You had to be there

We were talking about travelling and a friend said that if he were to embark on another big trip, he wouldn’t pack a laptop, tablet, smartphone or a camera. Not even a notebook. We’d been in total agreement until that moment. What would be the point of travelling if you didn’t take artsy photos with an SLR? Or bore your friends and family with constant updates on your adventures? I wondered at the time. Not even a notebook…

Recently, I thought twice about taking my phone with me on an errand. Now I’m a father, that doesn’t happen as often as it used to. I remembered that conversation. What if someone needs to get hold of me? I thought. What if I see something cool and need to take a photo? To hell with it! One by one, I peeled my fingers from around the handset and left it on the counter looking like the sinister monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As I was leaving town a spectacular double rainbow lit darkening clouds above the harbour. My first instinct was to take a photo, but I consoled myself in the knowledge that even a professional cameraman would struggle to capture what I could simply take in with my eyes and other senses. I decided to extend my walk to properly absorb the scene and ended up getting fairly well rained on. Really heading home now, two seals were playing in the waves. I watched them for ten minutes and understood what my friend had been talking about a little better.

Do Nothing Beach

How hard it is to do nothing. Before you know what you’re about, you’ve laid down some jazzy chords and improvised a blues riff over the top. So here’s another track intended for People Are Guitars. I was aiming for something like the smooth, bassy tones of Kenny Burrell with a chiming top end. I wanted it to feel totally laid back, like it’s too hot to move and time is nothing but gentle waves crashing on golden sand, ya dig?

On a squarer note, I’m getting the hang of Ableton Live. It’s really easy to combine programming and expressive parts. I feel like these rapid new methods of production and distribution are revealing art to be a continual process. In the past we waited for a single, definitive release. Maybe things now are becoming like they were before record deals and the printing press: songs and stories evolve over time, becoming something you do rather than an end product.

The Girl Who Didn’t Exist

It’s common for children to have disagreements with their parents. However, it is not so common for them to disagree about whether or not anything exists.

So begins the latest fable to be compiled in The Book of Almost Truths. ‘The Girl Who Didn’t Exist’ follows the journey of a young girl sent to the woods by her parents to live with a cranky sage. Under his guidance, she learns a valuable lesson about what it might mean to be alive.

The story was influenced by Buddhist sutras and philosophy, and inspired by the jacket of Edward Conze’s translation of ‘The Diamond’ and ‘Heart’ sutras, which shows a large stone Buddha head seemingly growing out of a tree.

Read ‘The Girl Who Didn’t Exist’ here.

Ishmael’s Leg

I’ve just finished typesetting the first draft of The Tide Clock and Other Poems. This will be a shared pamphlet featuring poetry by Joe Franklin, Hugh Greasley and myself. It’s not unlike the split 7″ singles bands used to put out to share production costs and pool their fanbases. You might remember a similar collection we produced in 2013, The Inner Sea.

As a taste of what’s to come, here’s one of mine that draws on Melville’s classic, Moby Dick. Check back here soon for more news about The Tide Clock

Ishmael’s Leg

“I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing.”

— Moby Dick.

I’ll leave it blank.
These patterns are only as permanent as skin
though a decent word might outlast the sea-places
I go to fish or through which I leave a life.
Shallows are quick to warm but never the same
from one wave to the next: like the bays, beaches and ports
long cast out of which, even if I’m gone an hour,
swell with strangers, new winds, tides.
You can never go back.

My mind’s tattooed with dreams,
changing more than my blue-inked body shows.
Nothing I write could fill the absence of friends
more central than myself in a life between storms.
Tyrants, bad weather and worse luck have marked me
more indelibly than ink but I love the tale
because I’ve never been the author of my fate
and yet there is a silent part to tell.

The importance of being bored… and eating frogs

Hunter-gatherers couldn’t have had much to do once the sun had gone down and the storytelling was over. I’m sure we can all think of a few things but, aside from the obvious, our ancestors would have little to occupy themselves with but watching the night and watching their own minds watching the night.

We, on the other hand, have as many distractions as we need to completely ignore our experience from sun up to the wee small hours. Are we really as busy as we complain to be? What is it we’re avoiding with all this busywork? Even though I’ve taken a sabbatical my days feel as filled as ever. There are always lists of things – creative, pragmatic, ludicrous – waiting to be done. The busier I get the harder it is to call it a day, stop, and listen to the wind whistling around the eaves. Somehow, I doubt our ancestors’ problems were abstract enough to warrant lists, which would at least afford them more time for living in the present.

A technique I’ve found helpful is to write down one task each day that it’s actually important to do. Choose something that, even if you were to do nothing else that day, would make you feel like progress was made. This is what they call eating a frog: it’s often slimy, difficult to catch hold of and you may be reluctant to do it. If caught early enough, however, a frog can sometimes be swallowed whole or with a minimum of chewing and may even prove tasty. I offer this as food for thought for modern hunter-gatherers and email farmers.

Anon. – The greatest of all poets

No doubt this January 1st we’ll all spring out of bed refreshed and ready to seize the promise of a pristine new year. As our clear, crisp minds embark on new creative pursuits, here’s a question to help understand what kind of projects we’re working on and who they’re really for.

Would I be willing to do this anonymously?

In other words: is this for personal gratification or personal enjoyment? Is it something I’m willing to stand behind? Is it worthwhile for others, and/or in its own right? The question is intended to help us clarify our motivations for working on a task.

Anonymity does appeal, however. I remember reading poetry anthologies in school and thinking the best poems were by Anon. Who was this mysterious Anon who wrote all of the bold, simple poems that spoke with such undeniable clarity that they sounded fresh, funny and often alarming centuries later? Now I find myself wondering who these poets were and why their names don’t appear in the anthologies. Perhaps a famous master decided that a straightforward, comic piece didn’t fit her oeuvre. Were they risking controversy? Did they only have one poem to write or thousands? Were they always anonymous or was their name lost over shifting centuries? Conversely, how many poets now exist in name only, a bit like Ozymandias?

This touches on the topic of intrinsic motivation. Some projects are passions and important for our fulfillment and sense of wellbeing. These are some of the most meaningful activities we can do. If I write a story because I enjoy the challenge of expressing myself, I don’t need the approval of others to do so. In fact, in some ways writing becomes more enjoyable if no external recognition is asked for or received. It becomes deeply personal – and its worth won’t be coloured by the opinions of others.

Other projects are valuable because they do have meaning for other people. They could be social, like playing guitar with friends; or inspiring, like painting a scene that stirs emotions. Perhaps a project will benefit a community or directly alleviate someone’s suffering. We might consider still other works, especially those at the pinnacle of a craft, worthwhile purely as aesthetic or innovative achievements – or perhaps because such actions or behaviours are inherently worthwhile. Solving a hard mathematical problem or learning to dance might be good examples (though neither are strengths of mine).

On the other hand, we’re likely to encounter disappointment when we expect our work or art to bring us pleasure because of how it reflects on us. Then we derive little enjoyment from our effort unless it gains us recognition: something we ultimately have little control over.

It’s a good idea to know what kind of satisfaction we’re looking for. Happy New Year!

Running as creativity

I’m never sure what exactly is meant by ‘creativity’. The word brings to mind an off-hand, highly-strung activity: the artist thrashing out a masterpiece in one sitting before settling back into their neuroses. While they start with inspiration, most creative pursuits involve a process of continual craft and re-evaluation. In this respect, they resemble a lot of seemingly very ordinary things we do. Is it that creative tasks are actually very natural, or perhaps the ordinary things we do are fundamentally creative?

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.

— Henry David Thoreau.

Take running. When you head out your door for a run, you’re crafting an experience. You choose the route, the time of day, whether you run alone or with friends, the effort, whether you push on a hill or amble up it, whether you stop to admire a view or maintain the flow. But as with all creative acts, there are many elements that will be decided for us: who we meet along the way, and – to some degree – how we perform: whether our Achilles tendon will be sore; whether the heavens will open up at the furthest point from home. The art is in balancing our intentions with what arrives.