The Leibster Award

Gillian at Skybluepinkish nominated me for a Liebster Award. The Leibster highlights up-and-coming blogs and helps to feed the content dragon. How kind! Responding to this nomination involves a lot of work, but its also rather fun. As exemplified in Gillian’s post, the lucky blogger shares 11 random facts about themselves from the endearing …

I used to make tar lollipops in the summer when the tar melted and seeped into the gutter.

… to the historic …

I have sat on John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s knees.

… and then answers 11 questions from the nominatorator, wherein we may discover some surprising facts:

We have 5 cats, 3 dogs, 1 parrot, 2 goldfish, 2 geese and assorted chickens.

Finally the nominee poses 11 unique questions and nominates 11 other bloggers for the award – simples!

So here goes:

11 facts about me

1. When I was 12, I wanted to be a “tree surgeon” because I thought that was someone who cares for sick trees.
2. My first bicycle was called “Froggie Moore”, after a tune by Jelly Roll Morton; my next bike was called “Amiahaz”, after a runner in the Bible; and my first car was called “Lucy”, after an early fossil hominid.
3. My grandfather played rugby for South Africa but I took up sailing in order to get out of playing rugby at school.
4. According to my media player stats, J.S. Bach wrote about 30% of what I listen to.
5. I don’t like long sleeves; they make my arms feel inhibited and I always think I’d have the advantage without them – in a fight.
6. My favourite scent is sandalwood.
7. People struggle to get my name right: I have been called Selwyn, Secombe, Semen, Simon and Sigfried in my time.
8. I prefer brandy over whiskey.
9. I didn’t like kindergarten: much to my mother’s chagrin, I upped and walked home at break time – twice.
10. There are gaps in my cultural education: I have never read ‘Harry Potter’, watched ‘Jaws’ or played ‘Angry Birds’.
11. I have a nasty scar on my right knee from tripping over a dog and landing on barbed wire when I was 12.

Questions

1. Have you ever had a dream come true? How?  … I once dreamed that I was roller-blading; it was fun so I bought some roller blades the next day.
2. What was your most serious misdemeanour at school? Were you caught?  … I wore dark glasses in a school photo; it was difficult not to be caught.
3. Do you snore? Have you ever voluntarily or involuntarily tried any cures?  … Yes, but a neti pot helps.
4. What was the last song that stuck in your head?  … The Derry Hornpipe; my brain has an internal juke box of traditional airs.
5. Tulips or daffodils? Why? …  Tulips – they seem more exotic and remind me of a happy holiday in the Netherlands.
6. Do you prefer to cook or to eat? …  On balance, I prefer to cook; I enjoy it and I like to have control over what goes in my food.
7. Are you a Townie or a Country bumpkin? Not in reality but in your heart.  … Definitely a country bumpkin – I long for the chalk downs of the South on a daily basis.
8. What is in your handbag/briefcase/rucksack/pockets right now? Chose one or more.  … At this very moment, my man-bag contains a small Moleskine notebook, a pencil case full of whiteboard markers and an egg timer; I have not unpacked it since the last workshop I gave.
9. Do you think beauty is in the eye of the beholder or are some things inherently ugly?  … The effects of violence are inherently ugly.
10. Do you have a party trick? (And what is it?)  … Cossack dancing
11. What do you do when faced with a big spider staring back at you from the bath?  … I calmly fetch a glass and a piece of card and relocate the creature to the garden.

My Questions

1. Tattoo? (Yes, no, maybe one day)
2. Have you ever collected anything a bit odd? (What was it?)
3. If you had the time and money to further your education, what would you study?
4. In the Hollywood feature film of your life, who would you like to play the title role?
5. What was the last song or piece of music you listened to?
6. If you were stuck in a lift for an hour, which historical figure would you most like to have for company?
7. What is the next book you hope to read?
8. In a house fire,which of your possessions would you most like to save (apart from the house)?
9. What would be your ultimate comfort food?
10. Where do you stand on politicians, from “I don’t vote” to “they are our only hope”?
11. Could you summarise how you see your mission in life in a single sentence? (What would it be?)

My Nominations

  1. Jess at thefilthycomma
  2. Ben at These Thoughts of Mine
  3. Emily at throughthelattice
  4. Eugene at 27th Street
  5. Tom at The Blog
  6. Aliya at Three Magical
  7. Dr J at Heart Soul Mind and Strength
  8. Matt at Confessions of an Undercover Theologian
  9. Jon at Mish-mashed Mind
  10. Kat at Pondering Pancakes
  11. John at Not Built With Hands

Ten Things in a Small Corner of my Desk

As someone once said, “Writer’s block is what gets the housework done.”

I suppose that would be true if Twitter and Pinterest didn’t exist.

I often fall prey to the thinking that if I could only rearrange my personal workspace to be more perfect, then I would be more productive. In real life, the most productive phases of my work are more likely to be associated with utter chaos on my desk  – like today.

What the picture below does not show are the two other empty coffee cups and the two empty Powerade® bottles, an assortment of neckerchiefs, several books, more sticky labels, an empty wine glass, two egg timers, a letter opener and some pirate stickers. Nevertheless, in the spirit of “Desks of the Rich and Famous: Workspaces of Highly Creative People“, here is a small corner of my universe:

desk1

Freelancing: a Time Management System that Works for Me

Fascinating Tangrams

English: Napoleon Bonaparte, or Napoleon I of ...
Napoleon Bonaparte – alleged Tangram addict (Wikipedia)

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.

Tangram image Created from File:Tangram_base_N...
Asymmetrical Symmetry (Wikipedia)

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.

Goose Tangram
I wouldn’t mess with this goose.

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.

Secondly, the intermediate player can tackle puzzles known as “paradoxes”. These are pairs or series of outlines that appear to have extra parts or bits missing or otherwise seem to have a larger or smaller surface area, in spite of being made using the same seven shapes.

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 …

two figure tangram
Two Figure Tangram (Steven W)

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.

Google Insights: Fairies decline in popularity but trolls and goblins are on the rise

Every now and then I drop into “Google Insights” to take the pulse of popular opinion. Today I thought I’d see what the state of play is with the relative popularity of mythical creatures.

Not surprisingly, fairies rule. But, not for much longer? While gnomes hold a steady baseline there seems to be a rising interest in trolls and goblins. In fact, if they joined forces they could push the fairies into obscurity any day now. The vulnerability of fairies is shown in a distinct downward trend in their popularity over the last six years – at least as far as Google searches are concerned.

Should we be worried about these developments? What do you think?

I’m rooting for the little green guys and their under-bridge dwelling allies, to be honest, but where do their hopes lie?

A quick look at the breakdown by country shows that is is in South Africa that the goblins are finding their strongest support and, oddly enough, the Belgians don’t give a stuff about fairies and prefer gnomes by a long way.

It would also seem that, according to some school children, goblins have been making trouble in Zimbabwe lately.

If you fancy hearing a story about the war between the fairies and the goblins that took place simultaneously with one of our world wars you can have a listen to the story, “Two Handkerchiefs” at Stories from the Borders of Sleep.

Thoughts on Creativity: Lessons from the Journey

Reflecting on the last year of creativity after having quit my full time job in order to pursue some creative stuff that had become too lively to be confined to evenings and weekends, I have learned a few lessons:

1. It Takes Longer Than You Think

Waiting
Wait for it!

Firstly, until I tried to give myself over to creative paths on more than just an “ad-hoc” basis, I never realised what a long time the act of creating actually takes. Previously, I had worked when compelled and inspired and with not much expectation that what I was doing needed to be really all that amazing. As a result, things got done easily and quickly and there was not even an expectation that I needed to finish anything if I lost the muse during the process. Now it is different, I need to write when I feel less like it, when the words come slowly, or when my imagination takes a vacation.

However, this has not been the most time consuming thing.The real time-sink has been the slow process of facing down the chatter of the demons we encounter on the creative path:

  • Motivation – Why am I doing this? Am I just being selfish? Is this really contributing to society? Does it matter what other people think? Who am I doing this for? These kind of questions can put a dampner or things for weeks. And just because we have answered them once, it doesn’t mean we won’t have to answer them every day.
  • Vulnerability – Putting creative work out there, sharing it, publishing it, is all very exposing.We make a deep personal investment in our work and then others get to see into us through it in ways that we might not be ready for. Am I ready to go public with this?Am I ready for criticism, or indifference, or misinterpretation?
  • Doubts – Does anyone really care about what I create? Does that matter? Am I good enough? Look at what other people are doing, they have been doing it for years and they are brilliant. I’m not a natural like them. I should get a proper job. I’ll never be world class. Should I care if I’m not?
  • Discipline – I’m so badly disciplined. I’m supposed to love what I do and it’s a privilege but I can’t settle to it sometimes. Most people who have jobs with bosses breathing down their necks and set work hours have that extra incentive to stay on task. I have none of that. It is hard, every day I have to start by re-discovering my reasons for doing this.

2. Persistence

From my observations and from the received wisdom of others, the difference between great writers and the rest of us is not necessarily innate gifting but pure graft. This goes for all the arts. Some talent helps but there are more talented people out there who have fallen on the first hurdle of of applying themselves to their craft. Working on your creativity daily brings two rewards:

  • Upping the Average – If 2% of what you write is pure gold then you just have to write enough for that 2% to be significant.The analogy is often cited of a photographer. Again, the difference between a pro photographer and the rest of us is that while I take hundreds of pictures, they take thousands. Even if one in every thousand pictures is an iconic masterpiece, you have more chance of hitting it if you take more pictures.
  • Practice – Honing and improving your work comes through practice, repetition, iteration. The more you create the more practice you get creating. I once spoke to a silversmith who had his own business and he told me how when he first came out of art college and went for his first job, he was walking around the workshops and the boss picked up a ring off a workbench. “How long would it take you to polish this?” he asked. “About an hour, maybe two,” he replied. “That’s a four minute job,” said the boss. Sure enough, after several months at the workshops, doing not much more than polishing,this guy could do a two hour job in four minutes. Practice!

The basic skills of our work need to become second nature whether that is mixing oils, playing scales, or writing dialogue, so that we are not hindered by technique.

3. Finding the Right Motivation

Whatever our initial reasons are for embarking on a creative career, sooner or later it has to become about more than wanting to be noticed.

Creativity
"Creativity"

Most people I know, who are trying to get traction or considering putting significantly more energy into their creativity, are actually not after fame or recognition. In fact it is slowly dawning on them that what they have been doing as a hobby might be something that others will enjoy, and it is time to “come out”.

I think a lot of writers, however, have a desperation to see “their name in print” as if there is something magical about that. We have to find better motivation than that, otherwise (among other things) we will be in danger of feeling bitter about the “success” of others who get there before we do with what is often quite lousy manuscript.

We have to joy over the intrinsic rewards of our process and product, and hold the adoration of fans lightly. I’ll admit that on weeks when my Borders of Sleep podcast is getting 50-100 downloads a day, I feel great. The problem is that when it drops to 20, that affects my mood, too. I forget that I’m not doing this for the hits but because I love creating stories.

Do what you do, well and lovingly, and if it turns out that you are the prophet of the zeitgeist then let that be what it is.

4. Community

In spite of the “cult of the artist” and this idea that the creative’s lot is to slave away in a windy garret, that’s all bunkum. Yes it is lonely at times, but that is why we need others. Really one of the most enjoyable aspects of pursuing creativity, for me, has been the community that forms around it. I think the community gives us two things:

  • Accountability – I know that if I talk to people about my plans and dreams, they are more likely to happen. As long as they stay in my head as a vague nice idea, they are safe; and if I never tell anyone then I’ll never need to try them and risk failure. Even better, I know that if I can rope people in collaboratively then a project is even more likely to fly. I cannot overemphasise the value of this. For example, with my podcast, if it was not for the producer (Tim) and illustrator (Robyn), I doubt if it would have been sustainable. Having other people involved and interacting with ideas keeps me working on it week after week.
  • Synergy – Actually working with others often means that, together you are more than the sum of your parts. That extra element of “synergy” comes into play. It is great to have friends who say, “that sounds like a great idea, why don’t you go ahead” but it is even better to have allies who say, “that sounds like a great idea, let’s do it together.” In order to open yourself up to synergy, you have to let go a little of the control but I think it is a small price to pay for having a creative ally.

So …

What are the core lessons you learned along the way that it would have been helpful to have known before you got started?

Postcards Home

This afternoon I got a postcard … from myself.

About seven weeks ago, I was embarking on the four days of heady alternative reality that was Greenbelt 2011. The good folk of the Feig community based at Gloucester Cathedral held a Communion service in the midst of a lavish feast for what looked like about 200 of the contributors on the Thursday night prior to the start of the festival.

It was special… for me, there was a strange circularity about being in Gloucester Cathedral for the second time in my life. The first time I was there was nearly 20 years ago as part of a primary school residential trip, many miles away from my home in the Thames Valley – probably the first time I had been away from my parentals for more than a couple of nights. I saw the shadow of my thirteen year-old self admiring the cloisters, innocently unaware that life would bring me back there two decades later as a very much more grown person who was wondering (as I often do) what happened to the little boy in me.

These were the things turning over in my mind as I broke bread with many others I had never met before, that night. As part of the service, we were encouraged to choose one from the hundreds of postcards scattered about the interior of the Cathedral where the hard pews had been stripped away to restore it to its original medieval awe-spaciousness. We then wrote on the cards and addressed them to ourselves and “posted” them. I was delighted to come across a fragment of a favourite artist: Breughel.

Wedding Feast (detail) from P. Breughel the Younger (1564-1638)

Of course, for me, it is a picture of heaven/home – a place that has very much been on my mind as since a recent post from This | Liminality stirred my thoughts again on the matter and meaning of “Home”. But here is what I wrote to myself:

Hey, Seymour, I just want to say two things. Firstly, take some time to really look at this picture and notice the detail. Those guys are using a door to carry food! And check out the dog! I think you’ll like this – you should be the guy with the spoon in his hat – he’s giving it away but he’s ready to enjoy some of it himself, too. Secondly, that openess and laughter you had inside you this morning … I just want to remind you that where that came from was real. Don’t lose that 🙂

Yes, my eye was drawn to the chap with a spoon in his hat. He reminded me of a couple of lines from Mevlana:

“The people here want to put me in charge. They want me to be judge, magistrate, and interpreter of all the texts. The knowing I have doesn’t want that.  It wants to enjoy itself. I am a plantation of sugarcane, and at the same time I’m eating the sweetness.” (Tr. Coleman Barks)

Scientists demonstrate that when a string of certain length is sounded in the vicinity of other strings of differing lengths, all those strings that are the same length or other specific mathematical variations in length will begin to vibrate in harmony. This is a picture that plays a very full chord for me as I look at it afresh today. The people who, in my experience, give the most life to others are those who really know how to enjoy its sweetness themselves.

From the nobleman on the right to the cardinal on the left, the dog under the table, the cook, the bride, everyone is welcome. Let’s tear the doors off, bake bread and stir lentils until we are truly home!

To anyone at Feig who reads this: “thank you”, from the bottom of my heart.

To myself: send yourself a postcard every once in a while …

To everyone else: Which of these revellers are you?