Saturday, November 5, 2016

Fresh Thinking

People often ask me about creativity, looking for advice on how they might view things differently or overcome their ‘mental blocks’ to finding new ideas.

Often, they’re disappointed when I say there's no quick answer - while everyone can be creative, 'quick fix techniques' or 'idea formulas', simply don’t work. Those offered in the context of business are especially poor, seldom amounting to more than variants on brainstorming. 

The reality is, it’s a bit more difficult than that!

If creativity is the ability to respond, imagine and invent in a way that delivers something new - then doing this well is darn tough! Ask any painter, writer or composer - or for that matter any scientist or philosopher - and they’ll all tell you the same; that creativity takes courage and practice (lots of it), as well as an acceptance that most of our notions come to nothing.

In a sense this ought to be obvious, for if creativity were easy then we wouldn’t prize it so highly - or so many seek advice on how they might improve.

And yet still and so often I meet folk looking for a sort of inspiration alchemy: the 'bitesize solution', the 'idiot's guide' to generating ideas - the elusive formula to creative gold. 

It doesn’t exist! 

In the same way that we wouldn’t presume to become an accountant in a day, we shouldn’t expect creativity to be any different. Seeing things anew is part skill, part craft, and a huge amount of hard work - writers spend long hours at the keyboard; painters the equivalent at the easel - they both spend a lifetime looking.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t insights and practices (note that word again) that can guide and inspire us to a more inventive approach.  

Over a lifetime of creative practise (in painting, in writing and in business) there are many inspirational resources and mentors that have helped me develop the skills I possess.  

With the caveat that real knowledge is always hard won - and that practice is all - I offer my recommendations of some the more accessible books, which - if you make the effort - might just make a genuine difference. 

Ways of seeing 
John Berger
Penguin Classics 1972

Ways of Seeing was originally published to accompany a BBC TV series on art and media.  Nearly 50 years on it still resonates with questions and insights that prompt us to see the world differently. Widely used on university courses in creative arts - with the added bonus that it’s as easy a read as you’ll find in this list!   Jon Berger is a respected writer, painter, art critic, and winner of the Booker prize.  

The Artists Way 
Julia Cameron
Pan 1995

The Artist Way is subtitled ‘a course in discovering and recovering your creative self’. This hints at an element of spirituality in Cameron’s approach which won’t be to everyone’s taste.  But if you can get past the element of ‘crystal healing’, the book is full of helpful exercises and surprising recommendations.  The Artists Way is effectively a twelve-week course that guides you through a process of finding your creativity.  

Julia Cameron has a wealth of resources on the web - her book ‘The Right to Write’ is also very good.

The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking
Stephen Law

An excellent and very accessible book on philosophy as an aid to creativity.  The Philosophy Gym is a collection of stories, thought experiments, illustrations and ‘thinking tools’ designed to explain ideas and wake up your brain.  Stephen Law has the knack of making complex issues easy to understand,  while also showing that the apparently simple is often very complex.

Draw; how to master the art
Jeffery Camp

One of the best books on drawing, and a world away from those dreadful ‘left side of the brain’ approaches. More a portmanteaux of inspirations than a manual of technique, Jeffery Camp encourages us to practice and experiment every day, even for a few minutes.  

Drawing - even doodling - is one of the best of all creative practices. It teaches us to look, to consider and respond - and it makes that response real and physical on the page. 

Simon Blackburn
Oxford University Press 2001

One of the best popular introductions to philosophy. Simon Blackburn’s guide to thinking challenges our notions of what it is to reason clearly, taking his readers on a journey that leaves us questioning the superficial assumptions of everyday life.

What’s that got to do with creativity?  

Absolutely everything!

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Objects of life #2, Windsor chair

As I sit and type this post my arse is getting cold, and somewhat numb too. The chair it's attached to (save for a thin layer of cotton) is a Windsor stick back, made of oak, by someone a long time ago.  If I turned it over I could show you the marks where they've drilled and chiselled, so the legs butt neatly in the slab.

I found this chair almost thirty years ago, in a shop in Monmouth, shortly after coming to Wales. It was one of those impulse purchases - saw it; loved it; bought it, all in five minutes - and at £190 it seemed a lot of money at the time. I remember too that it caused a row because my wife was annoyed I'd not asked her first.  It's my money I'd said; and it's our house, she'd replied - to be fair, she had a point.

It was always my chair after that, and when we parted it came with me too. There are few days since that I haven't settled in its frame to ponder or write. A while back, my company insisted on supplying me with an orthopaedic monstrosity, complete with lumbar support and variable height adjusters  - it soon adorned my shed, before making its way to the tip.

Sick chairs are traditional, vernacular furniture - they were common throughout the UK, but particularly so in Wales. Experts can identify the region of origin, sometimes the maker, and ironically, for what started as humble country effects, they're now sought after antiques with provenance and prices to match. Some of the designs (Windsors particularly) have been adopted by manufacturers, and you'll find any number of reproductions on eBay.

But despite the mass producers, stick chairs are still made by craftsmen today. The twentieth century guru was John Brown, who published a definitive book on styles and method. His chairs are objects of beauty; among the few things I truly covet. There are contemporary makers too - so it's a craft that lives on, though more for sales than for personal use.

By today's prices, my £190 wasn't a bad investment. More importantly, it's given me thirty years of pleasure and memory. The surface of my chair is pitted with history, a palimpsest of my time in Wales. That's the character of the possessions we care for - objectively, they are 'worth' this or that - but what's the value of the wear on the arms,  or the chips in the varnish where my sons played with their toys?

As I finish this post I can barely feel my backside.  I ought to get a cushion; probably will - but regardless, I wouldn't want to have plonked it anywhere else.