above, when projects get complex, I always leave notes for myself about what I would have done next if I’d had the time.

Caveat: Don’t treat these notes as law. Review them critically. Your time away from the project might have given you a new perspective, and maybe what you would have done before no longer applies.

Integrate new notes. If you’ve been chewing on any questions since your last work session,  synthesize some of your thoughts and mix them into the project.

Use sense cues. This could include a change in lighting, touching tools or artifacts, sniffing scents related to your project, or sound triggers. I frequently leave notes to myself about what music I think I should listen to during my next work session.

Involve your body. Change your posture. Stretch. Use a different chair. Close your eyes for several minutes. Put on a hat, or take one off — anything to physically remind yourself that you are doing something different now.

Tip-toe around it. Do some free sketching or free writing. Pull out your instrument and improvise for ten minutes. Find some way to indirectly re-approach your project that gets you in the mood before you look at the details again.

Just be with the project. Mark Rothko used to just sit and stare at his canvases. This is harder to do with time-based work, but a random sampling of different sections can help set the mood.

Look at a past success. I remember hearing an interview with Christopher Hitchens a few years ago in which he said that every single time he sits down to write, his mind is telling him that this is it: the moment when he will be revealed as an utter fraud who can’t even put a sentence together.

If starting to work puts you in a similar state of mind, keep a talisman of past success at hand — a thank you note, a photo of your favorite work, a poster from a past show — to remind you that yes, you can do this.

Deliberately practice pausing and restarting. Once you find a few techniques that work for you, practice them against arbitrary deadlines until you get used to them. This will make them more effective when you are up against real deadlines. It’s disruptive in the near-term, but it can help you be more effective in the long-term.

If you have any favorite techniques for pausing and restarting your work, I’d love to hear about them! Please add a comment below, or email me.

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For many modern-day visitors to Egypt, Abu Simbel is an out-of-the-way excursion, an option at the end of the itinerary. Down near the border with Sudan, and much smaller than most of the high-traffic historical sites in Egypt, it is an afterthought.

Just another postcard:

Egypt: Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel Postcard

But what if it is approached from the south, as humans have approached it for millennia? Or as part of a 14,000 km walk across the continent?

“Alexandre and Sonia Poussin undertake to walk the length of Africa entirely on foot, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sea of Galilee. In a three-year trek along the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, their goal is to symbolically retrace the passage of early Man, from Australopithecus to Modern Man.”

After spending three weeks making their way through the deserts of northern Sudan towards Egypt, Alexandre said Abu Simbel seemed “huge and egoistic”, like an announcement that you’ve reached the beginning of civilization.

Egypt: Abu Simbel

Clambering up a fallen facade

So which is it? Just another set of statues at the end of the postcard deck?

Or a still-standing Ozymandias?

The order of our experiences, the precise sequence of where we’ve been and what we’ve observed, profoundly shapes our perceptions of our surroundings in the present moment.

When I heard Alexandre describe Abu Simbel that way last fall, it reminded me of a walk I had taken through the woods in Virginia several years earlier.

I was visiting Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home outside Charlottesville. After buying a ticket next to the parking lot, visitors have a choice: take a bus up to the house, or walk up a gently sloping path. I took one look at the crowded line for the bus, and headed for the forest.

As I walked, I looked at the trees, the trail, the changing October leaves, and wondered how it all might have changed since Jefferson — or Sally Hemings, for that matter — walked nearby two centuries ago.

More poignantly, when approaching Monticello from the forest you pass the graveyard first, well before the house is in sight. Jefferson’s gravestone provides a concise outline of how he viewed the accomplishments of his own life:

Gravestone of Thomas Jefferson

Gravestone of Thomas Jefferson (Sorry for the bad photo...)

I continued walking past the main lawn and the gardens, and rounded the front of the house to join the line for the tour. I listened to the chatter of those who had taken the bus to the top as they debated how long Jefferson had been president, and when, or which denominations of money featured his face.

Within the house at Monticello, the tour guides focused on Jefferson’s massive library, his incessant architectural tinkering, the specimens  Lewis And Clark sent him from their expedition, his prodigious correspondence, his wine collection, his agricultural experimentation, his massive debts, and, of course, his eight years as president.

I listened and absorbed all the historical details with my usual level of curiosity, but also through a more reflective frame: Before starting the tour, I had already seen how it ended, from Jefferson’s perspective.

Questions

Have you had the chance to approach an historic site or a work of art from multiple directions?  How was each approach different?

Do particular pieces of art imply a certain approach?  How is the work strengthened or weakened by arriving from another direction?

Think about the way paths are constructed in museums.  What can you glimpse from the outside? From the lobby?  From one gallery to the next?

Where does the ‘art experience’ start? How have the museum’s designers managed the transition from street to art? How does the sound environment change? The temperature? The lighting?

How would it be different if you came up an elevator from a parking garage instead of through the front entrance?

Exercise

Find a place or work of art that can be approached by multiple paths, and take each.

Experience the same place or idea coming from these distinct perspectives, and make note of the differences.

A path could be a physical approach — the way you move towards something.

Or it could be a contextual approach: go to a gallery or a museum exhibit that you don’t know anything about. Note the experience. Then go study the historical and cultural context, and return.

Or it could be imagining a new path to a place you’ve already visited: Did the existing path enhance or detract from your experience of that place? If you were asked to redesign the approach, how would you do so?  What elements would you preserve and what would you change? What mindset would you try to create for visitors?

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For at least half a day earlier this week, a story about clouds was the most shared story on the BBC News website:

Clouds: More popular than Reagan and Bee Thieves

Clouds: More popular than Reagan and Bee Thieves

Clouds, something most humans see all the time, were ranked above something quite rare: a jet falling out of the sky over the Atlantic.

Of course, the clouds that were eliciting such excitement were not just any clouds:

Asperatus (Credit: Merrick Davies, Source: BBC's The World)

Asperatus-type clouds (Credit: Merrick Davies, Source: BBC's The World)

That’s obviously not something we see every day.

Why are clouds so compelling?  What can we get from clouds?

The Cloud Appreciation Society, generators of the buzz described above, makes a strong claim in their manifesto:

“Clouds are so commonplace that their beauty is often overlooked.
They are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul.
Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save
on psychoanalysis bills.”

(Shh, don’t tell the FDA, but that almost sounds like a medical claim! Good thing CAS is based in the UK…)

Are clouds art?

What makes clouds so pleasing to us?

They hit a number of my own aesthetic pleasure points.

Clouds are abstract: There’s no message or agenda lurking inside a cryptic scene. There are no hidden cultural references to miss.

They are dynamic, never finished, rarely even pausing. They are ephemeral, a reminder that nothing lasts. We pay closer attention to what won’t happen again, and to that which requires presence. As Emily Dickinson put it:

“To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie —
True Poems flee —”

Clouds are free — to all who are free to see the sky — and more readily accessible than most aesthetic experiences. Also from the CAS manifesto:

“We think that they are Nature’s poetry,
and the most egalitarian of her displays, since
everyone can have a fantastic view of them.”

And the sky engages multiple senses: rain is a cloud reaching out to touch you. (Well, not really — I’m personifying a bit here.) Lightning, too, though in a more extreme and thankfully rarer form. A good thunderstorm also engages our senses of sound and smell. What would summer be without the scent of the air just before a good soaking begins?

Some Notional Lessons from The Sky

What can we learn from an enthusiasm for clouds? Can a bunch of water droplets suspended in air teach us anything about creativity? How can clouds remind us of what we already know?

The Ephemeral requires attention. We don’t know what we might miss, but we do know we might miss it.

Portland, June 2007

Technology is limited. When not even a tenth of what we see fits within the frame of a photo, we can’t pretend that a camera captures much more than a token reminder of what it was like to actually be there.

Portland, November 2008

Nuance emerges as a result of process, not design. Clouds are the product of a complex, generative system. Instead of trying to meticulously make and fix every detail, set up a system that creates nuance, and hone the results.

Our surroundings set the mood and shape our perceptions.

How does this image make you feel:

Deliberate Underexposure

Portland, March 2007

And this one?

Portland, May 2007

There’s a need for a star. Beauty emerges from interactions. It’s not just the clouds, or the light alone, but the interplay between the two which can make the sky so compelling. A subject without illumination, illumination without a subject — neither alone is as good as their combination.

Osaka Skyline

Osaka, December 2001

A star can also overwhelm. The sun is so intense it blanches everything in its path. Beauty is more often found away from its spotlight, in the shadows, in layers of oblique, indirect light.

Art without an Artist? Are clouds a reminder that the art and Beauty we seek externally are actually in us?  Could it be that Beauty is an attitude? A way we choose and learn to perceive? Are cloud formations art without an artist? Or does observing clouds remind us that we are all artists?

"What's this cloud type called? Who cares..."

Naming is but one of many kinds of knowing. We can appreciate Beauty without learning a taxonomy or a specialized vocabulary, or having the ability to articulate why we are affected.

There are certain enhancements of experience available if we learn what chiaroscuro is or the role a French-sixth chord plays in a harmonic progression.

Maybe a better indicator of Beauty is to be rendered mute: To have an experience so profound we are less worried about the distinctions between stratus nebulosus translucidus and cumulus humilis, and more worried about being hit by a bus because we’ve stopped in the middle of the street, transfixed by the sky’s tableau.

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