Literary superfood versus literal garbage – how to keep the creative juices flowing

It’s a struggle these last few days. My brain feels dry. Like a giant leech has sucked the very essence of creative juices from my mind. It’s a sign of tiredness maybe, but it’s also a sign, I think, of not reading.

Now let’s be clear. I read. A lot. My life is an endless stream of report reading, news, Twitter feed and amusing 30 second videos on Facebook…no, wait, I think I diverted there. Dogs on mops. That’s what’s amusing (see, I didn’t even have to issue the rhetorical question to lead you into the answer).

No, I read. The trouble is, I don’t read enough of the right stuff. Reading is like eating. There are healthy superfoods, reasonably healthy, a little naughty, and downright garbage. 

Healthy superfoods, in reading, are the classic greats, not just oldies like Dickens, but new blood like whoever won the Booker Prize in 1965. What’s that you say? There was no Booker Prize in 1965? Oh, well, OK, 1975 then (it was around by then surely). There are non-fiction too, the kind of books that completely absorb you and drive into a philosophical journey of epic proportions, traveling the imagination highway at warp fucking 9. ‘Give me more Mister Crusher!’ yells Picard. ‘Give me more!!’ (Being a Star Trek TNG fan I must hold up my hands and admit that was never in any episode, but I’m sure it probably appeared in some form of fan fiction, depending on how you read it).

Reasonably healthy are the decent reads, the measured oddities that don’t quite reach greatness but keep us intrigued, interested and draw us in I like to class lesser known fiction by well known writers. For example, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is for me like kale. Cook kale in the right way and it’s delicious and healthy, read In Cold Blood the right way and it’ll do the same for your brain. His other novels though, like Summer Crossing, they’re more like chicken. Healthy in many respects, but cooked in the wrong way probably have some drawbacks. Not many though, chicken is awesome. You could just eat chicken, but you need something like kale otherwise you’ll get scurvy. OK, maybe not that bad. There are other foods out there that are nutritious and healthy without being ‘superfoods’. I guess though you set the bar lower for yourself if you don’t indulge in what’s best for you.

Slightly naughty, now there’s something. Chocolate. Tastes delicious, but death. Bacon, it’s as bad as smoking but it’s soooo good. So what fits in here? Well, it’s the slightly crappy novels that have some semblance of story, and character, but really they just go through the motions and you’re looking for simple trash you can enjoy. Here I might mention books of my youth like the Belgariad, or Dragonlance. Enjoyable fantasy romps (except Tanis – fucking shave you moping dick, it’s obvious you want to), but not exactly breaking literary barriers.

And the garbage. That’s Twitter. That’s news. That’s Facebook. It would also be Fifty Shades of Grey, but i haven’t read that so cannot comment (It’s utter shit – read Twilight because it’s the same story, and then read some Black Lace for all the “fifty shades of fucked up” FSOG will do you). 

But Twitter? News? How can these be so bad? I hear you cry. Well it’s simple. These things can be stimulating in a way, like a McDonalds Cheeseburger fills an empty spot in your stomach, but creatively it’s dead weight. Thinking Twitter develops your creativity is like thinking watching Naughty Lesbo Nurses 9 builds professional team building skills. Don’t get me wrong, I love Twitter and it can be stimulating – Donald Trump (senior AND junior) is keeping me quite occupied at the moment – but for my creative needs it’s not doing it.

So, I’m not reading. Not really. I still haven’t finished A Clockwork Orange, and at the same time I’m trying to finish off an entertaining faux factual book about some Greeks travelling in Britain and Ireland during the Dark Ages called 500 AD (it’s a ripping yarn, as Michael Palin would say). None of this is building good foundation for boosting my mind. I need some fiction; something structured and in depth. My penchant for reading recently has been for non-fiction, but everything I’m writing is practically fiction. I need better stimulation.

So yes, reading is important. It’s a type of energy that the brain needs. I exercise the brain through thinking, contemplating, wondering, and wandering (in my mind, not physically aimless because I have Googlemaps). Good food for the brain is critical. So I will set myself the goal of finishing Clockwork Orange and 500AD this weekend, and then start to rejuvenate myself with some solid fiction reading. 

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Big Block of Cheese Day

Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States, famously received a 700kg block of cheese. He allowed members of the public to share in the cheese.

In the fictional series the West Wing, the White House Chief of Staff forces his staff to go through their version of the the Big Block of Cheese day. Organisations that would not normally have the President’s ear are invited to speak to senior staff. These include Cartographers for Social Justice and also campaigners to build a highway for wolves.

The actual White House under Barack Obama has held real life events using social media under the banner of Big Block of Cheese Day. Although in the context of promoting the State of the Union speech, the use of social media to engage the public is very much of the modern times.

All this got me thinking. Firstly, it gave me a craving for cheese and crackers. More importantly though, I have begun to think about how a similar event could benefit my workplace. In this context, I’m not thinking about organisations or people trying to influence government policy. What I am thinking about is creativity, and its impact on the way we think.

I was thinking about different professions and how they operate, and what that could teach us about our own business and way of working.

Architects and designers could teach about increasing complexity of design in the way they work, mirroring the increasing complexity of assessments as we gather more information.

Artists could have powerful influence about interpretation of a subject, analysis and finding new perspectives.

Photographers need to think about the multiple influences on a shot, balancing aperture, shutter speed, film or sensor sensitivity, and the framing of the photo. It’s an holistic approach similar to social work assessment.

By calling on local organisations we don’t normally work with I would hope to encourage some out of the box thinking. It would also be on a micro level. Instead of singular large all staff meetings, it would be small groups of workers, maybe just 3 or 4, meeting with an individual guest. This would allow for more informal discussion and develop personal rapport between presenter and worker. The workers could then disseminate their experience through their own networks in the workplace.

Yes, it does depend on the generosity of professionals giving their spare time to talk to an agency that I doubt crosses their path very much. On the other hand, I see a lot of opportunity for creative application in the workplace, and as experience of learning. So it’s an idea I’m planning on introducing at today’s leadership meeting, to see how far it can get.

I am a cliche

Photo cliches can be annoying, but in some way they are an integral part of the learning process.

I saw this YouTube video the other day, about photography cliches. On looking at the list, I am glad to say that I am only guilty of 11 out of 25 (I don’t sign or watermark my photos – duck that’s annoying). It’s comforting to see that I don’t completely fail an arbitrary list of cliches.

Not that I mean to be critical – I agree with the blogger. Maybe not arbitrary; subjective is perhaps a better word. And in a good way subjective. 

If I were to add anything to the list it would be photos of your own shadow (guilty!). That was probably going out of fashion, but then I noticed that a Vivian Maier photo of her own shadow was heavily publicised, so I can only imagine shadow photos are making a come back. Also, using film for the sake of using film – that’s another cliche. The artistic quality comes purely from the fact the photo is on film and not a memory card. Yep, guilty as charged.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the list.

Photo cliches. Why do they happen? Lack of artistic integrity? Crappy photographers? Actually no, I don’t think so. I happen to think I have both integrity and am a good photographer. Yet I still cliche from time to time.

Cliches exist because they have been done so often. The photo subject matter is popular, so people want to be popular. If it works, why fix it? It’s a bit like a company using the same slogan ad infinitum into cliche. It works; it’s familiar and safe. Newbie photographers are more likely to adopt this approach – entering the field and lacking confidence. It is better to fall back on tried and tested. I used to do that a lot, because I wasn’t really sure what else I should be doing.

Sunset photos (6 on the list) are particularly prone to this. People like them. I like them. Why not offer people something they want?

Another reason for cliche is the fault of professional photography (by this, I mean those whose primary income comes from photography). Obviously, I don’t mean all pro’s, but rather the abstract collective sense. Professional photography is based around things like weddings, babies, pets, that type of thing. There is scope for artistic variation to be sure, but the expectation will be for some standard bride, groom and respective parents/in-laws shot; smiling baby; dog with head on owners lap etc. Technical aspects become very important and expectations exist. Even the equipment is vital – imagine everyone’s face if you started taking wedding photos solely with a Holga, and a Polaroid using Impossible Project film…(oh my god, someone do that!).

Technical aspects. Professional lessons have a lot of blame here. Their lessons are almost always based on technical aspects of photography rather than artistic expressionism. I know they might not feel that is their responsibility, it is in the power of the photographer after all, but in a photography world that harks on about the ‘pro’ standard, it is easy to forget the creative variance critical to photography as an art form.

This brings us to the central issue. 99% of photos are crap. Rubbish. Useless. Ancillary at best. To find those golden 1% is difficult. I don’t mean out there in the world – there are amazing photographers out there that blow my mind. What I mean is in the photographer themself. Most photos taken will be ‘meh’, some good, a few great, and just one or two that make you catch your breath. Perhaps it’s just me.

To get that high standard of artistic expression consistently is difficult. So it becomes easier to opt for cliche. I know fully well I am taking a cliche shot when I take one – indeed, sometimes it is a tongue in cheek thing. I do it because the opportunity is there and they are an easy means of communication (the beauty of smartphones and social media). Selfie’s for example, like the one I took for this post, are partly for effect, but also for benefit of family and friends living in other continents.

Having said that, my own creative zest seemed to be heading into cliche (at least that’s how it felt), hence my recent hiatus from digital.  It’s about creative discipline – thinking more in the moment and worrying less about the technical aspects. 

Cliches have a place, they really do (remember, popular), but it is vital to distinguish between technical versatility, and artistic expression. The former you can be shown, the latter comes from within. But even that bit of Karate Kid wisdom is a cliche. 

Maybe just fuck it. Take some photos, and go for broke.