Tag Archives: creativity

Two Ideas

“Have more than one idea on the go at any given time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I can choose one rather than the other. I ­always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.”
Geoff Dyer

I read Geoff Dyer’s book “Paris, Trance” over the weekend, and came away with a great deal of respect for his writing. Some books you pick up and read a few pages of and think they aren’t going to be great, then 24 hours later you turn the last page and realize you haven’t put the thing down since you started and it’s over. The effect is all the more pronounced when you took a chance on a low Amazon rating (I really can’t comprehend why it only has 2.5 stars on Amazon – the Goodreads aggregate of 3.65 is much more reasonable.)

The suggestion to carry two ideas all the time is interesting and I can relate to it. I can also relate to having too many damn ideas to do anything about any of them. This blog is an example.

Most people with any sense come up with a theme for their blog, market it to an appropriate audience, and make some money. Or, if they’re photographers, they focus on their photography and don’t spend time writing book reviews or literary weather reports.

I’ve historically been torn between visual art or writing as a creative outlet, but the last few days I’ve been trying to paint with one hand and to take photographs with the other. Thankfully, painting and photography are two things I can deal with more ambidextrously than painting and writing, or photography and writing. The answer is just to paint from photographs.

Here’s a photograph I took in Paris, in 2011:

Here’s a painting I made of that photograph, in 2017:

There’s a party scene in “Paris, Trance” where a character is introduced as a “writer and a painter,” and another character retorts that nobody can be any good at both. “What about Van Gogh, haven’t you read his letters?” the writer/painter asks in his own defense…

“Sure, they’re great, but have you seen his paintings?”

#ShowYourWork

I read Austin Kleon’s book “Show Your Work!” last week.

It presents an idea that seems pretty basic on the surface, but is actually pretty challenging: “You can’t find your voice without using it.”

According to Kleon, creative people have to show what they’re doing for it to be meaningful. Showing the work is as important as doing it.

I used to have a good habit of doing that with this blog. Until a few years ago, I was posting regularly, and it seemed like people other than my Mom were actually reading it. (Thanks for reading, Mom!) Things I wrote about here turned into the things I talked about with people out in the world.

Then life caught up. I started grad school. I got engaged. We got a dog, moved, got married, bought a house, and moved again.

Amidst all that, I also changed jobs – and in doing so, had to significantly refocus my energy on learning a new organization and becoming a useful part of it.

Some people use their work experiences as material to write about, but I’ve never thought of this blog as connected to my professional life. In my mind, blogging is separate, a kind of mental ‘safe space’ where the drudgery of work can’t encroach, where I can let my creative brain run free without any requirements or deadlines or connection to the stuff that pays the bills.

Reading Kleon’s book had me thinking about that differently.

A few months ago, my wife and I had an awesome night out – we went to see Bonobo in concert. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that I interviewed Jack Baker, Bonobo’s drummer, almost three years ago. (That interview continues to be, by far, the most read thing I’ve ever posted here.) After their amazing show, we hung out with Jack and the group for a little while. I was embarrassed when Jack and some of his bandmates asked about what I’ve been writing lately – and I had nothing to say.

To me, Bonobo et al. are artists who are right up there where Michael Jordan was when I was a kid – legendary and truly inspirational. They make the world a better place by doing something beautiful that they love (#LifeGoals.) When they seemed to be genuinely curious about what I’ve been writing, it hit me like a brick – I have not been writing or doing anything else creative lately, and that’s a huge missed opportunity when people I admire are asking me about it.

Me, Jack, & Wifey

I quickly resolved to get back into a creative routine after that night. Freshly motivated, I’ve been rekindling my interest in art… drawing, trying to learn how to paint, challenging myself to write at least 500 words everyday… and relishing anytime I can spend away from a glowing computer or phone or TV screen. It isn’t easy. Life is busy, and there’s always something to do. But I’ve found when I make the time for it, the rewards of creating something… anything… are abundant.

Getting back to Kleon’s book – I haven’t been showing anything that I’ve been up to. There’s always a voice in the back of my head, whispering… “This isn’t real work. No one needs to see this. This isn’t what you get paid for.”

After reading “Show Your Work,” I’m starting to think that voice might be right… as long as I don’t show what I’m doing, it won’t be real work. No one will want to see it if I don’t have a story to tell about it. If I don’t show it, it will never be something I get paid for.

So… ahem. Fuck that voice.

Here’s a watercolor I’ve been working on. It’s a work in progress. I had fun doing it – it’s the first time I’ve tried anything like this. I started with a photo I took of Circular Quay, in Sydney. I put the image on a lightbox, traced it into a grid, then reproduced the grid on watercolor paper with pencil. I mixed up some paints (without knowing nearly enough about color) and did some work with my poor student quality brushes. Viola! Now I have a painting of Circular Quay to show the world:

Circular Quay. Watercolor in progress.

Circular Quay. Watercolor in progress.

So, that’s that. I’m showing my work, and I hope anyone who finds this enjoys it.

I’ll close with some wisdom from one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, who is quoted in “Show Your Work.”

“The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

202 days down, 163 to go

I’m still in the photo-a-day project, over halfway finished.

It hasn’t gotten any easier, and the difficulty that’s been creeping in could be due to the repetitive nature of the project, or the wearing off of novelty, or my transition from walking everywhere to spending time in the car, or my continual pull away from photography and toward work, and writing, and home life.

The catalyst for this project was thin – it was a cold, wintry Sunday and I felt the need to do at least one thing, other than nurse myself on the couch, after a long Saturday of carousing. So I went for a long walk, took a picture of some trees, and decided on the fly that I would take another picture every day for a year. That was it. No research to start, no browsing through other’s work and finding inspiration, no possible financial reward. Just a bored need to do something productive with a hangover.

1/365

After I began, and started taking a few nice pictures, I was hooked. The first few weeks and months were invigorating and I had plenty of subjects, around my office and apartment everything started to look fresh and new. The brief, low sunlight of winter was offering lots of shadows, and the early sunsets meant I was always out and about during the good ‘blue hours.’ But as winter turned to spring, and spring turned into summer, the sun blasted everything all day long, the opportunities for finding those uniquely colorful skies or silhouettes was less, and I was more frequently just pointing my camera at the ground and taking pictures of grass or frantically trying to coax the cat into holding a pose for a minute while I adjusted the lamp.

165/365

I’ve ended up following a fairly strict regiment of what is an ‘OK’ daily picture and what isn’t. Selfies, voluminous food pictures, screenshots, pictures of people that I work with, and unpleasant things like toilets and trash cans are generally out of the question when I’m looking for a subject. I’ve settled mostly on the landscape, ‘found art’, my fiancee, signs, details of familiar objects, the dog, architecture, empty places and abstract patterns. There’s no real method to this selection, it’s just been what I’m comfortable with. Because I didn’t start the project with any formal goals like documenting ‘important things in my life,’ or ‘finding representations of my environment’ or ‘telling stories,’ these self-organizing limitations I’ve been following have been fine and haven’t diminished the purpose of what I’m doing.

That I do now have these unplanned norms of what to shoot and what not to doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize the benefit of planning, and also understand how more carefully thinking about what I want to shoot could improve the course of the work. It would have been nice to say, at the beginning, ‘this will be a portrait of my personal life,’ or ‘this will be a year of pictures of the place where I live,’ and to go on from that and build a coherent and themed body of images. But when I started, I didn’t know what I didn’t know – mostly that having at least a vague goal or purpose would be a helpful concept.

73/365

Maybe when I look back at this (if I do, someday) I’ll be charmed by it’s aimlessness and it will remind me of who I was and what I was like at this time. Maybe I won’t ever look back at this, because I won’t ever stop… it’s actually difficult to reason why I should ever quit, even after the 365 days is over. Because of how effortlessly and unceremoniously I started, stopping might feel like acquiescence, or like I had been wasting my time. I could just vow to continue taking a picture every day for the rest of my life – hell, why not.

Some of my favorite pictures from the effort have been those that are the least recognizable, the things that make me (or anyone looking) think ‘why would someone see THAT in their daily comings and goings?’ That removal from the expected is what I’m always looking for, and it’s the hardest thing to find, by definition. What makes it great is what makes it so hard to capture – its fleeting essence, its otherworldly appearance, the pause it gives and the puzzlement or astonishment or wonder it produces. It feels like a mini-rebellion – an underhand statement I make to this digital device I’m always carrying, the thing tracking my movements and seeing the world with me, that I can still surprise it, no matter how easily it can record, transmit, and normalize to the world my day-to-day existence.

71/365

Maybe someday when I return to these pictures, my favorites won’t be those artistic shots, but the most casual, the most everyday life, the pictures of me and my future wife and my family and our friends. Maybe those will remind me most of my life, and maybe the more conceptual and thoughtfully aesthetic pictures won’t continue to feel important.

22/365

The thing that’s been the biggest struggle for me with this project is whether or not to take it seriously as ‘photography,’ or whether to treat it like a personal diary. I can’t decide how much I should go out of my way to make it great. I know that if I take an hour or two every day to step away from my routine, to go out and actually look for a picture, I’ll find something new and different, and maybe make a nice picture of it. But I can avoid doing that by justifying the nature of the work as casual, I can say that I’m just doing this to capture ‘what my life really looked like, lazy mornings and quiet dog walks and all,’ and then I’ve excused myself from making the effort of looking for better images.

56/365

As I wrap up the final third of the year, that will be the question I’ll try to answer about this project – if it is just snapshots of my life, for my own personal enjoyment and memory, or if I’m doing this to force myself into creative excellence, to sharpen my skills and make myself a better photographer. Maybe I’ll find that in this first year, it’s OK to try both.

198/365

Creativity and Daily Rituals

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Mason Currey. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Reading Daily Rituals, an atlas of anecdotes regarding the daily tics of well known intellectuals, has given me pause to think about my own idiosyncrasies. Am I repeating actions habitually without realizing it? Do I have better days when I follow a routine?

Coincidentally many of the famously creative people and their quirks share a common thread. Historically writers, painters, architects and their ilk seem to have had a few oft-employed strategies for balancing their burdens. Walking and solitude were critical in the schedules of the great thinkers, who all seemed to champion their restorative and catalytic powers.

Beethoven took his strolls after a ‘midday dinner,’ while Freud ‘marched at a terrific speed’ after his evening meal. At two o’clock in the afternoon, Dickens promptly left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk, doing what he described as ‘searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon.’ Darwin was known to walk three times a day.

Unsurprisingly, many of the subjects couldn’t get anything done without solitude. In middle age, Tchaikovsky moved to a tiny village miles away from Moscow where he said “What a bliss to know that no one will come to interfere with my work, my reading, my walks.” Leo Tolstoy was known for locking the doors to every room adjoining his study in order to keep distractions at bay.

Mark Twain Statue in Fort Worth, Texas

Mark Twain had a small separate study built on his property, where his writing consumed him such that his family ‘would blow a horn if they needed him.’ It wasn’t only men who found solace in isolation – Georgia O’Keefe told an interviewer, ‘My pleasant disposition likes the world with nobody in it.’ (She also walked for a half-hour every morning.)

Less agreed upon than long strolls and silence was the level of persistence and doggedness one should have in their habits. Some, such as Alexander Graham Bell, chose endurance: he reportedly worked around the clock, allowing himself only three or four hours sleep a night. A family member remarked of him,

‘When in the throes of a new idea, he pleaded with his wife to let him be free of family obligations; sometimes, in these states, he would work for up to twenty-two hours straight without sleep.’

Similarly, Nikoli Tesla had several odd tendencies, like re-polishing the silverware before he dined in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel every evening – but none of his conventions matched in uniqueness the work schedule he kept, from 10:30 in the morning until 5:00 the following morning.

Some creatives had a less tenacious approach.

Goethe remarked, ‘My advice… is that one should not force anything; it is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.’

Sharing Goethe’s sentiment, the notoriously slow writer Joseph Heller once said ‘I don’t have a compulsion to write, and I never have. I have a wish, an ambition to write, but it’s not one that justifies the word ‘drive.’

Interview with Jack Baker, Drummer of Bonobo

Since the April 2013 release of the album ‘The North Borders,’ the electronic music group Bonobo has gained immense popularity by performing more than 175 concerts in 30 countries around the world, delighting over 2 million fans from Milwaukee and Moscow, to Istanbul and England.

Along with a core group of live instrumentalists, Jack Baker made heads nod all along the way with his incredible drumming and percussions. I reached out to Jack, who was very kind to answer a few questions for the first interview I’ve ever posted on ‘Brian Writing.’

The truly wonderful North Borders – Live album was just released. Do you have any favorite moments or tracks on it? Did you know an album was in the works as you were performing on the tour? 

Cirrus is my favourite tune on the album, mostly because we start the live set with it.  The adrenaline kicks in when I hear the opening bell parts and you know the show is about to start.  Every time I hear it now it puts me right back in that place.

Simon works a lot when we are on the road, he sits in the back with his headphones on making tracks.  Simon is either touring, DJing or making music in his studio so we know when there is an album in the pipeline. He tours then writes, tours then writes and has done for a while now.  Some albums take longer than others but the North Borders was fairly quick to put together so there wasn’t a huge gap between finishing the Black Sands tour and starting the North Borders one.

When did you get involved in the Bonobo project? How long have you been drumming and touring? 

I’ve been playing with Simon ever since the live band got put together in 2004.  I’ve had many other projects that I play with, one being a soul singer called Alice Russell.  I produce and write music for a number of different artists including Yungun aka Essa and a fiery vocalist called Lea Lea and had my own projects out in the past under the name The Jack Baker Trio.  I’ve been drumming since a kid and playing with many different bands but the touring didn’t start until leaving university in 2003.  My father was a drummer so I just followed in his footsteps.

Jack Baker on his kit

What’s your daily routine like when you’re not on the road? Do you wake up and start working before your first cup of coffee, or does it take a while to sit down and get to it?

I’m a worrier not a warrior! The second I wake up I’m working till the second I’m sleeping.  I’m always thinking of new projects or ways of making money, hustling to get gigs or a recording session.  I’ve got my own recording studio and I work from that a lot. I share the studio with a couple of the guys from the Bonobo band so we’re often in there having a laugh and making strange music (mostly going for long tea breaks and getting nothing done!).

To make a living in music in England is hard and you have to work at it. Shows will only bring in so much money and unless you are playing ever night of the year you are going to struggle. You have to think of other ways of making money, fingers in pies!

How amazing is it to travel as much as you do?  Which places or experiences stand out?

I got into music partly because I wanted to travel.  I’m one of those guys that likes to keep moving, it get itchy feet if I stay in one place for too long (I’m guessing you know the itchy feet saying in America? I don’t actually get itchy feet!!).

I’ve been so lucky to travel around the world a number of times and see what I have seen.  It opens your eyes to how other people live and how they make (and listen) to music.

People always ask if we actually see much of the countries we go to and I think we experience more than if we were a tourist.  We get taken to the best restaurants, see the tourist sights before sound check, hangout with promoters for dinner and learn about the city, party with the locals in the best bars and clubs in each city, I would never do this if I was just a tourist!

Places that stand out is Japan for its madness, America for its natural beauty, Australia for is beach life, Easten Europe for is exciting harshness and the warmth of its people, Europe for its culture and food, England for its architecture. Everywhere is amazing!

What are you in to lately? TV, music, websites…  

You can’t go wrong with Gospel Drummers on Youtube.. Those cats are crazy! I’m also watching Treme and Homeland, series 4 (I have no idea whats going on with Homelands, but its cool!). The music I’m listening to is, Badbadnotgood, Jaga Jazzist, James Blake (on repeat!), Flume, A$ap Rocky, Clap! Clap! Gilles Peterson podcasts and a load of Hip Hop, Jazz and Ragga.  I like music that makes me wanna shake my head or close my eyes and listen.

Do you ever have creative impulses that push you to things other than drumming? How do you stay focused on your craft?

At the moment it’s all music music music, it’s my hobby and my career.  The music that I play changes all the time and thats enough to keep me busy.  However I do have a dream to sail round the UK one day and I have just passed my level one yachting certificate. I’m not sure I trust myself in charge of a boat but it would be awesome to do.

Is the internet making it easier or harder than it used to be to earn a living as a musician? 

I think the internet can only be a good thing.  You can’t live without it, it is the music industry, and it’s every other industry too, you can’t operate without it.   Other than the actual act of playing the drums, everything else is now done online.

I’m just starting an online recording sessions website called The Online Players and it will act as a portal for people to get the best musicians in London to record on their tracks.  Many of the best musicians are always touring so this website will  reach them when they have some spare time and get them in the studio.

I think before the internet you had to work hard for your income, now you can make money whilst drinking a gin and tonic from the comfort of your own home!

What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career? 

Getting on some terrible Russian planes!!! Also giving up my day job and being a musician full time, that was scary but lucky I had a great boss at the time and he was amazingly supportive and believing that I should do music for my career.

When’s the next tour?

How long is a piece of string?  You never know what’s around the corner, it could all go quiet tomorrow, who knows.  There is a lot of waiting involved but I’m hoping that the next Bonobo album won’t take too long and we can all get back on that dusty road.

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Jack spacing out at Coachella music festival