A few more uses for the observation journal

Just a few pages

The original purpose of the observation journal was to demonstrate a feasible approach for students who’d been set observation journals for assessment (the early days). It turned into a place to consider, reflect on, adjust, tinker with and riff on written and drawn stories, and other aspects of how I work. (NB: Words in bold throughout are a list of journal uses, so that I can easily find them again.)

From there it became a source of ideas for articles and material for blog posts. It’s served as a very handy set of tools for fixing problems on other big projects. Something I continue to like about this approach is how it evolves and adjusts to my needs and interests at any point in time.

Over the last few weeks I’ve given a number of workshops to writers and illustrators (at the Queensland Writers Centre), to art teachers (at the Queensland Art Teachers Association conference), and to English and art students (from grades 4 to 11 at Concordia Lutheran College). I’ll post more about those soon.

A few of the workshops

The observation journal has been invaluable for preparing all of those workshops.

Indirectly, it has been the place I worked out how to explain my own techniques and working theories. More directly, exercises I refined for my own uses have turned into workshop activities (see writing/art — either tag will bring up most of the same posts).

Other pages have taught me what sort of questions to ask after doing an activity — a little mental stockpile of approaches and variations. And the physical pages themselves have become a voluminous stock of material to serve as references, examples, illustrations, and ornaments for slides.

This wasn’t particularly planned. Largely, it’s a demonstration of the (occasionally unexpected) usefulness of simply tinkering away at something, adding to it little by little and bit by bit. One of the other benefits of small things.

But I’ve learned, now, that (a) keeping on learning and thinking about how I work and (b) remembering to go back and sift through those thoughts for material, is a very useful way to develop workshops that are on topics I want to talk about!

Observation journal: improbable inventions

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.

A series of tweets:
"The Net" meets "The Secret Garden"
"Nightvale" but for productivity
Picture "The City and The City" as a scavenger hunt
Uber Eats but for succulents

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.

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, ideas drawn from combinations of those elements.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Using those three elements, combined, to come up with at least three business/product ideas (in my case, with digressions into story ideas). Doing multiples helped push the ideas a bit further, but it also lets you turn the selections around and solve different problems. See also: Observation Journal: Reflections and alphabetical order, and Observation Journal: Werewolf conferences and colour treatments.

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.

Close-up of densely handwritten pages of the observation journal.

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.