From the category archives:



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.


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


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.


I’m back after an unexpected break. When I finished writing this piece last week, my nose was stuffy and my throat was unhappy, and it seemed really inappropriate to read a post that had “tears” and “history” in the title in a voice eerily close to that of Henry Kissinger. I’m planning to get back into a weekly rhythm, alternating between podcasts and text-only posts. I’ve also decided to post the full text for each podcast, in case you prefer reading on screen while I get all the audio kinks worked out. Thanks for tuning in!

Some headless, all nameless

Some headless, all nameless


Nearly every creative person I know has experienced the question, often asked by someone with a blank, slightly-confused look: why do you do that?

Why do you take all those photos, or scribble notes everywhere, or make birthday cards by hand? Why do you knit, or make quilts, or paint with watercolors, or make sculpture from scrap? Why do you want to write a novel or make a film?

Some people ask these questions out of innocent curiosity, because they’ve just never experienced such impulses.

But from other people, the tone can be vaguely threatening — even menacing.

It seems that what they’re really saying is: “What gives you the right?  What makes you important enough to do that?  Who do you think you are?”

Studs Terkel once described his work as “conversations with people not celebrated”.

In a 1997 interview, Terkel references a Bertolt Brecht poem which he considered a kind of credo. Here’s the audio from the interview:

And here is how I summarized Terkel’s recollection of the Brecht poem in the podcast version:

Who really constructed the Pyramids of Egypt and the Seven Gates of Thebes? When the Great Wall of China was built, “where did the masons go for lunch?”

“When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army?”

When Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, “did he do it by himself, or what?”

“When the Armada sank, we read that King Phillip wept. Were there no other tears?”

I hadn’t heard of this Brecht poem until Terkel mentioned it, but it does remind me of reading the description of Xerxes’ army in The Histories. According to Herodotus, there were 2,641,610 soldiers of various origin in that army. When you add what I’ll euphemistically call ‘support staff’, the number more than doubles.

Of course, Herodotus isn’t exactly considered an investigative journalist, but even modern scholars think the number might have been at least two or three million.

So it wasn’t Xerxes, who invaded Greece: it was millions of people. What was that really like, from moment to moment?

For example, what did all those standing on the shore really think when they saw the king order soldiers to lash the waters of the Hellespont as punishment for destroying his bridge?

So I tracked down this Brecht poem. It’s translated title is “Questions from a Worker Who Reads“. Here are the last two stanzas:

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

History is not simply a grand procession of other, more important people.  It’s not merely wars and occupations of territory, religious bifurcations, trade disputes, endless intrigues, rapprochements, and murderous royal successions.

History is an aggregation — an accretion, actually — of the thoughts and experiences of each human being.

Great 20th-century historians like, Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn taught us that, though others like Montaigne laid the groundwork before them.

We don’t shoot photos or scribble notes or quilt to capture history with a capital H. We shoot to capture our history — our own lives and experiences.

Let future generations — the Studs Terkels of the 22nd or 28th centuries — worry about how to catalog and absorb the materials we’re creating. That’s not our job.  Our job is to capture, document and preserve the ideas of our time so those future historians have something to work with.

The diaries we keep, the poems we write, the photos we take and post to Flickr — whatever medium we use to capture our sensations of the world around us — they are all ways to store ideas in seemingly-inert objects.  It’s through such artifacts that ideas can survive local indifference or open hostility and be brought to life again in another place, or another time.

What gives us the right? What makes us important enough to do all this “creative stuff”? Who do we think we are?

We are not slaves hauling stones to the gates of Thebes, leaving no other trace of our existence. We are not another unnamed laundress in Xerxes’ caravan.

We are making those reports Brecht was talking about. We are the keys to exploring those many questions.

We are the other tears — and joys — of human history.  And, unlike King Philip’s contemporaries, we have widening literacy, pens and paper, blogs and Twitter, podcasts and HD camcorders. Why shouldn’t we use them?



Outro music: A song by students from the Xi’an Biomedical Technical College, Xi’an, China. Recorded in September, 2007.


An unlearned constellation?

An unlearned constellation?

Whose permission do we need to express ourselves?


How have you found poetic license in your own work — and life?

What do you do to encourage those around you to express themselves?

Are are you inviting others into the conversation?

Please share your thoughts by adding a comment below.


  • Clay Shirky on Weekend Edition Saturday
  • Poetry Foundation: e.e. cummings
  • In Just- by e.e. cummings — the kind of poem my 7th-grade English teacher would not have enjoyed


Outro music: “Kinoko Otaku” by AFS.  (An improv project by surdus and Tony Grund, now performing in Echostream.) Recorded live in January, 2001.


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.


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


“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.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Promise of E-Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

None of that’s on offer — yet.

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

Pricing and Value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Disposable Culture

by Matt Blair on April 29, 2009

in Meaning,Perception,Publishing

As I was working on the next piece in the surplus series, I found the following quote in an article by Michael Pollan:

“But even with more than half of the 10 billion bushels of corn produced annually being fed to animals, there is plenty left over. So companies like A.D.M., Cargill and ConAgra have figured ingenious new ways to dispose of it, turning it into everything from ethanol to Vitamin C and biodegradable plastics.”

I’m highlighting other aspects of the quote in my next post, but in this one, the word I want to point out is dispose.

If you are a hungry person, corn has intrinsic value. It has nutrition, and your hunger is telling you that you need nutrition. Corn doesn’t lose value and become something that a society needs to “dispose of” until there is far more supply than demand.

Faith -- by The Cure

Faith -- by The Cure

I was recently going through old records (the musical kind, not the financial statement-kind) that I have in storage, thinking about selling some of them. The Cure’s “Faith” came out in 1981, and though it is still one of my favorite records, I don’t necessarily need the physical object in my house anymore.

It’s old enough that I figured a collector might be interested in it, until my thumb felt something at the lower right corner of the sleeve: a precise cut, about 1 cm into the cardboard.

It had been remaindered before I bought it.

You’ve probably encountered cassettes or CDs or DVDs that have a cut in the plastic container, or books that have ink from a marker across the bottom of the pages, and are selling for a third of the original price.

Remaindered Books

Remaindered Books

At some moment in the past, there were 20,000 too many units sitting in someone’s warehouse.  Their solution? Mark it down, and sell it off as cultural scrap. It was an inventory management decision, a change in accounting status at a particular time in the life of that physical expression of an idea.

Such intentional damage is a minor humiliation compared to the common practice in the book publishing world of pulping unsold copies.

Price and Value

Physical surplus makes culture seem cheap.  It creates an illusion of valuelessness.

The price of a particular cultural product is only a comment on that product at a specific moment, and not an indicator of the real value of the ideas the product conveys.

Not long after the vibrations caused by vinyl grooves have been dutifully transcribed by iTunes and saved on my phone, I won’t remember that the sleeve of that Cure album was cut — that someone somewhere years ago thought it was only worth half of what it was the day before.

As I listen, I’ll remember what it has always meant to me, regardless of scarcity or surplus.

Price is often a false or ephemeral indicator of  true, long-term value.

Want a more corporeal example?

Paper is relatively cheap.  Paper masks are relatively cheap.  What is the value of a paper mask that keeps someone from getting sick?

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


Various Forms of Inertia

by Matt Blair on March 18, 2009

in Audience,Publishing

I went to see a film about Damien Hirst last night. Between interviews with Melvyn Bragg (host of the often-stimulating In Our Time radio show/podcast) the film showed Hirst at work: setting up a show of pieces from his collection at the Serpentine gallery, explaining his vision for Toddington Manor, and directing staff at several of his Factory-ish studios. Jeff Koons also weighed in from one of his own toy factories, his elves buzzing around in the background.

Seeing Hirst and Koons in those contexts got me thinking back to an interview I heard with Philip Glass in the mid-nineties.  I don’t remember all the details, but the general gist was that he had a few dozen employees working under him, and once you are the captain of such a ship, going back to a rowboat means tossing all those people overboard.

The moral obligation he felt to keep the organization afloat seemed like it could take precedent over any particular artistic directions he might have wanted to explore. Big ships have great difficulty navigating narrow channels, shallow bays or uncharted backwaters.

There is much to admire about this model: An artist reaches a point in their career in which they are able to support nascent and emerging artists, to provide apprenticeship opportunities for the next generation.

And such an enterprise not only supports the direct employees, it can become a cultural cornerstone, with enthusiastic fans and customers that desire and expect some level of stability and regularity in the results. In that way, it’s not so different from a story I heard this morning about Duarte’s Tavern, a multi-generational family restaurant in Pescadero, California.

But it’s important to remember how limiting a situation like that can become. I’ve always found the early works of Philip Glass the most engaging — the clarity of “Contrary Motion” and “Two Pages” much more compelling than his symphonic works, “Einstein on the Beach” so vastly superior to his later operas.

What if Glass woke up one morning and had a vision of a multi-year cycle of woodwind quartet pieces? One that could be his greatest artistic achievement, but that would only support a staff of two or three?

And what if the members of the fifth generation of the Duartes aspire to be archaeologists or geneticists rather than make asparagus soup? Do their obligations to family and the expectations of the restaurant’s customers outweigh such ambitions? After all, it’s probably the restaurant that’s putting them through college.

Of course, in our creative endeavours, not all of us are dealing with the pressures of meeting a payroll for dozens of people or keeping a business thriving well into its second century.

But what obligations — explicit or implicit — have we wandered into that limit our creative options? Are these obligations having a positive impact? Are they forcing us to be more creative? Or do they subconsciously constrict our choices and warp the creative decisions we make in undesirable ways?

Such challenges are not peculiar to multi-million dollar enterprises or 115-year old restaurants. In a letter from Robert Rich I pointed to on the scrapbook last week, he describes one of the snares that even modest success presents:

A further caveat: it’s easy to get trapped into the expectations of these True Fans, and with such a tenuous income stream, an artist risks poverty by pushing too far beyond the boundaries of style or preconceptions. I suppose I have a bit of a reputation for being one of those divergent – perhaps unpredictable – artists, and from that perspective I see a bit of a Catch 22 between ignoring those expectations or pandering to them.  If we play to the same 1000 people, and keep doing the same basic thing, eventually the Fans become sated and don’t feel a need to purchase this year’s model, when it’s almost identical to last year’s but in a slightly different shade of black. Yet when the Fans’ Favorite Artist starts pushing past the comfort zone of what made them True Fans to begin with, they are just as likely to move their attention onwards within the box that makes them comfortable. Damned if you do or don’t.

These are the kind of creative balances we must each strike for ourselves. I’m not suggesting that any set of choices is better than the other, just that we should make such choices deliberately, and approach the challenges of tradition, obligation, expectation and even appreciation with the same kind of creativity we bring to the work itself.