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December 2011

The Gaps, Crap and Gumption Traps in Creative Work

Ira_glass_quote_sawyer_hollenshead

ThisAmericanLifeThe poster above reflects hard-won wisdom acquired and shared by Ira Glass, host of PRI's This American Life, emphasizing the importance of perseverance in developing mastery of creative production. While Glass focuses on storytelling for radio and television, his insights and experiences about the gaps between ambitions and realizations - and the connections between quantity and quality - relate to wisdom I've encountered from masters of the crafts of filmmaking and maintaining motorcycles. I believe this wisdom applies to any creative endeavor, and I would argue that storytelling is an essential ingredient in every creative enterprise, as the creative things we produce and consume comprise an integral part of the stories we make up about ourselves.

The poster is derived from a video interview posted in August 2009 (Ira Glass on Storytelling, Part 3 of 4) in which he describes both the frustration and importance of making stuff that is still "kind of crappy" as an unavoidable part of the apprenticeship required for the journey to master craftspersonship ... and, according to Sturgeon's Law, 90% of everything is crap anyway.

Being_Wrong_Kathryn_SchulzIra Glass is my favorite interviewer, and so I was intrigued when he was interviewed by another experienced interviewer, Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong. The interview, which appeared in a June 2010 Slate article, On Air and On Error: This American Life's Ira Glass on Being Wrong, offers some glimpses of the wisdom captured in the pithy poster above:

One of the reasons I was interested in doing this interview is because I feel like being wrong is really important to doing decent work. To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it's usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere. It's not unusual for us to go through 25 or 30 ideas and then go into production on eight or 10 and then kill everything but three or four. In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can't tell if it's going to be good until you're really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you.

WoodyAllen_AmericanMastersIn a recent American Masters documentary on Woody Allen, the prolific writer, actor and director shared a similar perspective on the need to produce lots of stuff. Although the documentary is no longer viewable online, an interview with Robert B. Weide, the documentary filmmaker - a filmmaker filming a filmmaker - is available, in which Weide shares Allen's Quantity Theory:

You ask him [Woody Allen] about his endurance and his longevity over 40 years, and how prolific he is, doing a film a year for 40 years, as a writer and a director, and in many of them, an actor. And he says, "You know, longevity and endurance have their place, those are accomplishments of a sort, but those aren't the accomplishments I care about, which is to make a really great film." He says that he's working on the quantity theory, which is that if you just keep knocking them out, one picture after another, just keep making them and making them, some of them won't be that great, but every now and then, one will come out good.

ZenAndTheArtOfMotorcycleMaintenanceAllen's Quantity Theory brings to mind the Metaphysics of Quality, and the idea of a gumption trap that Robert Pirsig described in his classic 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig uses motorcycle maintenance as a metaphor for life, and explores a variety of gumption traps - externally induced out-of-sequence reassembly, intermittent failure and parts problems as well as internally induced traps arising from value rigidity, ego, anxiety, boredom and impatience - and ways of addressing and overcoming them. I won't include the full text of Pirsig's hypothetical course in Gumptionology 101 here, but the following passage gives a sense of his perspective, and its relevance to the views shared more recently by Ira Glass and Woody Allen:

Throughout the process of fixing the machine things always come up, low-quality things, from a dusted knuckle to an accidentally ruined "irreplaceable" assembly. These drain off gumption, destroy enthusiasm and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business. I call these things "gumption traps."

There are hundreds of different kinds of gumption traps, maybe thousands, maybe millions. I have no way of knowing how many I don’t know. I know it seems as though I’ve stumbled into every kind of gumption trap imaginable. What keeps me from thinking I’ve hit them all is that with every job I discover more. Motorcycle maintenance gets frustrating. Angering. Infuriating. That’s what makes it interesting.

Pirsig's ideas about gumption were part of the inspiration for this blog, and I have consciously and unconsciously encountered some of these traps when writing - and not writing - posts here. When I look back on my early posts, many of them now seem like crap ... and I don't think any of the posts I've written - or anything I've produced in any other realm - have ever quite closed the gap between my ambitions and my realizations. I suppose blogging gives me a channel through which to work out - or at least work with - the ongoing tension between striving and acceptance.

Finally, speaking of blogging, I first encountered the poster at the top of this post a few weeks ago at the top of a post at Tim Kastelle's blog (which I always enjoy) on How to Make Things Look Simple. Tim found it amid one of the longest chains of Tumblr reblogs I've ever encountered, but further searching suggests that it was originally created by Sawyer Hollenshead. In digging around for the source, I also found a plain text version of the Ira Glass quote on a blog maintained by NPR's Fresh Air associate producer Melody Kramer, which I'll include - and conclude with - here, as I find it more readable (though less striking) than the poster:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.


I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb

We are all interconnected and we have responsibility for each other.

I_Am_Because_We_Are_coverThis is the interpretation of the Swahili word, ubuntu, offered near the start of a short, inspiring interview with photographer Betty Press by NPR Weekend Edition Sunday host, Audie Cornish two weeks ago. The interview focused on the incredible photographs celebrating the lives of people in Africa compiled over a 20-year period in a new book by Press, I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb. The NPR web page for the segment, A Photographer Changes The Focus In Africa, includes a selection of 7 of the 125 black and white photographs from the book. The images are striking, but given that this was a radio interview - on NPR, no less - I was a bit disappointed that, with the exception of the quote above, the proverbial dimension of African Wisdom was largely omitted from the segment ... and, well, talking about photographs is like writing about music ... which, of course, is like dancing about architecture.

ubuntu_logoAlthough I have never been there, I have been interested in Africa since inadvertently becoming an unofficial spokesperson for Nokia's efforts to empower people in developing regions with mobile technologies at PopTech 2007 (and several subsequent events). And as a technology guy, I have long interpreted ubuntu as a reference to a Debian-derived version of the open-source Linux operating system. I was intrigued, though not entirely surprised, to discover the origin of the term, which does seem well-aligned with the philosophy embodied by this evolving software artifact. So after learning more about the broader - and deeper - interpretation of ubuntu from Betty Press, my appetite was whetted for more examples of proverbial African wisdom to be revealed during the course of the interview.

Unfortunately, there were no further examples of proverbs offered on NPR - during the interview or on its associated web page - and while the book's web site offers a gallery that include additional photos, there are no examples of the proverbs in the book ... although the its proverbial aspects are highlighted in the following endorsement by Joanne Veal Gabbin on the main page:

A wise one said Proverbs are the palm wine with which words are eaten. Proverbs, like poems, are concise, loaded with metaphors, wisdom, nuance, and the rhythms of life…

At $39.95, this is not an inexpensive book (well, at least, not in my book), and I wasn't sure I wanted to make the investment. As much as I am moved by visual images, words are my primary source of inspiration. The book cover says "Proverbs compiled by Annetta Miller", and so I don't know if the division of labor is, in part, responsible for the primacy of images vs. words in nearly all the marketing materials (I cannot find a web page for Ms. Miller, but her bio suggests she has been involved in compiling other collections of African wisdom).

Having purchased and now received a copy of the book, I can attest to the captivating imagery contained in the photographs. Many of the proverbs of the book reflect wisdom that I've encountered in proverbs arising in American, European and/or Asian cultures - perhaps reflecting the universal nature of many of the most meaningful insights and experiences we share as human beings - but a few stood out as particularly poignant pronouncements of perspicacity. I wanted to help compensate for what I see as a deficit of attention to the proverbial wisdom in the book by sharing a few of my favorites:

The world is a mirror; it looks at you the same way you look at it. [North African proverb]

Our children are living messages sent to a future we may never see. [Nigerian proverb]

What you help a child to love is more important than what you help her to learn. [Sengalese proverb]

If you educate a man you educate an invdividual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family (nation). [Ghanaian proverb]

If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk, you can dance. [Zimbabwean proverb]

These last two are especially resonant, after having recently attended a David Whyte poetry reading, in which he and representatives of a local organization, Young Women Empowered, shared some proverbial wisdom about the importance of empowering [young] women and for the need for all humans to courageously speak out in the world. Whyte also spoke of embracing different forms of beauty, and the images and words in I Am Because We Are are a powerful illustration of beautiful forms that arise in the people and places of Africa.


David Whyte on Feminine Wisdom, Courage and Power

Young_Women_Empowered_LogoDavid Whyte shared his inspired and inspiring wisdom about the feminine embodiments of power last night at Town Hall Seattle. At a benefit event for Young Women Empowered (Y-WE) - an organization co-founded by his wife, Leslie - he guided the audience on a journey exploring the "five forms of female courage" and revealed aspects of that courage through stories, poetry and an articulation of what he calls a philosophy of attention. Whyte suggested that these forms of courage are not restricted to women, but that men typically only arrive at these forms of courage - and wisdom - after they have tried all the more masculine forms of courage. I have often wrestled with an interior tension between the masculine and the feminine - most of my closest friends are women, and most of the artists who inspire me are women - and so Whyte's framing of the masculine vs. the feminine forms offers me a new perspective from which to contemplate this tension.

Whyte described the first form as the feminine relationship to the unknown or to mystery, perhaps best exemplified by a woman's central role in the miracle of birth ... and a man's role as an outsider looking in. After distinguishing a father's relationship with a son, whom he is supposed to teach, and his relationship with a daughter, to whom he is supposed to apprentice himself, Whyte recited My Daughter Asleep, which he composed over a course of several years for his daughter, Charlotte, beginning shortly after her birth. When she was five, he recited the poem for her, and asked what her favorite part was. Charlotte's favorite section is also my favorite ... and I wonder if my own daughter (who I suspect is very close to Charlotte's age) would also find a deep resonance with the lines:

May she find
in all this
day or night
the beautiful
centrality
of pure opposites

The_Song_of_the_LarkAs a marine biologist who worked as a naturalist in the Galapagos, and who has always felt and expressed a keen appreciation of the natural world, Whyte introduced another poem by explaining that a collection of larks is called an exaltation of larks, and asserting that he considers the lark an emblem of humans' ability to speak out in the world. He then recited Song of the Lark, another poem that reveals - or perhaps more precisely, revels in - the mystery of the feminine, which was inspired by [a postcard of] a painting by Jules Breton from 1884:

What is called in her rises from the ground
and is found in her body,
what she is given is secret even from her.

The second form of feminine courage explored during the evening was a willingness to ground that mystery in the world. Whyte sees vulnerability as a source of strength rather than weakness, reflecting wisdom I have encountered in words written and spoken by empowered and empowering women such as Oriah Mountain Dreamer (through whom I first discovered David Whyte) and Brene Brown, who also advocate - and model - connection and compassion through courage, vulnerability & authenticity.

Whyte recited poetry exemplifying strength through vulnerability, including  a poem by the courageous Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, I Know the Truth, remarking how much more authentic such a bold assertion seems when it comes from a woman vs. a man. He also recited his own poems The House of Belonging and Start Close In, the latter of which suggests a step-wise approach to grounding the mystery in the world:

Start close in,
don't take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don't want to take.

Meerabai_paintingThe third form of feminine courage is a willingness to say "no" to anything and everything that is not a full "yes". This courage is illustrated by Meera (aka Mira / Meerabai / Mirabai), an ecstatic Hindu poet and singer in 16th century India, and her poem, Why Meera Can't Go Back Home, which articulates firm boundaries:

Approve me or disapprove me;
I praise the Mountain Energy night
and day.

Whyte also recited Sweet Darkness, a poem with particularly deep personal resonance that helped me re-frame and re-interpret a misconstrued defeat during a period in which I was moving toward belonging, freedom and coming alive again after a period of soul-squelching darkness:

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

After an intermission, Jamie Rose-Edwards, the Executive Director of Young Women Empowered, and two of its recent graduates shared their hopes for and experiences with the program. The mission of Y-WE is to "empower young women from diverse communities to step up as leaders in their schools, communities, and the world." There was clear alignment between the kinds of courage and power Whyte was expressing and the characteristics modeled and cultivated by the staff and mentors of the program.

David_Whyte_English_Lake_DistrictWhen Whyte returned to the stage, he articulated the fourth form of feminine courage, a willingness to live in different forms of beauty. The forms of beauty that a woman will exhibit and experience will change throughout her life, and the transitions will often involve disappointment and heartbreak, but the courage to work through the transitions open doors to new forms of beauty (and wisdom). Whyte recited Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, his own poem to (and, in a way, from) his mother, Farewell Letter, and a poem, Weathering, by New Zealand poet (and librarian), Fleur Adcock, composed during her year-long, late mid-life sabbatical in the English Lake District (one of the places through which Whyte leads tours):

But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.

At the end of the evening, Whyte shared the fifth form of feminine courage, the courage to accept the invitations of life and step out beyond yourself, noting that the most courageous conversation is the one we don't want to have. Throughout much of his prose and poetry, Whyte advocates adopting an investigative vulnerability in exploring the frontiers of experience, and his poem, The True Love - with which he concluded the event - is one of this most penetrating articulations of this truth, drawing upon the biblical account of Jesus inviting Peter to find the faith and courage get out of a boat amid stormy seas and walk on water toward him. A passage in the poem is especially poignant for me now, as I wrestle with my own vulnerable sense of power, worthiness and faith:

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.

David_Whyte_River_Flow David_Whyte_Clear_Mind_Wild_HeartMost of the poems Whyte read - both his own and those by other poets - were from his collection, River Flow, a book I have read cover-to-cover dozens of times, and probably represents the closest approximation I have to a bible, serving as a personal perpetual source of wisdom and inspiration. I've also listened to his entire 6 CD set, Clear Mind, Wild Heart [also available in MP3] dozens of times, a series of recordings with a format similar to the event of last night: an intermingling of poetry, prose and philosophy. Although I was already familiar with most of the poems (and the stories behind them) shared last night, it was still a thrilling experience to see him live. This was my first poetry reading, and throughout the event, I experienced the same kinds of "goose-bump moments" I've often felt (and written about) during music concerts, perhaps most notably during the Indigo Girls Zoo Tunes concert that Amy and I attended a few years ago. What was qualitatively different between the poetry reading last night and music concerts I have attended was the frequent, collective sighs and other spontaneous shared expressions of recognition of deep truths that were articulated during Whyte's recitation of poems. I often experienced a double jolt of goose bumps, first from my own personal resonance, and shortly thereafter from the awareness that I was not alone in feeling that deep resonance.

I'll finish off this post with a passage from a poem that Whyte did not read last night, Revelation Must be Terrible, but which exquisitely captures the notions of shared resonance and aloneness:

Being far from home is hard, but you know,
   at least we are exiled together.

Namaste.