From the category archives:

Process and Workflow

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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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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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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“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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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?

Questions

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?

Exercise

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.

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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.

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In the initial post in this series, I implied that ‘Big Agribusiness’ generates an over-abundance “that feels like progress, but doesn’t actually solve the problems we set out to solve.”

With 6.5 billion people on the planet, and a significant percentage hungry each day, isn’t any method of increasing crop yields a good thing?  I’ll leave the farm policy debates for other venues.

I made the connection because of the emphasis on efficiency and hyper-productivity in modern industrial agriculture, an emphasis that has been implicitly transferred to other areas of life.

Efficiency is positive when it describes the amount of the sun’s energy a solar panel converts, or how quickly a pain reliever takes effect.

In human activities, efficiency is a kind of surplus of skill and know-how. Once you understand how to do one thing well, it’s easy to do it over and over again. Others acquire the same skills, learning to do it the same way. Efficiency can become a habit, and habits are often maintained long after they are relevant or helpful.

When a process becomes facile and automatic, and the inputs are in good supply, the result is monoculture.

Think of Andy Warhol’s decadent portraiture phase, when his Factory was cranking out prints for every movie star or royal that could write him a big enough check.

Which do we value more: his cow wallpaper and mylar floating pillows, or the dozens of images of unknown European duchesses?

Efficiency and idiosyncrasy are foes. What one person sees as inefficiency, another person treasures as culture.

Decisions based on quantity and efficiency lead to qualitatively different outcomes.

Heirloom Tomatoes (photo: mercedesfromtheeighties)

Heirloom Tomatoes (photo: mercedesfromtheeighties)

In your own ‘idea’ farming, do you want to produce 70,000 copies of the same tomato?  Or do you want to grow heirloom tomatoes and several varieties of basil, for a mid-summer tasting party with good friends?

Sure, the second option might be more work, require more study and carry a greater risk of failure. But which one makes your mouth water?

The sample plate of heirlooms from Capay Organics

Note: This post is the fourth in a loose and evolving series on creative surplus. So far, I’ve asked if we can have Too Many Ideas, pondered the process of choosing our work, and explored plankton blooms and creative dead zones. Update: the full list of articles is available here.

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We are conditioned to think of abundance as a good thing, but there are instances when abundance is toxic. We need water to live. Yet if we have only water, and no air, we drown.

Blooms around the Mississippi Delta

Blooms around the Mississippi Delta

Eutrophication provides a more nuanced example: Eutrophic comes from the Greek for ‘good food’. We need food as well as water, and if we are lucky, we have access to good food.

But good food isn’t always so good if there is too much of it. In a eutrophic lake, for example, nutrients are so abundant that algae bloom out of control. Water quality declines, and so does oxygen content. Many larger plants and animals in the lake die.

Abundance at the bottom of the food chain overwhelms the resources needed by the more complex and evolved species above, and the result is a so-called ‘dead zone’.

What’s the primary cause of these lethal blooms? Runoff from farms, filled with chemical fertilizers, which enters creeks and rivers, and changes the nutrient balance of nearby bodies of water — lakes, seas and oceans.

NASA map of plankton blooms along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico

Plankton blooms, northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico (NASA)

Could the same scenario play out in our creative process?

Ideas, of course, are a key ingredient of creative output, but can an over-abundance of ideas cause ‘creative dead zones’ that don’t support more refined idea-making and complex expressions of thought?

A Pipe or a Web?

Words like ‘blocked’ and ‘unblocking’ imply that creativity is a linear process: that on the way from A to B, there is something in the middle of the road which must be surmounted or blown up or routed around.  Or maybe it’s like a pipe, with a blockage in one section: clear the blockage, or replace that section of pipe, and ideas will flow again.

In my experience, creativity is a web of interconnected relationships and processes, with different ideas at different stages of development — an ecosystem of ideas. It’s multi-dimensional, and striking a balance between all the disparate parts is essential for the whole system to flourish.

In such a model, brainstorming represents a proliferation in one phase of the life cycle of ideas, which may have a positive or negative influence on the health of the entire ecosystem. There is no single measure of how many ideas are ‘too many’ or ‘too few’ without looking at the context.

I’m not advocating a lack of ideas, just suggesting that dumping the equivalent of chemical fertilizers into our brains can cause an ‘idea bloom’ that throws the entire system into dysfunction and decline.

Your creative ecosystem can break down in many ways. What if the predators — the critics and the naysayers — are over-abundant, and devour simpler forms of life before they can reproduce and evolve? I’ll discuss that in a future post.

Re-balancing Your Ecosystem

If your own creative process resembles a dead zone, what’s the solution?

Dead zones are not permanent, according to an article in Scientific American:

“Only a few dead zones have ever recovered, such as the Black Sea, which rebounded quickly in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and a massive reduction in fertilizer runoff from fields in Russia and Ukraine.”

And surely it’s easier to heal our own ecosystem of ideas than rehabilitate an entire sea!

In the case of the Black Sea, the recovery of the ecosystem was an unintended side effect of political and economic disruption — not exactly the kind of external triggers we hope for, or can afford to wait for when our creative process is unbalanced. Instead, by being sensitive to the imbalances, we can intentionally make adjustments, before the situation is critical.

If idea fertilizers are creating a surplus that threatens to have a negative impact, a return to organic processes — a focus on hand-crafted and carefully cultivated ideas — is one possible way to restore the balance.

If there is a surplus in one part of your creative process that is negatively affecting the whole, what changes could you make so that your ecosystem of ideas will thrive again?

This post is the third in a loose and evolving series on creative surplus. Last week, I introduced the potential ‘problems’ of having too many ideas and also pondered the process of choosing our work when there are so many worthy projects and ideas to explore. I’ll add links to subsequent posts in the series here as I publish them. UPDATE: I’ve added a new post on inefficiency and culture.

Related: The full list of articles in the creative surplus series is available here.

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Too Many Ideas?

by Matt Blair on April 13, 2009

in Life Cycle of Ideas,Process and Workflow

In my last exercise, I wrote about how the ‘initial edit‘ can be used to deliberately control the volume and pace of the creative process. To avoid overloading your creative system, you decide to be choosy about which fish you keep, and throw the rest back.

This approach runs counter to the zeitgeist of the productivity blogosphere, which tends to celebrate the idea of ‘ubiquitous capture’. If your goal is to capture ideas everywhere, does it follow that you should capture everything?

For David Allen, creator of the Getting Things Done system (aka GTD), collecting everything (he calls it a “mind sweep”) is the first of five stages of mastering workflow. In his view, de-cluttering your head will free you of all the nagging thoughts that haven’t been scheduled or handled or delegated or archived, and give you a sense of clarity and focus that will help you…get things done!

The idea makes sense to me in theory, but in my own experiments with Allen’s methods, the results are mixed.

To be fair to David Allen and GTD fans, I know there is more to GTD than the collection phase. I’m not questioning whether capturing ideas is an important part of the creative process or a successful workflow. I am asking whether quantity or completeness of inputs is a determining factor in the quality of output. Bear with me…

To entirely empty your head takes time: you transcribe pages and pages of thoughts, research tips, diagrams, ‘action items’, etc. and maybe your mind is clearer for a moment or two.

But now you have a big, intimidating folder sitting on your desk or in your computer, one that you’ll dread opening because it is filled with hundreds of fledgling little ideas that will send you off into a thousand different directions.

You haven’t necessarily solved the problem of mental clutter, you’ve just transmuted it from one form to another, from mind to paper or computer. You might even be tempted to just throw away the whole folder!

The Weight of More Wood

Whether we are starting a new project, or stuck in the middle of one, why do we want to have lots of ideas?

Are we simply clearing our head, or are we generating more ideas because we’ve heard or read that maybe more ideas is the way to get started or get ‘unstuck’?

Ideas are to creativity as wood is to a maker of furniture. Yes, she needs good wood, in ample supply. But she knows that she can’t fix an unbalanced rocking chair by adding more wood to the warehouse.

Sometimes we have a natural surplus of ideas: a certain theme or project triggers a burst of mental activity. I’m not suggesting that be avoided.

Yet I’m skeptical of the “Twelve Ways to have A Thousand Ideas in Twenty Minutes” mindset — I exaggerate, but only slightly — that seems to apply Industrial Age models of productivity to 21st-century idea-making and the creative process.

Thinking of creativity as merely brainstorming and idea-generation is the Big Agribusiness view of creativity: we risk creating an over-abundance that feels like progress, but doesn’t actually solve the problems we set out to solve.

A Boatload of Ideas is Insufficient

A cargo ship filled with wheat can’t relieve a famine without a secure and functioning port, an effective distribution system on the ground, and enough clean water, cooking oil and labor to make it edible.

A famine is a systemic failure that can’t be solved by food, just as a wobbly rocker can’t be helped by piling on more wood.

Sometimes the “more” we need isn’t more raw materials: it’s more time, more attention, more structure, more patience and more craft.

When your creative work and output is disrupted or disappointing, and your supply of nascent ideas is adequate, what other parts of the overall system need refinements to make your ideas into something real?

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

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