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attention

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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Make Something Day

by Matt Blair on November 27, 2009

in Audience,Exercises,Meaning

Whether you are a celebrant in the tradition of Black Friday or a participant/non-participant in Buy Nothing Day, the day after Thanksgiving has become its own kind of holiday for many Americans.

Choosing between those two is a false choice, and I’d like to propose another option: “Make Something Day”.

Or maybe “Start to Make Something Day” would be more accurate, though more awkward.

Starting with Soap and Stone

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak. Earlier in my life, I had a brief career as a soap carver. I’m not sure of my age exactly. I think I was 9.

I do remember it was around the time I realized that demand for my painted rock business was unlikely to return to its peak:

Hey, Kid! Your Florida's pointing the wrong way!

Hey, Kid! Your Florida is pointing the wrong way!

Business lesson #1: Supportive parents buying one unit of output per year is not a viable market.

I needed another outlet for creativity, and found it in soap.

I only remember creating one major work in this more-forgiving medium, and it was a nativity set for my grandparents:

I think those concave abdomens indicate wise men with gifts?

I think those concave abdomens indicate...wise men with gifts?

Though I remember spending a lot of time carving that year, it was just childhood whimsy, and I was soon off to the next thing — digging holes in the backyard, or whatever.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but these little figurines meant a lot to my grandparents: they proudly put them on display every December, told their friends stories about them, then carefully wrapped each piece in tissue paper and stored them away for eleven months. (Luckily, I had the foresight to use a collapsible crib design.)

Decades later, the set is still in the family, unlike countless factory-made gifts that were tossed long ago.

And let me say “Bravo!” to Dial and Ivory for making archival-quality sculpting soap! What’s in that stuff!? Oh, wait — I probably don’t want to know.

More than Atoms

Handmade gifts are not just an economic ruse, a way to escape the madness of the shopping mall or an end-run on rampant materialism.

When you give something you’ve made, you aren’t just giving a physical gift. Atoms are abundant. The universe is filled with them. In terms of what any one of us as individuals can consume, they might as well be infinite.

To make a gift is to bundle up the most precious resources we have – attention, thoughtfulness and time — and put a bow on top.

The medium you choose is immaterial.

For whom?

Think of these creative gifts as imaginary commissions made to please unsuspecting patrons. Audience expectations and reactions may play a larger role here than in your other creative work. Making a gift is a chance to put your empathy cap on, and think more about what another person enjoys than what you enjoy.

Challenge yourself to try new styles and dabble in different aesthetics. For example, when I’m writing poetry, I’m rarely inclined towards traditional rhyming structures, but for many people “it ain’t a poem if it don’t rhyme” so a handful of limericks or rhymed couplets are good choices.

It’s still self-expression, just crafted into a form that connects creator and audience in a direct way. Depending on the way you handle your relationship with your audience in the rest of your work, that may feel like an awkward compromise, or it could feel revitalizing and authentic.

Questions

Have you ever gotten a gift made just for you? Was it something you liked? Did it feel meaningful at that moment? Did that change over time? Did it make you feel like the other person understands who you are?

If someone was going to do this exercise and create a gift for you, what would you like to receive? Do others know what you’d like? Do you give those around you enough clues or hints to guess?

Exercise

Pick at least one person this holiday season and make something as a gift rather than buying them one.

There are two goals:

  1. To finish a specific project for a specific person (or group) on a specific occasion.
  2. To stretch beyond your creative comfort zone and express yourself in uncharacteristic ways.

The process I suggest:

  • Often the most creative — and difficult — part is thinking of something that truly engages your audience of one. (Remember: You are not the audience!) Set some time aside to think about the person, and come up with at least ten or fifteen ideas for gift projects. Set them aside for a day or a week.
  • Make a list of techniques that are a little unfamiliar or awkward, or that you’ve wanted to learn but aren’t comfortable with — especially if you are an accomplished artist. Why? Machines make perfect and predictable things. Humans make idiosyncratic and imperfect and complex things. As Gretchen Rubin recently put it: “Flawed can be more perfect than perfection.”
  • Come back to to your ideas, match them to some of the techniques you listed, and make it happen.

One more tip: Because of the uncertainties involved, I sometimes work on two or three ideas in parallel, just in case one of them completely collapses in on itself. If, for example, you discover that your Florida is facing the wrong way after the paint dries.

It’s been awhile since I’ve used the exercise format on this blog, and I have to admit, my own first reaction is to think: “Wait a minute, who am I to tell readers what to do?” It is a change in tone. If you enjoyed this post, you may want to read past exercises. And if you do undertake a gift-making project, please let me know how it works out.

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Cameras Are Spotlights

by Matt Blair on October 28, 2009

in Perception,Places and Contexts,Senses,Tools

People seem to be tilting their heads a little higher on the streets lately.

(No, not just because of the latest gushing story about Portland in the national press.)

Our trees — the moody ones that change their wardrobe with the seasons, not the stalwart evergreens — are baring themselves for winter, and Portlanders, often with cameras or camera phones in hand, are gathering evidence of autumn before it all falls away and leaves us with short days and drizzle.

This season brings all sorts of sensations: the first time in months when you feel cold even with two jackets on, the pumpkin lattes, the smell of roasting squash, the constant uncertainty over whether it is or isn’t actually raining, the seemingly endless variety of fresh apples, the piles of leaves that the kid in me wants to stomp through, and the intuition to look up a little more frequently than usual.

Life doesn’t stop, of course, and all the things that preoccupied us two weeks ago, and will preoccupy us two weeks from now, are still there, weighing on our minds enough to even our gaze, or turn it back down to the ground.

Looking down: Not such a bad view, either...

Looking down: Not such a bad view, either...

Whether absorbed in conversation, mentally re-prioritizing my reading list (again) or simply walking around mulling over nascent thoughts, whenever I see someone fussing with a camera, it acts as a silent, subtle alarm: something interesting must be happening here.

Hmm, a building — must be working for a real estate agent.

Or we see a toddler stumbling down the sidewalk towards the parent, who is documenting another step towards confidence.

Then there are those rare — and to me, beautiful — moments when a quick scan reveals no cause for photography at all. We can find no explanation for why someone has stopped to capture some part of this scene.  And we are left to wonder:  How often am I missing something among all that seems ordinary?

A camera is an attention-directing device as well as an image capture device. To point a camera is to convey to all those around us: I find this worth remembering.

When passing a woman carefully framing a shot causes us to pause, and wonder what she’s looking at, she has done us a great favor by making us more attentive to our surroundings.

Even just seeing a photo later, out of its original context, on Flickr or a postcard or an email, can have a similar effect. We think:

“I saw something like that last week, and I didn’t stop to notice the details.  Maybe I should.”

And with that in mind, I’m going for another walk, before all the leaves are on the ground.

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Ears Wide Open

by Matt Blair on May 31, 2009

in Audience,Exercises,Meaning

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

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

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

But silence, observation and listening have their own rewards.

Audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Tips for Listening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Larger Than Life

by Matt Blair on May 12, 2009

in Audience,Exercises,Perception

Da-da-da-dum.

Short-short-short-long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how often do we get that far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art, Squeezed Into Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting Claudio

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

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

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

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

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

Exercise

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

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

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

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

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

Questions

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

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It takes an instant to have a thought, a few seconds more to cast it into words or symbols, a few seconds after that to admire it or refute it or disregard it. My mind makes a quick set of clarifications, and then I have a decision: Is this idea a keeper?

I’m in the middle of washing dishes — suds to the elbows.

Rinse off the soap. Turn off the water. Dry my hands. (Ten seconds.)

I fumble for a pen and index card (a second or two) or find a clean page in a notebook (another three seconds) or go to the computer, wake it up, flip to the right window (add ten seconds), then page back through my memory to extract the idea, including all the refinements my subconscious has made while I was preoccupied with the mechanics of my “capture” technology.

I write it, save it, put it somewhere that matters, and that thought is saved — for a little while, anyway.

But what was the cost of all that?  In time and energy? Forty seconds? Ninety seconds? Four minutes? Was it worth it?

Once I’ve scribbled an idea down, has this minor investment created an implied obligation towards this nascent idea: to transcribe it, put it in a system, review it, edit it, and connect it to everything else I’m thinking about at the moment?

Have I made a deposit in the bank of big ideas? Or have I incurred a debt that I’ll have to pay back? Can accumulating ideas leave us with more liabilities than assets?

Can you tell it is tax season by the financial metaphors?

Opportunity Cost

We often have our best ideas in the most inconvenient places or at the most inconvenient times.

Choosing which ones to capture is an editorial act — the initial edit. And this initial edit is the most essential, because each moment we spend on one idea is a moment that can’t be spent on other ideas or other projects, washing the dishes or listening to friends or living our lives.

Time and attention are the rarest ingredients of the creative process. Our use of them deserves the most thought, the most practice, the most consideration, and the most care.

We are finite. We can’t follow every idea to fruition. We have to let some thoughts go.

How do we decide which ones?

Questions

  • How do you decide which ideas to write down or capture and which to let go? Does your approach consciously and deliberately change, depending on what you are working on?  Or is it more circumstantial?
  • Do you find yourself running out of new material to work on?
  • What tools do you use to capture emerging ideas? Do these fit well with your creative process? Are you able to keep up with ideas as you have them?
  • How many ideas or sprouts of ideas do you have laying around on index cards or in notebooks or emails? Do you have a backlog? Do you feel any pressure or obligation to do something with them?

Exercise

  1. Spend a day or two recording absolutely nothing.  When a new thought enters your mind, mull it over, play with it, and then try to remember it without relying on any external “capture” or reminder system.
  2. Spend a day or two trying to capture everything.
  3. On the continuum between those two extremes, what works for you?  When do you feel like you are capturing enough, without flooding your system? Consciously experiment with the balance between trying to keep every idea, and letting some of them go.

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The Right Storm of Attention

by Matt Blair on March 12, 2009

in Performance,Quotes

“Attention is what creates value. Artworks are made as well by how people interact with them — and therefore by what quality of interaction they can inspire. So how do we assess an artist who we suspect is dreadful but who manages to inspire the right storm of attention, and whose audience seems to swoon in the appropriate way? We say, ‘Well done.’”

Brian Eno, A Year With Swollen Appendices

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