I’m used to quoting HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU THINK TILL YOU SEE WHAT YOU WRITE? Variously attributed to EMForster and WHAuden. It rings true for many people. It’s probably also worth asking HOW DO I KNOW WHAT I DO WITH MY LIFE TILL I SEE WHAT I WRITE ABOUT IT? It’s useful to keep track of one’s life: only today on the wireless (Saturday, May 6th, 2017) Dr. Bill Frankland who was born in 1912 and qualified as a doctor in 1938 was recounting some indication of what has kept him going so long.
It is the case that I have often been asked how I fit it all in. How do I do it – the writing, the painting, the music, the teaching, on and on… The simple answer is that I just do it. Maybe I could make it less simple by collecting together some words to describe my practice; without them, I do not have a straightforward answer (but the words, as usual, will accumulate no end) except maybe to say that on the odd occasion when I think of time passing it’s just to lament the inescapable fact that there’s not a lot of it left for me compared with what seems to have gone before. Maybe there’s no such thing as time; I just do stuff endlessly – a very long chain of events. There’s no separate thing called ‘time’ – time is made up of what I do; the doing is the time of it. Time is breathing, as Gurdjieff says. Anyway, I was recently challenged to say what the pattern of my days has been after I was fortunate enough to be able to escape wage slavery 25 years ago at the age of 55. I thought – maybe ‘fitting it all in’ has something to do with the rhythm of the days. How do I manage it?
Although it allows for variation, the definite rhythm is a habit. It’s 65 years since I determined to put into operation the gist of William James’ essay on HABIT which I read on a summer lawn in the Everyman Selected Papers on Philosophy, my copy of which is falling apart with use. He advises making changes in digital fashion (without of course calling it that) and relegating as much as you can to habitual, maybe even ritualistic, behaviour.
The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a person goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained as practically not to exist for consciousness at all. If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my readers, let them begin this very hour to set the matter right.
So I did, with more or less success! At least I achieved such ‘…a momentum that the temptation to break down did not occur as soon as it otherwise might have done; every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all…’ One must
…never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right… The need of securing success at the outset is imperative. Failure at first is apt to damp the energy of all future attempts, whereas past experiences of success nerve one to future vigour. Goethe says to a man who consulted him about an enterprise but mistrusted his own powers: “Ach! you need only blow on your hands!” …
Then (remember that all this happened in my adolescence!), I learned that you must
…seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘mental set’ to the brain.
It’s not what you imagine but what you DO that counts… No ‘empty gesture-making’…
When a resolve or a fine glow of feeling is allowed to evaporate without bearing practical fruit it is worse than a chance lost; it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions … if we once suffer the wandering of our attention it will wander all the time… Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day…
‘Move the brain at least once a day’, says Gurdjieff.
Rise early! Before sunrise…
‘The hour before sunrise is an hour snatched from paradise…’
– old Sufi saying
These days, when the world will persist in lurching into what can only be described as Fascism, or, more of a mouthful, Neo-liberal Corporativism, I habitually revive my sense of Being by being up early to raise my arms to welcome the dawn and start the day by doing whatever I’ve decided the night before that I would do first. That’s ‘moving the brain’ to start with! It’s not always clear exactly what I’ve decided to do – there may be a mix of things – but since there’s always something on the go it’s easy to launch into the next best thing. Sometimes I’m absolutely certain what has to be done. There’s always an intention to make something happen, internally or externally.
If there are hand-written notes in my notebook from the day before that need sorting into order or welding into a piece of writing that’s on the go, I’ll devote the first hour or so of the day to typing them out while listening to a record from my collection of old LP’s, revisiting all those former joys, in alphabetical order (Adams a year ago last Xmas to Zenakis who knows when…) on headphones so as not to disturb others.
I Like a Nice Cup of Tea in the Morning
After perhaps a couple of hours Beatrice comes to see if I’m still alive and I make a cup of tea with real tea leaves. I might very well read a few paragraphs in the current book before breakfast if there’s still time. I have been chain-reading for the last 60 years, for the last thirty of them reading & writing in conjunction – found poems or notes for essays.
Breakfast usually consists of porridge jazzed up in various ways. It seems that people who eat plenty of oats and other wholegrains live longer and are less likely to die from heart disease. When I stay with Calypso in Colchester I enjoy the luxury of porridge and a Greek-Cypriot halloumi/mint/egg mix done on fried bread (https://www.foursevens.co.uk/ – highly recommended!).
I wash up with Marilyn Munroe beside me saying, “Come on Colin, let’s do the washing up together…” It usually includes whatever was left over from the day before. This fits the principle of making a pleasant ritual out of something that might previously have been defined as a chore.
How I spend the morning will depend to some extent on the weather. I’ll maybe do a bit of gardening if it’s fine. If it’s very sunny & warm I’ll read/write on the back lawn for an hour or so. I will almost certainly compose a quick piece of music on the piano and titivate it on the computer – this I sometimes set myself to do systematically, one piece a day, day after day for a week or so, in order to create bagatelles that can be used as a resource bank for making longer pieces for other instruments eventually or piano duets.
I might decide to go on a shopping expedition to Lidl’s which is the only place I actually enjoy shopping.
It’ll be lunchtime then… We eat our larger meal at 1am – if it’s my turn to cook (alternate days) I usually start at around 12.30pm, having been thinking about what to do since 12 – it’ll either be curry, pasta, or Rice Delight (my speciality) – something you can just put in a pan and stir in the same way you mix cement, taking care over the consistency – or sometimes I’ll invent something completely different which Beatrice is always afraid of my doing.
A rejuvenating snooze for an hour at 1.30…
The afternoon’s for gardening or sitting in canvas chair reading in the sunshine on the lawn – I’m habitually making found poems or writing notes in a hard-back notebook with a fountain pen for transcribing in the hour before the following dawn! I’m obsessed by the habit of keeping a notebook! It must consist of smooth paper for a fountain pen (black ink since 1954) to glide over. It must be hardback & perfect bound… This has been part of the habit-ritual for the last 47 years…)
If it’s cold or wet I might read/write in the summerhouse or even do a painting in what I call my ‘workshop’ On the rare occasions, now, when I’ve a commission I’ll sometimes be in the workshop hand-making paperback books – I do this mostly these days for myself. I have made around 10,000 paperback books since 1992 and have grown rather tired of it…
It’s my habit to check through and revise a Room book while it’s still in a rough state in my summerhouse.
I might go for a walk up the lane. I ought to do this more often. Otherwise, exercise comes in the shape of mowing the lawn or moving earth around or running up & down stairs.
There’s whisky & peanuts around 5pm. I often do a sandwich for teatime. I’m expert at creating novel contents. Half a round each. In the evening it’s one of two things: watch a film or read/write and listen to music. We rid the house of intrusive & rubbish-TV in 1996 when we moved to Lincolnshire but have a large monitor and a huge collection of videos & DVD’s…
Bed happens promptly at 9pm ready for the early rise! I determine what what I shall do first thing in the morning.
I’ve never put this into writing before but I remember being at a loss for two weeks after I got early retirement in 1992 and decided then to formalise my day – it did turn out to be something like the above.
Naturally, when I get thoroughly involved in something a whole day might be devoted to it: making books for myself, concentrating on music, finishing a project of some kind… Having a general layout for a day allows for this to happen – without a plan it’s just not possible to make variations in its non-existence!
One of the Productive Diversions and a More General Philosophy
Recently, as it happens, I had occasion to focus on just one part of what makes up my daily excitement: the making of musical sound. It is something that can interrupt a whole day’s schedule to define the nature of the day. The account of my daily habit in the previous paragraphs is to be set in a wider philosophical context which the following goes some way towards providing.
At the first Michael Finnissy workshop I ever attended in 2006 he said roughly that composing was the expression of one’s inner Being. So, as if I hadn’t done so before, I wondered what my ‘Being’ consisted of. Essentially I know that everything is Absurd in the Sartrean Existentialist sense – nothing has any ultimate meaning. Life just happens. Everything is an accident. That’s the basis of my Being – what I live by.
How did I come to know this? Well, it’s entirely an accident that I was ever privileged to be a teacher of sorts, entirely an accident that I was ever anything at all, because, a few years before the Second World War, my mother was waiting for her boyfriend to turn up for a date – he didn’t, but my father turned up instead; if he hadn’t, what I call ‘I’ would just not have existed at all!
The belief that everything is totally Absurd has at least two corollaries: firstly, that there’s no point in continuing to exist – that way, nihilism; secondly one can decide that it’s so exciting that an individual can create meaning for oneself. The belief that everything is an accident can result in the deliberate creative use of the accidental.
In this context I found an article on ‘Sketching Music’ by Jon Brantingham (American film composer) intriguing. Though his music is relatively conventional, totally different from my untutored resolutions, it seems to reflect more or less how I understand myself at work in music and any other field I find myself in.
Firstly, he says that, though there’s ‘little practical information about the process’, ‘sketching’ is something that is common to both composers and artists (I would add writers…) I think that I rely heavily on making sketches: the sketch of Puccini sitting the his square in Lucca was done in 25 minutes and will never be anything other than a sketch; this is akin to my approach to haiku which are in essence produced without thought in a split second – ‘sketches from life’ as the Japanese haiku-man Shiki described them. It’s no good thinking them up.
the moon’s chimneypot
on the back lawn
small black & white dog
chases a long absence
between sea & sand
Secondly, Jon Brantingham lists some principles that one needs to operate to make sketches effectively, one of which is to set limits – always having been an ace procrastinator, time limits work for me… In recent years, musically, I set myself to improvise 50 bars of music on an electric piano which has the facility for recording on disc; then I translate the result into Finale which I can fiddle with till it’s ‘right’. I did this daily for a month a few years ago and the sketches have featured, modified, adapted, added to, for pieces with instruments other than piano. For the month of April this year (2017) I decided to do another lot of sketches. I cash in on accidents of cut & paste during the fiddling process.
Jon Brantingham’s first principle is to trust oneself. Not sure how but I do happen to trust myself in the business of making meaning out of Absurdity and going with the accidental – a Zen principle which is where my passion for haiku comes from. I can also trust myself to tinker with accidental outcomes – to ‘fill in the details’, as he says. I trust myself to follow Arthur Koestler’s principle of Bisociation (The Act of Creation) – the tomato joke (Mummy & Daddy Tomato are walking up the street while baby tomato is dawdling along behind them. Daddy Tomato turns and shouts, “Come on, ketchup!…”) The spark that happens when at least two contrasting sets of meanings meet and rub against one another, as in all jokes.
Michael Marsh-Edwards, one time chair of the Havergal Brian Society, was head of music at the Comprehensive I taught in in Luton. In an assembly one morning, c1970, sitting at the piano, he said to the whole school, “You want to compose music…” Dumbfounded shuffling of small boys & girls… “Well, here’s what you do…” He played a note. “That suggests this one maybe…” Another note… “And those two together suggest this one…” And so on like Paul Klee’s ‘Drawing is taking a pencil for a walk’… Eventually he put it all together. Maybe I got more out of his sermon than the kids: from then on I decided that ‘Composing is taking notes for a walk…’ It’s not at all like taking them for a walk – it is taking them for a walk. Writing poems is taking words for a walk…
For me this contrasts with what I do when I make Magic City paintings – there’s hours of thought & testing & fiddling with one of those but they are still accidental in the sense that they are judicious collages of photocopies of previous paintings, severely worked at and painted into. I still walk round the city of my mind after 40 years…
Jon Brantingham’s third principle is basically to try out something different from your norm. I happen to wonder what else there is to do! My norm has been described as ‘avant garde romantic’ – I’m kind of happy with that.
I find I tend to overload the notes – so following Jon Brantingham’s fourth principle is easy: chopping out the unnecessary things is a delight. ‘One should never do anything unnecessary’ (PDOuspensky)
His fifth principle requires a bit of thought: what exactly is the ‘hard stuff’. For me, always writing ‘atonally’, getting the spelling right is the hard thing! Getting it right first time! I feel it’s beyond me…
The sixth principle is about ‘going with the flow’ which, for me, is what Michael Marsh-Edwards was suggesting. Go with whatever turns up in the matter of creating a sound world: make contrasts, cash in on accidents, change direction. Take the notes for a walk.
To find a couple of recent results of my own process of musical composition you could Google ‘Soundcloud’, click on ‘Search for Tracks’ and then put ‘Colin Blundell’ into ‘Search’ at the top…
The piece called New Diary 002 was done on 2nd April last. It’s just a sketch but I’ve already started making a cello trio out of it. The Bold Princess Royal starts with my version of an old folk song. I particularly like doing variations on the spare lines of folk songs. The clarinet part was added as dictated, in Marsh-Edwards style, by the piano music . From bar 49 the piano part is a sketch lifted from the ‘Diary’ I made a few years ago.
Quite by chance, while I was constructing this essay, I came across the following rather good post on the Internet:-
In his book ‘Wired to Create’, Scott Barry Kaufman wrote, ‘The findings [of a 1960s research study conducted by Frank X. Barron at the University of California, Berkeley, to determine what separated highly creative writers, architects, scientists, mathematicians, and entrepreneurs from others…] demonstrated that creativity is not merely expertise or knowledge but is instead informed by a whole suite of intellectual, emotional, motivational, and ethical characteristics. The common strands that seemed to transcend all creative fields was an openness to one’s inner life, a preference for complexity and ambiguity, an unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray, the ability to extract order from chaos, independence, unconventionality, and a willingness to take risks.’
In a recent interview about the book, Kaufman shared several insights about some common traits and behaviors of highly creative people. Here are a few that stood out:
1. They embrace play as an everyday practice.
Children play without thinking. They can turn even the most mundane task into a game, and the most boring environment into a playscape. However, as we grow older we often lose touch with that inner drive to play, and it’s easy to dig into deep ruts of rote behavior. Kaufman noted that creativity requires play, and that highly creative people take their play very seriously. ‘As adults, cultivating a childlike sense of play can revolutionize the way we work.’ Not every project is going to feel like playground fun time, but by playing just a little bit at your work you open up new frames to look through, and new ways of approaching problems. When you turn your work into a game, it also becomes more enticing and fun.
How can you embrace play, or approach a problem you’re working on in a more gamelike fashion?
2. They get alone with their thoughts.
One of the insights from Barron’s research was that highly creative people tend to be especially in touch with their inner life. They are able to notice nuances in their emotions and in how they respond to stimuli in their environment, and emotional patterns that may be invisible to others. As Kaufman wrote in the book, ‘As artists and as human beings, time alone to work, develop personal interests, and exercise creativity is imperative…. And while the artist’s work may be inspired by experience and interaction with others, it is in the reflection of solitude when ideas are crystallized and insights formed.’ This means that solitude is critically important if you want to do your best creative work, whether that means meditation, journaling, or just a long solo walk in the park.
When do you get alone with your thoughts, uninterrupted and in solitude?
3. They go back to the drawing board.
It’s possible to get so fixated on the task in front of you that you forget the true objective. This means that it’s easy to lose sight of the value you’re creating because you are too concerned about the process, or the plan. Kaufman suggests that we need to be open to deviating from the plan, even though it might mean having to completely rethink the work. This means seeing adversity not as a permanent roadblock, but as a potential opportunity for growth. If you’re looking for a creative boost, treat all of life’s meaningful moments – the good and the bad – as potential sources of inspiration and motivation.’
Is there any place in your work where you are fixated on a process at the expense of the outcome? How can you go back to the drawing board and try a new approach?
As Kaufman argued, ‘We are all, in some way, wired to create’. However, your habits will often determine whether that creativity produces value, or simply withers from a lack of intentional use. By instilling a handful of practices, you can increase your chances of having creative breakthroughs when you need them most, and in so doing, you will be emulating many of the greatest creative minds of history.
Play, Lonesomeness, Toleration of Ambiguity and Beginner’s Mind are words standing for important life principles for me. Sketching is play, going with whatever turns up when you’re on your own (but never lonely) is about tolerating the extraordinary, always starting afresh is about adopting Beginner’s Mind.
Above all, life seems to me to be a creative process, even to the extent that ‘God’ is the end of the process of creation rather than the beginning – the Christian Existentialist view.
Making a plan for our days, which is where we started, contributes greatly to having a creative cast of mind…