Observation Journal: Sharks Eating Stormtroopers, myths and the difficulties of artistic ritual

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.

This page (and the next) of the observation journal are a little introspective, which I’ve said before I prefer to avoid, but the process and stage of the year are interesting.

So, early March was a tense time. I was coming off various painkillers, teaching had started, the PhD was something I was meant to be doing, The Whole 2020 Situation was really kicking off locally, and this incredible last-minute art residency opportunity had come along and people who should have told me “No” were enabling me (spoiler: I monkeys-pawed my way out of that one).

However, as recorded on the left-hand page, there were earrings of sharks eating stormtroopers, and there were apprentices to listen to — I really enjoy this, as quite apart from how nice it is to listen to other people working, it’s fascinating watching people be taught both a trade and the corresponding professionalism. It’s good as a novel.

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, handwritten answers to questions about creativity.

On the right-hand page, I was trying out one of the optional journal activities I was giving my students — lifting questions from the interviews with various creative-industries people they’d been set to watch and answering those for themselves. (A useful way to get questions for a journal.)

The questions (set by Associate Professor Kim Wilkins for HUMN3700 — Creativity: Myths, Methods & Impact at UQ) were various, but the ones I used here were as follows. (I’ve included my answers, but they are very particular to me!)

  • How do you define creativity?
    • “A Sudden Wild Magic” [both literally and as a reference to Diana Wynne Jones]
    • Unexpected manifestations
    • Causing things to exist in the world [see also Making Things Manifest]
  • What creative myths are part of your process? (I made a list and then worked out which helped and which hindered)
    • That shouldn’t have any [unsure whether help or hindrance]
    • Bang any two things together & sparks will fly [helps with ideas, less with follow-through]
    • I need uninterrupted swathes of time [mostly a hindrance, except as a reminder to preserve them when they exist]
    • Vague beliefs re When I Work Best [hindrance, although it’s useful to know when there are waves that can be caught]
    • Pavlovian responses [helpful if I remember to implement them]
    • Deadlines are vital [not healthy but also, well, vital]
  • Have you ever had to be fiercely individualistic in your creativity?
    • I tend to go more for plausible deniability or obstructive vagueness. [NB: useful to remember to edit out at the end, but very useful in the early stages, and frankly quite useful in fixing tricky structural problems in creative projects that don’t need to bear literal weight — there’s more leeway to just make things up in a short story than when building bridges]
    • Bit I do like the challenge of pleasing everyone — including myself. In editing Flyaway, for example I was steering between editorial comments to use more emotion, to keep the emotionlessness, and my own preference for buttoned-down characters who feel a lot. It made what could have been sweeping editorial decisions a very pleasing word game.
  • What myths (about creativity) have you come across?
    • Some that appeal, but I don’t really use — ritual, floating-ideas-seeking-manifestation mnemonic [that’s from Big Magic which I initially resisted and then found had some awfully charming methods for tricking oneself — it’s a divisive book among my pragmatic friends but I find it can be read very practically ]
    • Some that aggravate me: “talent” vs hard work especially re draughtsmanship, some aspects of vocation/calling, probably because I can also see the appeal, at least, in some regards. [I can’t quite parse that sentence, in retrospect. Something about thoroughly enjoying the idea of wild romantic creativity as a fantasy while being very prosaic about it in practice. Here’s a great book about vocation that reads like four modern novellas: Ann-Marie Priest’s A Free Flame: Australian Women Writers and Vocation in the Twentieth Century.
    • But correspondingly, “apply-seat-to-chair” omits some steps.
    • And, importantly: Most myths don’t consider admin.

Structurally, the main lesson of this page was:

  • Introspection is (marginally) more palatable to me in dot-points.

Personally, for all my resistance, there were a few good points to come out of this that I’ve continued to pursue in the observation journal:

  • My continuing interest in how to get from idea to thing.
  • The fun of making a game of pleasing/misdirecting everybody.
  • That myths can be very useful, but when I try to use them I get irritatingly pragmatic and evasive.
  • That I really like the idea of High Artistic Ritual but honestly can only manage plausible bohemianism on structured days off.
Makeshift filming set-up involving a reading lamp, a GorillaPod, a drafting chair, a phone and a laptop.