Inventing rites and rituals — some lists from the observation journal

I’m planning a post on how rites and rituals show up in short stories, and wanted to refer back to this observation journal page. So I’m posting it earlier than it would otherwise have appeared!

I was thinking about the way rites and rituals — as human an urge as covering surfaces with patterns — can shape a story or be the base for building a world.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes on story ideas.

I wanted to play with these ideas and effects without using the most obvious existing rituals, or ones I didn’t fully understand. So I made a little ritual-generator out of two (non-comprehensive!) lists: purpose and subject. You can expand the lists with your own interests and knowledge.

Purpose of rite/ritual/invocation/ceremony/sacrament/etc

evokeencirclehideconfersevertransform
invokefarewellrecognisetransferseparaterenew
summonwelcomeacknowledgesteadyremoveimprove
avertrememberidentifysupporttransitionreform
banishremindpledgeseekpreventreturn
shamemarksacrificerequestbarreset
removeowngiftpetitionacknowledgebless
honourpossessinvestaccompanyprotectheal
securejoinpartakeharmoniseeasespeed
protectdisguiseapproachbeautifyliminalease

Subject

lifecropsjourneyfreedomfutureholy
deathplantspartnershipseasonspastunholy
agesvehiclesmarriagedayspresentphenomena
roleshousesrelationshipstidesmeteorologylegend
humantoolsadoptiontimesdisasterdeities
animalutensilsdisowningcelebrationshopeshealth
birdendeavourroleseventsaspirationsprocesses
fishjobsteachingmemorialsdepartedindustrial
weathercallingrulinghistorychildrenwar
landcommissionservinggovernmenteldersdomestic
businesscontractvowpromisephysicalabstract

The writing/illustration exercise

  • Take one or two items at random from each list and combine them (e.g. gift/legend or renew/own/animal).
  • Then expand them into a rite or ritual, getting more specific (e.g. a generational ritual to pass ownership of a community’s founding legend or an annual rite to renew ownership/stewardship of draught-animals).
    (Note: Keep an eye on where these brush against or trample on rites and rituals actually in use, and on places you might want to push against expectations, use discretion, avoid stereotypes or come down hard on (or redeem) a ceremony you’ve suffered through.)
  • If you know the world in which this story will happen, you can draw details and aesthetics for the ritual from it — weaving it into the substance of the world. Or you can start with the ritual and add details and aesthetics from things you like or notice around you (art deco/modernist!), and discover more about the place and people that way.
  • Then, if you’re using this to build a world or story, ask what could go wrong (or more right than was anticipated!), and follow the implications. (Control, enforceability, cost and benefit are some other interesting if cynical questions to ask — or consider e.g. the evolution and varied iterations of the ritual, and what it means to different people.)
  • Make a quick sketch (written or drawn) of a scene.
  • Bonus round: Note where the story or world started to grow, or where it didn’t. Repeat the process, and see if there’s a pattern, or if there are questions that helped grow it. Is there a echo among the ideas that resonate for you? Are there more entries you’d add to the lists?

More to come when I post about rituals and story structure.

Observation Journal: Swapping characterisations and roles

On this observation journal page, I was playing with more ways to look at a story (written or drawn) with fresh eyes.

It was a process I wanted to use on my own sketches and drafts, but as usual, I tried it out on a fairy tale first.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a strand of leaves getting caught in a cafe fan. Notes swapping characterisations

I used “Little Red Riding Hood”, because I’d just spent a couple pages on it in another context (The Story Behind the Story).

First, I kept the characters in their established roles (Little Red Riding Hood playing herself, the Mother playing the Mother, the Wolf… well, you know). For each, I listed their obvious/easy/common traits. This is easy and fun — leaning into stereotypes and cliches in order to use their strength against them is usually a good time (see e.g. The Caudwell Manoeuvre).

Then I mixed them up.

CharacterUsual personality
LRRinnocent and plucky
Mothersolicitous but hands-off
Wolfwily & ferocious
Grandmotherfrail & vulnerable
Woodcuttertaciturn & pragmatic
Washerwomencheerful and in solidarity
(I like the version with the helpful laundry ladies at the river)

I then moved each characteristic up by one. Now it’s a story about a cool and capable Little Red Riding Hood, sent by her ferocious mother to visit her taciturn, pragmatic grandmother. On the way, she meets a frail, vulnerable wolf…

Next, I pushed things further by keeping the story the same, but having the characters play each others’ roles. Now it’s a tale of a washerwomen sent into the forest by a wolf to visit a child, and on the way they meet a treacherous woodcutter…

You could use either approach to shake up a story for retelling. But I’ve found it useful as a thought exercise when working on projects — drawn or written! I mightn’t ultimately make these changes, but playing through these exercises can highlight where I’ve made easy instead of interesting choices with a character, or identify where my original choice was correct but needs to be done with more deliberateness or flamboyance. And it’s an interesting way to break open someone else’s story in order to analyse it, or to have fun with it.

Writing/illustration exercise

  • Choose a story (written or visual). It can be someone else’s or your own.
    • List the characters. Next to each, briefly describe their obvious/default personality. Keep this simple. If it seems stereotypical, that’s fine.
    • Now, swap the characteristics around. Either randomly, or by shifting them all along one space.
    • Do a quick sketch (drawn or a paragraph) of what the story might now look like. (And make a note of any new ideas it gives you.)
  • Make a table with a list of roles (key characters) from the story. In the next column, put the same characters, but shuffled.
    • Pretend each character now has to play the new role to which you’ve assigned them.
    • Do a quick sketch (drawn or a paragraph) of what the story might now look like. (And make a note of any new ideas it gives you.)
  • Bonus, for each: Make a note of what worked, and what you liked, and see if you can identify why. Identify where the changes broke the story, or how robust the original idea was.
Tiny ballpoint sketch of leaves getting caught in a cafe fan.
Bird and man watching plastic leaves get caught in a cafe fan

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Observation Journal: more swapped descriptions (gilded)

Here’s a recurring observation journal page, with one of my favourite activities: mixing up descriptions. This forces a closer look at ordinary things, from slightly unexpected perspectives. Sometimes it creates miniature poems, at others it builds an image that pulls away into a story. Almost always, it’s an engrossing little mental exercise.

For related posts and other examples, see variations on descriptions, and other posts under the “descriptions” category.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a bowl. Notes swapping descriptions

On this page, I chose four things from the day, and paired them: picnic bench and youth, chooks and gold leaf (it was Inktober — see below for a related illustration). For each word, I then made a list of descriptions using words and metaphors I associated with the other word in that pair.

Notes swapping descriptions

Picnic bench

  • youthful
  • springing
  • slatted with spring light
  • sifting flowers
  • curled/curved like a fern frond
  • ribbed like a fern
  • slim-legged/nimble-limbed
  • unsteady as a lamb
  • stubborn

I noted a “push to metaphor”. Now, I notice an organic vivacity and lightness.

Youth

  • four-square on the earth
  • curved and up-springing
  • youth on which all else rests
  • youth on which age depends
  • barred with strength and air
  • the promise of birds
  • knee-deep in greenery

The note says “sentiment”. But there’s a solidity, here, that the idea of the bench brought to the prettier language I was using before.

Chooks

  • square and bright as gold leaf
  • metal-tipped
  • ruffled like soft foil
  • scattering/scattered in light
  • in a cloud of glittering dust/insects

“Tricky but ennobling”. I really like these ones — it was more of a reach than the reverse (below), but I think that paid off.

Gold leaf (imitation)

  • fine-feathering
  • soft and enveloping as [illegible]
  • brooding on size
  • nested in corners of container
  • flocked

“Personifying”. I’m struck by how textural these are (very particular to the textures of metal leaf in use), and also that the staticness (brooding and nesting and enveloping) implies some readiness to movement.

Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of a hen looking at a radio.
For Inktober 2020 prompt “Radio” plus “The cowardly hero deceived the hen.” (This was VERY TINY and also a birthday card for my father and something of a riff on His Master’s Voice.)

Writing/illustration activity (originally posted, at greater length, in Variations on descriptions)

  • Pick two words at random. Concrete nouns — especially ordinary things — tend to be easiest to start with (especially for art).
  • Consider the descriptions/visuals you associate with each. You can lean into cliches and stereotypes here.
  • Describe (or sketch) each word using descriptions that belong more obviously to the other word.
  • Repeat.
  • Bonus: Note any tendencies or difficulties. Can you lean into or pull against or leverage those? Are there any broader patterns in your approaches?

Observation Journal: The Story Behind The Story

On these pages of the observation journal, I unpacked some feedback I kept giving students on their stories: to look at the story behind the story.

On the first page, I tried it out on a couple of projects I’d been working on — a short story that has never quite got off the ground, and a very old draft that’s since become a place for testing ideas (see The Usefulness of Template Stories).

The idea is, you mentally remove the plot, and see what’s left behind — the world and the currents and relationships that support the story (or fail to). What would we know about the world, and who would the characters be if the plot weren’t happening?

Handwritten notes on stories behind stories

The exercise stirs up sediment, creates currents, pans gold dust — or, to shift metaphors, it creates sudden changes of lenses and focus.

The process certainly paid off indirectly: I can trace several elements and epiphanies about my current manuscript to some notes on this page — and observations on the facing page.

The following week, I tried the exercise again, this time on “Little Red Riding Hood”. I listed major characters/presences, and pulled back to ask what would be there if the story weren’t happening — the sorts of people who live in the woods, the natures of these wolves, how the grandmother came to live where she lives, etc.

Handwritten notes on stories behind stories

If I pulled on these strands, I ended up with a soberer story than usual, and a sequel to previous stories — a brother and sister grown old and still living in the forest, a witch they destroyed who has returned as a wolf and is trying to become human again…

The process forced logic and loops and links, as well as pulling in other recent thoughts and preoccupations. It turns out to be a useful way to expand a fairy-tale plot.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of a rose

Writing/illustration exercise

  • Choose a story — a fairy tale, or a story you like, or one you’re working on or with (see Template Stories).
  • Make a list of at least five key characters, elements, locations, or motifs that exist in the story.
  • Mentally, remove the main plot. What information or questions are you left with about those key characters/elements? What do we know about them, in the absence of Plot happening? Who would they be, if not caught up in the story?
  • How might you fill in those details? Can you link those questions and answers to suggest the fabric of the world behind the story? Or even to find some larger stories behind it?
  • Sketch out (words or pictures) a key scene from the original story, adding that new information in as names, textures, interactions, details…
Tiny ballpoint sketch of a woman holding a Siamese cat
Alex and Obi

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Observation Journal: Ideas behind the patterns (or, The Romance of the Navigable World)

The observation journal has been very useful for not only collecting thoughts but developing them. Many of these are for creative projects. The journal, however, has helped my clarify thoughts and opinions on processes and theories, and to find new questions to pursue beyond those. This has helped with making things, of course, but also with writing about things I and other people have made.

In this post, I’ve:

  • set out a quick outline of how this appears to work, and
  • followed it with an example of a page that led to a piece for the Meanjin blog.

Finding ideas behind the patterns

Sometimes an interesting question will spark on the page, and I’ll chase off after it for several days until I run it to earth. But sometimes ideas emerge more slowly. The observation journal has let me approach those gradually, waiting until I have enough information or something has crystallised in the back of my mind, or the time is otherwise right.

In both cases, this seems to be the approach I follow. The key part is the two-step of looking, and then looking again. (If you’re a Pratchett reader, there’s a dash of Tiffany Aching in there.)

  1. Collecting impressions over time
    • Keeping an eye on what I was reading and watching (or looking at, or writing, or drawing),
      AND
    • Noting interesting things about them — see e.g. the “five things to steal” posts.
    • See also, more generally, posts in the “finding patterns” category.
  2. Noting patterns
    • Either noticing obvious patterns, or forcing connections between apparently unrelated books, shows, etc, or being struck anew by something in an older entry — see Bookmarks and Remarks, and Todd Henry’s note-taking model referenced there).
    • On this point, and the one above, see Distilling Thoughts and Readings.
  3. Picking a particularly interesting pattern
  4. Listing key aspects and examples
    • Often (as here) I’ll have already noticed some obvious aspects of the pattern. I’ll list those, then look for examples of each.
    • At other times — as with staginess — I’ll just list the examples, and see what emerges.
  5. *Listing notable components of those examples
    • What about that book or picture of movie makes it so particularly an example of the thing I’m examining?
  6. *Looking for new patterns and points of interest in this new level of notes
    • Sometimes these are obvious. At other times, finding links can be a puzzle. Sometimes the disparity is the point, and the joy is in the surprise of bringing these apparently disconnected examples together.
  7. Seeing what can be done with that
    • A story, a theory, an amusement, a structure, something to fight with or against…

Step 4 is where I’d tend to stop in the past, when trying to get from “things I know” to (for example) “a written essay”. But steps 5 and 6 are where the process generally tips into a new gear and the fun begins.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of me sitting in bed writing. Notes on "romance of the navigable world"

Example: The Romance of Navigable Worlds

At the time I wrote this page, I was working on a post for Meanjin on what I’d been reading, and the ways I was trying to make those books fit each other. That piece ended up being particularly about the idea of “the romance of the navigable world”: What I’m Reading: Kathleen Jennings.

I’d been thinking about this idea in my paper “Heyer . . . in Space! The Influence of Georgette Heyer on Science Fiction”, which eventually became a chapter in Georgette Heyer, History and Historical Fiction (available from UCL Press, and although the print version is very reasonably priced, the ebook version is free). But at that time, I was interested in the mechanics permitted by a story that was about becoming competent in a world, vs a story that was about breaking and changing a world.

However, the appeal of such stories kept recurring through the observation journal, in various guises. See, for example, the aesthetics of stagey worlds (Chasing Patterns With Digressions on the Appeal of Staginess and Little Groves), the delight of of watching people become competent (Sparks and Navigable Worlds and Five Things to Steal from Midsomer Murders), and structure as trap vs structure as freedom (Distilling Thoughts and Readings). It also kept appearing in many books I was reading.

Of course, once you notice a pattern, it’s easier to find new examples — even spurious ones. The trick there is remembering whether you’re analysing for Serious Purposes (using defensible examples) or creating fiction/ornament/entertainment/havoc (in which case the spurious ones can be the most fun).

Handwritten notes, mind-map style, on a "romance of the navigable world"

So on this page, I dropped all those ideas into one place. I listed the types of books (generally rather than by name, in this case). And then I noted the relevant characteristics of each. This let me see what further patterns emerged. At this point I wasn’t thinking of using this argument as an article structure, as such — but I wanted to see if I had more to say than “I’ve been reading books with this in it”.

There were a few new patterns — the sense of bumping around a world and bouncing off its walls, and the possibilities this approach has for narratives without obvious antagonists. But the most interesting pattern was the recurring note that certain of these stories tended to be, or could easily be, or were inherently conservative. That in turn (particularly with small or exclusive or rigid worlds) suggested ways the fantasy of a navigable world could become as much a tragedy as a romance.

In the end, the layers of these notes gave structure to the piece on what I’d been reading — but looking for those patterns added detail and nuance, and questions I could introduce into future conversations and explorations.

A tiny ballpoint drawing of me sitting in bed writing
Writing on the bed

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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: Project reviews for silhouettes and portraits

Two more project-review pages of the observation journal.

For previous examples see the project review category, and for a list of questions I ask, see Questions for Project Reviews.

The first was for my silhouettes for Chain of Iron by Cassandra Clare (the process post about those illustrations is here: Art Process — Chain of Iron).

Mind-map style project review re Chain of Iron illustrations

I identified two important lessons on this project:

  • I really like links within projects, physical and metaphorical, final effect and process. I’ve written about this previously — see, for example, On Silhouettes and Further Points of Connection, and The Key to All Mythologies — cultivating spurious links.
  • Tools need to be good and in good condition. The difference between newly sharp and poorly resharpened blades is the difference between cutting butter with a hot knife and gnawing through a branch with your teeth. But so is the difference between two different manufacturer’s blades.
Silhouette portrait of a man tipping a hat, with an oval frame surrounded by flowering vines, a spear, a newspaper, a dagger, and a bottle

The next review is for the portraits I did for the Queensland Literary Awards. My interview about those is up on the SLQ website: A Conversation with Kathleen Jennings.

Mind-map style project review re literary award portraits

A few key lessons from this:

  • Build panic into my planning — it’s part of the process.
  • Plan to do multiple versions/”throwaway” versions — permission to throw a piece out it makes me loosen up a lot and occasionally removes the need to.
  • Price originals before finding out if people want them. (Thank you Gavin Grant for lessons around this!)
  • The difficulty I have with portrait work from photos (static reference, some degree of likeness required) can be offset to a degree by requesting photos with pets in them (adds life to the pose, adds movement/character, distracts the viewer).
  • The need to practice aspects (e.g. skin tones) in advance, when working with limited materials and colours. Usually with the sketchbook and markers I’m relying a lot more on strong light and context hints than I can for static portraiture, even in a sketchy style.
  • While I get tense about portrait work, I love and miss documentary sketching — it’s reminded me to steer more towards the latter, and suggest it vs traditional portraits. In fact, the next job I did for the State Library was documentary sketching: Next Library.
Kathleen Jennings's portraits of Queensland Literary Award winners Yen-Rong Wong, Tabitha Bird, and Joey Bui
Portraits of Queensland Literary Award winners Yen-Rong Wong, Tabitha Bird, and Joey Bui

I also learned a few lessons about project reviews generally:

  • I retain end-of-project lessons better than day-to-day ones (I have theories), which makes these reviews very useful.
  • Many of the small details help me usefully answer those tricky little questions in bios, etc, (what do you find difficult to draw?) as well as giving direction for specific projects and techniques in future (the original point).
  • A project review can itself become the basis for an article, whether about a specific piece (e.g. A Conversation with Kathleen Jennings) or more generally. For example, I’m starting to think about a piece on my experience portraiture, and aspects of both these project reviews (fictional silhouette portraits, stylised portraits of real people) will get into it.
  • Highlighting the most important notes (in the moment) is very helpful.

For other posts about project reviews, see the project review category, and for a list of questions I ask, see Questions for Project Reviews.

reading on the sofa

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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: Time & self-management aka immoveable moods, moveable objects

Or: a not terribly flattering portrait of the artist.

Every so often I attempt to use the observation journal to optimise my time management (ugh — and perilously close to being introspective). It’s useful because the journal structure contains that urge and keeps the results in one place, so that I can look back and see what has changed (very little) and what approach actually works for me (one thing), and how much enjoyment analysing it brings me (moderate to minimal).

Executive summary: The one lesson that has consistently been helpful is knowing I am that way.

Effective workarounds vary from day to day, some tips and tricks and epiphanies break through for a while. What remains useful is being able to accept that I will react a certain way, and then attempting to remember to account for that (or at least not blaming myself too bitterly when myself happens).

I still wanted to share these pages, because I find it useful to look at the structures around creative work occasionally (if only to remind myself not to spend too much time on it) and because the exercises were useful — just not always in the way I’d expected. (The deviations were, however, consistent.)

Side notes:

  • These approaches have created more grand practical solutions (vs calm acceptance) when I’ve applied them to physical workspaces. See: Space and time and more epiphanies.
  • If you’re into productivity and time management books, you might spot some oblique references to techniques from Dan Charnas’ Work CleanPeter M Ball recommended that to me, and it was very useful for working out how to do the bare minimum to keep on top of the worst of the admin. If you follow or support Peter (newsletter and Patreon links are on his page) he often has good tips and précis on similar books, and details on how he applies them to his own projects.
  • Distractions and interruptions
    • On the first of these pages, I made a list of distractions and interruptions to my work. I then noted how I tended to react, why I react that way, and whether there was an obvious solution.
    • Often there was an obvious solution that was not feasible (for reasons ranging from pandemic realities to the nature of deadlines). Accepting that helped me temper my reactions a little. Knowing my reactions made me better able to deal with them.
    • There were some interesting patterns — resentment tended to be directed at entirely innocent external parties and was due to me running late (sorry everyone); weariness attended large non-creative things I nevertheless wanted; anxiety came from competing equally-weighted commitments.
    • The obvious answer to all of this was to do work regularly early. Isn’t it always? The practical answer was to be aware of how I was about to act out, and rein myself in.
  • Things that work and why I don’t do them
    • The next week I jotted down a few things I know help me get work done. For each I noted why I suspected it worked, and why I don’t do them. (And, occasionally, a possible solution.)
    • I also made a little list of improbable ideals, which is always illuminating, if unflattering. Basically, mine boil down to having someone to whom to outsource most executive functions. (I do in fact know why I am this way.)
    • The most useful part of this exercise has not been these secondary solutions, although I do refer back to them. Rather, since I seem to be committed to a degree of emergency-as-lifestyle, it’s been useful having a conscious list of approaches that have worked, and which I can deploy in an emergency (even if I don’t like employing them consistently).
    • I’d like to revisit this list and look at the reasons behind the reasons I don’t do the “correct” things. I suspect that would be more illuminating, and suggest some… not workarounds, but ways to trick myself into doing decent work while thinking I am having a good time. I learned some very good lessons about this in the first semester of my MPhil, so it is possible.
  • Objections and intentions
    • The following week I tried to pre-empt my contrary nature again. I made a list of things I wanted to try (early rising, etc), my likely objections, and possible workarounds. I succeeded in achieving remarkably few of them.
    • This exercise make me more aware of some of my own arguments against myself. But it confirmed that, in general, the path of least resistance is (where possible) to reconfigure the physical world around my inclinations, rather than the other way around. (Immoveable objects are a matter for another day).

Exercise:

I haven’t written this up as a creative exercise because it isn’t about drawing or writing as such. But if you are interested in looking at your own work habits, these are some interesting questions to lean into. But I particularly recommend asking those further questions at the end: what did you notice not only through the exercise but about the exercise, and how it worked with or for or against you.

Anyway: back to the art and writing!

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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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