Observation Journal: 5 Things to Steal from Baby Done

I completed this observation journal page the day I went to see Baby Done with my sister, a 2020 NZ romcom with Rose Matafeo and Matthew Lewis.

Baby Done movie poster

This page is a “Five things to steal…” exercise, where I find some interesting things the movie did, and consider ways to try out those techniques/mechanics in writing or art.

It’s a very useful exercise for late at night (as here!), to quickly record a few key impressions, and to turn up new lines of curiosity to pursue on future journal pages.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes on Baby Done
Left page: mostly news about local birds
  • The inversion of “usual” roles for this sort of story.
    • Not in a huge way, but nevertheless pleasing. In fact, possibly pleasing because the swap is in such a small, non-flashy way. Big, hand-waving subversions can be great, but these slight, subtle variations create personality and play with the delight of recognising what you already know but in charming reconfigurations.
    • See also posts on The Caudwell Manoeuvre, and other swapped descriptions
    • I made a note to try this on another now-standard plot later (I’ll post that in a bit)
  • Cutting from one scene directly to the middle of the next key scene, without needing to fill in everything that happens in between.
    • This is something I still am working on remembering to do / letting myself do.
    • There’s a note here, too, about Schitt’s Creek‘s similar willingness to jump. It can give a brisk surprise and jump-laugh to comedy, and keep the pace going, but it’s not at all comedy-specific.
  • Background friends who recur over a story, linking and looping back
  • Brisk, no-nonsense (but kind) nurses who are having none of the main character’s behaviour
    • This is a standard of the genre, but it amuses me.
  • People stepping into parental roles, in situations where they aren’t the parent.
    • I always find this compelling — something about someone not prepared to be responsible for others suddenly having to be, cheerfully or otherwise, and what that does for both the impression of their character and the weight of things that happen in the plot.
  • Specificity of jobs in stories (e.g., as here, tree-lopping).

The main recurring points of interest here were about (un)expected roles — swapping habitual positions, and the slight friction (surprise, delight, amusement, unfamiliarity) this creates.

For more Five Things to Steal posts, see the category Five Things to Steal.

Observation Journal — Story Behind the Shapes

This observation journal page is a variation on a previous activity.

The week before, I’d been playing with the concept of a story behind a story, as a way to strengthen a draft or unfold an existing story. Here, I was trying to apply that to illustration.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations. Notes with sketches on component shapes.

I adapted the activity by instead asking: If I remove the [primary/obvious] purpose, what remains?

Of course, I discovered I’d simply reinvented “breaking an image down into its component shapes”.

But doing that does create a basis for building something back up into new shapes and possibilities, and revealing alternative, less-obvious purposes.

Handwritten notes with tiny sketches of component shapes.

A more directly creative (as in, I made things out of it) activity was: Drawing the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye. But the mental exercise of this approach felt like a (mild) workout, and it was an intriguing way to hold an object in mind and at arm’s length, and look beyond the obvious.

Writing/illustration activity:

  • Choose an object in your line of sight.
  • Identify its main/obvious purpose.
  • Now ignore that purpose. What remains? A collection of shapes? Secondary or tertiary uses?
  • What could you build up with those residual aspects? What type of story might it have come out of (fictional or real)? Could you create something with those shapes and textures, or redesign the object to better fit a less-obvious use?
  • Do a quick sketch (written or drawn).
  • Bonus round: Repeat a few times. Then notice what was easy or hard, what tactics you defaulted to, what objects or features regularly charmed you.
2020-04-05-Sketch02KJennings
paint-water jug and candy (dice) jar

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Observation journal: make then think

These observation journal pages feature a simple activity: make a small thing, then make notes about making the thing.

The thing I made was a silhouette with imitation gold foil on it — a function of Inktober and Mother Thorn and other silhouette projects and interests at the time.

Page of observation journal with pasted-down silhouette of flowers and leaves, with gold detailing and handwritten notes

A few days later, I played with the same ideas again, this time with a gold leafing pen (Krylon).

Journal page with pasted down silhouette of holly (and left-over paper) with gold detailing and notes

This time, I was more focussed on a particular question (18k gold leafing pen vs imitation gold leaf) — how they handled and what effects they suggested. (See also: loving the tools.)

Observations (true for me):

  • Making something, however tiny, is immediately good — it’s forward motion.
  • A first attempt, even (perhaps especially) if it doesn’t work quite as imagined, unlocks new ideas.
  • Some practicalities can only be practically considered.
  • Getting words on screen or ink on paper is so much more powerful than thinking.
    Or perhaps: it is a much more powerful way of thinking.

See also: Making Little Things; The Tiniest Things; Small Projects and Tiny Unicorns.

These epiphanies are small and frequent. But it’s less important to know them intellectually than to learn them viscerally, and remind myself through my hands.

Tiny ballpoint sketch of parcels
parcels

Writing/Illustration/Creating Activity
(if you keep an observation journal, activities like these are a good way to find some personal fascinations and questions to pursue — they’re also a nice way to just calm down and make things)

  1. Make something small. Write a 50 word story or description of something you can see or draw a tiny portrait or try out a new pen or cover the page with fingerprints and draw legs on them or embroider a flower.
    (Bonus: if you’re stuck, try a separate exercise and make a list of at least 20 tiny things you could make. Be silly. Note where your thinking shifts gears. See if there are any patterns you could use to invent more activities, e.g. approaches you obviously like or are clearly avoiding.)
    • Stick it to the page (or if that isn’t feasible, note what it was you did).
    • Consider the thing you made, and how, and why, and what it was like to make and what you ended up with. You’ll have your own interests, but some places you could start are:
      • why this
      • senses (touch, smell, how the light affects it — these can be important for achieving an effect or working comfortably, but also for pursuing things you like)
      • ways you could use or develop it into something further or new
      • ideas it gave you
      • what you liked or resisted
      • is it (or could it be) connected to anything you’re currently interested in
      • is it pleasing (why)
      • is it X enough for you [dreamy, horrific, utilitarian, etc] and how could you make it more so
      • here are some others: Project Review Questions
    • Make a couple extra notes on how the activity as a whole worked for you, or what it revealed about how you work.
  2. Think of a specific creative question you’ve been wanting to answer (or one of the ideas from the step above).
    • Jot down a few subquestions — whether a technique will work at all or suit a particular purpose, how it would compare to a different approach, whether it will create an effect you saw someone else achieve, or be more fun, or change your speed, or any number of specific questions.
    • Make a tiny test-patch experiment, as small as you possibly can make to answer the question (a blurb for an experimental trilogy format; two colours blended; pickling one slice of an unusual vegetable).
    • Paste it in or make a note of what you did.
    • Around it, again, make observations. This time, answer some of those subquestions. But also look at the list of questions for the previous activity, including ideas to try next
Tiny ballpoint sketch of pylons in park
Power pylon with one toe just over the line of the park fence

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Observation Journal: Five Things to Steal from Recent… Things

Five things to steal…” is a great observation journal exercise because it is easy to do when tired, flexible in application, captures a few idiosyncratic details, and often suggests new activities and lines of enquiry.

Frequently I use it on books and movies, but it works just as well for e.g. cafes or, as here, as a way to corral various recent observations which didn’t quite compel a page on their own. It’s an indirect way of finding patterns, but also of stirring around mild interests to see what crystallises.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations on day and a drawing of a melting moment (or macaron). Notes on things to "steal" from the day.

As usual, each point is followed with a plan of how to steal it, for writing and for art. (The background on ‘stealing’ is on this post: 5 Things to Steal from Into the Woods.)

Here are these points:

  • Generally well-behaved people see an opportunity and run with it (linking, albeit in very different registers, Season 1 Episode 1 of Air Crash Investigation/Mayday (“Unlocking Disaster”) and Beatrix Potter’s A Tale of Two Bad Mice, and also some regional history to do with moths)
    • heist plan: play with ‘decent’ characters seizing a semi-legal but heroic opportunity; consider the 2-bad-mice poses of giddy guilt
Tiny ballpoint sketch of two figures running away nefariously
giddy guilt
  • Protagonist constantly trying to adapt self to ill-suited environments, but as part of their strength (I wish I could read the reference here — possibly something about a Rogue, but it doesn’t match my recollections of any Regencies)
    • heist plan: either cumulative learning of skills and making alliances pays off, OR use this as a series of melodramatic dangers

  • Person everyone assumes is [rich/elevated/etc] because of aspects of their lifestyle (the reference here is just cryptic — cross-referencing reading lists suggests it was to something in an appendix to The Four Hour Work Week, as I was reading (with degrees of irritation) a lot of creative-work-self-help books for research)
    • heist plan: assumption someone is e.g. a wizard, but person in question doesn’t realise until plot is quite far advanced; aesthetic at odds with reality; someone doing own thing and everyone else visibly judging/whispering
Tiny ballpoint sketch of two people looking at a third walking by
 another reference “An American Girl in Italy” by Ruth Orkin (see previously) — here’s an article about the photo
  • Honour board of closed highschool hanging in senior citizen centre –> archaeology in plain sight / dispersed heritage (seen in my suburb)
    • heist plan: worldbuilding — the history in/of surfaces

  • Two very different characters united in a common character failing when confronted by something external (Schitt’s Creek)
    • heist plan: e.g. two wildly different characters both fall apart when confronted with a spider; cartoony image OR dramatic — two characters interrupted mid-argument, confronting the interruptor

A few of these have recurred in later interests, or prompted project ideas, but the biggest pattern across the list was the joy of gleeful misbehaviour, which definitely escaped into the world in “On the Origin of the Populations of Wakeford“, and a few smaller Patreon pieces.

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! (Edit: the post on rituals and short story structure is now up.)

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. (Edit: it is now up)

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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