Observation journal: creative superstitions, and working in distracting times

Three observation journal pages together, in this post, because they led into each other (I skipped one about The October Faction, but it will show up later).

They began with the realisation that a number of my vague work-related superstitions and bad habits (not booking flights until a week or two before travel) were really paying off this year. Please note: These pages were from mid-March, when things were still just getting going here and later contexts had not yet developed.

I then (see the pages below the break) spent a surprisingly soothing and informative time working out how I’d got work (particularly freelance creative work) done in other unsettled times, and whether there were some lessons I might already have learned which would prove useful this time around.

hand-written double spread of observation journal. On the left page, five things seen/heard/done and a drawing. On the right, densely handwritten notes.

Superstitions

The first page began as an exercise in which I did the following:

  • I jotted down creative superstitions I personally seem to have.
    • E.g. “Don’t announce a project until the other party does.” “Don’t want money until project completed.” “Don’t like to use something if I only have one of it.”Much time must be available before I even start.”
  • For each, I answered “why?”
    • E.g. legal training, external pressure, worry about growing to rely on something that could be replaced, bad habits crystallising around good ones.
  • I made a couple of notes against each about how to work with/against those tendencies.
    • E.g., communication; something with the psychological impact of escrow; planning and training.
  • Finally, I made a note of general patterns.
    • Excessive caution, an attitude of scarcity, and a feeling that things could be snatched away at any minute. (In retrospect I could blame legal training for a lot more of this.)

I still feel that in another year this would probably have been salutary. In this particular week in 2020, however, I felt I had been proven right.

Tiny pen drawing of a pheasant coucal
Pheasant coucal

But this led me to start to think through how big changes (like 2020) affect how I get my work done.

(Read on if you want to think about unsettled times; skip if you’d rather not.)

BROAD THOUGHTS ON WORK IN BIG CHANGES

The observation journal is quite useful for nosing towards a structure that might be useful for thinking a particular thing through. This wasn’t that structure, but it gave me the questions I would need to build it.

hand-written double spread of observation journal. On the left page, five things seen/heard/done and a drawing. On the right, densely handwritten notes.

Context/disclaimer: First of all, please note: I’ve had a pretty quiet, fortunate life, and I have been among the people and societies least-hit by events this year (and in previous years). I was also writing this very early in 2020 — if I were doing it now I would very likely phrase things differently.

What I was looking at here was specifically what happened to my own work in periods of unsettlement where work was still technically possible and it didn’t yet feel unforgivably churlish to complain at least a little. (It was also quite useful realising I had lived through at least the distant rumbles of enough disruptive events to start to predict how new ones might affect my work —which was the question I was asking here).

A few of those lessons (again, personal to me!):

  • allow myself to watch and note what’s happening
  • accept a period of obsessiveness with the news
  • enjoy the quiet good things (usually community and a different structuring of time)
  • preserve space/boredom/impetus to work, when that becomes possible again
  • sleep and sunshine and people are a great good, and the greatest loss when normalcy returns
  • it’s easier and better to take a day off news than just part of the day
  • uncertainty is generally the worst thing for work — anything else (and please take this as being in my own context!) can either be worked with in some way or decisively alters the situation

I also made a list of things that seemed like interesting common points to consider, across various major news cycles and weather events in my life.

The next day, I used this to make a sample table. I put down just a few disruptive events, of different scales and distance (local and international politics, natural upheavals), and then listed the intriguing topics down the side. (Again! please note, these were events as seen from where I was sitting, and noted for the specific purpose of working out how I got work done around them.)

hand-written double spread of observation journal. On the left page, five things seen/heard/done and a drawing. On the right, densely handwritten notes.

These were the topics I looked at (yours might differ).

  • The pattern of events
    • E.g. once-off and then a long tail? short tail? a long ramp-up and short sharp shock? gradual appearance and indefinite duration?
    • It was interesting to note the variety of effects, and the impact of uncertainty.
  • Where I was at in my life when it happened.
    • E.g. the floods happened about two days after I finished in private practice and started working in the public service — they gave me a crash course in how my department worked. Also, I was working as a lawyer but starting to get more work as an illustrator (the reason for the change), so it’s now bound up with that transition.
  • Whether anyone could be blamed.
    • This seemed to interact with uncertainty.
  • How wide-spread it was (intensely local, worldwide with a distant epicentre).
  • Sensory memories.
    • E.g., for the floods: river mud, stale pasta, candles, Coronas, cows lowing over water, the silence of water, touching the carpet with my foot to see if it was dry, dawn, sunset, wet [?], piles of garbage.
  • Emotions.
    • The different arcs these took was really interesting.
  • Source of news.
    • I was honestly surprised by the variety — two specific Twitter accounts for the floods, the comments section of the Brisbane Times website for upheavals in the public service.
  • Work (what I did, the changes).
    • Just knowing how long it was before I could settle to work again was worth this exercise.
  • Other’s work/lives (impact and what I was aware of in others’ creative work).
    • If I did this again, I’d split this into two sections: other people (e.g. the US exchange students during 9/11) and other people’s work (e.g. how stories about floods affect me now). Both are interesting, and the first deserves more teasing-out.
  • The main advice I heard that stuck with me (not necessarily good advice, just the thing I remember people saying).
  • The good.
    • E.g. for the floods: time & light & slowness; disconnect from some things; neighbours; getting to know State transport legislation; State-as-thing; time with my sister.
    • This was surprisingly useful. Comforting, yes, but also a reminder to notice it because some of it hurt when it was gone.
    • A nebulous good across all the categories was that all the events taught me something about the way the world works, and how it holds together (or doesn’t).

The whole exercise proved strangely soothing: remembering how I dealt with something before, and what to possibly expect, but also recalling and trapping elements of those times on the page. (As a general observation journal note, tables have been very good for that.)

(Incidentally, if you’re a writer, the urge to treat it it as material may appear — deal with that as you will.)

A tiny pen drawing of a ute with palm trees in the back
Mobile palm trees, and sudden confusion about how to draw a ute

2 thoughts on “Observation journal: creative superstitions, and working in distracting times

  1. Pingback: November 2020 post round-up | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: Observation Journal: The consequences of current events | Kathleen Jennings

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