A glyph for 2015

Over the last couple of years, my way of processing life and pondering the world around me has increasingly been mediated through symbols. Writing systems, pictograms, allegories and icons are the currency of my imagination. With symbols I can do more than words allow. I have a developed a personal pictography, a kind of shorthand, drawing from many sources and referenced to particular meanings.

I’m well past making new year’s resolutions but I’ve always taken time to focus on taking stock of the passing year and feeling out the themes of the coming year round this time. In prayer and contemplation for 2015, it seemed three things and a fourth were being emphasised.

Having worked out glyphs for these emphases, I noticed that each of them had a common element – a cross – enabling me to combine them into a single form.

So here is the glyph I mark upon the doorposts of 2015.

2015
2015

It’s component parts are thus:

Finishing
Finishing

Finishing

This is the symbol for Saturn. In esoteric systems, Saturn has a very complex variety of correspondences. But, to keep it simple Saturn was the Greek god of agriculture and the symbol contains two elements: a cross (or sword) and a sickle. It can be taken to represent the harvest: things must die and come to an end but in that moment seeds are gathered for sowing in the next cycle.

Of course, to be saturnine is to be gloomy, but, to borrow from the Christian imagery of the cross, the words of the Son of God are appropriate.

I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop.” (John 12:24 HCSB)

I’ve noted that the last few years have been characterised by a lack of finishing. I enter 2015 with so many projects begun and not completed. An unfulfilled intention, a work half done, can become rotten. I need to put the sickle in and finish many things so that new life can come. 2015 is to be a year of finishing.

Truth
Truth

Truth

Encapsulated here in one of the many alchemical symbols for gold is something I need to bring back to the centre. Truth, like gold can be tested by fire, bears no combination with other elements and stays unchanged.

I’m a people pleaser. This means I all too easily try to give others the answer I think they want to hear. That’s not always realistic. I’ve a creeping habit of white lies: “Of course, it’s no problem.” “I’ll be there at six.” “It will be fine.” “I’ll be thinking of you.”

These are not loving, respectful interjections unless they are true. Even if it arises from the best will in the world, I need to curb my optimism at times and let my ‘yes’ actually mean ‘yes’.

Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.” (Leo Tolstoy)

Praxis
Praxis

Praxis

This is a symbol I’ve invented to use for the concept of praxis – an antidote to inwardness. It depicts a sword, internally rooted but driving outwards to act externally. For me, Praxis doesn’t oppose contemplation but means something like a ‘contemplation by doing’ and it’s closely allied to the philosopher’s ‘techne’ – practical craft.

I owe this new emphasis to the lessons I’ve been studying in alchemy over recent months. The alchemist performs processes – burning, boiling, distilling – all the while observing diligently the transformation of substances without missing the correspondences with his own soul-work.

I’ve written before in this blog on the experimental approach to life, and this seems to be back in focus for this year.

It’s surprising I never really took to science at school. I don’t think I ever made the connection between what we did in the classroom and the fact that my den in the garage hosted a fossil collection and pendulums that hung from the ceiling to study gravity and waves. I had exercise books full of notes and measurements of such things as the landing positions of sticks thrown at random. I tried to replicate the experiments of Mendel in my flower bed. I was just a little Issac Newton, but schooling cast me as an ‘arts person’.

I don’t think our education system encourages the formation of a renaissance mind, and more is the pity.

In 2015 the world and my self will be my laboratory. I want to do real stuff in the real world and watch it closely and learn all I can from it instead of from books.

And the fourth thing

Although not depicted, this underpins all of them. It’s ‘momentum‘.

I’m poor at keeping momentum. If things are going well, I cruise or put my attention elsewhere, so they grind to a halt. This goes for creative projects, relationships, work and home life. Things are not finished. Wishful thinking swallows up reality. Praxis collapses back into theoria.

It’s easier in the long run to keep the wheels turning with tactical doses of effort than to be repeatedly frustrated by inertia.

Thinking and Creating at Ground Level: learning from a 9 year old

Watch this:

It’s no surprise, this clip has gone viral on YouTube. I don’t think we should be surprised to hear evidence that a 9 year old thinks deeply about the meaning of life and the universe. I’m prepared to take it at face value and, even if he’s repeating verbatim material from overheard adult conversations. That’s not the point I want to bring out in this post.

What is the important difference between this and a TED talk?

At a TED talk, the speaker doesn’t roll around on the floor scratch the ground, swing a baseball bat, shred twigs and stare at the sky. At some point in our development, an adult tells us,

Stop fidgeting!

Stand still!

Sit up straight!

Look at me when I’m talking to you!

Right there I think we start to lose something.

Last Autumn, I spent a total of about thirty man-hours at floor level with primary school kids. No furniture, just crayons and paper and our imaginations. I was co-authoring a storybook with them. Although I used muscles I’d forgotten I had, and I ached every night, I rediscovered the joy of creating at ground level and fidgeting incessantly, and I began to experience an awakening of creativity and a shift in perspective that I suspect had something to do with going back to a 9 year old’s way of working.

I have begun to incorporate ‘floor time’ into my creative practice. The floor is bigger than a desk and offers so much more potential for spatial interaction with ideas.

When I was about 11, I was so impressed with the idea of the ‘Bayeux Tapestry’ that I sellotaped together a long line of A4 sheets and drew the story of the stuff I was into at the time: frisbee battles, water bombs, balloon helicopters, forts with heavily defended ramparts, and various inventions such as my toothpaste-powered boat and the perpetual motion machine I was certain would make me famous. I never finished the ‘tapestry’, I just kept adding to it until it went a few times around the room.

I have never been able to dismiss my curiosity about how life might be without furniture, ever since I heard that living on the floor (eating, sleeping, learning) was the norm at Gandhi’s ashrams. In fact, for most people outside of the West, it is still a way of life.

The positive implications of floor living and fidgeting, for posture, bone and muscle, economics and energetics, are probably fruit for a few more posts. But, for now, how might some floor time benefit your creative practice?

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

Freelancing: a Time Management System that Works for Me

As a natural procrastinator and date-phobe, deadlines do nothing to lower my blood pressure. In the last two years of trying to get established as a freelancer I have tried every single time management strategy available. I have probably spent as much time re-structuring my diary and prioritising to-do lists as I have spent actually working. More recently, my growing workload has made it an imperative that I get this thing nailed down – pinned down, to be precise.

All my experimentation and money spent on index cards and software has not been in vain. I’m going to share with you the system that I have evolved to suit my way of working in the hope that it might help other freelancers like me.

You will need

  • A large cork board
  • A large assortment of different coloured pins (I have about 50 of each colour)
  • A marker
  • Some labels
  • Possibly some coloured tape or sticky notes that are the same colours as your pins (these are to indicate deadlines)

    It should start to look something like this.
  1. Take the marker and divide the board into eight rows (for days of the week and a label) and as many columns as you can fit across it.
  2. Label the bottom seven rows Monday to Sunday (or Monday to Friday if you strictly don’t work weekends …  as if!)
  3. Use the top row to add labels for each coming week. These will need to be removable so you can update it with fresh weeks every so often.
  4. You are ready to go.

How to use it

There are a few simple principles to grasp:

  1. Each pin represents an hour’s work. When you take on a new job you need to estimate how many hours it is going to take you and set aside that number of pins (I write at about 500 words an hour and copy edit at about 1,500 words an hour).
  2. Use different coloured pins for different clients or jobs.
  3. Populate the “calendar” with the pins, showing when you are going to do each hour’s work. Each of my days has space for nine pins (nine working hours). Loosely, the first pin is 8am-9am and the last pin is 5pm-6pm (with an hour off for lunch).
  4. Use a specific colour (I use white) to block out days when you are not available and hours when you have appointments or non-work commitments during the normal working day.
  5. Indicate your deadlines with a piece of tape (or even a dedicated pin) in the colour for that job.
  6. You can play with the pins as much as you like but there is one rule: red pins can’t go past the red deadline, and so on.

Advantages

This system works for me because there is something about physically moving pins around that really helps me to understand how my time is distributed in a way that paper or a computer screen never does. I can tell at a glance if someone phones me up and says “can you do it by Tuesday?” If a job takes less time than I expected I can just subtract a few pins. For each hour of work completed, that pin gets removed and put to the side so progress towards completion can be seen instantly (and taking a pin out is a nice feeling). If something else needs to be slotted in, it is very easy to arrange the pins around it.

Handy tip: take a photo of the board with your phone camera and set it as your screensaver/background so you can carry it around with you.

There is lots of flexibility and scope for creative variation, but here are the basics.

It is not until you start using it that you realise the elegance of the system. Give it a go!

Getting The Point Across

While writing a short article on speed reading this morning I was tempted to digress down an intriguing side alley.

A valued tool of many speed readers is the “pointer”. It turns out that the pointer does not have any more technical name as it is often just a pen or pencil used to synchronise the reader’s eyes with the page. This simple device is invaluable as an aid to reading smoothly and at least deserves a name of its own. Perhaps the best name it has been given is a “reading wand” which seems appropriate because the written word is pure sorcery after all.

A Pointer or wand held in the hand enables the reader to keep a steady pace across the page from left to right while discouraging re-reading. It provides a kinetic connection with the page, linking the brain to the hand and eye simultaneously in a way that makes reading quicker and easier.

In fact, the pointer should be elevated to the status of “reading companion” and at least afforded the same status as a bookmark and spectacles among any self-respecting reader’s accessories. Where are those who have given the humble pointers their due and turned them into an art form in their own right?

picture of a reading pointer over a page
This handmade, industrial-themed pointer is a screwdriver covered in duck tape and studded with ball bearings.

Making your own pointer could be a great craft activity for young children who are learning to read and gives me a use for the twigs I idly whittle with my penknife but it reaches its most elevated form in the “yad”. Typically fashioned from silver, the yad, which literally means “hand” is used for reading the tight lines of the Torah; and, in this case, from right to left as Hebrew is written. Yads can be extremely ornate, indicating the high value invested in the reading of the scriptures.

As an advanced reading wand user, I use mine to skim the right margin of the lines as my eye travels down the page but a beginner will probably want to hold theirs as shown and travel from left to right until faster speeds are achieved.

Would anyone like to take me up on the challenge of making a finely crafted reading pointer, wand or yad?

I Love My AlphaSmart

Alphasmart - The Ultimate Writing Tool
Alphasmart - The Ultimate Writing Tool

I’m writing this on an AlphaSmart 3000. My AlphaSmart is my dreamweaver and my supertool, my textfactory and my musemeister. In fact if you asked me to choose between an AlphaSmart and an I-Pad, I’d take this baby because when it comes to generating raw text, less is more – and by that I mean less gadgetry is more productivity.

I needed something that was portable and that could write and save text. I needed the technology to turn a coffee shop into a furnace of writing productivity. I didn’t want something like a laptop that takes more than a minute to boot up and then offers all sorts of things to do other than to write, like check email, play minesweeper, and surf the net. I just wanted something that would provide an uninterrupted transmission of my thoughts through my fingers and into text.

The AlphaSmart is a big player in a tiny niche of what are technically known as “smart keyboards”. This one runs on two AA batteries that have lasted four months already. Switching it on is as quick as turning on a pocket calculator. Any text I type on this machine is displayed on a simple screen, 40 characters by 4 lines and automatically saved into one of 8 files so I can simultaneously carry around and work on up to 8 documents or articles. Whenever I need to I can plug the Alphasmart into my PC via the USB port and press “send” to transfer the stored text to whatever document I have open at the time. No fuss, no frills.

These little machines are popular with writers on the go but better known in schools as educational aids for people with learning difficulties. They have a passionate fan base and the simplicity of the design is such a marvel that these devices even have their own group on Flickr.

In spite of the gushy tone of this post, I don’t get a sales comission on these things (mine was £50 on ebay) I just love my Alphasmart.