I’ve been giving some school workshops on drawing tiny things, and quite apart from all the other uses of drawing small, the playfulness of it always charms me.
A lot of these notes were specific to the week of 14-17 April 2020! But an ongoing lesson is that I am most likely to work on a project if there is impetus and enjoyment — a sense of catching the wave of a project, and of play. Ideally, I’d have both, but either one can help create the other.
That week, I worked out a way to restart a sense of both momentum and play on a dragging project. The first 15 minutes (at least) of a work block (or longer at the beginning of a project) should be time to tinker — to try out the tools on fun little drawings, or riff on scenes, or write silly little variations on the core idea. It warms the project up again, and gets some traction, and helps me to like the work again.
One of the unexpected results of the observation journal project was that it provided a thread through 2020 — something colourful holding it together, and occasionally a way to work out what was happening.
I’ve mentioned several times that the journal helped me to clarify (and work around the fact) that I don’t enjoy extended introspection (see e.g. Observation journal: flirting with contagion, and soothing with reflection and the links there). But from time to time the journal was a usefully contained place to work out why I felt a certain way (instead of analysing stories and motifs about which I felt strongly, which was more fun).
These two pages were a week apart. The context was April 2020.
On the first, I was trying to work out 10 WAYS TO ACTUALLY STOP AND NOT FRITTER:
My go-to emergency relaxation/circuit breaker is going to the movies. (It’s air conditioned and you can’t wander off and do something else around the house and sometimes there are large explosions). Making a list of other available (and actually relaxing) options was… not helpful, in that most of my go-tos had vanished. There was no-one to sketch, and the cafes were closed, and I couldn’t meander on errands, and most other options either ran up against or turned into actual work at some point.
It was illuminating, though. I never quite worked out better alternatives (my housemate and I did watch a lot of Midsomer Murders and Miss Marple). But it made me realise that although I thought I was already working from home, I really wasn’t.
This led to the page below, in which I was TRYING TO FIX WORKSPACE.
I had worked from home, yes, but actually from two desks, both sofas, both ends of the kitchen table, bed, and (for various purposes) the spare room and store room. I’d also been working from my desk at uni, other people’s offices, several classrooms, two campus cafes, two local cafes, etc, etc, and quite often those each served a different project. (The eagle-eyed will also spot at least 11 categories of project, and conclude that might be TOO MANY, but it took me a bit longer to work that out.)
But I’d also been living alone for a couple years. In January my new housemate moved in, and then of course everything outside shut down and my housemate also suddenly had to work from home (none of this is a complaint — we’ve had a great year). So my working space was compressed to one desk, one sofa, one end of the table, and bed. Which is quite a lot of room, really, if I’d noticed what was happening. But I didn’t, and all the projects began crowding each other, mentally and physically.
Just realising this — sketching it out on one page and going oh — helped a lot. My mind was a bit cacophonous in April 2020.
The best practical/physical changes turned out to be as follows:
I took everything that wasn’t a computer off my desk. This created the illusion of elbow room.
My housemate and I both bought some rolling caddies (a la the RÅSKOG, and off-brand equivalents).
Each trolley was assigned a broad project category (i.e. general art supplies/admin/teaching).
The trolleys were herded out of the way at night. By day, the relevant trolley would be dragged alongside the relevant space, creating the illusion of a dedicated workspace.
We also bought a TV (my first for about 8 years!) and a rolling stand, so it could be trundled into place for Evening, and back out of the way for work.
consider the sort of effect those events might have on the project/idea; and
come up with at least 3 possible variations to the idea in consequence of that impact.
So, for example, you might be planning a cocktail bar. The big local news, however, is about an unprecedented rise in the crocodile population in the area! So you might make sure your bar is crocodile-proofed, and offer crocodile-trained security escorts to and from the carpark, and/or build a viewing platform and sell crocodile-themed cocktails. And silly as that is, it does prompt lines of thought about safety and aesthetics and marketing.
However this was at the end of March 2020, so current events (postal delays and lockdowns and the economy) seemed more all-encompassing than they had been used to. That made the activity feel very earnest, and therefore (in my opinion) inclined to be a little wearying. (The project I was trying it out on was a deck of creative prompts, and the silliest/best lockdown idea was to use the cards as exercise prompts.) I still think it’s a useful exercise/stress-test. But crocodiles would have been more fun.
A lesson I learned from doing the activity, unrelated to the point of the activity itself, was to not rule out listing duplicate ideas. I’d initially tried to make them all original ideas, but that bogged everything down.
Allowing myself to list duplicate ideas/consequences made it easier to:
come up with more original ideas later, by getting the obvious out of the way and out of my head — otherwise those ideas just keep floating around and getting in the way of new ones (this is part of the usefulness of the twenty-things approach to ideas, too);
collect groups of ideas that had elements in common;
notice patterns in my own thoughts; and
find solutions that might solve more than one problem.
After that, I started letting myself repeat ideas and state the obvious, as long as I later pushed on to include three new solutions for each problem, in addition to any duplicates.
Three observation journal pages together, in this post, because they led into each other (I skipped one about The October Faction, but it will show up later).
They began with the realisation that a number of my vague work-related superstitions and bad habits (not booking flights until a week or two before travel) were really paying off this year. Please note: These pages were from mid-March, when things were still just getting going here and later contexts had not yet developed.
I then (see the pages below the break) spent a surprisingly soothing and informative time working out how I’d got work (particularly freelance creative work) done in other unsettled times, and whether there were some lessons I might already have learned which would prove useful this time around.
The first page began as an exercise in which I did the following:
I jotted down creative superstitions I personally seem to have.
E.g. “Don’t announce a project until the other party does.” “Don’t want money until project completed.” “Don’t like to use something if I only have one of it.” “Much time must be available before I even start.”
For each, I answered “why?”
E.g. legal training, external pressure, worry about growing to rely on something that could be replaced, bad habits crystallising around good ones.
I made a couple of notes against each about how to work with/against those tendencies.
E.g., communication; something with the psychological impact of escrow; planning and training.
Finally, I made a note of general patterns.
Excessive caution, an attitude of scarcity, and a feeling that things could be snatched away at any minute. (In retrospect I could blame legal training for a lot more of this.)
I still feel that in another year this would probably have been salutary. In this particular week in 2020, however, I felt I had been proven right.
But this led me to start to think through how big changes (like 2020) affect how I get my work done.
(Read on if you want to think about unsettled times; skip if you’d rather not.)
In this instalment of the observation journal, I was playing with ideas of target audiences, and what would happen if you turned them upside down.
Left page: Encroaching shortages, a Schroederingian pause, and the Star Wars theme being practised on a trumpet.
Right page: For the course I was teaching, I wanted an activity that would make us think a bit more usefully about target markets (it was a business-adjacent course), aka audiences, readers, etc.
When I write, I am usually trying to please (or irritate) one particular person (not always me; not infrequently a housemate). But I tried this approach on both a physical project I was designing and on a story I was working on.
Note, this is one of those activities that really stirs up the sediment of stereotypes. I like that, because it brings them out for observation, and repurposes them, and makes them work for their living. (See also: Observation Journal — The Caudwell Manoeuvre). But it isn’t always flattering on the page, and is something to acknowledge/manage/bear in mind if you’re doing this in e.g. a classroom.
The first, businessy approach: Essentially, you make a four column table:
In the first column, make a list of categories of characteristics, e.g. age, gender, education, job, level of career, hobbies, physical activity, background, language, etc. You could add in others specific to the broad type of project. This was just my initial late-at-night list.
In the second, quickly identify the assumed characteristics of your “ideal user”/main audience, etc. If you write for yourself this will probably just be a description of you at some point in your life. It could also be a hideous stereotype of someone not you. (I’m aware there’s some very lazy categorisation in this version, but I wanted to see how the framework would work with that.)
In the third column, flip each characteristic to something roughly opposite. (A job in education vs a job in the trades vs a long-distance truck driver vs…). You can have a bit of fun here, redress balances, etc.
In the fourth, make a note of how that would require a change to the Thing You Are Making. For example, in the first set of examples, would it need to be more durable, or have different accessibility, or a less (or more!) mystical application, etc?
Finally, make a note of any that are genuinely useful, or could improve or add to the original idea. This exercise wasn’t about changing an idea, but making it stronger.
The writing approach: In the second round, lower down the page, I tried it out on a story I was editing.
The story was written very much at a friend, but also for me — and we are quite similar. Going through the process highlighted a lot of things I take for granted, and ought to be aware of (at least for editing).
For example, it brought out the lack of physicality in the manuscript, and the degree to which I assumed anyone reading it would also be familiar with a very specific set of obscure books.
While I like the somewhat cerebral context of the story, and thoroughly enjoy allusions, these could easily turn into weaknesses. So when editing the story I want to go back in and look for places where I can anchor the story with a little physical action/description. I also plan to buttress or reinforce the more esoteric allusions with enough information that someone who hasn’t had a particular shared experience can still follow the story. In other places, it was a reminder not to be subtle or aim for plausible deniability, but to be honest about what I was doing and double-down on it.
This wasn’t about changing the ultimate “ideal reader”, but about clarifying and streamlining my approach, and creating an immediately useful checklist for when I sat down to edit.
Try this on a story you’re editing, or a picture that’s at a fairly advanced sketch stage.
Make a list of categories of characteristics.
Quickly and lazily note down your assumed ideal audience.
Flip those characteristics.
Consider how the project might change if it were to be adapted to that person.
Find things to clarify/tighten/commit to/adjust, etc, and try them out on the project.
On this page of the observation journal: repurposing ideas from other fields, coping with language, and a very strong pink.
Left page: The character failings of possums, a great (and successful!) dice hunt, and a sense of the world getting gradually muted.
Right page: Adapting business tools to creative purposes.
I tend to resist business language, which is neither fair (I often have no problem with the underlying concepts) nor useful (particularly when teaching a business-adjacent course). One of the exercises I had my students do was list the language in their field that’s most irritating to them and then find other words to use, at least in their own mind and first drafts, freeing them up to use the underlying ideas, while being able to convert back to business terms in formal contexts.
This can be a useful exercise even with non-irritating technical language — making sure it means something to me a bit more viscerally. A lot of the observation journal is me relearning things that I “knew” in a way that is useful to me.
The resources and assessment around which I was developing the tutorials included using the Value Proposition Canvas (VPC), “a tool for marketing experts, product owners, and value creators”. The phrasing is so very businessy, and I wanted to come to terms with it — and its possibilities — before introducing it in class.
Approach to a business tool:
In class, we ended up inventing ridiculous ideas (see: Observation Journal — improbable inventions) and then trying them out on the VPC. Using those ideas removed a lot of pressure to use the VPC. Instead, it became a framework for the students to clamber around and learn its possibilities for their approach.
For example, I realised filling out the table involves a lot of back-and-forth, details and ideas evolving from answers to other questions, and so I needed to approach it as an exploration rather than a checklist.
This also revealed that the VPC was quite a fun way to elaborate on an early idea, like the brief allusion here to an alarm that would wake you by gently questioning you and recording the details of your dream before you fully woke and lost the details.
It was particularly useful as a way to look for things to strengthen and avenues to develop next time. This isn’t so much a critique/debrief as the obvious next step when my approach to learning things is mostly just to do them. It’s not a “what went wrong” so much as a “let’s do that again!”.
Make a column and list common/sigh-inducing/annoying jargon/technical terminology/business language in either your area of work (narrative structure? design principles?) or something adjacent you keep wandering into (applications, banks, time management…). This is also useful when developing secret bingo sheets for professional conferences.
If you need to work off some irritation, make a second column where you flippantly or cynically translate all the words.
But then make a third column where you try to translate the word to a term or phrase that captures the actual underlying meaning or importance of the idea to you. Maybe there’s a genre you like reading but don’t like the label for, or a time-management technique, or… Can you find another word or title that works better for you. For private use, perhaps, or coping in business purposes (not unlike developing strategies for listening to or looking at unfamiliar art), or translating from one field to another.
I’ve found this a useful way to capture ideas to chase further — little points where I think, “oh, I didn’t know that that’s what I like about [e.g. country house murders, or time-management]. Even if something I write gets labelled as that for sale, calling it [e.g. tragedy of manners/death-by-architecture, or temporal escape clauses] explains what I want to actually do and learn about.
On this page of the observation journal, I was again looking at questions from the recorded interviews set for the class I was teaching.
By this point I’d worked out (through the journal: e.g. 1, 2, 3…) that I, personally, should avoid super-introspective questions. Your mileage may vary! As always, a large part of the usefulness of the observation journal is not so much the answers on the page as what I notice about the process of putting the answers on the page.
At any rate, I can eventually learn things, so in this case I deliberately chose questions from the interviews that felt like they inclined towards actions/useful information.
How important are noticing and observation to [my] creative practice?
(The observation journal itself is obviously a key part of this.)
The process of sitting up and taking notice mid-way through a project is very useful. If I’m stuck on something, I’ll sometimes look around the room and try to add in a reference to (or a texture from…) something I can see. If nothing else, it will shake things up.
When do you get a sense that you can create something?
There are always ways to make something — knowing that aspect of the craft and/or the material helps a lot (and a lot of the journal involves that). But there’s also a distinct feeling when a thing seems to come with its own momentum, as if it wants to be made.
At this point, it felt like that feeling was usually attributable to three things:
Inspiration, in the form of a lot of creative input (exposure to other people’s work, to sources of ideas, or just to other people busily making things).
Desperation (I think now this is also a type of momentum — it usually happens when I’m being productive on other things. It’s just that I notice it more when the limits of time and space then stop me adding on new activities).
Boredom (the kind you have when there are no sources of distraction).
How do you tell which of your observations are worth developing?
And all of this developed into a new reflection I added to some of my journal activities.
The new question: Basically, I decided to try stopping (after coming up with ideas) and asking myself which ideas I liked and which I didn’t and then (and this is the important part) WHY.
I quickly ran a few recent ideas through that format, which revealed:
Ideas that felt as if they might have life had a feeling of narrative impetus, aesthetic charm, a through-line and an innate arc (those two might be the same thing)
Ideas that didn’t quite resonate had in common a structure without inhabitants (no people or viewpoint to hang it on), an aesthetic that didn’t charm me, and elements without an arc.
This meant I could make a note to further work on understanding the things that worked (e.g. what aesthetics charm me and why) and some tools to deal with ideas that haven’t quite come to life yet (e.g. narrative exoskeletons).
If you listen to an interesting interview with someone in your field (or any field, really), instead of (or in addition to) taking notes of the answers, take note of the questions, and try answering them yourself.
Next time you make a list of ideas (new or existing), take time to go through and work out which ones do (and don’t) feel like something worth pursuing. Then make a few notes on why that is (in both directions. See if there are any patterns. Can you draw some lessons from that for ways to strengthen future ideas?
Something I enjoy about the observation journal is revisiting different approaches and digging into what does and doesn’t work for me, and why, and what I can do with that knowledge.
On the left-hand page: disconcerting bathrooms and a “definite autumnal feeling”.
On the right-hand page: Every so often I wonder if collage is a thing I can do, and every time I realise that it definitely isn’t. I love the meditative aspect of it, and the recombining of elements, but I prefer that to happen at the front end of the creative process rather than being the final stage. For me it’s the spark that kicks off making a new thing — the making of it is something different. This continues not to diminish my enjoyment of other people’s collage — the reservations are about my enjoyment of various aspects of the process of making things. But while I find my collage hilariously bad, I definitely want to know more about the nefarious but fashionable adventures of the notorious smiling women.
And I wanted to note the summary page for this week, too, because it touches on a few points that have continued to echo through the observation journal.
The pleasure of watching other people learn to be competent in their chosen field. In this week, it was prompted by apprentices in the ceiling, but it also resonates with low-drama cooking shows, and stories where a character is not yet a master of their profession, but is taking practical steps towards becoming one. It’s a wonderful place for stories to draw forward motion from, without necessarily having antagonists or obvious conflict. And it ties into staginess and contained worlds, because the “romance of competence” (or fantasy of competence) relies the contained and navigable worlds of genres-of-manners, to which I keep returning (Heyer… in space!)
Another is that I’m much happier if there are systems or other people in place to say no to things without my direct intervention — or at least, without me feeling like I’m the one disappointing everyone including the ideal version on myself. I’m still working on what to do about this, or how to frame it so that it works for me. Although I might have just had a breakthrough on this thanks to an understanding reply to a difficult email! Stay tuned.
Time and persistence, vs a spark, vs a bright enough spark. Impetus vs the grind. This is an ongoing balance, and when I get it right, everything is wonderful. It relates to the first point on the right-hand page: to push ideas further immediately. I keep forgetting this lesson, because it always leads to SO MANY PROJECTS, and then deadlines and admin and despair, and rediscovery. So, not exactly balance. One of the benefits of this series of posts is that I have a reason to re-review these pages.
I just… really like “X meets Y” formulations. They frequently amuse me immoderately, and of course they’re very useful for triangulating specific interests. The more unlikely they are, the more interesting is the space they create for possibilities.
I also find this sort of remixing a very useful habit to have — if nothing else, it’s a useful skill for all sorts of problem-solving.
I’ve written before about mixing & matching and shuffling ideas. A few examples:
On the observation journal page below, I was developing this approach a bit more, while looking for a way to deliberately incorporate the left-hand page observations into an activity that could be useful for my class.
The left-hand page in this case includes pigeons-in-training, the porousness of houses, and apprentices in the ceiling.
The right-hand page activity involved:
Picking an element at random from each of the three main boxes on a left-hand page (things seen/heard/done). When we did this later as a group, it was splendidly various, and also tapped into the things people hadn’t really noticed they were noticing.
You can combine the elements in any number of ways, e.g.: by just seeing what springs to mind, or seeing if they suggest particular problems to be solved (how to catch icecream trucks), or if there are commonalities (a focus on ceilings), or perhaps they suggest other themes and obsessions.
Incidentally, if you frequently have to sit through long meetings, I’ve found being in this sort of training makes it a lot easier to come up with unexpected contributions. It’s always paid off directly for me, in terms both of not falling asleep and of earning a largely undeserved reputation for being a thoughtful contributor in a very uncreative environment.
Here, for example, is the second exercise from the page: The second example is from the previous page‘s observations:
The observations were from the previous day’s observations: Feet scuffing carpets; a single light in the trees; ruthlessness with a timer.
This suggested capturing/rerouting energy/static electricity from incidental daily activities (timers, institutional carpeting) to power ambient lighting.
Or automated lights left on for security purposes could be triggered/randomised by a motion detector in an unrelated location.
Or a register or app for calling in someone to be a ruthless secretary/chairperson in meetings that drag on.
Or an unexpected/ominous timer system “a la Nightvale but for productivity”.
And, because this was me and it’s my journal, nearly every idea links back to (a) other things I was thinking about and (b) picture/story ideas.
In the narrative context, there is a very tiny note there about Tim Powers, who said at a Readercon that he picks unrelated topics, invents a conspiracy between them, seeks evidence to support it and, once he has convinced himself it’s true, writes the book.
The ideas aren’t blindingly novel, and that isn’t the primary point — in fact, finding out that the most unlikely things already exist is a fascinating way to discover the currents and contours of the world. The exercise, as with most of the observation journal activities, had two main purposes, with a third advantage for a class:
The exercise of getting the mental exercise, and staying used to following odd paths and making unexpected connections. This has been one of the biggest effects of the observation journal for me — a slightly indirect but very visible effect on various aspects of my work (and how I talk about it).
Creating a stockpile of ideas which could be used to try out other ideas. Sometimes I find it difficult to experiment too wildly with an idea I’m already committed to. Having something silly, which never will get off the ground, is excellent source material for practicing techniques. For this reason:
I have continued to do variations of this activity in the observation journal when I wanted something fresh to practice on.
I have a few old story ideas around that never quite flew, but which I trot out, resection, restyle, renovate, reinvent, and so on, whenever I want to test a concept for another project.
Easing group work. For classes — and especially for group work — having a way to quickly come up with an idea everyone contributed to and was amused by, but to which no-one was committed was very useful. The class had a business plan component, and it was fun (and therefore informative) and liberating to take one of our unlikely inventions (a teleportation device for dog walkers was a memorable one from class) and using that to experiment on, instead of precious nascent personal projects. And that in turn gave us a stock of examples we could refer back to, tinker with, rearrange, mock, enliven, etc, without overworking an actual project.
First, though: on the left-hand page, canned goods and toilet paper were being purchased and a boy on campus was using an explanation of the mechanics of virus transmission as an excuse to touch the bare arm of the girl with whom he was having coffee.
But on to the right-hand page. Part of what happened in this week of the observation journal, as well as classes (briefly) starting on campus, was that a very last-minute opportunity to arose to take part in an arts residency on a boat. It would have been amazing, but also I was still recovering from hurting my back, and was behind on everything (including class preparation) as a result, and the year was in the process of falling apart.
It was exciting and gratifying and wildly stressful, and in the end it was far too short notice and everyone was in transit (and within a week it would have been overtaken by current events). But I wanted to record what the points of the worst stresses were, and what my personality was doing to make things better (or worse) in a situation like this.
The notes came together fairly naturally around several key points (specific to me and this situation):
The occasion of getting the offer, and the attendant circumstances and reactions.
The responses I gave, and which responses were effective, given the limitations of my personality.
For the notes on these, I tried to push through a few levels of thought: why I said/did that, and why that was, and why that was. Pushing questions a bit further is usually illuminating, and in my case the approach is loosely based on a combination of the “five whys” and Tiffany Aching).
On a personal level, the main things to come out of it were:
My extreme difficulty with saying no to anything that fascinates me, compounded by the facts that (a) so many things do fascinate me, and (b) I want to be the sort of person who rushes off at the drop of a hat to do interesting things.
The desire for some sort of version of a financial “opportunity fund”, but for time. I keep running up against this, because of the way work (and interests, and distractions) expands.
The known and increasingly undeniable principle that a modicum of organisation now will allow for a great deal of spontaneity later — or, as it says rather grandiosely here — discipline in service of opportunity and spontaneity.
But I’m including this page less as an exposé of my various angsts and anguishes, and more because — again — if I’m forced to be introspective, I find this one-page approach to considering a problem more useful than a wall of text, for several reasons:
It’s an adaptation of the “lessons learned” notes I usually make after big events (travel and conventions, usually), so the focus is more on recording things in order to learn from them — or at least to have the possibility of learning from them.
The map approach means I can pursue interesting points without losing the thread of my thoughts or getting mesmerised by my own prose.
I can glance back at it and find different useful (if unflattering) bits easily each time.
Importantly, it inclines me to summarise the main things I learned (or want to do).
This can appear as a topic on the page (in this case, under “what would make it different?”).
But also the principle of reflecting-on-the-observations, which I was building in for my students, helps me to remember to summarise conclusions and extract points to pursue or act on. Having a separate area for reflections already ruled out on the page very much encourages this.
And finally, even if I don’t actually work out how to resolve an issue, just knowing it’s there, and how I’ll likely react in similar circumstances, at least means I’m prepared and can plan around my habits.
I also, around this time, wished loudly and frequently that someone else would just give a blanket NO to everything on my behalf, which in retrospect is something one shouldn’t have said at the beginning of March 2020.
Note: I’ve put together a draft introduction to the observation journal here: Observation Journal. Comments and further questions are welcome.