Just as with sports stars we tend to overemphasise the gap between us and them, so too with creatives. Wow, we say, listening to Leonard Cohen. Margaret Atwood … wow! But when you listen to creatives dissect their behavior, you see method not genius. I’m not saying there is no difference between us and Martin Scorsese but when I began watching Season 2 of the stunning documentary Abstract (don’t miss it!), several gems from Danish designer/artist Olafur Eliasson stood out. Here’s one:
When I talk to kids about, can you draw a car or something, I really try to emphasise, it’s not really about the car, it’s more about you have the fantasy to actually see the car.
Wow! Maybe I feel stunted because I don’t afford myself the fantasy that I can see more. What about you? Can you have a fantasy that you can see more, hear more, learn more?
In 2017, I ran a Rock Music Big Year, in which I listened to an album every day. Every day. The idea was to rekindle the passion for music I’d had for four decades since my early teens. Did that big year work? In a sense, yes: I felt an enormous surge of “rock music luurv” over the year. But in a sense, no: I listen these days but only sporadically.
Well, the other day, I took my grandson on a long train trip and then a walk, through rain, to a lovely café called Coffee Head. We had our usual, a bit to eat plus coffee. When I stood up to place him in his pusher, I glanced at the poster on the wall and was flabbergasted. It’s a gig poster, for Guided By Voices, one of my faves, at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. I don’t know the year – Googling suggests it could have been last year or as long ago as 1995. But the point is this … I experienced a surge of melancholy. Why isn’t that rushing joy, the pleasure of songs and guitars and mayhem, still in my head? Is it old age? Have I lost my soul?
Now I ponder: should I have another go? Should I really push the envelope and commit to an avalanche of new and old music every day, all around me? Can old passions be rekindled?
After a week of solitary desk and café work, sometimes highly productive, sometimes meandering, I’m beginning to gain perspective and strength. A routine of routine work delivers routine results, it seems to me. What I can now see is that over the last few months, taking on new, exciting projects has dumped on my shoulders a ton of preparatory “get to know the subject” research that I’m only now clearing. More to the point, some of the research/reading on these new frontiers is done and dusted, some of it can take its own sweet time to be explored, and some of it isn’t all that pertinent in any case. Suddenly I’m shedding tasks and getting back onto an even keel.
I need to work on the nuclear book (see my Nuclear Power History blog and note how sparse it’s been lately, a state I’ll correct this upcoming week). Beyond that, I need to promote the mystery novels and pick at more work on them. I need to do ongoing research into and preparation for my 15 Cranes project (see my 15 Cranes blog). I need to steadily review for my Read Listen Watch review site. I need to prepare my Extinction Rebellion arrest case. Of all these tasks, the first should take nearly three quarters of my time; lately, that’s been only a quarter or sometimes less.
The more I can just work in quiet, with anticipated interruptions, with a steady heart, the better off I’ll be. Bring on the routine.
Marina Benjamin, of Insomnia fame, spoke, in a bookshop reading a while back, of the “grandiosity and pomposity” of insomnia. In the insomniac night, ideas you haven’t consciously thought for a long time “float up.”
My redrafting time away from home was exemplary, restorative at the same time as productive, and joyful in some very fundamental way. But for some reason the sound sleep of my Melbourne autumn switched to a European summer of wakefulness. Is that a bad?
One night I rose at 1:10 AM, impossibly agitated. In our cramped AirBnb room, I lay on the carpet and went through some of my regular first-thing-in-the-morning stretches. Floor. Dark. Surfacing, here’s what came to me: “save the world.” Saving the world was a motto when younger. More recently, I’ve told myself that the traditional expression of such a grand notion, that is, activism/politicking, is just too onerous to enable enough writing, and that in any event, my writing contains its own world-saving tinge, in some small way.
All true. All true. But that night my over-amped, thrashed-out mind delivered that instruction: “Save the world.” Now, I know what that means. But I’m afraid to reveal its shape because it is monstrously over-ambitious and disruptive for this ageing, unsuccessful writer.
All this year, I’ve crowed about exercise discipline that gives me energy and a sense of peace, fuelled, I’ve been certain, by physical big years (daily must-do activities) over 2015-2017. In other words, daily obsession led, so I thought, to an ingrained daily exercise habit. Well, here in Europe, it’s all fallen apart. I’ve found myself hesitant to get out early in the dark in strange towns, something I’ve never found to be an issue over decades of jogging. I’m managing to get out every two or three days, rolling over a basic minimum 5 kms, enjoying each jog, but the daily rigour has vanished. Is it because I’m now 64? Does each year older mean it’s harder to get out? Should I do another Big Year of some kind of bodily obsession over 2020?
Quite some time back, I went to a bookshop reading by Marina Benjamin, author of the remarkable “Insomnia.” Quoting Miles Davis on how he “plays what’s not there,” that is, invented new forms of music, Benjamin observed that writers find the idea of writing what’s not there (that is, inventing new fields and forms of writing) as “very seductive.” My immediate excited thought was: can I frame my nearly-dead Cranes book as a new way of writing about birds and birding? One reason this notion is “seductive” to me is that I now know (and this has taken me years to realise) that the normal books about birds are not ones in which I can shine. I’m neither a good birder, nor a naturalist, nor a travel writer.
But if I reframe the project and the book, can I create something worthy? Can I save the world?
Out of that bookshop brain niggle came my 15 Cranes in the Anthropocene idea. More on that later.
In the pictures above, my jogging shoes view such vistas at the beginning and end of what is now a cast-iron habit. Every morning early, I jog, cycle, or hit the gym. Earlier this year I was overweight and struggling to get out the door on any one day. What caused the apparent miracle?
In short: motivation and a fitness habit inculcated by three years of Big Years of exercising. In mid April, something stung me to action on my weight and I began shedding kilograms. Terrified of losing muscle rather than fat, I restored exercise discipline (remember, this year does not involve a Big Year of daily compulsory exercise, unlike 2016 to 2018): 4 jogs a week, 3 cycles, and 3 gym trips. It should have been tough but, I was delighted to find, something clicked and there I was, once more a paragon of virtue. Those Big Years set up the habit; now I just restored it. In the first eight weeks, I only missed two days of habitual exercise. In the last five weeks, under harsher conditions (interstate travel and two colds), I’ve missed one day each week.
I am back and this delights me and man, oh man, how glad am I for those 2016-2018 Big Years!
A couple of days ago, I plucked out five ideas from the 131 in Rob Walker’s “The Art of Noticing.” One of them is “Don’t photograph, draw,” and the consequent Big Year notion is simplicity itself: every day, draw “an appealing or interesting scene.” Now, anyone who has ever played Pictionary with me knows my drawing gene is missing. But here’s the good news from Walker: “Be heartened that you don’t need to show your drawing to anyone.” And the benefit of such a Big Year? Walker: “You’ll find that drawing helps you slow down and enriches what you see.”
Rob Walker’s wonderful “The Art of Noticing: Rediscover What Really Matters to You” really fires up hope for creativity. His 131 different ideas to stimulate attention, freshness, and deepness, really call to me. Of the 131, I’m drawn to 5. Any one of them would make for a fun Big Year:
- Spot something new every day
- Don’t photograph, draw
- Follow the quiet
- Take a photo walk, with no camera
- Interview a friend, loved one, stranger – or even an ideological nemesis
I recently went to the final day of a magnificent public exhibition of photos by Peter Dombrovskis. You know, the guy who produced those landmark Tasmanian shots that saved the Franklin. Apparently he lugged into the wilderness some seriously heavy gear with really large film, allowing him extraordinary field of depth in his photographs. We strolled around the beautifully presented images twice. Mostly what I felt was awe and admiration, and some sense of the world’s beauty. But one impact was more subtle and more far-reaching. In addition to his epic Tasmanian shots, Dombrovskis visited the Victorian high country that I know so well, having hiked decent swathes of it. A resplendent snow gum … a gently undulating plain of scaparia bushes … inexplicably, I felt myself come to tears. I recovered quick enough but ever since then have reflected, and I think I know the issue.
Having rejected more Big Years of remote hikes, other priorities have asserted themselves. I might never get back to the most remote and wonderful parts of the Bogong High Plains. And that saddens me. And photographs can remind me.