Observation Journal: Five Things To Steal From A Cafe

I was being silly on this page of the observation journal, choosing Five Things to Steal from a cafe I was in (Bean — now closed, alas).

(For background, see previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a backpack with a box of books in it. Notes on a cafe I was in

I began this flippantly, although I was curious to see what else the activity might work on, and how ideas pinched from a setting could be reworked into art or writing or life.

The answer was: very well. I had to moderate a strong inclination to turn everything into a metaphor. But very interesting things happened when these points of inspiration were applied to or ran up against other patterns and fascinations I’d been noticing recently.

Handwritten notes on things to 'steal' from a cafe

Here are the five:

  • Shrine to the mundane / honouring the ordinary (old furniture, paintings of little things)
    • as an image, as a concept, as a reminder when writing, as a way to arrange my bookcases
  • Trellises (being used in the cafe to display art)
    • as a practical solution, as a metaphor for showing the underpinnings of a world etc, the use of lattices to connect worlds (Deep Secret, etc)
  • Cheerful / cosy bunker
    • a reminder (since my house isn’t arranged for looking out of easily) that it can be done by having lots to look at inside and many small spaces, as a story setting/mood/aesthetic, in art as a cavern drawn with no reference to externalities (an inversion of the little groves)
  • A particularly vivid blue/green in some paintings — in the background, in pupilless eyes etc
    • a reminder of some people I’ve known with vivid/striking/unsettling eyes, a pattern of outlining things with other things and/or outlining an absence (with a Midsomer Murders connection, of course)
  • Fake leaves everywhere — kitschy but oddly cheerful
    • a reminder to put more foliage more deliberately into images, and to consider plants as part of various aesthetics

Writing/illustration exercise:

  • Think of a space you’ve recently been in (the less obviously inspiring is sometimes better) or look are the place where you are right now.
  • Find five things about that space that you would like to steal — textures, colours, shapes, approaches to interior design, noise, atmosphere, etc.
  • For each, list at least three different ways you could incorporate it into an illustration or story. Try pushing past just representing an object/using the setting (but do that, too!). Could you approach it as a metaphor? How would you insert it into an existing idea?
  • Choose a few of those ideas and do a quick treatment/sketch (written or drawn).
  • Bonus: Do you notice any habits/patterns in what you chose, or how you adapted them? Make a note — you could try leaning harder into those tendencies, or flipping them. Did some of the ideas spark more than others? What did they have in common, and can you actively pursue that when coming up with ideas in the future?
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a backpack with a box of books in it
Here is my backpack with a box of Flyaway in it.

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Observation Journal: Notes on Learning Writing

On this observation journal page, I was collecting notes on where I’d learned what I knew (so far) about writing. (If this looks familiar, the page was the basis of for the post Writing — A Short History of Lessons Learned.)

Broadly (in case you want to attempt something similar) I started dropping all the places I could think of having learned anything about writing onto the page (words in circles), and then listed off each the main lessons I’d learned there. Then I looked for patterns.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day. Notes on where/how I learned about writing.

It was not exhaustive — among other things, I did it at 3am — but it was a useful exercise, for several reasons (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • there are always lessons that need to be re-learned, and having them in one place is handy
  • knowing how I learn has made it much easier to deliberately learn
  • there are occasionally minor incidents that turn out to have been quite important, and it’s useful to know what they were and why, the better to seek out similar approaches (and thank people — the mentorship bubble is 75% Angela Slatter)
  • it also made it much easier to give your-mileage-may-vary answers to questions other people asked me about writing
  • there’s an honesty and humility that comes from working out from where (and how late) certain lessons were learned — quite useful when doing any amount of teaching

This page turned into the post Writing — A Short History of Lessons Learned.

Handwritten mind-map style notes on how I learned about writing.

The main patterns, in the order learned (more detail at the earlier post) were:

  • Knowing I wanted to do it.
  • Actually doing it.
  • Finishing it.
  • Getting stylish.
  • Running with others.
  • Learning structure.  

It’s also lovely revisiting this page (and the previous post) now, because I can see I’m still learning, and how, and what — particularly through the process known as “now do it again”, and the structural and style exercises from this journal, and the much more deliberate reading and learning I’m doing as a result. I might need to do this exercise again soon.

Also, I don’t think I’ve done this exercise for illustration yet, for some reason. One to put on the list.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of me standing on a chair wiping down the ceiling
Cleaning the ceiling after a warm can of Coke Zero fell over on the floor and sprayed everywhere

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Observation Journal: Distilling thoughts and readings

The observation journal has been wonderful for developing ideas, pursuing fascinations, and creating projects and exercises.

Occasionally, however, I simply use it to gather loosely-related thoughts (e.g. five thoughts on surface design), to comb through for patterns and lessons. Often these will turn into more detailed investigations or projects, raw material for exercises and workshops activities. But the first stage is just jotting them down, and then looking for patterns (although occasionally loose thoughts turn into a written piece on their own).

If you’re keeping a similar notebook, this can be a quick way to review what you’ve been thinking about recently, and to find ideas and lessons to pursue and examine.

Here are two examples (there will be more in the future).

1. Tracing a suspected pattern

I’d noticed a pattern in my reading (and in my concerns about my own work). This page was a quick exercise in pinning that down, and tracing some of the implications. It’s a similar process to tracing a fascination (e.g. Little Groves), but more nebulous.

Handwritten notes on patterns in recent reading.

The recurring pattern was structure as a trap vs structure as freedom. It united topics from discussions in an architecture reading group to thoughts on narrative theories, analyses of clothes in books (on the Clothes in Books blog), silhouettes and my attempts to work through story structure, Xanadu (the movie) and several murder mysteries. The most common theme within this was a sense of tricks and traps, and the mechanisms that can provide (or require you to avoid).

Many of these thoughts very much escaped into my “What I’m Reading” article for Meanjin, on “The Romance and Horror of the Navigable World“.

2. Looking for a pattern

On the second page, I went looking for a pattern, collecting advice that kept recurring across a great deal of reading (and many conversations, and some reluctant self-reflection), and then distilling it further.

Handwritten notes on patterns in recent reading.

The main overall lesson and reminder was that, whatever it takes to get the work done, to be deliberate about it.

Ballpoint sketch of a beagle asleep on a cushion
Johnny

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Observation Journal: Five Things To Steal From The Art Gallery

This page of the observation journal is a reflection (nefarious) on a visit to QAGOMA (the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art).

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of a running lizard, notes on things seen at the gallery

The Five Things To Steal exercise is a useful way to quickly make notes on and tease inspiration from specific books, movies, etc. But I’ve also found it a lovely way to approach a broader experience — in this case, an art gallery.

It’s a good way to capture a substantial (but not overwhelming) handful of impressions, and speculate on what to do with them.

(Related: previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Handwritten notes on 5 Things To Steal From QAGOMA
  • The sense of being parachuted into someone else’s visual memory: a sense of slowly descending into a landscape belonging to a particular artistic vocabulary.
    • This was in relation to a Mavis Ngallametta exhibition — I’d seen the paintings in small reproductions, but that was nothing like the experience of simultaneously looking up at and floating down into their enormousness. And simultaneously being reshaped to fit into them.
    • I wrote a bit more about this vs writing in my post about Travelogues: All the shapes of the land.
    • It’s also something that I’ve been thinking about again more recently — it seems like it should relate very much to map illustration, but I love it as an example of lowering readers into a world.
  • The scrolling effect of the repetition of a long cabinet full of ceramic forms like water plants and coral and fungi.
    • This is for the reminder to use repetition, but also the appeal of long decorative bands.
    • (Like the notes on the camp dogs, below, this fascination continues to get into the calendar patterns.)
  • The mundane writ large, gaining weight and honour and importance.
    • This is about the value of the everyday, yes, but also of the contribution detail and texture and focus have to making something feel mythic.
  • Sunken garden, mirror pool, bronze figures, water dragons — a particular enchanted aesthetic.
    • (This is a description of the gallery cafe.)
    • I’ve noted it as a potential aesthetic for a large project I’m just now editing. It managed to completely flow off the back of that story, but I’m hoping it will pool in the next project.
  • The Aurukun camp dog sculptures, for a large number of repetitions that are entirely individual and have very distinct personalities. (And I mean, look at them.)

I enjoy looking back at these five-things-to-steal posts, finding my way back into an experience of something, turning over fascinations to see how they’ve grown or what’s grown under them.

I also like this little list of things seen on the same day (from the left-hand observation page — that structure is based on a Lynda Barry exercise, see more on this page: observation journal).

Handwritten list of things seen during the day, including wildlife and art exhibitions

I like the specificity of it, the way that makes the everyday remarkable, the way the list of disparate things forms into an impression of a day, the weight of wistfulness of the absence of jacaranda flowers under the painting where they are sometimes scattered.

Illustration/writing exercise:

  • Go to an exhibition or art gallery (in person or virtual). Roam around it idly.
  • Then think of five things you would like to pinch from it.
  • Then ask yourself why — what about that artwork or approach to curation or unexpected lighting appealed to you?
  • Then make your heist plan: how would you steal each of those effects for your own art/writing?
  • Do a little written or drawn sketch of a way you might incorporate that aspect.

Terrible tiny ballpoint sketch of running lizard
terrible lizard sketch, water dragons do not look very like this

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Observation Journal: Five Things to Steal from Porco Rosso

This page of the observation journal features five things to steal from that delightful Studio Ghibli film Porco Rosso, which at the time of these notes Grace Dugan and I had just been to see again.

Porco Rosso poster — pig with goggles, scarf, flight suit in a red plane, giving a thumbs-up

(Related: previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of crow on a McDonalds sign. On the right, notes on Porco Rosso.
everything lit golden, then frosted with blue light

I made these notes the day after the Five Things to Steal from Midsomer Murders post, so you might notice recurring characters.

Tiny handwritten notes on Porco Rosso.
  • Reliance on/use of very particular visual language to carry weight of story forward, while story is doing finer work.
    • (Language of Casablanca, etc, here — and I compared this to Sunshine on Leith which lets expected cliches do a lot of quick lifting for characterisation.)
    • I really liked the idea of making a choice of a very distinct aesthetic pay its way, and also to use it as misdirection to conceal a secondary story which is happening in the clues.
    • I made a note to practice writing scenes from different aesthetics (which I was already doing — see posts on aesthetics).
Tiny ballpoint sketch of feet in heeled shoes walking away from a wine glass on the floor, and a mouse running past it with a coin
Adding an era and setting aesthetic to the previous page’s mouse
  • A story that subtly passes a baton — the role of main character gets passed over and someone else ends the story.
    • Here it’s Fio, who was always the narrator — and it’s worth comparing to Nevil Shute’s No Highway (filmed with James Stewart as No Highway in the Sky), which ends with the narrator’s attention already being turned to new safety complications, and taken away from the winding-up of the main story.
    • I like the potential for combining this with an apprentice/journeyman/master transition (as noted on the previous page).
    • And also a connection to stories where a minor character gradually increases in importance, with a note to play with that in pictures.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of two people fighting with "somewhere they still..." written above.
somewhere, they still…
  • At some point, heroes and villains being rolled together to be allied in gentle nostalgia, and bundled away together into the past as time accelerates.
    • There’s a note here about the passage of a time/dream being the plot rather than the characters.
    • The trick of playing with this is not to be too easily merely sentimental.
    • That sense of the focus of a camera receding on (ex-) main characters.
    • And then the eternal charm of an entirely isolated independent hotel/island/refuge. The last homely house, little groves
Tiny ballpoint sketch of (possibly) a shadow among trees on a tiny isalnd.
  • A character exists who is, incidentally, probably something significant (e.g. a spy), and that is never addressed by the plot.
    • Such a good trope.
  • Two characters from separate strands of plot who only meet at the very end of a plot, and become instant friends.
    • (Or instant-ish, with respect to Oscar Wilde.)
    • Another variation: where their later relationship has been hinted (allusions, or the story is in flashback), but because they still only meet at the very end you never get to see any of that later connection.

At the bottom of the page, you can see I’ve made a little list of ways to explore some of those fascinations further.

Art/writing exercises

For general five-things exercises, see the end of the previous Five Things to Steal post.

Here is one way to turn a fascination into an activity of your own — basically a situation generator or a make-your-own Mad Libs:

  • Pick a story mechanic you find fascinating/a trope you like. (I find it easiest to limit myself to a certain genre).
    E.g. here, the baton-passing between two characters.
  • Identify the variables.
    Here, two characters/roles and a metaphorical baton.
  • Make a short list of possibilities for each variable. I usually try for at least five of each, often limiting it to the genre, but not always.
    With the example above, it would be two sets of five character roles/jobs (apprentice, journeyman, journalist, head of guild, patron, etc), and then five ‘batons’, which could be e.g. pursuit of justice, delivering a message, investigating a mystery, etc…
  • Mix and match.
    By the end of this story, a wealthy patron who has been investigating a mystery eventually passes responsibility for that to an apprentice cabinetmaker. Or vice versa.
  • Make a few notes (drawn or written) of characters or scenes this suggests.
  • Rinse and repeat.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a crow sitting on one arch of a McDonalds sign.
Crow at McDonald’s

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Handouts as a structuring principle, mockups for getting things done

Mock-ups of a book of map making instructions

For the 1-hour drop-in map workshop at BWF, I made little zine-fold (aka 8-fold) booklets, which I put in little mermaid-stamped envelopes with little pencils and little pieces of nice drawing paper. (I think I learned this in primary school, but there are plenty of instructions for this sort of booklet online, e.g. wikiHow.)

Above, you can see the mock-up process (the easiest way to turn a vague idea into something real: Mockups and outlines).

Photo of yellow envelopes stamped with a linocut mermaid, with versafine clair stamp pad and hand-carved stamp in foreground
  • I folded a piece of paper into a booklet and really quickly, without thinking too hard, scribbled the whole layout into it. Then I went back over and drew all over that with arrows, moving things around — but that hand-drawn version has almost everything in it.
  • Then I drew up a template in Photoshop, with shading for margins and areas that wouldn’t print, so I knew what I had to work with.
  • I put the main text roughly into place, and then put in the example images I already had (I’d deliberately drawn some calendar pages and other illustration to give me examples for map workshops — see for example Tiny Forests and Banners).
  • I printed that out, and used it as a template to draw all the extra details around, like the map and lettering on the front cover.
  • Then my housemate and I proofread it a few times, and I spent some pleasant hours cutting and folding and listening to music.

Was this overkill for a free one-hour drop-in workshop? Yes. Was I overcompensating for my own uncertainty as to the exact venue constraints and whether this workshop could be done in an hour? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes.

Designing and folding the booklets took time, but it was proportionate to the result. People enjoyed them (they were awfully cute), and said it was good to have for such a short class, and to be able to take away if they had to leave early (since it was drop-in). And I really liked have a physical object to give people, so I knew they left the workshop with something.

The biggest lesson for me was how useful this sort of booklet/zine/object was in planning and giving the workshop. It’s easy to just go wild with handouts. But this was a single, self-contained object, with a size appropriate to the length of the class (three double-page openings and a wrap-around cover — the flip-side of the paper was blank for people to use as scrap paper). It was something that constrained my natural urge to put ALL THE INFORMATION in a talk, but it was also a prop I could talk to and scale my time around.

It might not apply to every format, but I’d like to experiment with similar (if less-illustrated) scaled handouts as a central structuring object for other workshops.

Photo of whiteboard with very scribbly fairy-tale map on it
The whiteboard by the end of the workshop

I’m adding this to my running list of lessons I’ve learned for giving workshops and presentations (see e.g. lessons for presentations and conferences). I should probably do a master post at some point, but for now the main lessons I have learned (your mileage my vary) are:

  • Use a handout scaled to the workshop size.
  • Do an initial outline very quickly, before overthinking.
  • If a presentation is image based, arrange images in the slideshow first, print them out 9-to-a-page to keep track, then just talk to/about the pictures. Minimal script needed — often any title-slides and maybe one or two scribbled notes of phrases to remember are enough.
  • If a slideshow is image-heavy, export a copy to PDF and use that if the tech set-up allows — you can zoom in on a PDF in ways a Powerpoint doesn’t easily allow.
  • If a script is necessary, use cascading dot-points — this makes it easier to edit for time (skip up to high-level dot-points) or elaborate (by referring to the low-level ones), as well as to navigate quickly.
  • If it’s a creative workshop, get people making things as early as possible.
  • If you want people to interact, get them to share their thoughts/activities in smaller groups, then pick on the groups for any ideas that emerge (giving everyone safety in numbers/plausible deniability).
  • If possible, mixed-age workshops can be great. Adults mellow the kids, kids loosen up the adults, everyone seems more willing to show their work, and if you need someone to act out an implausible action for art reference purposes, young joints are better suited.

Observation Journal: Fitting pictures into shapes

This observation journal page is the art-exercise counterpart to a previous post on fitting stories into spaces.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of sanded semicircles lowering the edge of a concrete footpath. On the right, sketches fitting a man and dog, ibis, and sanitiser bottle into set shapes.

This time, instead of getting an (illustrated) story to fit into a panel progression, I was forcing images from the past few days (a tree, a person with a dog, an ibis, a bottle of hand sanitiser) to fit into a simple shape. (I’d done something similar in the post Sketching the People Glimpsed From the Corner of Your Eye).

Ballpoint sketches (coloured with blue marker) fitting sketches of a man and dog, ibis, and sanitiser bottle into set shapes.

Lessons learned:

  • This sort of exercise can be useful for developing an illustration. Choosing a strict framework for a composition both narrows the available options available and makes me be creative in designing new ones. It can also compress an image and make it iconic.
  • It’s also good practice for fitting art to unusual surfaces, e.g. a tureen.
  • A standardised shape for a set of illustrations can unify a set of disparate ideas. E.g., the illustrations for the main story-chapters in Flyaway all fit into a square. You can see some of those here: Illustrating Flyaway.
  • But squashing something into a strict shape which doesn’t necessarily suit it can teach a lot about that containing shape, too. That was the point of the exercise in the Rearranging Scenes post earlier this week, just with plot structure instead of e.g. triangles.
  • Those realisations aren’t revolutionary. A triangle, off-balance, creates an unbalanced composition. A triangle tends to be less organic, and movement runs into/up against the frame, but feels as if it lends itself more to narrative or character-in-action. A circle lends itself to organic shapes, and is more balanced and contained and iconic, but creates peculiar interaction with artificial/less-organic elements.
  • But in an exercise like this, the process of reinventing the wheel is the important thing — learning by doing instead of by being told, or understanding why what I’ve been told is so.

Illustration exercise (for writing exercises, try the ones in Fitting Stories into Spaces or Rearranging Scenes)

  • Basic exercise:
    • Pick three things you’ve seen today (objects or interactions).
    • Pick three basic shapes (circle, rectangle, square, pentagon, triangle, etc).
    • On a sheet of paper, draw each of those shapes three times.
    • Now, try to sketch each of your subjects (scenes/objects) once into each shape, as pleasingly as possible.
  • Bonus: Make a note of which combinations were easy, and which resisted. Did certain shapes fit certain types of subjects better? How did your approach to sketching a subject change as you repeated it through different shapes?
  • Bonus bonus: Pick a scene from a favourite story or movie or artwork (tip: consider viewpoints). Sketch it into several different shapes. Notice which weaken and strengthen the scene, and what you learn about both the shape and the scene.
  • Variation: See sketching the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye.
2020-04-05-Sketch02KJennings

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Observation Journal — rearranging scenes

On these observation journal pages, I was playing again with “Cinderella” — see previously: Mapping movements in stories.

(Noting the observations on the right: it was a windy, glinting-winged spring week, and my first copies of Travelogues had arrived.)

I was giving feedback on and marking creative writing assignments for a creative writing subject in the UQ Doctor of Medicine program (such a great subject) so I was sitting in on the lectures. Charlotte Nash gave a lecture on classic story structures (beginning/middle/end) — more or less the classic three-act structure.

I’ve mentioned before that while I find this sort of approach to structure very useful for editing — especially for diagnosing problems I suspect exist — I don’t find it particularly intuitive or organic. So I wanted to play around with this structure on a story I knew well (see: the usefulness of template stories).

First, I fitted that structure onto “Cinderella” — more or less the version with three nights of dancing, and the birds attacking the sisters at the wedding.

Next, I scrambled the scenes, and forced them to fit that structure in their new order.

On the right, notes on scene placement in Cinderella, with some coloured sketches.

I wanted to see how the scenes would need to change if they appeared in a different position — not necessarily in the internal chronology of the story, but in the order in which they were told. E.g., if the story opened on the delight of the prince rediscovering Cinderella, what introductory work would that scene need to do?

Here’s the randomised list of scenes, with the turning points between the acts (beginning, middle, end) marked.

delight of discovery — godmother’s appearance — to the ball — [gear change — story really gets going] mystery of identity after the second ball — the shoe — the wedding — the search — the mystery of identity after the first ball — [central tipping point] final revenge on step-sisters — the third ball — Cinderella reveals herself — attempts by the step-sisters to mislead the prince — [gear change — end becomes inevitable] the first dance — the early mistreatment of Cinderella — happily ever after — the second ball — Cinderella’s initial bereavement

But it was also interesting to see how it changed the emphasis of the story itself — in this case, a concentration on vengeance and/or filling a loss.

Ballpoint drawing with pastel marker colours of women in elaborate cloaks and hats.

I repeated the exercise a week later.

On the right, notes on scene placement in Cinderella, with some coloured sketches.

Here is how the scenes fell out this time:

dance #1 — misleading by step-sisters — dance #3 — turning point: initial mistreatment — you shall go to the ball — wedding — reveal identity — mystery after second dance — [central tipping point — happy ever after — initial loss — the prince’s search — dance #2 — turning point: delight of being found — revenge — appearance of godmother — shoe! — mystery after first dance.

Breaking “Cinderella” down this way suggested a story that went: joy! –> oh no! bad things behind it –> sense good things in the future –> fight for good things (in knowledge will get them) –> gentler fairy-tale business to wrap it all up.

That is, a story told in the confidence that evil will overcome, but in the knowledge that goodness must still fight in the meantime.

Breaking the story down this way highlighted a clearer separation between the character‘s journey and the reader’s journey — whether the two experiences run in harness, and where they play off each other.

Ballpoint drawing with faint watercolours of two people dancing over bones, and a girl in a ballgown rubbing a sore foot

I also kept a little sketched list of events and lines that occurred to me as a result of the exercise, for a story, if not for this one.

Ballpoint drawing with faint watercolours, of a person clutching a monster with "who transforms" and a fairy-tale wedding with "that's the story we'll tell them"

It was a very interesting exercise for:

  • Understanding classic structures a bit better.
  • Thinking through what scenes do and can do.
  • Approaching a retelling.
  • Shaking up my understanding of a story, even after I’ve put it back into order.
  • Coming up with little stray ideas.

Writing/illustration exercise:

  1. Choose a story you know well (fairy tales are usually quite useful and relatively short). List the scenes.
  2. Pick a common narrative or dramatic structure you want to play with (three-act structure and Freytag’s pyramid get talked about a lot, but if you’ve taken any writing courses, including in school, or read books on narrative, you’ll have been exposed to some version in detail).
  3. Line the structure up against the story. You might have to force it to fit in places. It’s interesting to note what might need to change in the story to make an Official Structure fit neatly, and what lets the story work in spite of not fitting some classic mould.
  4. Now, mix up your scenes randomly — cut them out and shuffle them, or roll a dice, or close your eyes and point.
  5. Again, line the structure up against the new order of scenes. Note what new work some scenes might do, and whether the new order suggests new meanings for the story.
  6. Pick the new first or final scene. Do a quick written or drawn sketch of it, letting it take on the new emphases, and making it do that new work of e.g. opening up the world or introducing characters or closing off the narrative and themes.

Ballpoint sketch of two women — one sitting, one standing — throwing food to a magpie.
Housemates and magpie

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Observation journal: Secrets and preoccupations

On these observation journal pages, I was playing with giving characters and objects a secret or preoccupation. The objects won.

I think this was on my mind because of some conversation with actors or about this approach in acting — not a central, plot-driving desire but some private concern which adds nuance to behaviour and speech.

As usual, I was trying it out on fairy-tales, as handy story-shaped objects. But it felt particularly useful for retellings, adding specificity to elements that have become simplified by time and use.

So I started by listing some stories and characters, adding a secret or preoccupation for each, and considering what that would do to the story.

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

E.g. if the miller’s son of “Puss in Boots” wants to be a miller, not a Marquis, then he’s going to spend the story resisting while fate forces his hand. If Cinderella’s father was a Bluebeard figure, it ups the stakes for the stepmother. If Jack’s mother (in Jack and the Beanstalk) is just trying to get her son out of the house, then his continued early returns to it become hilarious.

These could be allowed to change the plot. But they also add a little depth to a basic retelling, and help triangulate descriptions and dialogue.

I then selected a series of “secrets, moods, motives and preoccupations” for Puss in Boots, and used them to reframe the cat’s reassurance to the miller’s son, that if he will only do what the cat says, then all will be well.

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

A self-interested cat, a wearily responsible cat, a cat whose sole intention is to acquire a tall building from which to better catch birds, a cat which can talk but prefers not to — all will have this conversation in different ways.

I tried the original process again, listing various characters and objects from “Little Red Riding Hood”, and possible large and small secrets or preoccupations (is the mother trying to get to work? are the washerwomen of one version actually were-plovers? does the woodcutter’s axe have pacifist tendencies?).

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

Big secrets deepen and skew plots and connections, and shift the story into other tracks. Small preoccupations affect character, adding texture, tone, friction, etc.

Giving people secrets and preoccupations added to characterisation and plot. But giving preoccupations and interests to things was a delight, much more fun, and skewing easily into story ideas or texture.

So then I played with the door of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother’s cottage — giving it an interest in celebrity gossip, in fashion, in piracy, in murder — and seeing what effect that would have on the scene where Little Red Riding Hood arrives.

It added personality to the door, in the case of celebrity gossip (creaking with ill-contained excitement). In the case of fashion, it leaned into personification — a lintel tilted at a superior angle, like raised eyebrows, an appreciation of the gentleman with the nice fur coat. The connection to piracy added a sense of wider worlds and tales — the life the timbers led before, and what will happen to them after, and the place of this story in the scale of things. The interest in murder gave a sense of the world pushing back against the story, of deaths it has seen and perhaps been complicit in.

Tiny handwritten table of notes on secrets.

Art/writing exercise:

  • The secret lives of objects:
    • Pick a template story (a fairy tale, or tall tale, or urban legend, or classic superhero origin story, etc). List some of the key objects in it — specifically mentioned or strongly implied.
      (If you can’t think of any stories or objects, you can use the sketches below: a camera and tripod at a workshop in a conference room, and a cold-drip coffee set-up on a cafe counter).
    • Choose one object, and list 5 preoccupations or interests it might have. Some might be suggested by the story (what if the glass slippers are interested in sobriety and disapprove of dancing?). But look for some unexpected secrets, too — something people you know have been interested in lately, or one of your recent fascinations, or an interest connected to something you can see (well-engineered roads?).
    • Consider how that object first appears in the original story — jot down a simple sentence or sketch of the scene. Then decide how that scene might change, if the object had each of those preoccupations.
    • Make a quick written or drawn sketch for each.
    • Bonus: Note which secrets/preoccupations/moods tend to pull the story away from the original plot, or change the setting, or deepen the scene. Are there any patterns?
  • The secret lives of characters:
    • As above, but for characters in the story. (Personally, I find this approach useful, but the object exercise is much more fun.)

See also “swapped descriptions and descriptive filters” for a related descriptive exercise.

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Observation Journal: Proof of…

This observation journal activity arose from a talk Irene Gallo gave at the Illustration Master Class. She recommended that when we go to galleries, we look for just one thing — that is, for one thing in every piece of art, e.g. the colour yellow, or how draperies were treated.

I still play this as a game at galleries, alone or with friends — looking just for spirals, or only at the backgrounds, or arguing that every painting is a riff on Orpheus and Eurydice (last time I did this we got stumped on one painting until we worked out it was about that myth).

Double spread of journal. First page with observations from day, second with notes on patterns.
Editing Travelogues, watching Good Omens, and an ex-ceiling cat

On this particular day, I played the game with the day. I looked back over it for sickle shapes (a cat, split hazelnuts, a sequin’s visible edge), evidence of a secret city behind the city (floodlit buildings solitary in a park, the way emergency vehicles were only audible as they passed, model houses so small as to be models displayed in a model house), and “Little Red Riding Hood” (the grey fur of a cat, friends in pyjamas with blankets pulled to their chin, food packed up to carry away…).

Single page of hand-written observation journal identifying patterns

It’s a gentle game, useful for:

  • passing the time
  • useful conversations when visiting galleries with friends
  • long car trips
  • focussing attention
  • training yourself to see in a certain way, or to notice certain things
  • seeing the ordinary in different ways
  • inventing and supporting secret-history or conspiracy stories
Tiny ballpoint drawing of cat showing teeth
Saffy, an unflattering portrait

Art/writing exercise

  • Choose an element or a story. Here are a few ideas:
    • Elements:
      • colours
      • shapes
      • tones
      • patterns
      • treatments of e.g. reflections, draped fabrics, etc
    • Story:
      • a particular fairy tale or myth
      • a story with mythic weight for you (a movie, a tall tale)
      • your preferred variety of thrilling tale (murder mystery, heist, secret city, hauntings)
    • Other: Invent your own! There are also lots of excellent noticing activities out there — see e.g. Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing.
  • Go somewhere (physically or virtually): a gallery, a museum, a waiting room, about your day.
  • Look for as much evidence as you can of that one element or story. Be ridiculous if necessary. Stretch definitions.
  • Bonus round: do a sketch (written or drawn) of a place focussing on those elements, as if they are the most important (or the only) objects there.

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