From the category archives:

Process

The Being We Become

September 3, 2009

in Process,Words

My brain finds connections I can’t completely explain between the Shu Ting poem I posted last week and this passage by bell hooks:

“I did not wait for desegregation, for college, for creative-writing classes, for grown-ups to show me the way. I found my vocation. It called to me and I was determined to answer the call. I began to write in my girlhood. And I am writing still, moving swiftly into midlife with a body of words I have made into books beside me. No passion in my life has been as constant, as true as this love. No passion has been as demanding. When words call, to answer, to satisfy the urge, I must come again and again to a solitary place — a place where I am utterly alone. In that moment of grace when the words come, when I surrender to their ecstatic power, there is no witness. Only I see, feel, and know how my mind and spirit are carried away. Only I know how the writing process alchemically alters me, leaving me transformed. Other writers tell of how it works within them. Written words change us all and make us more than we could ever be without them. Still the being we become in the midst of the very act of writing is only ever intimately present to the one who writes.”

– from the preface to “remembered rapture”

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No, I don’t mean Marshall McLuhan.

I’m doing some research on Glenn Gould at the moment, and was floored at the prescience of this passage:

“Electronic transmission has already inspired a new concept of multiple-authorship responsibility in which the specific functions of the composer, the performer, and, indeed, the consumer overlap. We need only think for a moment of the manner in which the formerly separate roles of composer and performer are now automatically combined in electronic tape construction or, to give an example more topical than potential, the way in which the home listener is now able to exercise limited technical and, for that matter, critical judgments, courtesy of the modestly resourceful controls of his hi-fi. It will not, it seems to me, be very much longer before a more self-assertive streak is detected in the listener’s participation, before, to give but one example, “do-it-yourself” tape editing is the prerogative of every reasonably conscientious consumer of recorded music (the Hausmusik activity of the future, perhaps!). And I would be most surprised if the consumer involvement were to terminate at that level. In fact, implicit in electronic culture is the acceptance of the idea of multilevel participation in the creative process.”

– From “Strauss and the Electronic Future” which appeared in the Saturday Review on May 30, 1964

I wonder what he’d make of GarageBand, MySpace and YouTube?

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The BBC goes behind the scenes of Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings project as it was projected on the surface of the Sydney Opera House:

There is also a profile of the project, with some technical details about how it was put together, on Apple’s website:

“77 Million Paintings” continues to evolve. “We’ve been discussing the idea of using natural selection in the next project,” says Taylor. “When users see a combination of images they like, they’ll be able to hit a button and the computer will remember it. Likewise, the user will be able to kill certain combinations. At the end of a very long period of time, you’ll have a handful of images that have survived the selection process. Then the program will stop. Everyone’s choices will be different.”

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TED and Reddit recently ran an online poll to select questions for an interview with Ken Robinson. Here are a few snippets of his responses, with my own emphases in bold, for enhanced skimming:

“The basis of my argument is: creativity isn’t a specific activity; it’s a quality of things we do.

“The idea is you have to make the idea of creativity clear and operational. Like we have done with literacy.

On well-roundedness versus specialization:

“Schools and universities are built upon different forms of knowledge, and the way we most commonly think about them is as subjects.

And I think subjects is a poor idea, really, for the kind of work I’m interested to promote, because it suggests that the world is definable into entirely different sorts of content or subject matter.”

“I want, really, to get away from the idea of subjects and I think disciplines is a much better idea. A discipline suggests something which is a kind of an amalgam, a mixture of concepts, of practical skills, of techniques, of ideas, of data. I mean, mathematics isn’t really a subject. It’s a whole series of different sorts of disciplines. And I think that’s true of music. Music isn’t really a subject, but practicing music involves extraordinary levels — different levels — of ideas, of practical skills, of sensibility.”

On the process-view of education:

“The larger argument about this is that when I say public education arose in response to industrialism, it also developed in the image of industrialism. If you look at public education systems in their general shape, they are manufacturing processes. And a lot of it happens — we separate people by age, it’s a very linear process, very focused on certain types of outcome. And standardized testing is, in a way, the grand example of the industrial method of education. It’s not there to identify what individuals can do. It’s there to look at things to which they conform.”

“I don’t think there’s a kid in America, or anywhere in the world, who gets out of bed in the morning wondering what they can do to raise their state’s reading standards. They get out of bed, if they’re motivated, by their own interests and their own development. So I think we should be doing the opposite. I think we should be personalizing everything in schools. We should be looking at ways of making education relevant to each individual child. And there’s no other way of improving standards. Actually, there’s no other way of doing it on the grand scale.”

Doing, not just thinking:

“…in our culture, doing practical things is disparaged in education. It’s all about getting into a university and doing theoretical things. But the world turns on people being able to do things, not just think about doing things. And practical skills, like music and design, are intensely demanding.”

On providing feedback:

“So one thing she has to do is to make a dress. Well, it sounds easy, but try doing it. It’s extremely taxing to do it. But what was interesting was that the assessment that came back was very detailed. It referred to very specific things that she was doing about seams and cloth and pockets and buttonholes and the lay of the nap in the cloth. It was broken down into probably 30 very specific comments on the details of what she’d done. And it was a really helpful process of assessment. But if she’s had the thing and then just got a B for it, you’d think, “Well now, what do I do with that information?”

So, if assessment is textured and finely-grained, and is supportive and diagnostic, I’m all for it. If it’s coarse and simplistic and judgmental and uninformative, then it seems to me always to be negative and have the wrong sort of effects in education.”

Protecting personalization from creeping standardization:

“The things I’m talking about are not, it seems to me, eccentric or new. It’s not whimsy and its not a fad. From the beginning of public education, there have been people looking for alternative ways of doing things, better ways of thinking about organizing our institutions. More responsible ways of engaging children in their own learning. Kids are not widgets. Students are living, breathing people who will only learn if they are engaged properly. We have a responsibility to the development of all the students in the system. It’s important for them, the health of our communities and the strength of our economies.”

On engaging curiosity:

“Professional mathematicians have such a cornucopia of fascinating puzzles, questions, proposals and conundrums. A great math teacher really has endless opportunities to stimulate kids minds and get them engaged with things they’d probably never thought about before. Rather than just giving them techniques.

It’s like what’s too often done with music lessons; kids spend too much time learning scales rather than doing anything interesting. But if you get them right away learning the joy of making music, they’ll want to learn how to do it properly after that.”

Idea generation — and the development of taste and discernment:

“…an equally important part for every creative process is to act critically on the ideas you’re coming up with. To evaluate them. That’s why I define creativity, in the TEDTalk, as the process of having original ideas that have value. You have to figure out which ideas are good and bad. Which work and which don’t. Which are worthwhile and which ones are not. Then, of course, it raises the old question of whose criteria you’re using and whose values you’re operating, and that’s a part of the conversation. Being creative isn’t just about blowing off new ideas. It’s about critical judgment, as well.”

Collaboration:

“An awful lot of creative work doesn’t happen individually. It happens with people interacting with other people. The most powerful engines of creative thinking are groups. And the reason that’s true is because a great group models the human mind: it’s diverse, it’s dynamic, it’s distinctive. So, knowing how to form groups, how to get groups to work, how long to leave them doing it is a core skill of good teachers.”

Experimentation and contemplation:

“The second is to look outwardly. To try things you may not have tried for a long time, or have never tried but wanted to. Put yourself in the way of things. If you’ve never been to a science museum, go to one. If you’ve never been to an opera, go to one. If you’ve never read certain kinds of books, try them. If you always drive a certain way to work, try another way. If there’s some place you haven’t been yet, go there. Expose yourself to possibilities. See what begins to chime with you. My point about being in the element is some people make a living doing it, and others don’t. Some don’t want to. But it’s about finding your own personal element. And the more people are able to do that, the more enriched their lives become, and the more enriched the lives are of those people who are in contact with them.

It’s something that we all should do, and something that we all can do.”

There’s a should I can get behind!

Read the entire interview here.

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Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

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J. Robert Lennon on what writers really do:

Recently, I timed myself during a typical four-hour “writing” session, in order to determine how many minutes I spend writing. The answer: 33. That’s how long it took to type four pages of narrative and dialogue for my novel-in-progress, much of which will eventually end up discarded.

Read the article for his detailed timeline.

via @CherylStrayed via @BigScotty

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In the “How to Read This Book” section of The Ode Less Travelled, Stephen Fry states three rules as ‘terms and conditions’ that readers must pledge to follow before proceeding:

  1. Take your time
  2. Don’t be afraid
  3. Always have a notebook with you

Not a bad way to go about your day in general…

Bonus treat: Stephen Fry, in character with his comedic partner Hugh Laurie, expounds on language, beauty and ideas:

“…wheel within a wheel, like the circles that we find in the windmills of our mind…”

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Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko:

“When I was
a younger man,
art was
a lonely thing.

No galleries,
no collectors,
no critics.

No money.

Yet it was a golden age,
for we all had
nothing to lose,
and a vision to gain.

Today,
it is not quite the same.

It is a time
of tons
of verbiage,
activity,
consumption.

Which condition is better
for the world at large,
I will not venture
to discuss.

But I do know
that many of those
who are driven
to this life

are desperately searching
for those pockets of silence
where we can root and grow.

We must all hope we find them.”

Transcribed from Simon Schama’s The Power of Art. The line breaks are my own.

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Lev Yilmaz on procrastination:

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Meet Kacie Kinzer’s Tweenbots:

Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

Who needs artificial intelligence when you have the distributed intelligence and kindness of a few dozen New Yorkers?

Watch the process here:

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From “Honey Pie” by Haruki Murakami:

Sayako said, “To understand something and to put that something into a form you can see with your own eyes are two completely different things. If you could manage to do both equally well, though, living would be a lot simpler.”

Available in the collection After the Quake: Stories

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An updated recording tries to get closer to the sound of the Gyuto monks before they were exiled from Tibet fifty years ago:

Yet the sounds that thrilled Smith and Hart’s ears were not, technically, consummate. Smith’s 1967 tape is limited by several factors, primarily by the technology of the day, but also with the number of voices. Smith only heard the remnants of the choir — the few monks that survived the perilous trek into India after the Chinese invaded in 1959 and killed or imprisoned most of them. In the original Gyuto monastery, there were over a hundred monks in the choir.

“No one’s really heard a hundred monks outside of Lhasa for many years,” Hart notes.

People have heard smaller groups. Seven monks from the only other monastery that practices the chants won a Grammy recently. So, to re-create the sound of a full choir for this CD, Mickey Hart recorded each monk multiple times to make 10 voices sound like a hundred.

“We overdubbed, and now there’s over a hundred-voice choir here, which has never really been sounded in the West,” says Hart.

To hear a 24-minute track from this  overdubbed version, click on this link, then look at the box on the left side titled “Hear the Monks” and click on the link labeled “From Tibetan Chants for World Peace, produced by Mickey Hart: ‘Blessing The Offerings’”. (Sorry for the complex instructions. I don’t see a way to directly link to the recording.)

The voices are astounding — but so are the interlocking patterns of the percussion.

It’s worth a couple of listens.

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From a story on NPR about measuring the structural integrity and speed of the brain’s white matter:

Haier says the good news is that we’re not necessarily stuck with the brain, or the brain speed, we inherit. He says thinking is like running or weightlifting. It helps to have certain genes. But anyone can get stronger or faster by working out.

The brain is like a muscle, Haier says: “The more you work it the more efficient it gets.”

So people who practice the violin, or do math problems, or learn a foreign language are constantly strengthening certain pathways in their brains.

And Thompson notes that our brains, unlike our bodies, peak relatively late in life.

“The wires between the brain cells, the connections, are the things that you can modify throughout life,” he says. “They change and they improve through your 40s and 50s and 60s.”

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I have some quibbles with some of his conclusions, but there are a few points worth culling from Merlin Mann’s speech at MacWorld this past January:

  • “Creativity is a way of seeing the world, it is a way of behaving, it is a way of understanding how things that may seem unrelated could actually be related.”
  • “When you become a professional creative person, having ideas is the least of your problems.”
  • “Ideas are cheap, making them into something awesome is super-hard.”
  • “Even if it’s just something you do as an avocation — for fun — it’s a job. It’s work.”
  • “There’s stuff you want to do that you may not even realize you want to do.”

His general themes — that creative endeavours require work, sacrifice and blocks of uninterrupted time, and that there may be archetypal patterns to making ideas into something we can share and interact with — are spot on.

There’s also a video on YouTube but it’s 27 minutes, with technical difficulties and a fair bit of wandering jocularity, which is why I’m presenting a condensed version here.

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Bre Prettis and Kio Stark have written a 13-point Cult of Done Manifesto. Examples:

2. Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done.

6. The point of being done is not to finish but to get other things done.

9. People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.

Here’s one of the visual depictions, by James Provost:

Done Manifesto

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