Tag Archives: inspiration

#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

on 365 (Inspiration is for Amateurs)

Twenty-four days ago I decided I would take a single photograph every day, for 365 consecutive days. I’m only using an iPhone, and I’m often taking more than one picture, but the goal is a single ‘shareable’ image at the end of each day.

Creative people who ‘sit around and wait for the clouds to part,’ as Chuck Close has put it, before they sit down and get to work, are not going accomplish very much. Often it seems easier to believe that the best work only comes in moments of divine inspiration, but as I embark on this challenge I’m finding that routine & persistence is the best way to refine technique and make good work.

Knowing that I need to make a photograph at some point during each day is opening my eyes in ways that they weren’t open before, when I was lazily waiting for the right image to coalesce before me.

Here’s a gallery of what I’ve done so far, in these first few weeks:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/brianbrian/sets/72157650665080771

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on singular focus

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein