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empathy

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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A few days ago, I happened across an old episode of the Guardian Books Podcast which featured authors choosing and contemplating “a key word that opened up the literary territories” they’ve explored in their work.

I particularly enjoyed the delightful obstinancy of Olivia Rosenthal’s exploration of “no” and Anne Weber’s “Attend Attentive” which I quoted on the scrapbook blog yesterday.

And then there was the opening volley of Arthur Japin’s piece about the unreal:

“Reality already exists. What’s the point of describing it one more time? The common place is all around. Why would you want to imitate it? What kind of challenge is truth? It is already there!”

I bristled at that initially — until I understood where he was headed.

Truth and reality would only be boring if we could perceive and understand them in their entirety. And we can’t.

What makes this scribbled-on rock so special?

What makes this scribbled-on rock so special?

Imagine a dozen people whose only experience of the world is wandering through the British Museum. After ten minutes, each in different rooms, they meet out front to compare notes. One person starts enthusiastically describing the Rosetta Stone, another asks “Who are the Egyptians?” and yet another mutters: “Greeks? Never heard of them…”

Common Place

Here’s a less contrived example: Imagine a group of people in the same room for a few minutes. How many details do they each notice? Five? Maybe ten?

Let’s be optimistic and say ten. Do they all notice the same things? Unlikely. And that’s what we have to share with each other.

Reality and truth exist in some physical sense. (I’ll leave philosophical debates about the details for another time.)

But they don’t exist in a way that is always present and complete and comprehensible in our minds. None of us individually can perceive and understand everything.

Ideas emerge from the gaps in our common perceptions, and those ideas become the ingredients of the stories we tell, the art we make and the perspectives we share.

Imagine someone that lives two thousand kilometers (or miles) in any direction from you. Is their daily life so much like your own, do you have so much in common in every thought and action, that they would learn nothing from you, and you nothing from them?

There is no such thing as commonplace, at least not one that we can perceive in any depth or detail.

To the extent that we do perceive a commonplace, it is something we construct by telling each other what we notice about our lives and our work, whether we do that through blogs or tweets or dancing or sculpture or music.

The actual content of the writing on the Rosetta Stone couldn’t be more mundane: an announcement of the specifics of a tax amnesty. That’s right: it’s an Egyptian IRS memo that just happens to be in three languages we find interesting more than 2000 years later.

We learn its significance not from our own direct experience of reality and truth, but by assembling ideas from teachers, historians, archaeologists, and writers.

Abstraction and Truth

I don’t mean any of this to be a criticism of Arthur Japin. Despite my initial reaction, I suspected there wasn’t all that much distance between my own thinking and his.

When I enter a museum or gallery, I usually walk straight past all the figurative work towards the abstract and conceptual, the absurd and surreal.  While my verbal brain defends capital-R Reality and capital-T Truth, my feet follow orders from my deeper aesthetic instincts.

Japin has an explanation for what makes the mysterious so compelling:

“The further characters are from me personally, the more I want to know about them. The less clear they are, the more I strive to fathom them.”

He then imagines stopping a man on a street, showing him a “vague, smudged, coffee-stained daub” and asking: “Is this you?”

Japin describes the effect on the man:

“Before he can seek a likeness, he has to think about himself. And if he eventually decides that he can’t recognize any of his features in the portrait you have shown him, he will still walk on with a different image of himself than the one he had when you stopped him.”

But doesn’t a realistic portrayal of Iranian women’s lives, or a documentary about a devastating hurricane, or even a series of films about growing up do the same thing? Or more?

When we encounter an artist whose exploration of Truth and Reality implicitly asks us the same question — “Is this you?” — and our reaction is similar to what Japin describes,  we haven’t just changed our image of ourselves. We’ve changed our image of the world.

An idea or piece of art that prompts us to perceive our own likeness in unfamiliar pockets of reality and human experience can have a much more important outcome than self-reflection: empathy.

So when Japin demands: “What kind of challenge is truth?”

I respond: The most important kind.

And, from my perspective, it’s far more elusive and illuminating than the unreal.

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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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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.

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Eat the Stinky Cheese

by Matt Blair on March 13, 2009

in Exercises,Senses

Saint Albray Cheese

Saint Albray Cheese

I do not know any words in English — or any other language — that could come close to describing the way Saint Albray cheese arrives in the nose.  Aromatic is far too dainty.  Acrid is too derogatory. And pungent isn’t strong enough.

Something emanates from it — almost a physical presence — that fills the nose and then the mouth. On more than one occasion, it has caused me to cough, as if encountering a chemical spill. Through experimentation I found that it becomes more itself if left out of the fridge for an hour or so to warm up. The taste is much more mild than the smell; rich and complex. If you can make it through the shroud of stench that surrounds it, this cheese is exquisite.

At least it is to me.  I’ve tried to share my enthusiasm for it with others, often to their horror. One or two have found it ‘interesting’ while politely declining a second bite, but most have looked at me as though I’ve tried to poison them.  Well, we all have different tastes.

However horrendous this cheese smells, it is still made for some reason or other. Its fans can’t all be stupid or wrong.

And the same goes for all sorts of films and books and works of art. It’s easy to dismiss something that we don’t understand, or that seems repellent on its face. But the simple fact that an idea continues to be part of our culture — that people still make that cheese or sing that song or tell that story — tells us something important about our culture, something we might miss if we go with our initial assumptions.

Questions

What, for you, is the cultural equivalent of Saint Albray? Think of an artist or art work that others respect and appreciate but that has always repelled you for some reason? Can you imagine why other people like it?

Have you judged it unfairly?  Has your judgment caused you to miss important aspects, or avoid certain situations that might have been enjoyable?

Do you feel like you have to rationally justify your aesthetic tastes, or are you comfortable following your intuition where it does and doesn’t lead you?

Have you ever felt intimidated by works of art or experiences that others find profound, but that seem inscrutable to you? Or that don’t affect you in any way?

Exercise

Go see art you don’t expect to like.  Art that’s not your style.

Sit through a film by a director that you can’t stand.  Go to a retrospective for a sculptor that’s always caused you to quicken your pace through that part of the museum.

Pick a well-known creative work or cultural phenomenon that you have dismissed in the past, and re-experience it.  Find at least one redeeming and worthwhile aspect that you didn’t experience on first exposure.

The goal of this exercise is not to change your sense of taste, but to get you out of the comfort zone of your assumed preferences.  You may discover something new, or you may not, just as in any adventure.

This may seem like a perverse way to indulge your dislikes, but there’s always the possibility of discovering the unexpected, glimpsing a nuance you hadn’t perceived before, finding what your well-developed tastes had kept hidden.

Think of it as an opportunity to exercise aesthetic empathy: imagine experiencing art through the minds of others, and pay close attention to what they might see or hear or taste in it that you don’t.

Postscript

In the interest of thoroughness, I attempted relive my own experiences as I was writing this. Unable to find any Saint Albray in the store’s case, I asked the cheesemonger, who informed me that they no longer carried it because they ended up throwing so much of it out — unsold! Quelle horreur!

She suggested Chimay as a substitute. I like their beer, so I thought I’d try it. The verdict: I think the monks should stick to beer.  Their cheese was to Saint Albray as Velveeta is to an aged cheddar, as Silly Putty is to potter’s clay. Bland to the palate, and completely lacking the nasal intoxication that makes Saint Albray so affecting. (But don’t let that bias stop you. Maybe you’d like it, even though I don’t!)

My search continues. In the interim, the myth must suffice.

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