A good writing implement can bring out the best in us.
I’m mainly a pencil person for taking notes, doodling and writing. For journaling, inking in or neater work, I adore the triplus® fineliner by STAEDTLER. But lately, a couple of fountain pens have been added to the arsenal. A good one, well primed, is a wonderful writer. A bad one can fill a page very quickly with bizarre textures and symbols.
The pages of my scratch book have recorded a strange battle over the last week or so:
Page one was an ordinary page in the scratch book. A few lines of pencil were engaged in a key debate.
Page two played host to pencil lines – decadent and fanciful in bourgeois ingnorance of their own demise
On page three, the fountain pen ink army came with raw scratches, marching upon the page in angry angles and scrawls.
In forms foreign and fantastical it fell upon page four, forsooth!
By page five, total and permanent domination was secured.
I like to believe that even the way we scribble when trying to get a blasted pen to work can be pressed into the service of narrative.
I have lost my blogging rhythm over the summer. I have been happily busy – so busy that “down time = mostly sleeping”. However, I have kept doodling, thanks to an app on my phone. I have found this a simple way to relax. So, once again, in the absence of any substantial words, here are some pictures:
Earlier this week (8th April), Yo-Yo Ma delivered the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy the Kennedy Centre in Washington.
He called it “Art for Life’s Sake: A Roadmap from One Citizen Musician”, and it is well worth reading the transcript or watching the talk. As he champions the cultivation of collaboration, flexibility, imagination, and innovation, his vision of the future workforce is neatly echoed by a new study from Wikia and Ipsos MediaCT called “GenZ: The Limitless Generation”, which suggests these are the very strengths that Generation Z will bring to the table.
However, when Yo-Yo Ma articulates how a biological phenomenon, “the edge effect”, applies to the arts, you can hear the rubber biting the tarmac. This is not new, but he puts it well:
“In ecology, where two ecosystems meet, such as the forest and the savannah, the point of intersection is the site of “edge effect.” In that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the greatest number of new life forms.”
In my final year as an undergraduate in Anthropology, an interest in the edge effect drove me to spend five weeks studying Cercopithecus aethiops (the vervet monkey) in the wild.
This primate is virtually ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa, having even adapted to urban settings in some cases. They also have one of the most complex documented “languages” or systems of calls and vocalisations of any species. I had an inkling that, in some way, the complexity of their language would be matched by a fluidity in social organisation and driven by their occupation of marginal environments (edges) and, ultimately, the physical distribution of their food.
Without boring you with the details, in grossly simplified terms, a gorilla sits around and grunts a lot because most of his food is the same and in the same place. He also has a rigid social structure that has to do with who gets to sit in the middle, eat the good stuff and who defends the territory. The vervet, on the other hand, exploits a huge variety of foods, distributed almost randomly in a marginal environment with lots of space in between. He has to have a language to talk to his tribe fifty meters away and tell them where the good stuff is (or the bad stuff, like predators or anthropologists). He also doesn’t benefit hugely from eating in the same tree as everyone else, so social structure is more “easy-come-easy-go”.
Why does this matter? I asked myself that a few hundred times as I tried to follow the critters for hours through dense bush on mosquito-bitten legs. But it seems likely that innovations, such as language and walking upright, happened under very similar circumstances in the mysterious pre-prehistory of our own species.
He then points out that the pianist on stage with him, Cristina Pato, is also Cristina Pato the bagpipe player from Galicia, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, who just released her first jazz CD.
“One might say she is an artist who creates her own edge effect!”
That fascinates me!
I don’t think we are particularly comfortable with polymaths these days. Fame, success means being the biggest fish in one pond, not the second biggest in two, or the third biggest in three ponds.
I’m not a Leonardo da Vinci and nor are you (probably), but what can I do to be less of a gorilla: to occupy and exploit the fringes where linguistic innovation flourishes and social interaction is open and uncharted?
Firstly, as someone who primarily wordsmiths, I don’t hang out much with other writers. I love you guys (and gals), hugely, but sometimes I feel mildly threatened because we are grazing the same patch. Hooking me up with a muso, thesp, calligrapher, or chef is more likely to bring out the best in me (with the exception of a mime, perhaps).
Secondly, I hate it when people wibble on about “getting out of your comfort zone”. This is probably because I’m very happy in my comfort zone, thank you, but I’m also very tired of the cliché. Is there a better way to put it?
Induce a creative crisis (go analogue for a week).
I speculate that the only thing I have in common with Napoleon Bonaparte is a fascination for a Chinese puzzle called the “Tangram“. If I persist with this growing obsession, will I also become a charismatic leader and a brilliant tactician, or will I spiral into eccentric neuroses?
This game was imported from the Orient to Europe in the early 1800s and quickly became a craze across the continent – it was the “Angry Birds” of its time, I suppose. I see no reason to debunk the exotic myths around the origins of the Tangram. When I am manipulating the seven geometric shapes to produce a seemingly infinite array of shapes and figures, the feeling that I’m dabbling in an ancient secret like the i-Ching is a big part of the thrill. I am ever expectant that cracking some combination of shapes will unlock another dimension of geometric reality. Perhaps this explains why tipping the black tiles out onto a table or looking at a new problem gives me the same feeling of comfortable anticipation that I used to get from pulling a cigarette out of a packet.
To “play” the Tangram (literally known as the “seven boards of wisdom” in Chinese), you need a set of seven flat puzzle pieces that are cut from a square. They consist of five right-angled isosceles triangles (two large, two small and one medium) a trapezoid and a square. The “problems” to be solved come in the form of silhouetted shapes that the player must form using all the pieces. It is often more difficult than it looks. It becomes slightly easier after about the 100th puzzle has been solved, once the player has a feel for the ways in which the shapes can combine. However, it is still fiendishly challenging at times and there are “advanced” levels of problems that require no further upgrades, subscriptions or downloads – just the same seven pieces.
It is the very simplicity of these seven basic shapes and the infinite complexity of the shapes they can create by recombination that first appealed to me and drew me in.
As the infection of Tangramicitis spread through my neurons, I found it particularly satisfying that the conflict between my two inner aesthetes (the recalcitrant one that loves symmetry and the boisterous one that loves asymmetry) was amicably settled. Even completing a symmetrical outline with the shapes requires that they be placed asymmetrically in relation to each other – and this is where the mind needs to scuttle sideways and look for the less obvious answer.
Outlines of symmetrical shapes, that have asymmetrical solutions are just one of the types of Tangram problem, however. Two other types of problem have their own appeal.
Firstly, the pieces can be combined to make the outlines of birds, animals, characters in various poses, faces in profile, household objects, boats, buildings … virtually anything. Sometimes the sense of character or dynamic movement that these outlines seem to have is surprising and particularly delightful.
The Tangram has, not surprisingly, influenced architecture, furniture design, graphics and mathematics and I feel there is mysterious potential here for the writer in me, too – if only I could get to the nub of it. One of the many stories about the origins of the game tells of a man long ago called Tan who was carrying a beautiful ceramic tile as a gift to his emperor. According to the story, he tripped and dropped the tile, and it smashed into seven pieces. His dismay turned to joy as he picked them up and saw that they could be used to make beautiful shapes of birds in flight. Other creation myths suggest a connection between the Tangram and ancient Egypt. Maybe it was a gift from our ancient alien ancestors? Who knows …
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with a broken tile and have promised myself that I may solve one more problem before lights out.
Sometimes writing in my journal feels too much like work, so I turn to my storyboard Moleskine and doodle instead – it’s never difficult to fill a simple little rectangle with something that comes to mind. I never try to read too much into what comes out on the page and you shouldn’t either. I have to admit that some of this latest batch is influenced by Graham McCallum’s book “400 Art Deco Motifs“, which is a recent source of inspiration.