Observation journal — creative post-mortems

Left page: One of the things I particularly enjoy finding, when I flip back through the observation journal pages, is the moments of people playing against stereotype: here, the very sporty boys engaged in a deep discussion of which piece of art to buy. But finding evidence of types is charming, too — the construction worker stopping to analyse the state of a door-jamb. In sum, and as previously noted: observing people makes me like people more.

Right page: I was wanting to record thoughts and discoveries from my own projects, especially as I usually collapse in a fog of exhaustion at the end and never make any notes at all. Later in the observation journal, I tried some more formal project review formats, but while they have some useful prompts they tend to be very narrowing. This freeform approach let me wander off following fascinations and examining aversions.

A double-page hand-written observation journal spread.

The project was a little story I’d done for Patreon — a PDF booklet of lies about spiders.

A drawing of a spider gesturing to a whiteboard.
Spiders like to give long presentations analysing projections.

In this case, most of the useful points turned out to be about patterns I’d noticed in my work: the difficulties and possibilities of locking oneself into a story involving set large-number motifs (spiders, Snow White, and Sleipnir); a love for greyed tones; the potential and problem (if trying to get quickly from idea to finished project) of working very small.

Hand-written analysis, from the observation journal, of how a project labelled "SPIDER STORY" went.

One of my reflections after doing this (visible at the bottom of the full page) was that I wanted to get down more of the ideas I had for other projects while working on this one — I’d noticed, for example, that when working on silhouettes I would often reach a stray corner or complication that made me excited to try a new design, which I’d then forget again. Later in the observation journal, I tried to keep track of those new ideas when doing project post-mortems.

However, on this page, actually recording my frustrations about process (instead of rediscovering them every time) paid off — I finally got InDesign.

Drawing of two black teacup poodles, with writing: "Two tiny black poodles howl-yowling at 2 shaved white maltese who were essentially being dragged along like cats"
“Two tiny black poodles howl-yowling at 2 shaved white maltese who were essentially being dragged along like cats”

Observation Journal: Reflections and making things happen

A page from the observation journal, headed "Reflections & Lessons & Patterns", with mind-map style notes on the week's observations.

I’ve continued to find weekly reflection pages the observation journal very useful when I do them, and interesting to look back on. This is from the end of January: the week including Points of habit and resistance, Patterns in days, Reflections and alphabetical order, and The appeal of staginess — there was also a more introspective, prosy page of reflection which I haven’t posted about because, well, turns out that’s not the sort of journal I like to keep.

It’s a different format, and it has fewer birds and dinosaurs than the previous week’s summary, but there are a few continuing and new themes that began to push the journal (and what I was making) in certain directions after this. A few are:

  • The trap of thinking only about creativity/productivity, and not about actually creating and making things (the art of making things manifest, as it were). In retrospect, this was mostly a problem because I was reading so much about creativity at the time, in preparation for teaching, and trying to cast a fairly wide net in the journal, so that it would work as an example. But it led to the next point.
  • The links between IDEA and DOING, between filling a page with ideas and going back and making something with them, the difference between “incubation” and “overthinking”, and the extent to which an idea can be the thing itself (and ongoing personal resistance to collage). This was initially of concern because I wanted to make sure students actually made something in the creativity class, but it immediately fed into my own issues with inertia vs momentum. I began taking time to look at how I got certain ideas to the finish line (and also, eventually, why I chose those particular ideas). This led to the next point.
  • The immediate power of pushing an idea just a bit further — this was scarily effective, and derailed my time planning (such as it was) and I want to post at a bit more length about it. At its most basic, however, it boiled down to this:
    • Once I have an Idea™, take five minutes to do an incredibly high-level, noncommittal outline of what a final version of it might look like.
  • The belief that style might not be everything, but it can get you a long way. This is personal to my taste and the way I work, of course, but is connected to recurring future references to “aesthetic”, as it emerged from the post on staginess.
  • The usefulness of considering patterns across a set of [stories, pictures, etc], rather than just a close critique of one — triangulating elements of interest and craft, and prioritising appreciation over criticism.
  • An emerging concern with surface design, written and visual, which I will post more about eventually when I get to the core pages — it relates to the post Framing devices and stories in the ornaments).

Also, with splendid dramatic irony, the note I don’t want to go out! I want to stay in and make things!

Also: My Australian Gothic book Flyaway is out very soon!

Observation Journal: Reflections and Alphabetical Order

The observation journals at this point (late January) were a clear mixture of testing ideas for classes, testing the journal for my own purposes, and overthinking things in the margins.

Making a list of twenty things (problems, uses, solutions, etc) is a classic way to come up with ideas (my dad used to use it to entertain us on long car trips, and I posted an example in Werewolf Conferences and Colour Treatments where I was working on ideas for a book cover).

This is a variation: Choose a topic/idea/theme and come up one idea for each letter of the alphabet. It’s good for observation exercises, too (basically a self-directed I Spy, like using the spectrum: Observation exercises). However, for coming up with rough ideas, it’s a useful way to (a) force a wide range of associations and (b) take the pressure off any individual idea. It’s also suprisingly fast — a race to the end instead of a wrestling with possibilities.

However that was not the most interesting part of the exercise.

An observation journal page. On the left are things seen, heard and done that day, as well as what I noticed about how I noticed things. On the right are a list of ideas for a "Poison story", one for each letter of the alphabet, and reflections on the process.

The unexpectedly useful bit was the patterns that emerged — pulling back and including another layer of reflection about the thoughts and reflections on the page:

  • Looking at this many ideas at once, and where they came from, I can see the range of things that were floating in my mind that day (from Victo Ngai illustrations to bushfires).
  • There was a distinct leaning (you can see the note in green at the top of the close-up below) towards the mythic-gothic or comic-Midsomer Murders. This is useful to know, whether to avoid it (the final story ended up being described by the editor as “a very strange piece”) or to better play to things that appeal to me.
  • Although most of the ideas had some charm, I could feel a difference between the ones that were still just a situation/character/incident looking for a plot, and some that already had momentum or traction. I hadn’t quite identified what it was here, yet, but I began to explore that tipping point more on future pages.
Hand-written reflections on things I noticed about the creativity exercise, how I got things done that day, the textures of watercolour, and things I wanted to do as a result.

There are a couple of other notes on what I noticed about the pages, too:

  • How things got done that day (it was a headachy day).
  • The usefulness of parameters.
  • The fact that ruling up the pages in advance encourages ideas onto them (see also Narrative Theory #1).
  • An appreciation for the variability of watercolour (using the pages to appreciate materials has been wonderful, both for getting better at using them and for enjoying them).
  • And also the recurring appearance of this type of cart (below), which finally made its way into one of the monthly stories for patrons. (Making tiny objects is a great way to catch and store — or exorcise! — small fascinations).
A sketch of a woman with a child beside her. The woman is pulling a folding cart with a box and a baby in it. There are written notes around it such as "Box!" and "lawn again already".

Art/writing exercises:

  • 26 ideas: Think of something you need to make/write. If nothing springs to mind, then imagine you have to write or illustrate a reimagining of a classic tale — “Little Red Riding Hood”, for example. As quickly as you can, come up with twenty-six ways you could rewrite/illustrate it, one for each letter. E.g. “A” suggests a red apple and a kinship to Snow White, and a blended retelling; or visiting an aunt instead of a grandmother — or Red Riding Hood herself is in fact the dashing outcast aunt of the family, visiting a repressed niece….
  • Patterns: When you get to the end, look back over the list and notice any patterns. Were your ideas affected by particular podcasts or the sound of construction outside? Do they trend to psychological horror, or action-adventure? Which ones feel like they’ve got a spark to them — do you know why?
  • Existing ideas: Or make a list of ten pieces of writing/art you’ve done (or love), and look for patterns between them (see also: When in doubt, make lists; and The Key to all Mythologies). Are there particular fascinations you’d like to keep, or enhance, or question?

Observation journal: chasing patterns with digressions on the appeal of staginess

This page of the observation journal, as well as featuring a number of local dogs, is a fairly standard way of sorting out ideas. But I wanted to put it up here because it’s the start of a series of thoughts on aesthetics.

Over the course of the next month or two of the journal the focus moves (via a few illustrations and a draft illustrated script) more onto short story structure. But it began with trying to understand what for me was the appeal of staginess in a few stories I’d encountered around that time (mostly movies, but a fair bit of Georgette Heyer, too).

It came down, broadly, to three things:

  • the aesthetic of the story-as-object;
  • the way the impact of something is concentrated when it’s given the weight of a fable; and
  • the importance conferred on something that is so clearly delineated and designated as existing

And it worked best (for me) where it was:

  • consistent; and
  • concentrated.

I keep saying “for me”, but that’s the point of the exercise, rather than a qualifier. There was something in all of these things that was similar, and that I wanted to get at, and try out, and steal or reverse-engineer or turn into something completely different. Whatever it proved about the movies I was looking at (although it did explain a few connections), it started me reflecting on the usefulness of a distinct aesthetic.

And here is a very woolly border collie.

I haven’t distilled this one into an exercise (for those, see art exercises/writing exercises). But broadly, I’ve found it worthwhile to dig into why I like the things I like — not just individually, but also when I start to notice patterns between them.

Stories/movies mentioned: Hilda, JoJo Rabbit, Wes Anderson (especially The Grand Budapest Hotel), Strictly Ballroom (especially the stage production), Georgette Heyer, It Follows, Guillermo Del Toro broadly, Anderson (which Anderson? I do not remember! I will edit this if I do!).

Observation journal: weekly reflections and summaries

I’ve previously explained the general idea and layout of the observation journal (Observation Journal: Werewolf Conferences and Colour Treatments — the posts are collected under Observation Journal).

Although a bit of reflection was built into those pages, I found I wasn’t really noticing overall patterns or catching ideas — something I wanted the students using it to be doing.

So I began introducing Lessons Learned and Things To Do Next pages at the end of every week (not a major burden, since I was only doing the journal on weekdays).

Background: I started doing Lessons Learned pages a few years ago: after conferences and travel, mostly. In those cases, they remind me what not to do next time, and that I prefer to sit in cafes and watch the world go by, and that portable luggage scales are worth their weight, and of instances when panic is just part of the process and should be scheduled in, and approaches to home furnishings that I’d like to use when I get home.

Left page: This approach has proven useful in the case of the observation journal, too — not just for summarising and recording specific reflections from the week’s pages, but also for noting new preoccupations and shifting interests. The notes on the left are everything from epiphanies about process to complaints about my handwriting, amusement about the recurring themes of dinosaurs, and appreciation for accidental page composition. Also a time-keeping spider.

Right page: I’m not rigorous about doing everything on the action page — sometimes I decide not to, or carry an idea forward for a few weeks until it dovetails with another project, or I’ll move it onto a list of ideas for future activities, in case I’m stuck for things to do. “The Art of Making Things Manifest” was a line in a conversation I was having while painting pages (related blog post: Making Things Manifest: Mock-ups and Outlines).

(I also don’t always illustrate these pages, although I’ve come to appreciate the texture of pages-as-object — I was just doing a lot of painting that week).

Note: For context, these pages are from late January. I’ve been uploading full weeks’ worth to Patreon, for the unvarnished version — slightly more selective posts here!

Observation Journal: (Too) Many ideas

Or: Overdoing things — a self-portrait

This little piece of excess from the observation journal was intended as a sort of timing run (as you can see from the yellow notes on the right). Any one square of it, in the event, would have been about as much as I’d expect from my students, but I was having fun, and dinosaurs, and avoiding something and, since it was still January at the time, surrounded by people to half-watch.

The basic idea was to list 5 Problems To Be Solved down one side (based on previous observation journal pages, i.e. traffic on the Walter Taylor bridge, the general indignities of medical procedures (I was getting scans of and needles in my spine about this time), a story I was struggling to write, something to do with card games, and the eternal battle of momentum vs inertia.

Across the top, I listed five current preoccupations/things noticed, which that day were Egrets, Dinosaurs, Antique Bottles, Ground Rocks and Watercolour.

Then I tried to move very fast, and come up with five solutions for each problem, using each preoccupation (or some aspect thereof).

Here’s a bit more detail from the “story about poison” row. Left is the Ground Rocks column, right is Watercolour. As with most exercises like this, the ideas immediately start picking up on other notes and ideas — a bit of writing I did on a visit with friends to MassMOCA, environmental rules around paint at a workshop, conversations, etc.

Even a basic dalliance with the maths would have suggested this would take some time. On the other hand, a time limit (even if it is just daylight) and a ridiculous number of cells to fill can encourage invention, if not legibility. But it passes the time.

My favourite entry is still the concept of “Jurassic Park meets And Then There Were None“, although of course considered on some levels they are almost the same story.

Observation journal: werewolf conferences and colour treatments

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This is the format of the observation journal as it developed. I keep it in my general notebook for convenience. For those who wish to know, it’s a large squared Moleskine, indexed on bullet-journal principles.

(I don’t usually colour or ornament my notebooks, except for the observation pages).

Left Page

The left pages are based (as previously mentioned) on one of Lynda Barry’s notebook exercises with her class, in her intense and splendid Syllabus: Five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture (scribble, diagram, mud-map) of something from the day.

Its original purpose was just to practice noticing, (and give my class a way to actually fill the pages of their journal), but later it got folded into more activities.

Right Page

The right page is for anything else, as long as there’s an element of creativity and reflection — I send the class a list of thematically-related possibilities each week, but it’s meant to be free-form (I wasn’t leaning into the reflection too heavily at this stage).

The activity here was to take something from my day and apply it to a few current preoccupations.

In this case, the central thing was a dream about accidentally crashing a warlock-werewolf meeting (I was on strong painkillers). You can see here I was thinking about:

  • Upper left: Themes of exclusion and secrecy I’d been enjoying, and how that might be relevant to a research project.
  • Upper right: The sense of observing things unexpectedly, and how to apply that to being creative.
  • Lower left: A book cover project I was wrestling with, to which the atmosphere of the dream seemed relevant.
  • Lower right: A few notes on the colours in the dream, and then whether I could apply that to an illustrated project. This started off the train of thought that led to the page where I insulted my favourite watercolours.

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These colours remind me of the pencils in Sarah, Plain and Tall

Here’s the next day’s pages, too (it was a very exciting day: I was still laid up but the ladies who came to clean brought a cage of puppies).

On the right, the activity was the simple one of coming up with 20 solutions for a problem — in this case, how to bring together competing considerations for the colour treatment on the cover of Lauren Dixon’s Welcome to the Bitch Bubble (here’s the cover process post and the preorder link — it comes on on 12 May!).

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The Observation Journal

This year I have been designing and delivering the tutorials for a new subject on creativity at my university. One of the pieces of assessment was an observation journal, and I wanted to work up an approach to it that I could use as a template for when the students first started (something beyond just their class notes), that would serve as an example of its feasibility, where I could test ideas, and which would be genuinely useful for future tutorials and assessment.

These are some of my earliest notes towards it. I had just read Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, and I liked the potential of her did/saw/heard/picture pages: five things you’ve seen/heard/done that day, and a picture of something from it — both for a manageable amount of daily observation and as a resource for other activities.

But as I’ve kept using this approach, I’ve also found it a very soothing structure — it prompts me to notice things, but not excessively; it can gently retrieve a sinking mood; it encourages me to remember things, but only just enough to make me thoughtful; it catches the tenor of a day (and an era) surprisingly well, without the time needed to construct an accurate record of events; it can be done very quickly (important for reassuring undergrads); and it’s an unexpectedly wide-ranging resource for many games, ideas, and projects (more on those later).

These are from back in January when I was on fairly strong painkillers, walking (as you can see) with a cane, and unable to sit up to write, which contributes to the overall air of illegibility. (The last picture is of a mummified gecko found in a cupboard, just fyi).

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The Key to All Mythologies (or: cultivating spurious links)

A common thread between a lot of my favourite ways of collecting and getting and stress-testing ideas is, well, looking for common threads. Finding a strand in the tapestry of stories I like, or want to tell, or know relatively well, and pulling it to see what comes with it.

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The scratchboard underpinnings of Scarlet

You can use the results to construct a theory (however spurious: quite useful for coming up with ideas for academic proposals and short stories), a conspiracy (also useful for plotting, per Tim Powers), a subplot, a thematic patterning, a deeper resonance to a simple image. It’s an excellent way to shuffle through your mental library for fun and profit, and to try out connections. And if you enjoy reasoning and arguing, or want to get better at them, it’s good practice.

Plus, it’s fun, and an excellent way to vary many games if you’re more into parlour games than more formal board/card games.

Activities:

  • Game variations: Draw a card from Dixit, or three from Once Upon a Time, or one from Machine of Death, or a line from Masquerade, and see how many stories you can think of that (you can argue) they describe. You can get metaphorical/esoteric, as long as you’re prepared to back up your claims.
  • Writing/illustration: Think of a favourite story, and then choose a favourite/key element from it (for example, if you choose Cinderella it might be clocks, or glass, or lizards). Then start a list of other stories you know fairly well that also rely heavily on that element (Apollo 13? Snow White? Jurassic Park?). Try to get to ten.
    – Then step back and think about hidden connections that might exist — is there a trade in enchanted glass objects?
    – Maybe there are strong enough echoes that you could blend stories (could Cinderella be written to be about an astronaut?).
    – Or there might be textures and themes you could drag from one story into another (what if, when illustrating Cinderella, you make the enchanted lizards terrifying? or if, when riffing on stories about velociraptors, you make them beautiful?).
  • Or choose an object close to hand, and do the same.

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(Also up now as a print on Redbubble)

On notebooks: Questions and declarations

My notebooks are full of little questions I rarely go back to — and if I do, it always seems such an effort to worm my way back into the original excitement of the idea in order to answer them. I could just be drawing something new.

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I’m learning, gradually, to phrase the questions as answers, even if only tentative ones.  To catch ideas as a sketch or the most fragile of outlines. To just paint the thing and see if, as usual, that solves the conundrum.

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It’s a small way of staying in motion.