From the category archives:

Life Cycle of Ideas

After a search for one last piece to post this month, I’m just not satisfied.

According to Evernote, where I keep my working drafts, I have 83 blog posts in progress.

Some of those are just a few lines or phrases, and will probably never go anywhere.

Other drafts are long and fraught. I just read one for the first time in about six weeks, and realized why I was struggling so much with it: there are three distinct ideas trying to establish themselves in the piece, and by the end, it’s at best a weary draw. All three lay gasping in a heap, not even caring who won anymore. I need to treat my ideas with more respect.

In place of a properly-edited, mostly-polished blog post, I’ve decided to share a peek into my process: lines, quotes and images from works in progress.

I’ve intentionally left a few pieces out. There need to be some surprises.

Is there a sense of coherence across all these different fragments? I’m not sure.

What follows are simply clumps of loose and stray thread that may or may not be woven into something larger:

Downtown Portland

Our streets are a cutting room floor...

If you’re taking all the trouble to go somewhere else, maybe it’s worth pretending that the internet hasn’t gotten there first.

Looking Aft

A sense of connection

One of the ship’s officers, during a safety briefing:

“The bad news is that we do not have Internet aboard. The good news is that our records show that 100% of our passengers have survived this condition.”

Butterflies near Igauzu Falls

Adorning a mineral-rich puddle

To those still expecting you to be a caterpillar, your wings are merely distracting appendages.

The View

The View

If all systems of transmission corrupt, the question becomes: how usefully or beautifully do they corrupt?

Dulce de Dulce

Dulce de Dulce

At a pivotal point in the middle of one draft, I found this:

[see notes not yet typed from Jan 4, in wet blue notebook]

Three Borders, Two Rivers

Two Rivers, Three Borders

From abundant potential, we must narrow our attention to a single, fixed goal. The decision of what to do in any given moment lasts much longer than that moment. It creates its own minor legacy.

Glacier ice on the beach

A beached glacier

The entirety of Anne Carson’s biographical note on the back flap of “If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho”:

Anne Carson lives in Canada.

Emily Dickinson:

“…the Truth must dazzle gradually…”

Emerging Lenticular

A coy lenticular

Offline, the shrunken world: Our social reach retracts to physical proximity. Just when I think I’ve truly escaped it all, there’s a song playing in the bar that is also on the iPhone in my pocket.

Ushuaia — as a city tenuously clinging to the edge of the world? It doesn’t exist.

Edge

Edges

Whenever I travel, I’m reminded of the distinction between where our body is, and where our mind is. How often are they co-located?

Seasonal Consommé

Seasonal Consommé

Other than the annual stumble through an old standard for my grandmother at Thanksgiving, who politely pretended not to notice the rapid decline of my keyboard skills, I didn’t play any traditional repertoire for more than ten years. I had completely burned myself out, to the point that I didn’t even want to pick through pieces I enjoyed listening to, or had once enjoyed playing.

No Skating

Prohibitions

Even when I was still too young to drive a car, my parents were broad-minded enough to let me put a bumpersticker on their car: “Skateboarding is Not a Crime”.

It wasn’t just theoretical: The only time I’ve ever been in the back of a police car was when I was 12 or 13, and was chased down for…well, I don’t know what, and the officer didn’t seem to know, either, but that didn’t stop him from throwing me in the caged part of the car (my skateboard in the trunk) and taking me to the station for a good old-fashioned injection of small-town fear.

Broken Windshield Cone

Broken Windshield Cone

It is an error to assume the inarticulate have no story to tell, or that the middling sketcher has no inspiring vision to share. Maybe they just haven’t found a medium yet in which they are or can become fluent, and in the meantime, they are a musician without an instrument, an actor without a stage, or a sculptor with only paintbrushes.

Too Small To Fail

Reinterpretation

When you crash in public, keep going, and frame it with an improvisational flourish so it seems like it was part of a larger plan. Carry on, and finish strongly.

In Color

In Color

Momentary dissonances must be considered in a larger context.

Loud is easy. It’s much harder to play softly but powerfully.

Layers

Underneath

A strong wind hitting a bare mast won’t get you anywhere.

Fallen

Fallen

By standing silently at the trimming of one twig, we give our assent to the loss of an entire branch of human knowledge.

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires

We have a notion of Paris or Kyoto or the Baltic Sea, and we use those words to communicate that notion with others. And then we go there, and, on arrival, discover that we were completely wrong, even about some of the broad strokes. We can’t reconcile the ideas we had in our mind with our present experience without completely rebuilding our definition of those particular words and letters.

And then we wonder: what have we been talking about all those years when the topic was Kyoto?  What did the other person have in mind during that conversation? And did we effectively communicate anything at all?

Because winters need more red

by Dusty Weston, a distant cousin

I just felt like ending this one with a bit of red — a color our winters don’t provide in abundance.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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At the end of each year, the calendar often seems to have just the kind of dip in deadlines and workload that invites a contemplative wallow. Especially so for me this year, since I was traveling the first half of December.

I knew I’d want to spend some time over the winter holidays processing my thoughts and sensations from that trip: writing about the places, cataloging the sounds I recorded, sending follow-up emails to those I’d met, and organizing photos like this one:

Sunrise in Torres del Paine

Sunrise in Torres del Paine

But I also wanted to devote some time to thinking through my plans for 2010, to set out some specific and concrete goals, and decide how to achieve them.

I had a basic structure in mind, using questions and exercises I had accumulated over the last few months, some of my own creation, others pulled from books like Carol Lloyd’s fantastic “Creating a Life Worth Living“.

At the end of two weeks, I imagined I’d have some combination of “outputs” like:

  • a writing schedule for the blog and podcast
  • a tidy page full of measurable goals
  • practical achievable quarterly reading lists
  • answers to all the deep questions
  • maybe even a Gantt chart or two

All the kinds of artifacts you’re supposed to have to switch into the past tense with confidence, and say: “I planned.”

Well, enlightenment didn’t arrive in a neat bundle. Despite all the planning for the planning, my brain has been wiggling and writhing away from most of the tools I’d selected.

Sitting at the table, I kept reaching past the activities I’d assembled to pick up Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt or Anne Carson’s translations of the Sappho fragments, or Borges or Chatwin or Emily Dickinson or Marcus Aurelius — or even Mark Bittman.  All delightful, and all worth reading, put not necessarily frameworks for long-term planning or establishing those measurable goals.

Or maybe they are, indirectly: I found that each changed the contours of the course of my thoughts throughout the rest of a day.

I’ve read in those repositories of modern American myth known as business magazines that there are people who put “30,000 feet” projects on their schedule at a given time, for example “Plan future from 10:00 to 10:30″, and it works for them. They must be under some spell that I haven’t encountered. I sometimes envy creatures with such clockwork minds — but only sometimes.

When the mind wanders, why not let the body follow? Or at least try, if it can keep up.

Rather than confining myself to my desk, as though I was back in middle-school detention, I went walking — in rain, sun and even snow.

Amidst what seemed more like a muddle than work – walking on a whim, whenever the mood struck — I found myself engaged in a different approach to planning: I wandered with a pen and a pocket full of index cards, stopping as needed to scribble thoughts as they came to me.

Now, looking back at it, I don’t have all the fastidious “deliverables” I had expected, but I do have some clues:

So...who's going to type all this up?

So...who's going to type all this up?

Each card is like a ballot. Sorting and counting and typing and editing them has become a kind of informal, non-binding straw poll of where my mind is headed.

As I tally the votes, look for ballot-stuffing and other irregularities that might signify unwanted interference, and make note of all the write-in candidates and ad-hoc ballot initiatives with scarcely any support, I’ve discovered several patterns amidst those scribbles.

I’ve achieved much more than I originally thought.

And I’ve also been reminded: not only do we often find answers in unexpected places, but the path to those places is often unexpected, too.

So what do I have in the works for this year? I hope you’ll keep reading as it unfolds.

What’s your 2010 looking like? Did you do any year-end planning? How did it go? What methods worked for you? Please add a comment or send an email and let me know. And Happy New Year.

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A Retrospective

by Matt Blair on December 3, 2009

in Background,Life Cycle of Ideas,Meaning,Senses

Is it too early? It’s barely been a year and a half.

I am currently, shall we say, gathering data in Terra incognita.

Rather than rush to publish a few posts that aren’t quite ready, I thought I’d take the chance to highlight a few from the past seventeen months or so.

Writing a blog feels a lot like practicing a musical instrument with the door open.

You try to focus on the sound and the music, while imagining people wandering by muttering:  “Isn’t he getting better at that yet?” Or “He’s still making that mistake?”

Blogging is a process of learning and thinking in public.  After nearly a year and a half, I’m more proud of some posts than others.

Here are a few of the posts that hint at ideas I’ll be building on in the coming year:

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Presentation

The subject reports “a multi-directional effusiveness, an avaricious over-seeking of meta-meaning, and an at-times overwhelming sense of the abundance of interconnectedness of ideas, in which each thought lurks in the shadows of another’s metaphor, and springs forth when approached, hoping to find its place within the whole.”

Diminished ability to punctuate and form distinct sentences and pararaphs is also suggested.

Diagnosis

The subject is experiencing a periodic flare-up of chronic Editor’s Block, loosely defined as a mind-numbing inability to agree with oneself on a final draft, or even an intermediate one.

Treatments Recommended

  1. Eat an unknown variety of apple.
  2. Feel a light drizzle on one’s face.
  3. Run one’s fingertips across the branch of a rosemary bush and inhale deeply every five or ten minutes until only the memory of scent remains. (Or until the hands are washed — it is flu season.)
  4. Listen carefully to the crunch of leaves underfoot.
  5. Look away from the computer screen, and wordlessly observe scenes like this one:
More compelling than a thesaurus -- sometimes

More compelling than a thesaurus -- sometimes

Prognosis

The subject will return in a few days to report on the efficacy of the suggested treatments.

The tonic effects of time should not be discounted in this case.

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Into the Unknown

Into the Unknown

After starting off with a somewhat obtuse quote from Glenn Gould, I set up a metaphor of an island and the surrounding sea:

  • The land is certainty, and the sea, uncertainty.
  • The land is solid, the sea is liquid.
  • Land represents belief, and the sea, doubt.
  • Land is well-defined, while the sea is vague and elusive.
  • Land is static, the sea — dynamic.

What do our wanderings between land and sea have to do with the creative process?

Have a listen:

Play

Questions

  • Which areas of  this continuum between system and negation, between land and sea, support your work? Which enrich your life? How do you move within it?
  • Are you content with occasional trips to the beach, to watch the tides of uncertainty lap at the edge of the known?
  • Do you derive enough inspiration by wading knee-deep into the mystery? Or do you long to go deep-sea fishing every single day?
  • Do you like to go to sea in a row boat? A crowded cruise ship, with lots of coordinated activities? A freighter with a few people and lots of heavy but valuable cargo?
  • Do you get sea-sick easily?

Please share your thoughts by adding a comment below.

Sources

The Glenn Gould commencement speech I quoted is available in The Glenn Gould Reader, edited by Tim Page.

Here’s another Gould quote from earlier in the same speech that I ended up cutting from the audio version of the podcast:

“You must try to discover how high your tolerance is for the questions you ask of yourself. You must try to recognize that point beyond which the creative exploration — questions that extend your vision of your world — extends beyond the point of tolerance and paralyzes the imagination by confronting it with too much possibility, too much speculative opportunity. To keep the practical issues of systematized thought and the speculative opportunities of the creative instinct in balance will be the most difficult and important undertaking of your lives in music.”

John Keats, in a letter dated 28 December 1817, to George and Thomas Keats:

“I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

from poets.org: Bright Star: Campion’s Film About the Life and Love of Keats

Björk, in Oceania:

“Your sweat is salty/ I am why…”

Credits

Outro music: An excerpt from Amb07 (DrunkAtTheLabAgain) by AFS (An improv project by surdus and Tony Grund, who is now performing in Echostream.) Recorded live in May, 2001.

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600 Milliseconds

by Matt Blair on October 16, 2009

in Audience,Life Cycle of Ideas,Meaning,Perception

I was just taking a break from editing a followup to my English as a Second Language post, and heard this story on NPR:

In Milliseconds, Brain Zips From Thought To Speech.

A new study using electrodes in the brains of epilepsy patients has hinted at the location, timing and sequence of thought formation and verbal response. (The electrodes were voluntarily implanted prior to surgery, in case you were wondering!)

Here’s an approximate time line in milliseconds of what happened after the patients were asked to read and respond to a “group of words”:

  • 200 ms — Word recognition
  • 320 ms — Grammatical processing
  • 450 ms — Preparing a response

Previous research suggests that it takes about 600 ms to form and speak a thought.

What are the practical implications? What does all this mean? That’s not yet clear.

A quote from Ned T. Sahin, one of the researchers involved in the study:

“Sometimes I feel like we’re a colony of ants who’ve come across a cell phone,” he says. “We can describe parts of it, but we really don’t know what’s fundamentally going on here yet.”

Feeling like one of those ants, I’m going to crawl around that followup post and re-work it a bit.

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Last night, while cutting and roasting these little squares and cubes of yum:

sweet potatoes and red pepper

Not quite squares or cubes...

I was listening to an episode of Philosophy Talk about language titled “What Are Words Worth?” and one of the topics was whether and how our native language constrains our thought processes.

Most people would consider English to be my primary language. Anyone who has tried to comprehend my attempts at French or Japanese or Chinese would consider English my only language. And they’d be essentially correct.

Or is it mostly accurate?  Or spot on? I have a notion of what each of those phrases means, but I’m not sure the best way to say it. I could keep fiddling with it, or come back to it in ten minutes. But I’ll just leave it as an example of my frequent inability to find a word or phrase that precisely fits what I’m thinking.

If my thoughts originate in English, shouldn’t the words and sentences just fall out of my head, fully-formed? Why do I feel inclined to hunt through dictionaries, ponder each word’s heritage, and fret about shared perceptions of what specific words mean?

In other words, why does writing feel like translation rather than transcription?

Micro-Dialects

Maybe it’s a matter of converting my own personal and idiosyncratic dialect into more commonly used patterns? That seems plausible enough.

We each use language in our own peculiar way. Through editing and revision, we move from the quirky, hyper-local dialect of our internal monologues towards the language practices we share with our audience.

To communicate a specific idea, I have to capture its meaning, seal it into these little semantic packets called words and phrases, sequence those into sentences and paragraphs, encode it with one computer, transmit it to another computer, and let you take it from there.

As a reader, you go through an inverse process: you use a tool like a browser to copy it from a computer to your computer, which retrieves text from the numerical codes, and positions the sentences and paragraphs, which you then parse into words and phrases. Hopefully they mean something to you which approximates what they meant to me.

This model works well enough for blog posts, which tend to focus on words and voice, so it’s easy to assume that only the machines are translating and transmuting the ideas as they move from my mind to yours.

An Inadequate Container

But what about all the ideas that never take the form of written or spoken languages?

Could anyone imagine Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring captured in words alone, and then accurately transformed into sound? It might be possible — after all, musical notation is a kind of language — but it would certainly be inefficient and absurd.

I could have described the objects depicted at the top of this post using only language:

“Two well-scrubbed sweet potatoes from the Farmers’ market (cut in 1.5cm cubes) along with a red pepper from the Farmers’ market (cut in 2cm squares) tossed in olive oil, cumin, coriander, black pepper, a pinch of salt, roasted in a glass dish at 400F for approximately 53 minutes, until they were just right.”

Yet there’s nothing intrinsically linguistic about them. I used language to procure them. I just used language to describe them.

Other than that, the experience of them, it seems to me, has very little to do with language. I decided a photo paired with a flippant phrase (“little squares and cubes of yum”) was a better way to present them. Smell and taste would create a more accurate perception in your mind of what came out of the oven, but digital media hasn’t quite caught up with those senses — yet.

If language is not an adequate container for all thoughts, then what is thought?

Do ideas form out of a kind of raw “thought stuff” which is then sometimes translated into language?

In my experience, yes, which is why I feel like writing is translation, like whatever I express in English is at best an approximation of what I’m after.

I’ll explore this question, and some of its implications for idea-making, in my next post.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear about your experiences:

  • Do you feel like you are directly transcribing what’s in your head when writing a short story or a blog post or painting or dancing?
  • Or do you feel like you are translating your ideas, whether into language or image or sound or other physical forms?

Please add a comment or send an email or a tweet, and let me know.

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In a recent tweet referring to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tactics, I hinted at what I think is absent in digital systems:

My tweet on what digital systems lack...

One of my post-WordCamp Portland tweets

My meaning wasn’t entirely clear in the context of that tweet, so I decided to expand on it.

First, by “digital system” I mean any system built around the processing of numerical data. Examples include the internet, search engines, and the IRS.

A purely digital system is deterministic. The same input will produce the same output every single time. (I’m leaving out faulty parts or accidents for the moment.)

Whether a digital system does exactly what you think it will do or want it to do is another matter.  It’s only going to do what it is programmed to do.

While predictability is a desirable quality in an ATM machine or a heart defibrillator, it’s less useful when our goals are to be innovative, evocative and inspiring.

Preserving the quirky

How can we reduce the predictability?

Unreliability is one option: Poor quality parts can cause frequent and possibly interesting failures.

Intentional chaos is another method: If you build enough complexity into a system, or aggregate enough simple components, the system will start behaving in unpredictable ways. This is not an approach you want to take if you’re designing the braking system of a car, but it can be an effective way to generate a set of ideas you might not have discovered otherwise.

The most common — and in my view, the best — way to add ambiguity, uncertainty and maybe even serendipity back into digital systems is a thoughtful integration of people: allow human beings to be curious and playful and peculiar and idiosyncratic in their use of the system.

Quirky human beings breathe life into routine systems.

What worries me about some (but not all) of these guidelines around SEO, or any set of rules that we allow to burden our self-expression, is that they force us into certain predictable areas where our work becomes less interesting.

They encourage us to make decisions that dilute our ideas and diminish who we are, like watering down a well-aged whisky to meet some arbitrary local regulation thought up by the head of a temperance council.

Less than Human

Most music software packages have a feature called quantization. When enabled, the software alters a recorded performance according to certain settings: it can make all the notes equally loud, for example, and move them around in time so that each lands precisely on a beat.

Playing new ideas into a computer in a steady rhythm can be very awkward. Quantization has saved musicians countless hours of fiddling, editing, and reprogramming, especially given how crude the editing tools where when it was first introduced more than a decade ago.

But it’s also had negative effects.

The message of a system that will quantize you is that you can be sloppy. Don’t worry about drawing a straight line, or playing in time: the machine will fix it for you.  (Auto-tune, a more recent phenomena, applies the same logic to pitch correction.)

When “perfection” is a few mouse-clicks away, it can be come the default expectation, at least for a while, until everyone starts to realize that music “fixed” by machines tend to be very boring and repetitive.

So a few years after software companies introduced quantization, they released the antidote: another feature called “humanize”.

The computer goes through a performance that’s been previously quantized, or one that was played to a metronome or click track, or maybe even typed directly into a computer, and it adds random elements to the data: it plays each note a little softer or a little harder, or shifts it a few tens of milliseconds backwards or forwards in time to give it a sense of imperfection and “human-like” variation.

I love that it’s there, and I love the concept of it, but it’s always seemed like a peculiar thing to have to do. It was a recognition that computers tend to make our self-expression less than human. Feebly, we go to the Edit menu, and select “Humanize”, hoping that an artificial randomization routine can recover what we’ve lost.

The Norms That Lurk Within

Digital systems want to quantize us: they want to put us in boxes, attach us to tags and keywords and categories and clusters.

They ask us questions, and expect us to respond with a yes or a no, or by selecting from a short list of choices which don’t match our current situation. They apply algorithms to us, and expect us to conform to certain inputs and outputs.

Slowly, our instinct becomes one of self-surrender: we voluntarily algorithmize our own lives, if you will, so that we fit better inside their framework.

Of course, the real source of these algorithms and limitations are the designers of these systems which, in most cases, are still human. But we interact with the machine in front of us, not the person who told that machine how to behave. In this context, I’m personifying the systems, because they embody the designers’ decisions about the norms and constraints.

The Simultaneity of Square and Squishy

Machines and searchbots are a fact of life, and I’m not proposing that we all jam our shoes in their virtual gears.

The solution, it seems, is to explore the interplay between the deterministic and the chaotic, the predictable and the surprising, the explicit and the ambiguous.

There’s a quality present in many Caribbean pop songs that represents a kind of ideal to me: crisp drum machines form a structure as precise as the engineering of the chips inside of them, while above those relentless patterns, musicians add laid-back basslines, horns show up from time to time, and languid vocalists ease in and out of each entrance.

It’s lovely because it isn’t either/or: the musical interest comes from the tension between what’s on the grid, and what’s not on the grid, from the simultaneity of square and squishy.

I hear this same pattern elsewhere: In Joy Division, characterized by the contrast between the precision of Stephen Morris’ drumming and the mercurial vocals of Ian Curtis.

Or in Italian Baroque opera, as a soprano gracefully unfolds a melodic line over the tick-tock continuo of harpsichord and strings.

I see this quality, too: even Jackson Pollock used square canvases.

Systems and process provide order. It’s up to us to be a little quirky and chaotic within that, to keep it interesting.

Acknowledge the rules. Flirt with the guidelines. Follow some, avoid others. And remember: in the digital realm, conformity is built-in, and needs no allies.

The next time you feel overwhelmed by rules, how-to lists, keywords to include, tradition, convention or a statistical analysis of retweetability, please just stop.

Stop.

And instead, choose to be the most interesting thing you can be: Human.

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“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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