I joined the 21st Century a few months ago and bought a smart phone. No it wasn’t peer pressure, or my Bejeweled Blitz addiction, or even a yearning to snap photos of my every meal (guess what THIS will look like in 24 hours?). I bought the phone so I could organize my life. With two hyperactive kids and a wife just starting a PhD program, I realized that the time I need to write, work, attend literary functions, hang out with my cronies, and be a somewhat functioning husband and father was about to be seriously curtailed. Coordinating schedules would be essential.
And for the first little while, the phone was pretty cool. I could access my calendars, check the Arsenal scores, the weather, the time in Vladivostok and, best of all, text the important people in my life. It was cool, it was fun, it was liberating. But then, somehow, it became annoying. Incredibly annoying.
I’ve known for ages that I am a natural introvert – as opposed to those sad posers who just want people to think they spend their waking hours brooding over life’s mysteries when in fact they’re simply pondering Jack Harkness’s bizarrely perfect teeth… Er, what was I on about? oh right. Introversion. I like space and quiet and people who tell me straight up what they’re thinking.
None of those things are compatible with texting.
A writing acquaintance recently asked me if I use an app called Flipboard. I recalled seeing it some time ago and I think I even installed it, but I didn’t find it very useful. At her prompting, however, I checked it out again. Wow. Whole other experience.
Billed as a “social news magazine”, Flipboard is a mobile app (for ios and Android) that allows you to create your own magazines on the fly. There are lots of other apps that let you to collect content from the web (Evernote springs to mind) but Flipboard does something that no other app I’ve found does. It makes content LOOK AWESOME. By stripping the content from the usual bilge that mars most websites, Flipboard lets you read the stories you’re interested in and JUST the stories you’re interested in. How does it do this, you ask? I have no clue. But I can tell you how to do this.
Here’s a sample 3:15 from August 2013 (see previous posts for an explanation).
The idea that the dishes
of our mind
be laid out
elegant as swans
I would rather be a dog
barking at my reflection
I see balls
I chase them
wag at inopportune moments
and live ever expecting
A measured imagination
is too shy to yodel
in the pancake house
lest the patrons disapprove
stiffen newspaper spines
create a space
safe from poets,
calmed by the pleasant geometry
of plate, spoon, fork, mug
– another refill please –
two packets of saccharine, two creams.
Building on the theme of my previous post, just getting out of your own way so the ideas can flow is one of the most important tasks facing an artist of any kind. There are countless books on the mystery of creativity (two of my faves are The Artist’s Way and Flow). But last August I tried something different: I participated in the 3:15 Experiment. Begun in 1993, participants, for the entire month of August, wake up at 3:15 am, grab a pen and paper, and write. As it turned out, the waking up part was easy (I’m usually engaged in mental blood sport at 3:15 am anyway). The really hard part was just letting myself write. I froze.
The idea behind the Experiment is that at 3:15 am your dreaming mind will be doing its thing (putting ducks in marching bands, sending you to parties with long-dead relatives, getting naked with an appalling assortment of people, and so on) while your asshole critical mind will still be off duty. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen the first couple of nights. Instead, I recall sitting on the bathmat with the icy tub against my back, shivering and trying to come up with something to put on the page. Oh god, just anything.
Except that’s not really what I was doing. What I was actually doing was trying to come up with a concept that I could write about: how nighttime noises might be metaphors for daytime fears, how a bed might actually be a ship we sail to new worlds, blah, blah, blah. Exactly the kind of high-level thinking work that is next to impossible at 3:15 am. After a couple of confidence blighting nights, I hit on the idea of just writing down whatever floated into my brain-space: images, fears, phrases, anything. Really anything: doggy sleep placemat sky belch. It worked – mostly because I stopped caring so much. I was writing down instead of writing about. Things didn’t have to make sense, or come to a tidy conclusion, or demonstrate my ear for rhythm, my vocabulary, etc. I was just plucking images from the cloudy soup of my 3 am brain.
By the end of the month I felt a stronger connection to that dreamy, random idea generator. And I had the confidence to just write stuff down, because every once in a while something really interesting would show up. Also, the discipline of getting up to write every single night for a month meant that part of my daytime brain was thinking ahead: Hey that limping dog is really sad, you should put that image in a poem. Which word is funnier: scrotum or proboscis? From a distance, those rocks looks alive… perhaps our goals are like that.
A collection of 3:15 poetry was published a few years back (including work by the fabulous Danika Dinsmore!) and there’s even a website where participants can upload their works. I’m posting a sample poem or two above, not because I think they’re affecting, finely wrought masterpieces, but because they captured something of my hypnogogic creative brain. And they remind me how effortless writing can be if I just let go.
On days when I’m feeling blunt, I need only look to my kids for reminders of what creativity looks like. Ask my daughter to tell you a story about a lonely shoe, for example, and she’ll say:
Once there was a lonely shoe named Bobby who lived in the forest where everyone else had evacuated from a fire years before and they never came back. Now Bobby lived under a tree in the ground and he spent his days hunting for blueberries because there were a lot of blueberry bushes in that forest. But one day he found a blueberry that kept rolling away from him. He picked it off the bush and it hopped out of his bag and rolled away. And then he found it and it hopped out of his hand and it rolled away. So Bobby followed it home and found his den. Bobby soon learned that the blueberry was not a blueberry but a type of Badumba fly, and it was nesting on the bush. And soon he found out that other flies lived there too, so he made friends with the flies and they all lived happily ever after. And he wasn’t a lonely shoe anymore.
I’m not making this up. I just asked her. So is she a creative genius? Of course she is, she’s my daughter. But more importantly she’s not weighed down by 1000 rules telling her, for example, that verbs should come early in a sentence, action should be linear, POVs consistent, you should show not tell and always remember that too great a narrative distance will make your characters seem contrived and two dimensional.
Kids don’t care about all that stuff. They just want sentences with zombies. And Bazumba flies. And long-suffering children who escape their wretched moms. Getting it “perfect” doesn’t occur to kids. They just wanna have fun. So I ask myself, when was the last time I set out to have fun, rather than create “art”?
I’m not usually one to keep an eye out for omens, but as our bus neared the Moroccan beach town of Essaouira I couldn’t help wondering what the scene might portend: Standing like cardboard cut-outs in the upper branches of a large argan tree were no less than seven goats. Yes, goats. In a tree. I pressed my face to the glass and convinced myself that such a thing could exist. It must. Certainly the goats seemed unimpressed to be 15 feet in the air, munching leaves in the full blast of midday heat.
Our bus pulled into a dusty station on the outskirts of Essaouira (say, “Essa-weera”). The guide books had promised a picturesque town full of souks, ancient buildings, and dramatic seascapes. Judging by the view from the bus staion, however, we’d be lucky to find a clean place to sit down. With bags slung over our shoulders, my travel partner, Kim, and I trudged through an unremarkable district: small whitewashed houses, palm trees in a dirt yard by the dirt road, electrical lines strung haphazardly between crooked poles, and ramshackle cars careening down streets or abandoned in yards and alleyways.
Tree climbing goats, Jimi Hendrix and crumbling seaside castles. Essaouira, Morocco is as strange as it is beautiful.
But just as I was beginning to think that reports of Essaouira’s beauty had been greatly exaggerated, we reached the main gate of the old city: a deep, bricked archway crowned with triangular capped battlements. Beyond this arch no more cars were allowed, and as we passed through several succeeding arches, time seemed to peel away until we were part of a crush of hooded men and veiled women milling through streets overflowing with wood carvings, textiles, stonework and leather goods. Overhead, tall white buildings with vibrant blue shutters obscured all but the very tops of palm trees which grew at the centres of hidden courtyards. We wandered through the pedestrian filled streets in a kind of dazed wonder, as though carried by the current of a slow moving river, drifting deep into the medina, or old town, where most of the hotels can be found.
As an up and coming resort town, Essaouira is full of four- and five-star accommodations, but it is precisely because of its growing popularity that getting a room in these hotels requires a reservation, at least during high season. After a few attempts, we settled into comfortable, unpretentious lodgings near the 16th century Portuguese ramparts that line the western edge of town. On my way down from the room I asked Ali, the 16-year-old son of the hotel’s owner, what he thought was best about Essaouira. Ali straightened up from the mop he’d been leaning over.