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Into the Unknown

Into the Unknown

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

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

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

Have a listen:



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

Please share your thoughts by adding a comment below.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Björk, in Oceania:

“Your sweat is salty/ I am why…”


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


“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.


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.


Zoë Westhof has me thinking again, this time about what it specifically means to change the world. (I encourage you to go to her site and join the conversation, or add a comment below.)

What does change have to do with creativity?

Changing the world is a particular form of creativity in which our chosen medium is life itself. Tactics for creativity and tactics for change largely overlap.

This connection between change and creativity is a segue-way into a new series I have in the works on the topic of why creativity matters. Consider this a preview.

Attempts at change benefit from a creative approach, both to imagine the kind of transformation you want to accomplish and determine the scope of your ambitions.

And creativity generates change — if not directly, at least as a side-effect.  What we create may be radically different or only a slight variation, but if it is exactly the same as what already exists, we wouldn’t call it creativity, we’d call it re-enactment or repetition.

Creativity is the driving force behind everything we do that’s different from what we’ve already done.

The Tactics

Read history: Learning more about the past will constantly remind you how dynamic the world really is, and how lucky we are — in so many ways — to be living in this moment.

For example: Did you know that the life expectancy for the working poor in mid-19th century Bethnal Green, London was sixteen?! (via Stephen Johnson’s Ghost Map.)

Study past change agents: Those who did it well and those who botched it.  What went right and what went wrong?

Look for unlikely allies: Find people who seem very different from you, but, in your chosen arena of change, want essentially the same thing.

Develop empathy with opponents: Why do they want to hold on to the very things you are trying to change?  How can you ease their valid fears, undermine their irrational fears, and at least partially co-opt them?

Draw clear lines: Determine those whose minds can’t be changed. Ignore them if you can, marginalize them and mitigate their effects if you can’t.

Don’t wait for someone else: Maybe they are waiting for you?

Get yourself stabilized first: Change is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to train and stay fit for the long haul. (See Bobby’s comment on Zoë’s post for a great example.)

Everyone has a role to play: All across the spectrum, from the radical marching in the street, to the contemplative researcher assembling the data to make the arguments that get people into the street, and everyone in between. Find your role, excel, and don’t waste time and energy fretting that you can’t do everything.

Don’t get discouraged by what’s beyond your reach: In today’s information environment, our sphere of awareness is vastly larger than our sphere of possible action. That’s a situation that sets us all up for disillusionment and despair.

We can’t individually fix every tragedy we know about.  The challenge is to stay connected at the global level, to the good and bad, while maintaining our momentum in making change on an achievable scale.

Challenge broad patterns and viewpoints, not just specific instances: Switching to low-power light bulbs is great, but if a public figure declares conservation a “personal virtue” you have an advocacy problem, not a light bulb problem.

Be open-minded: Change happens in unexpected and unplanned ways.

Beware of revolutions: Change that begins with a stated goal of shattering existing structures often spills a lot of blood, and what is shattered is rarely reassembled into something positive.  Most revolutions are disasters for just about everyone involved. (See the point above about studying history.)

Think of the world as malleable: something that can be hammered and shaped into new forms without breaking completely.

Beware of incrementalism: Tentatively proposing small change, and submitting it to a process of bureaucracy, negotiation and consensus-building is like running through the surf: you’ll expend a lot of energy, but you might not get very far.

Incrementalism is often a tool used by incumbents to shut change down.

Instead, make subtle and barely perceptible changes so far out of the range of expectations that they befuddle the establishment. Change the underlying reality before the status quo backers understand what you are up to, and put them in the position of defending a return to what has become an unpopular and undesirable past.

And don’t ask first.

Leave a trace: Leave No Trace is great for backcountry trails and Burning Man, not so great as a life philosophy. Your every action adds to your legacy. It is impossible not to have an impact. In every decision, try to make sure you bend the world towards your values, however slightly.

Slow and steady wins the race: Is it bad form to end a list of change tactics with a cliché?

Spread your ideas, and sow the seeds of the changes you want to see.

Just like art and culture, profound and lasting change is bigger than you and unfolds on a time scale longer than your lifetime.


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.


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.


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.