Observation Journal — reversing the audience

In this instalment of the observation journal, I was playing with ideas of target audiences, and what would happen if you turned them upside down.

Double page of densely handwritten observation journal. The left page has five things seen/heard/done and a drawing. The left is an exercise flipping an ideal user.

Left page: Encroaching shortages, a Schroederingian pause, and the Star Wars theme being practised on a trumpet.

Right page: For the course I was teaching, I wanted an activity that would make us think a bit more usefully about target markets (it was a business-adjacent course), aka audiences, readers, etc.

When I write, I am usually trying to please (or irritate) one particular person (not always me; not infrequently a housemate). But I tried this approach on both a physical project I was designing and on a story I was working on.

Note, this is one of those activities that really stirs up the sediment of stereotypes. I like that, because it brings them out for observation, and repurposes them, and makes them work for their living. (See also: Observation Journal — The Caudwell Manoeuvre). But it isn’t always flattering on the page, and is something to acknowledge/manage/bear in mind if you’re doing this in e.g. a classroom.

The first, businessy approach: Essentially, you make a four column table:

  • In the first column, make a list of categories of characteristics, e.g. age, gender, education, job, level of career, hobbies, physical activity, background, language, etc. You could add in others specific to the broad type of project. This was just my initial late-at-night list.
  • In the second, quickly identify the assumed characteristics of your “ideal user”/main audience, etc. If you write for yourself this will probably just be a description of you at some point in your life. It could also be a hideous stereotype of someone not you. (I’m aware there’s some very lazy categorisation in this version, but I wanted to see how the framework would work with that.)
  • In the third column, flip each characteristic to something roughly opposite. (A job in education vs a job in the trades vs a long-distance truck driver vs…). You can have a bit of fun here, redress balances, etc.
  • In the fourth, make a note of how that would require a change to the Thing You Are Making. For example, in the first set of examples, would it need to be more durable, or have different accessibility, or a less (or more!) mystical application, etc?
  • Finally, make a note of any that are genuinely useful, or could improve or add to the original idea. This exercise wasn’t about changing an idea, but making it stronger.

Densely hand-written page of observation journal, flipping stereotypes of an ideal audience.

The writing approach: In the second round, lower down the page, I tried it out on a story I was editing.

  • The story was written very much at a friend, but also for me — and we are quite similar. Going through the process highlighted a lot of things I take for granted, and ought to be aware of (at least for editing).
  • For example, it brought out the lack of physicality in the manuscript, and the degree to which I assumed anyone reading it would also be familiar with a very specific set of obscure books.
  • While I like the somewhat cerebral context of the story, and thoroughly enjoy allusions, these could easily turn into weaknesses. So when editing the story I want to go back in and look for places where I can anchor the story with a little physical action/description. I also plan to buttress or reinforce the more esoteric allusions with enough information that someone who hasn’t had a particular shared experience can still follow the story. In other places, it was a reminder not to be subtle or aim for plausible deniability, but to be honest about what I was doing and double-down on it.
  • This wasn’t about changing the ultimate “ideal reader”, but about clarifying and streamlining my approach, and creating an immediately useful checklist for when I sat down to edit.
Drawing of a bottle of hand soap.
(soap, not sanitiser)

Writing/art exercise:

Try this on a story you’re editing, or a picture that’s at a fairly advanced sketch stage.

  • Make a list of categories of characteristics.
  • Quickly and lazily note down your assumed ideal audience.
  • Flip those characteristics.
  • Consider how the project might change if it were to be adapted to that person.
  • Find things to clarify/tighten/commit to/adjust, etc, and try them out on the project.

Observation Journal: A sketch, a bear, success

Hand-written page of observation journal, with 5 things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a Zoom meeting.

The activity on the opposite page of this observation journal spread is not shown, because it was a fairly standard “how do you define success”/”how does your field define success” set of questions borrowed from an interview. The interesting points for me, then and in retrospect, were that it underscored that I like having time & freedom to do what I want (which turns out to be writing and drawing). But I don’t like excessive introspection so I won’t inflict that on you.

But I wanted to include this page, because I sketched my very first Zoom meeting. More innocent times.

It was also the day Sue brought around this beautiful polar bear (see: Pursued by a (small) bear!):

Head of a model polar bear.

Observation Journal: adapting business

On this page of the observation journal: repurposing ideas from other fields, coping with language, and a very strong pink.

Left page: The character failings of possums, a great (and successful!) dice hunt, and a sense of the world getting gradually muted.

Right page: Adapting business tools to creative purposes.

Double-page spread of observation journal, densely hand-written. On the left, five things seen/heard/done and a picture. On the left, notes on the Value Proposition Canvas.

I tend to resist business language, which is neither fair (I often have no problem with the underlying concepts) nor useful (particularly when teaching a business-adjacent course). One of the exercises I had my students do was list the language in their field that’s most irritating to them and then find other words to use, at least in their own mind and first drafts, freeing them up to use the underlying ideas, while being able to convert back to business terms in formal contexts.

This can be a useful exercise even with non-irritating technical language — making sure it means something to me a bit more viscerally. A lot of the observation journal is me relearning things that I “knew” in a way that is useful to me.

Densely hand-written notes on the Value Proposition Canvas.

The resources and assessment around which I was developing the tutorials included using the Value Proposition Canvas (VPC), “a tool for marketing experts, product owners, and value creators”. The phrasing is so very businessy, and I wanted to come to terms with it — and its possibilities — before introducing it in class.

Approach to a business tool:

  • In class, we ended up inventing ridiculous ideas (see: Observation Journal — improbable inventions) and then trying them out on the VPC. Using those ideas removed a lot of pressure to use the VPC. Instead, it became a framework for the students to clamber around and learn its possibilities for their approach.
  • For example, I realised filling out the table involves a lot of back-and-forth, details and ideas evolving from answers to other questions, and so I needed to approach it as an exploration rather than a checklist.
  • This also revealed that the VPC was quite a fun way to elaborate on an early idea, like the brief allusion here to an alarm that would wake you by gently questioning you and recording the details of your dream before you fully woke and lost the details.

Adapting it to my purposes:

  • However, for my personal use, the VPC turned out to be an interesting way to look at a project after it was done (in this case, an enamel pin design) as part of a creative post-mortem.
  • It was particularly useful as a way to look for things to strengthen and avenues to develop next time. This isn’t so much a critique/debrief as the obvious next step when my approach to learning things is mostly just to do them. It’s not a “what went wrong” so much as a “let’s do that again!”.
  • Reviewing it now, I want to add some of these points back into the master list of post-mortem questions I eventually developed (more of that as we go, but you can see a recent example in this State Library of Queensland post about illustrating the winners of the Queensland Literary Awards).

Exercise:

  • Make a column and list common/sigh-enducing/annoying jargon/technical terminology/business language in either your area of work (narrative structure? design principles?) or something adjacent you keep wandering into (applications, banks, time management…). This is also useful when developing secret bingo sheets for professional conferences.
  • If you need to work off some irritation, make a second column where you flippantly or cynically translate all the words.
  • But then make a third column where you try to translate the word to a term or phrase that captures the actual underlying meaning or importance of the idea to you. Maybe there’s a genre you like reading but don’t like the label for, or a time-management technique, or… Can you find another word or title that works better for you. For private use, perhaps, or coping in business purposes (not unlike developing strategies for listening to or looking at unfamiliar art), or translating from one field to another.
  • I’ve found this a useful way to capture ideas to chase further — little points where I think, “oh, I didn’t know that that’s what I like about [e.g. country house murders, or time-management]. Even if something I write gets labelled as that for sale, calling it [e.g. tragedy of manners/death-by-architecture, or temporal escape clauses] explains what I want to actually do and learn about.

Observation Journal — things that tell you what they’re doing

This observation journal post was an exploration of a pattern I’d noticed in some things I liked and in recent conversations — looking at where I saw it, and what it did, and what I liked about it, and how I could use it. In this case, it was the question of things that tell you what they’re doing.

Double-spread from the observation journal. Two densely hand-written pages. On the left, a page with five things each that I had seen, heard and done, with a picture. On the right, a mind-map thinking through projects that tell you what they're doing.

Left-hand page: Writing in a second-hand shop where someone kept gradually increasing the volume on “MMM-bop“.

Right-hand page: I’d been thinking about things (movies, books) that tell you what they’re doing, and show you what they are — also talking to Helen Marshall about “books that teach you how to read them.” So on this page, I simply pursued some of those thoughts, and the patterns and links between them.

In particular, it was prompted by two then-recent trains of thought: I’d written the post Making Things Manifest — mock-ups and outlines that morning, and I’d just seen Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (cinema experience illustrated here). It also tied to earlier thoughts on staginess (Observation Journal — chasing patterns with digressions on the appeal of staginess).

As is often the case with the observation journal, watching the process itself is often the useful thing. In this case, it confirmed to me that this approach was a useful way to think more about what might otherwise have been fleeting interests. Even if, as here, I didn’t reach some overwhelming conclusion, the process of shuffling through my thoughts was valuable, and it helped me clarify some actual interests, and find intriguing new questions to pursue in future — it also underlined a difference between thinking-as-a-reader and thinking-as-a-writer, something I’m still learning.

Observation journal page, densely hand-written pages with a mind-map thinking through projects that tell you what they're doing.

Some key points:

  • There’s an honesty and generosity to things that are very frank about what they are doing, even (especially!) if that’s experimental. I can be overly coy with drafts, and don’t particularly like highly signalled plots, so this is a useful course-correction.
  • It honours and unifies books-as-objects (and other physical creative activities-as-objects).
  • Strongly genre-specific books are often very up-front about what they are. This also means that if you’re doing something different, it can pay to be explicit. (In fact, if the common trend is strong enough, people still might not even notice the flags you were waving.) This was a common element in the Australian Gothic books I looked at for my MPhil, and when I was writing Flyaway: a reliably beautiful Gothic aesthetic often leans heavily and explicitly on a robust declaration of that beauty wherever possible. (I’m planning a post about that.) There are many reasons to be subtle, of course, but sometimes it’s simply a function of acting too clever for my own good, which can sometimes be mean.
  • That honesty about boundaries and limitations also gives a really useful structural framework to swing around in.
  • A clearly-stated structure, like a clearly stated aesthetic, has a strong gravitational pull. It attracts story to it.
  • And in fact a vivid aesthetic can get a story a long way, if not the whole way (see e.g. Guillermo del Toro).
  • For me, a strong aesthetic sense is one of the sparks that can bring an idea to life (see Observation Journal — a tremor in the web for the process of working that out). So I pushed a little further in that direction, thinking about structures in terms of their relationship to a clear aesthetic — specifically through Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, a movie which is very clear about the sort of movie you will be watching!
    • My first note on it was:
      curiosity/hope –> confirmation –> delivery –> reminder and clincher –> satisfaction = never distracted by expecting it to be some other movie
    • But I realised that this was very much me thinking as a viewer/reader rather than as a writer. I was looking at my reactions/interest rather than why I had those reactions.
    • So I broke it down again, looking at where the story signalled and anchored its (extravagantly gleeful and ridiculous) aesthetic/tone (there’s an overlap between those):
      HINT (before inciting incident)—play—ESTABLISH—play—EXTRA—business—(after denouement) FLOURISH

I hope to tie this to some current interests. One is how narrative time interacts with space and landscape and time (Intermultiversal interview). Travelogues, being literally vignettes from trains in motion, obviously connects to that. But Travelogues is also very up-front about being explicitly descriptions from trains in motion, with no secret subtexts.

The taking of reference photos

Observation Journal — a tremor in the web

[NB: On Friday night (US)/Saturday morning (AUS) I’m talking about Flyaway and art and writing games for the Storied Imaginarium!]

On this page of the observation journal, I was again looking at questions from the recorded interviews set for the class I was teaching.

Double-spread from the observation journal. Two densely hand-written pages. On the left, a page with five things each that I had seen, heard and done, with a picture. On the right, answers to some questions about creative process.

By this point I’d worked out (through the journal: e.g. 1, 2, 3…) that I, personally, should avoid super-introspective questions. Your mileage may vary! As always, a large part of the usefulness of the observation journal is not so much the answers on the page as what I notice about the process of putting the answers on the page.

At any rate, I can eventually learn things, so in this case I deliberately chose questions from the interviews that felt like they inclined towards actions/useful information.

[Note: The first three questions are adapted from those developed by Associate Professor Kim Wilkins and Dr Skye Doherty for interviews with people in various creative industries, for the University of Queensland course HUMN3700: Creativity — myths, methods and impact.]

  • How important are noticing and observation to [my] creative practice?
    • (The observation journal itself is obviously a key part of this.)
    • The process of sitting up and taking notice mid-way through a project is very useful. If I’m stuck on something, I’ll sometimes look around the room and try to add in a reference to (or a texture from…) something I can see. If nothing else, it will shake things up.
    • But it’s particularly important as an incidental/ambient part of what I do. As a library and a toolbox and a habit. As practice in the sense of doing scales on the piano. This is why, in addition to observation activities (observation exercises, ROYGBIV, etc) I also like games and exercises that let me pull out and rearrange and play with things I’ve already noticed and know. For example: Observation Journal — tables and other locations; The Key to All Mythologies.
  • When do you get a sense that you can create something?
    • There are always ways to make something — knowing that aspect of the craft and/or the material helps a lot (and a lot of the journal involves that). But there’s also a distinct feeling when a thing seems to come with its own momentum, as if it wants to be made.
    • At this point, it felt like that feeling was usually attributable to three things:
      • Inspiration, in the form of a lot of creative input (exposure to other people’s work, to sources of ideas, or just to other people busily making things).
      • Desperation (I think now this is also a type of momentum — it usually happens when I’m being productive on other things. It’s just that I notice it more when the limits of time and space then stop me adding on new activities).
      • Boredom (the kind you have when there are no sources of distraction).
  • How do you tell which of your observations are worth developing?
  • The new question: Basically, I decided to try stopping (after coming up with ideas) and asking myself which ideas I liked and which I didn’t and then (and this is the important part) WHY.
    • I quickly ran a few recent ideas through that format, which revealed:
      • Ideas that felt as if they might have life had a feeling of narrative impetus, aesthetic charm, a through-line and an innate arc (those two might be the same thing)
      • Ideas that didn’t quite resonate had in common a structure without inhabitants (no people or viewpoint to hang it on), an aesthetic that didn’t charm me, and elements without an arc.
    • This meant I could make a note to further work on understanding the things that worked (e.g. what aesthetics charm me and why) and some tools to deal with ideas that haven’t quite come to life yet (e.g. narrative exoskeletons).

Densely hand-written answers to questions about creative process.

Writing/art/journal exercises:

  • If you listen to an interesting interview with someone in your field (or any field, really), instead of (or in addition to) taking notes of the answers, take note of the questions, and try answering them yourself.
  • Next time you make a list of ideas (new or existing), take time to go through and work out which ones do (and don’t) feel like something worth pursuing. Then make a few notes on why that is (in both directions. See if there are any patterns. Can you draw some lessons from that for ways to strengthen future ideas?
Tiny pen sketch of people with wine watching Miss Fisher in a cinema
Watching Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears — the last visit to the cinema Before Everything. No regrets.

Observation Journal: Fairy bread and bodysnatching

On this page of the observation journal, I was testing out a version of an activity I call “bodysnatching. It’s related to a sentence analysis exercise in Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (first recommended to me by Katharine Coldiron)— it’s just in this case you have to write your own sentence first. As such, it’s also connected to an art approach I heard from Todd Lockwood at Illuxcon in 2012 (more on that later).

(It has echoes of MadLibs, of course, but in this case you know what the original was, and trade in all the elements, so it’s more a ship of Theseus situation.)

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, a "bodysnatching" exercise.

I’ll also get into the Stanley Fish approach in more detail at another point. But basically, you take a sentence you like and start swapping words out until you find out why it works (leading, in one of the grammar classes I tutored, to the memorable sentence, “It was the best of dogs, it was the worst of dogs…”).

The bodysnatching exercise involves describing a thing you admire (business idea, movie) in one sentence, and then swapping out the elements.

Handwritten page of observation journal with "bodysnatching" exercise based on Emma.

In this case, I was still thinking of Emma (see Observation Journal: The Emma heist and concert strategies), so I summarised it as:

PRIVILEGED GIRL IN ISOLATED COMMUNITY ORGANISES OTHERS’ LOVE LIVES POORLY AND ALMOST MISSES OWN CHANCE AT LOVE.

Whether or not it’s a “correct” summary is beside the point, and it could be different every time — it’s the features that particularly appealed to me at that moment.

The first attempt resulted in an ungovernable traffic-disrupting robot avoiding work, and what that brought out was the sense of glee in the original.

The second involved a pianist in a hotel providing a soundtrack to guests’ hijinks, which highlighted something about the aloofness/status-negotiation of the original.

Very small pen drawing of a pianist in a hotel lobby.

The third involved a habitual liar embroidering the pasts of other members of a commune, which emphasised the element of not being able to avoid being part of a community.

The exercise revealed a few things:

  • The various points about how and why those aspects of Emma worked for me.
  • That the adjectives and adverbs were actually a very important element, and quite difficult to come up with on the fly. Fortunately I keep a half-hearted list of favourite genre-specific modifiers (jaunty, dashing), which came in handy.
Very small pen drawing of fairy bread for sale at a sausage sizzle.
Fairy bread for sale at a sausage sizzle on campus

Art/writing/other exercise:

  1. Pick a thing in your field you admire.
  2. Summarise it in a sentence. Keep it fairly simple, but try to catch some of the elements that appeal to you.
  3. Go through and swap out the elements of the sentence one by one. You can be thematic or sensible or silly.
  4. Make a note of what it reveals to you about how and why the original works.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 several times, and see what they reveal.
  6. At the end you might have some new ideas, but you should also have a deeper understanding of the original, and why it works — and why it works for you.

Observation Journal: Sparks and navigable worlds

Something I enjoy about the observation journal is revisiting different approaches and digging into what does and doesn’t work for me, and why, and what I can do with that knowledge.

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, a collage of vintage fashion photos with the words: 

Here are the Notorious smiling Women 
What terrific clothes they wear
THEY combine into a sophisticated fashion Code.
the notorious smiling women

On the left-hand page: disconcerting bathrooms and a “definite autumnal feeling”.

On the right-hand page: Every so often I wonder if collage is a thing I can do, and every time I realise that it definitely isn’t. I love the meditative aspect of it, and the recombining of elements, but I prefer that to happen at the front end of the creative process rather than being the final stage. For me it’s the spark that kicks off making a new thing — the making of it is something different. This continues not to diminish my enjoyment of other people’s collage — the reservations are about my enjoyment of various aspects of the process of making things. But while I find my collage hilariously bad, I definitely want to know more about the nefarious but fashionable adventures of the notorious smiling women.

And I wanted to note the summary page for this week, too, because it touches on a few points that have continued to echo through the observation journal.

  • The pleasure of watching other people learn to be competent in their chosen field. In this week, it was prompted by apprentices in the ceiling, but it also resonates with low-drama cooking shows, and stories where a character is not yet a master of their profession, but is taking practical steps towards becoming one. It’s a wonderful place for stories to draw forward motion from, without necessarily having antagonists or obvious conflict. And it ties into staginess and contained worlds, because the “romance of competence” (or fantasy of competence) relies the contained and navigable worlds of genres-of-manners, to which I keep returning (Heyer… in space!)
  • Another is that I’m much happier if there are systems or other people in place to say no to things without my direct intervention — or at least, without me feeling like I’m the one disappointing everyone including the ideal version on myself. I’m still working on what to do about this, or how to frame it so that it works for me. Although I might have just had a breakthrough on this thanks to an understanding reply to a difficult email! Stay tuned.
  • Time and persistence, vs a spark, vs a bright enough spark. Impetus vs the grind. This is an ongoing balance, and when I get it right, everything is wonderful. It relates to the first point on the right-hand page: to push ideas further immediately. I keep forgetting this lesson, because it always leads to SO MANY PROJECTS, and then deadlines and admin and despair, and rediscovery. So, not exactly balance. One of the benefits of this series of posts is that I have a reason to re-review these pages.

Observation journal: improbable inventions

I just… really like “X meets Y” formulations. They frequently amuse me immoderately, and of course they’re very useful for triangulating specific interests. The more unlikely they are, the more interesting is the space they create for possibilities.

I also find this sort of remixing a very useful habit to have — if nothing else, it’s a useful skill for all sorts of problem-solving.

A series of tweets:
"The Net" meets "The Secret Garden"
"Nightvale" but for productivity
Picture "The City and The City" as a scavenger hunt
Uber Eats but for succulents

I’ve written before about mixing & matching and shuffling ideas. A few examples:

On the observation journal page below, I was developing this approach a bit more, while looking for a way to deliberately incorporate the left-hand page observations into an activity that could be useful for my class.

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, ideas drawn from combinations of those elements.

The left-hand page in this case includes pigeons-in-training, the porousness of houses, and apprentices in the ceiling.

The right-hand page activity involved:

  1. Picking an element at random from each of the three main boxes on a left-hand page (things seen/heard/done). When we did this later as a group, it was splendidly various, and also tapped into the things people hadn’t really noticed they were noticing.
  2. Using those three elements, combined, to come up with at least three business/product ideas (in my case, with digressions into story ideas). Doing multiples helped push the ideas a bit further, but it also lets you turn the selections around and solve different problems. See also: Observation Journal: Reflections and alphabetical order, and Observation Journal: Werewolf conferences and colour treatments.

You can combine the elements in any number of ways, e.g.: by just seeing what springs to mind, or seeing if they suggest particular problems to be solved (how to catch icecream trucks), or if there are commonalities (a focus on ceilings), or perhaps they suggest other themes and obsessions.

Close-up of densely handwritten pages of the observation journal.

Incidentally, if you frequently have to sit through long meetings, I’ve found being in this sort of training makes it a lot easier to come up with unexpected contributions. It’s always paid off directly for me, in terms both of not falling asleep and of earning a largely undeserved reputation for being a thoughtful contributor in a very uncreative environment.

Here, for example, is the second exercise from the page: The second example is from the previous page‘s observations:

  • The observations were from the previous day’s observations: Feet scuffing carpets; a single light in the trees; ruthlessness with a timer.
  • This suggested capturing/rerouting energy/static electricity from incidental daily activities (timers, institutional carpeting) to power ambient lighting.
  • Or automated lights left on for security purposes could be triggered/randomised by a motion detector in an unrelated location.
  • Or a register or app for calling in someone to be a ruthless secretary/chairperson in meetings that drag on.
  • Or an unexpected/ominous timer system “a la Nightvale but for productivity”.
  • And, because this was me and it’s my journal, nearly every idea links back to (a) other things I was thinking about and (b) picture/story ideas.

In the narrative context, there is a very tiny note there about Tim Powers, who said at a Readercon that he picks unrelated topics, invents a conspiracy between them, seeks evidence to support it and, once he has convinced himself it’s true, writes the book.

The ideas aren’t blindingly novel, and that isn’t the primary point — in fact, finding out that the most unlikely things already exist is a fascinating way to discover the currents and contours of the world. The exercise, as with most of the observation journal activities, had two main purposes, with a third advantage for a class:

  1. The exercise of getting the mental exercise, and staying used to following odd paths and making unexpected connections. This has been one of the biggest effects of the observation journal for me — a slightly indirect but very visible effect on various aspects of my work (and how I talk about it).
  2. Creating a stockpile of ideas which could be used to try out other ideas. Sometimes I find it difficult to experiment too wildly with an idea I’m already committed to. Having something silly, which never will get off the ground, is excellent source material for practicing techniques. For this reason:
    • I have continued to do variations of this activity in the observation journal when I wanted something fresh to practice on.
    • I have a few old story ideas around that never quite flew, but which I trot out, resection, restyle, renovate, reinvent, and so on, whenever I want to test a concept for another project.
  3. Easing group work. For classes — and especially for group work — having a way to quickly come up with an idea everyone contributed to and was amused by, but to which no-one was committed was very useful. The class had a business plan component, and it was fun (and therefore informative) and liberating to take one of our unlikely inventions (a teleportation device for dog walkers was a memorable one from class) and using that to experiment on, instead of precious nascent personal projects. And that in turn gave us a stock of examples we could refer back to, tinker with, rearrange, mock, enliven, etc, without overworking an actual project.

Observation journal: 100 Ugly Pigeons, and drawing things together

At this point the observation journal reaches both the first week of tutorials and (possibly) the last restaurant visit before… everything.

On the left-hand page: recursive images in a restaurant, and an impressive reverse-park.

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, ROYGBIV exercise and pigeon drawings.

On the right-hand page: I completed this page in the tutorial for the creativity class (which was the initial excuse for this whole observation journal project).

But doing these two exercises with other people was a very different (and very enjoyable) experience to working alone.

Handwritten page of ROYGBIV exercise and pigeon drawings.

I outlined the ROYGBIV activity earlier in the post Observation Exercises:

  • Essentially you are trying to find a certain number of examples of each colour in the spectrum.
  • It’s a great way to observe for both writing and art (and other things), but it’s also just a nice framework for approaching your surroundings. (See also Observation Journal: The Emma heist and concert strategies.)
  • I enjoy this exercise as a spoken activity anyway — it’s a pleasant way to encounter a view with friends, or extract a view from less picturesque situations. In a group, it becomes a delightfully non-athletic collaborative scavenger hunt.

I don’t think I posted about the 100 Ugly Pigeons before. The example above is abbreviated because I was walking around the classroom, but a full earlier example is below.

  • The task for this one is simple: draw 100 ugly pigeons. They do not have to be well drawn — they’re meant to be ugly. The aim is to get 100 of them.
  • Then, once you have your 100 pigeons, make a few notes on how you got them. Where did it start to seem a lot? How did you try to game the activity?
  • It was also a good heavy-duty limbering-up exercise. There’s nothing to get wrong, but there’s a lot to make — and at the end, you have a significant piece of work, in its way. (See also: Making little things.)
  • Although this was a solo activity in class, we had a small art show at the end, and seeing the sheer variety of ways people address it, and define ugly, and try to speed up or cheat the process, is inspiring and fascinating. It reminded me of the early days of Australian Masterchef, and how interesting and inspiring and cautionary it was watching 50 people get Beef Wellington wrong in 50 different ways.
Handwritten page with drawings of 100 ugly pigeons

In the (purple-framed) example above, I got up to about ten pigeons before I wanted to climb the walls — I realised I needed a narrative to keep me moving forward (a common theme for me), and so pigeon 11 starts telling a story to pigeons 12-13, and it rolls forward from there. It’s a fairy tale, of course (can you pick which?). My observations are written around the edges of the page, and touch both on that narrative drive, and the decisions required to manage imagery in stories with strong numerical repetitions.

Incidentally, the antagonist-pigeon is 100% based on this tweet:

Tweet from @sketchesbyboze with two photos of a dramatic pigeon and the words "no, officer, I haven't seen my husband in weeks. yes, I'm terribly worried"

Finally: sushi. And indeed, for some time the final sushi.

Pen drawing of girl taking a photo of sushi going past
A drawing of a girl taking a photo of sushi in motion

Observation journal: flirting with contagion, and soothing with reflection

I mentioned previously, regarding the observation journal, that I prefer to avoid introspection (see Observation Journal: Sharks Eating Stormtroopers, myths and the difficulties of artistic ritual). But the observation journal itself (as opposed to other journal techniques) has helped me when a little reflection on my thought processes is needed, so I wanted to include this page before getting back to the more obviously creative exercises.

First, though: on the left-hand page, canned goods and toilet paper were being purchased and a boy on campus was using an explanation of the mechanics of virus transmission as an excuse to touch the bare arm of the girl with whom he was having coffee.

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, a mindmap of lessons learned.

But on to the right-hand page. Part of what happened in this week of the observation journal, as well as classes (briefly) starting on campus, was that a very last-minute opportunity to arose to take part in an arts residency on a boat. It would have been amazing, but also I was still recovering from hurting my back, and was behind on everything (including class preparation) as a result, and the year was in the process of falling apart.

It was exciting and gratifying and wildly stressful, and in the end it was far too short notice and everyone was in transit (and within a week it would have been overtaken by current events). But I wanted to record what the points of the worst stresses were, and what my personality was doing to make things better (or worse) in a situation like this.

A mind-map (in very tiny writing) of lessons learned

The notes came together fairly naturally around several key points (specific to me and this situation):

  • The occasion of getting the offer, and the attendant circumstances and reactions.
  • The responses I gave, and which responses were effective, given the limitations of my personality.
  • The various feelings I put myself through (I need to put this into my list of project post-mortem questions, too)
  • What would make it different.

For the notes on these, I tried to push through a few levels of thought: why I said/did that, and why that was, and why that was. Pushing questions a bit further is usually illuminating, and in my case the approach is loosely based on a combination of the “five whys” and Tiffany Aching).

On a personal level, the main things to come out of it were:

  • My extreme difficulty with saying no to anything that fascinates me, compounded by the facts that (a) so many things do fascinate me, and (b) I want to be the sort of person who rushes off at the drop of a hat to do interesting things.
  • The desire for some sort of version of a financial “opportunity fund”, but for time. I keep running up against this, because of the way work (and interests, and distractions) expands.
  • The known and increasingly undeniable principle that a modicum of organisation now will allow for a great deal of spontaneity later — or, as it says rather grandiosely here — discipline in service of opportunity and spontaneity.

But I’m including this page less as an exposé of my various angsts and anguishes, and more because — again — if I’m forced to be introspective, I find this one-page approach to considering a problem more useful than a wall of text, for several reasons:

  • It’s an adaptation of the “lessons learned” notes I usually make after big events (travel and conventions, usually), so the focus is more on recording things in order to learn from them — or at least to have the possibility of learning from them.
  • The map approach means I can pursue interesting points without losing the thread of my thoughts or getting mesmerised by my own prose.
  • I can glance back at it and find different useful (if unflattering) bits easily each time.
  • Importantly, it inclines me to summarise the main things I learned (or want to do).
    • This can appear as a topic on the page (in this case, under “what would make it different?”).
    • But also the principle of reflecting-on-the-observations, which I was building in for my students, helps me to remember to summarise conclusions and extract points to pursue or act on. Having a separate area for reflections already ruled out on the page very much encourages this.
  • And finally, even if I don’t actually work out how to resolve an issue, just knowing it’s there, and how I’ll likely react in similar circumstances, at least means I’m prepared and can plan around my habits.

I also, around this time, wished loudly and frequently that someone else would just give a blanket NO to everything on my behalf, which in retrospect is something one shouldn’t have said at the beginning of March 2020.

A pen drawing of a man sitting on the grass, talking into a phone, while from a branch above him an ibis looks down.
Ibis surveilling student on phone.

Note: I’ve put together a draft introduction to the observation journal here: Observation Journal. Comments and further questions are welcome.

Second note: I’ve mentioned Flyaway (which you can buy now), but my next book Travelogues is now available for pre-order! It’s essentially an observation journal, recording a sequence of train journeys, and is out in October.