A Doodle a Day: Part VI

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.

Research tells us that “doodling improves concentration” so we should all do more of it.

The world is not enough.
Boxed Bird
Fife and Drum
Surprised Horse


Devon Coast

Want more? Here is a link to my other doodle postings.

The Wisdom of Things Found 3: The Clarinet Reed

March 2012, at the back of a cupboard

Finding this reed brought back a whole load of memories. There was a time in my life when I suppose all my dreams were in the 26 inches of black resonite that made up my clarinet – I wanted to play like Artie Shaw so very badly that I used to dream in swing. One evening, in a dream, I took to the stage with Louis Armstrong and we swapped riffs all night. It was amazing.

But this reed stands for everything that stood between me and jamming with Satchmo because the reality is, however much we picture that perfect sound, liquid phrasing and pure tone, it all has to come through this rough piece of wood. Every musician, no matter what their instrument, has had to overcome the brutish and mundane aspects of making a sweet sound.

As much as I would like to romanticise my affair with the clarinet, the battle with reeds and mouthpieces in particular put a dampner on things. A perfect reed would go limp in the days leading up to a performance. My unsatisfactory backup reeds would have to be broken in or painstakingly sanded and trimmed, often to the point of being unusable. A wayward reed would deliver a squeek at the wrong moment and ruin everything. To overcome these trials takes a special sort of perseverance that I am not sure I ever had. It was always easier to transfer my allegiance to another instrument until its particular  technical challenges would hold me back. As a result I play a range of instruments to a mediocre standard.

One evening, I took a flute down to the river Thames which flowed about 200 yards from the bottom of our garden. I thought it would be swell to stand in the reeds and play as the sun was going down. But my mouth and fingers were so cold I could barely get a tune and I returned home quite discouraged.

Now I am a bit older I have a better grasp of the fact that the beauty we can imagine in our heads will never be achieved without a lot of perseverance, application, discouragement and messiness along the way. It’s a hard lesson but, once we have learned it, I think we can find that the difficulty has its own sort of beauty.

Click here for more “Things Found” posts or listen to the Story of  “The Wisdom of Things Found” at Stories from the Borders of Sleep.

Life, Love and Work

Русский: Сергей Прокудин-Горский. "Лев То...
Tolstoy – one man and his beard

Try as I might, I can’t dampen my enthusiasm for a handful of writers I like to call the “rugged individualists” of the 19th and early 20th Centuries: Henry Thoreau (1817-1862), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) and even Jan Smuts (1870-1950). What keeps drawing me back to these figures? I’m not in a position to give a scholarly answer to that. I just find that their philosophy excites me profoundly. None of them were at home in ivory towers and, for them, their ideas were not the intellectual toys that they have become. For good or ill they experimented with life, that is to say they applied their philosophies to the real world and the things they could influence. I admire that and I feel it is difficult to point to equivalent figures in our own time – perhaps that will only be possible for people to do a hundred years from now.

I’m willing to acknowledge that their thought has been so influential on the assumptions that I grew up with that it is not surprising that I should find a sense of spiritual kindred. I would even struggle to name what ties them all together in my mind. They all diverged from the orthodox dogmas of the Church in some respects, they all affirmed some kind of self-reliance based on the divine aspects of human beings and something else about the interconnectedness of all things. They were rugged individualists. I know that our western “individualism” is “bad” but I can’t help feeling these guys had more in mind than the American Dream.

Well, that’s my apology and here’s an excerpt from “Love, Life and Work” by Elbert Hubbard, an influential thinker and practitioner in the Arts and Crafts Movement and a founder of the Roycroft Community. The full text is available from Project Gutenberg and here is an audiofile of me reading this excerpt for the GoingPublic project.



 Mental Attitude

Success is in the blood. There are men whom fate can never keep down—they march forward in a jaunty manner, and take by divine right the best of everything that the earth affords. But their success is not attained by means of the Samuel Smiles-Connecticut policy. They do not lie in wait, nor scheme, nor fawn, nor seek to adapt their sails to catch the breeze of popular favor. Still, they are ever alert and alive to any good that may come their way, and when it comes they simply appropriate it, and tarrying not, move steadily on.

Good health! Whenever you go out of doors, draw the chin in, carry the crown of the head high, and fill the lungs to the utmost; drink in the sunshine; greet your friends with a smile, and put soul into every hand-clasp.

Do not fear being misunderstood; and never waste a moment thinking about your enemies. Try to fix firmly in your own mind what you would like to do, and then without violence of direction you will move straight to the goal.

Fear is the rock on which we split, and hate the shoal on which many a barque is stranded. When we become fearful, the judgment is as unreliable as the compass of a ship whose hold is full of iron ore; when we hate, we have unshipped the rudder; and if ever we stop to meditate on what the gossips say, we have allowed a hawser to foul the screw.

Keep your mind on the great and splendid thing you would like to do; and then, as the days go gliding by, you will find yourself unconsciously seizing the opportunities that are required for the fulfillment of your desire, just as the coral insect takes from the running tide the elements that it needs. Picture in your mind the able, earnest, useful person you desire to be, and the thought that you hold is hourly transforming you into that particular individual you so admire.

Thought is supreme, and to think is often better than to do.

Preserve a right mental attitude—the attitude of courage, frankness and good cheer.

Darwin and Spencer have told us that this is the method of Creation. Each animal has evolved the parts it needed and desired. The horse is fleet because he wishes to be; the bird flies because it desires to; the duck has a web foot because it wants to swim. All things come through desire and every sincere prayer is answered. We become like that on which our hearts are fixed.

Many people know this, but they do not know it thoroughly enough so that it shapes their lives. We want friends, so we scheme and chase ‘cross lots after strong people, and lie in wait for good folks—or alleged good folks—hoping to be able to attach ourselves to them. The only way to secure friends is to be one. And before you are fit for friendship you must be able to do without it. That is to say, you must have sufficient self-reliance to take care of yourself, and then out of the surplus of your energy you can do for others.

The individual who craves friendship, and yet desires a self-centered spirit more, will never lack for friends.

If you would have friends, cultivate solitude instead of society. Drink in the ozone; bathe in the sunshine; and out in the silent night, under the stars, say to yourself again and yet again, “I am a part of all my eyes behold!” And the feeling then will come to you that you are no mere interloper between earth and heaven; but you are a necessary part of the whole. No harm can come to you that does not come to all, and if you shall go down it can only be amid a wreck of worlds.

Like old Job, that which we fear will surely come upon us. By a wrong mental attitude we have set in motion a train of events that ends in disaster. People who die in middle life from disease, almost without exception, are those who have been preparing for death. The acute tragic condition is simply the result of a chronic state of mind—a culmination of a series of events.

Character is the result of two things, mental attitude, and the way we spend our time. It is what we think and what we do that make us what we are.

By laying hold on the forces of the universe, you are strong with them. And when you realize this, all else is easy, for in your arteries will course red corpuscles, and in your heart the determined resolution is born to do and to be. Carry your chin in and the crown of your head high. We are gods in the chrysalis.

Review: The Right to Write by Julia Cameron

The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing LifeThe Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life by Julia Cameron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is well on its way to being a classic and an essential rite of passage for anyone who wants to write for pleasure or professionally.

Julia Cameron has set herself the mission of debunking the myth of “writers” being some special class of human being who must starve in a garret for the sake of their craft and uses her words to gently liberate and nurture the essential writer that she believes lies in every person.

The accumulated wisdom of her years as a working writer and a creative writing teacher is presented in a series of short essays (each just a few pages long) that finish with a practical “initiation tool” to bring the reader to the page with pen in hand.

This book can be approached either as a “writing course” to be worked through over a couple of months, but I suspect it will be of more value as something to dip into as an “unblocking tool” or when inspiration is flagging. If read from cover to cover, like a normal book, the author’s tendency to repeat the same themes tends to lessen their impact and there is no detectable unfolding of a journey that links the chapters; they stand alone. So, it is best considered a collection of essays that meditate upon Julia’s core convictions that the act of writing is for everyone to enjoy and it doesn’t need to be a chore.

Some of the essays really clicked with me, others didn’t seem to meet a felt need directly but may well do for another season. On this reading, I particularly enjoyed Julia’s affirmation of the writer as an observer of things that seem to enter the imagination from another source: the Divine, the Universe, something beyond ourselves. This certainly describes a dimension of my own experience.

Julia’s style is richly evocative of the senses. She always describes where she is as she is writing. She then seems to weave her message from her current experience or whatever is turning over in her mind at the time. Some of her lines have the potential to become proverbs and I found myself copying out numerous quotes into my journal. I did not attempt all of her initiation tools in any sort of disciplined way but used several over the last year and will return to them repeatedly.

The Right to Write has been a good companion over the last year and will bear returning to again, especially on those days when I feel that perhaps I should give up and get a proper job.

View all my reviews

Creative Patronage: how a bit of encouragement changed my life.

Inner TroubadourI was infected with a musical bug around the age of 12, having shown no precocious aptitude for making music. In fact, I recall being sent out of a recorder group for blowing the instrument through my nose when I was about 7 and, although I took violin lessons for a few weeks, nothing really hooked me. However, I have never looked back since a friend of my parents introduced me to the Ukulele and a whole world opened up to me. In small ways, this person’s generosity and encouragement had a disproportionately powerful influence on how I have spent the rest of my life (particularly the hours I have racked up in musical endeavour). It makes me wonder how I might be able to creatively and quietly mentor others.

Some of the things I note about this friend:

  • He treated me as an adult, in spite of my tender age. As far as I can remember, he gave me my first ukulele but as soon as I outgrew it we made an adult arrangement by which I was to pay for a better instrument. The deal was not done through my parents but was contracted between us. He referred to it as doing business, and we even shook hands on it.
  • He took a wider interest in my life. It wasn’t just all about the ukulele, but also about flying kites and climbing trees.
  • He let me teach him. Quite early on I tried finger-picking on the uke. When I showed this to him he showed enthusiasm and let me teach him what I had figured out. He let me know when things I was into (like Jelly Roll Morton’s music) had fired his interest, too. He didn’t have to be the expert on things, just a fellow explorer.
  • He let me initiate. He had an openness that made me feel comfortable about initiating. We corresponded; I didn’t get letters asking “how’s the playing coming on”, but when I wrote asking for more chords or advice, he took the trouble to write back. I had to ask. Often in a teacher-pupil or mentoring relationship, the teacher is expected to be proactive and dictate what the student needs. In this relationship, I had to want the learning enough to ask for it.
  • He made music fun. When I saw him playing the recorder, for instance, I started to change my mind about the bad impression I had of the instrument from an earlier age.

Without being the recipient of this kind of openhanded willingness to encourage a young person, I doubt that music would have taken up such an important place in my life.

I progressed from the ukulele to the Tenor Banjo, I became obsessed with Jazz, I took clarinet lessons when I went to senior school and spent most of my break-times teaching myself the piano. At this stage, I was very much alone, trying to work stuff out by ear and reading all the books I could. However, I am quite convinced that if someone else had come into my life at that point, to act as a mentor in the same way and take me forward as a Jazz musician, life would have been very different once again. I can’t indulge in regrets, but I do often wonder what would have happened with a little more relational encouragement at this point.

Is there someone you know who needs a little bit of your unobtrusive and generous encouragement at a key moment in their creative growth?

The Life and Times of our Mutual Friend (Volume One)

I have in front of me a remarkable and unique work of art created in 1994 and given to my sister and I as a Christmas present at the end of that year.

Nowadays, this would be called an “Art Book” but this was created before the days when such projects were fashionable.

I’m referring to “The Life and Times of Our Mutual Friend (Volume One)” by Friends of a Friend INK. Back in the day when this project was conceived, my sister and I spent holidays with our friends Hoagy and Jessie constructing advanced versions of the game of “Consequences”.

In its simplest form, the players take a sheet of paper and write a name of someone real or imagined on the top and pass it to the next person after folding the paper over to hide what they have written. The next person writes another name and folds the paper. The next person writes a place, the next writes what the first character said, the next person writes the reply and the last person writes the consequence.

When read out, the resulting story goes something like this:

Winston Churchill
Napoleon Bonaparte
Churchill said:
 “Lovely weather for the time of year”
Napoleon said:
 “I’m tired of washing socks”
And the consequence was:
 They sailed away in a viking longboat

This lends itself to a surrealism that we took to its ultimate heights.

We drew pictures with various heads, bodies and legs, composed rambling stories, invented books (complete with excerpts and reviews), wrote letters and made up recipes using the consequences approach. The art form reached its peak in this monumental volume, composed, as the fly-leaf describes, between November the 6th and December the 30th 1994.

Well, to share the contents would only baffle the reader because every third line is a clever in-joke that makes reference to some of the other games we played, the code names we invented for some of “our mutual friends”, and the characters we assumed on long walks along the Cornish coast. However, the meticulously realised watercolour illustrations are instantly accessible.

Here is my sister:

And here is me:

Turning over these pages, I am reminded of the endless inventiveness and creativity of children (well, early teenagers) growing up WITHOUT TELEVISION.

All four of us have grown up to be writers of one sort or another. You can read Jessie’s literary blog “The Filthy Comma” and look forward to the novel that I believe is in progress. My sister blogs at “Through The Lattice” and is working on a series of books for children while home-schooling her own brood. Hoagy was a fairly prolific generator of online content and gave me some solid pointers when I started out freelancing. I’m podcasting my short stories at “Stories from the Borders of Sleep.”

In the meantime, here are some sample exam questions from The Life and Times of our Mutual Friend:

– What colour did the passing people turn at the very thought of it?
– What is the music in the hall of the mountain king and who does he point at with his left ear?
– What should you do when a smooth rich texture has been achieved?
– What was Don Quixoat doing in the moat?
– What does Princess Taiwan break over her knee?
– What is the need of the person Jim gives his pension book to greater than?