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 or 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 practice (in painting, in writing and in business) there are many inspirational resources and mentors that have helped me develop the skills I posses.  

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

The objects of life #2

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 chiseled, 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's 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 orthopedic 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.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The objects of life

Somewhere, among the stacked assemblage of boxes in my new garage, is a small faience bowl, marked (allowing for incorrect spelling) with my Christian name, and given to me as a gift when I was two years old.  My Great Aunt, on a tour of Europe and trip home from Australia, brought one for me and another for my elder bother.

I don't remember her visit, but I know I must have been a toddler because my younger brother hadn't yet arrived. This explained why, for all my childhood, only two bowls were displayed in the drawing room cabinet. And why also, when peering through the glass, I felt such great fortune that I was born in the nick of time to be given this valuable and mysterious treasure...

Such are the delusions of youth.

Quite why I still have the bowl, is part mystery too. Most probably I asked my mother for it during one of her clear outs or house moves, but in truth I can't remember. Whatever, it has been with me for thirty years and a half-dozen moves of my own. As far as I'm aware, it's the object that I've owned longer than any other.

The odd thing, in my keeping it, is that I otherwise dislike French faience. The designs remind me of the worst on offer in craft fairs, and the figurative illustrations have a Protestant dourness, despite their gaudy colours. Even to describe the bowl as faience is probably incorrect.  My Aunt had certainly travelled through Brittany, and perhaps visited the famous Quimper potteries, but the bowl is not stamped with their mark - souvenir stall trinket is more its likely provenance.

Perhaps that is why I make an exception for this particular example - it could sit as comfortably among my collection of kitsch as it did in my parent's china cabinet. Though paradoxically, I am still reluctant to use it, for fear of chipping an edge.

And it seems to me that our lives are a little like that. We surround ourselves with friends and objects that aren't rationally chosen or related to; but rather, they're a mash-up of chance and situation and memory (usually flawed) - and sometimes just a plain persistence of presence.

The objects we chose to treasure, perhaps because they don't change while we do, acquire a value which transcends objectivity - they root and remind us of where we are from and, in a curious way, help us adapt to the new. They become as much a part of ourselves and our sense of belonging as are the towns and houses we chose to call home.

Which perhaps explains, why the top of my list of New Year jobs, is a note to unpack those boxes in the garage.


In Meet Me There, ten Cinnamon writers talk about writing.

From the places that inspire to how associations of place become important in literature, the writers engage us with work in which place plays a central role. 

With contributions from Gail Ashton, John Barnie, Mark Charlton, Jan Fortune, Ian Gregson, Mavis Gulliver, Hazel Manuel, Jane McKie, Jim Perrin & Susan Richardson.

Friday, December 25, 2015


Test post - anybody out there?


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Straight Life

The title of Art Pepper’s biography is loaded and layered with meaning. ‘Straight Life’ is the name of his best known composition: a virtuoso piece from one of the greats of twentieth century jazz. But the tune was always a contradiction; for Pepper’s body was wracked with addiction; his reasoning twisted by alcohol and heroin, and his life-path as crooked and fucked-up as they come.

Art Pepper was arguably the greatest alto saxophonist of the post war era. Born unwanted, brought-up unloved, the descriptions of his childhood are as grim as they are shocking. There can be little doubt that his later problems stemmed from a deeply rooted sense of isolation – a craving to be loved and accepted, by himself as much as anyone else.

What follows is a life story that is staggeringly sad. In an echo of his music, it’s as if Pepper is improvising on his own desperate existence: playing ever faster, increasingly off key, out of sync with himself and the world. Ostensibly he’s seeking redemption – but always, and inevitably, his actions resolve into a deeper and more pitiful hell.
It seems to me, that the narrative of Straight Life can be read in two ways.

At one level it is a chronicle of self-destruction, of a life spent in and out of prison, of failed relationships, petty and serious crime; it’s the story of years wasted, in more ways than one – the consequence of a wilful surrender to substance abuse.

At another, it’s a troubling reminder of the fine line between brilliance and the void. Pepper’s life is a tale of obsession, of an uncompromising (if seriously warped) view of the world and what constitutes right and wrong. By any normal standards Art Pepper is a foul individual; the nagging question is whether normal standards should apply.

The book’s format is a transcription of recorded interviews which he gave towards the end of his life. In Pepper’s voice there’s a disarming honesty and a declared self-criticism, but there’s also a less than subtle suggestion that his actions were a necessary consequence of his talent.

My suspicion is that fans of Pepper will sympathise. We often lionise our heroes, tempering our judgements and blind-eying actions that would be unacceptable in others. Art Pepper was as near to genius on the saxophone as they come. Whether that excuses behaviour we wouldn’t wish on ourselves, or for that matter our worst enemies, is a different matter.

Pepper, like his music, is difficult and mercurial – it takes time to figure him out. The book is much the same, and there’s a quality to Straight Life that took me a while to grasp – but which, once recognised, perhaps explains a lot.

Throughout the book, Pepper talks entirely ‘in the moment’ of his recollections. When he describes entering San Quentin prison, it’s as if he’s back there and his attitudes and opinions of the time are expressed as if he still held them now – by the end of the chapter they’ve evolved and moderated, but only as the tale unfolds. It’s as if each moment has to be fully relived – a sort of method acting as a means to honesty.

And just maybe that’s what’s required of great jazz musicians – the ability to live in the moment; achieving a creative dissonance that suspends reality; a sort of nirvana if you like. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems plausible, and might explain the link between his destructive qualities and musical talent – the flowering of good and evil, but both from the same root.

Straight Life is not an easy read. It’s complex, self-indulgent and frankly, depressing. But there are moments of lucidity that make it worthwhile. The passage describing his first taking of heroin is piece of brilliance – it’s too long to quote in full, but here’s an extract to finish on.

I looked at myself in the mirror and looked at Sheila and I looked at the few remaining lines of heroin and I took the dollar bill and I horned the rest of them down. I said, “This is it. This is the only answer for me. If this is what it takes, then this is what I’m going to do, whatever dues I have to pay…”

Art Pepper died in 1982; his music lives on.

Straight Life
The story of Art Pepper
Mojo books: ISBN 9781841950648

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

On seals and boxing and deeply felt aesthetics

'Make the boy interested in natural history if you can - it's better than games'
Robert Falcon Scott in his last letter to his wife 
(quoted in today's Times Universal Register)

Last Friday I walked with my eldest son from Abereiddy near my home to St David’s Head – nine miles of rugged splendour: five seals in a bay, a kestrel at Carn Llidi; my first butterflies of the year.  The next day I drove to London with my middle son and cheered as Carl Froch bludgeoned George Groves with a right hand we could feel from the second tier of Wembley Stadium.

Those who know my writing won’t be surprised by Friday’s walk, but I suspect they might be perplexed by the boxing. ‘How can you like such a violent sport?’ my mother in law often asks. ‘With what you’ve written about your father, I can’t understand it.’ Like many people, my mother law in law regards boxing as horrid; a form of institutionalised violence, which has no place in the athletic world – I’m paraphrasing here, but the sentiment will be familiar.

And I understand it too. Boxing is violent in the sense that the pugilists are – to put it plainly – trying to hit each other as hard and as accurately as they can. What’s more the obligatory trash talk before the fight creates an atmosphere of aggression that can be unsavoury to say the least. The crowd on Saturday was a disconcerting cocktail of gangster suits and fake tanned peacocks.

But then other sports are aggressive in different ways. My mother in law loves rugby – and I know of no one who is more vicarious and visceral in her support of the national team.  ‘Get him; punch him; get in there…grrr…’ Most rugby matches I see involve regular punch ups, often gruesome injuries – and here’s a point to ponder – behaviour that outside of a rugby pitch would invite criminal prosecution. Football is less violent on the pitch, but I’d not take my young son to a match because of the tribal intimidation of the crowds.

It’s interesting to me, that almost anyone I’ve spoken to about boxing – who has also been on the end of domestic violence – can see the distinction immediately. Violence is the unlawful use of physical aggression; it involves one party assaulting another; a resort to force to impose their will, whether that be on a playing field, a backstreet or a bedroom.

And that’s an entirely different thing to two adults entering a boxing ring, each voluntarily present, knowing what’s involved and happy to accept the outcome. I could go on about the adherence to rules, safety concerns and more, but it’s all a bit peripheral.  Better simply to declare that there is aggression in boxing, and lots of it - but it not uninvited, and that’s the key point.

For all this defence of Saturday night, I should point out that I don’t think my mother in law is entirely wrong. It seems to me that it’s possible to hold an iron clad objection to boxing on aesthetic grounds – it just feels wrong; and for all the talk of rules and safety and voluntary participation, the fact that grown men are punching each other is at odds with what we ought to consider as sport.

I don’t share that view, but I can understand it.  My dislike of fox-hunting is something similar – there are flaws and inconsistencies all over the place if I try and articulate it.  But deep down, I can’t reconcile myself to people taking pleasure from hunting a beautiful wild animal – uninvited violence of a different sort, perhaps?

Returning to Saturday. It seems to me there is something deeply pure about boxing, which, more than any sport I know, connects us to our most primitive emotions. As we watched from high in the new Wembley gantries, the crowd turned to cheer at Daniel Craig (who waved from the VIP box behind us). I said to my son – it’s not very different to the coliseum is it?

Then the fight began and we were lost in the noise.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

About writing

My writing desk in Wales

Cait O'Connor, a fellow blogger from Wales, has kindly asked that I say a few words about writing. It's part of a blog-tour cum round robin - though based on recent output, I should perhaps say a little on writer's block. 

Writing is a strange passion. One week you can't stop; the next, you're staring at a screensaver, fingers all fuddled, much to say but no way to...

And the odd thing is, there's no telling when it's going to happen.

Last week, my friend and former colleague passed away. He was one of the most genuine people I’ve known - a model of how to succeed without privilege, politics or the polished veneer that’s so easily mistaken for substance. Alan was 60 years old when he died - he'd retired three years ago.

I bet you weren't expecting that paragraph.

But then neither was I.

And for reasons I can't fully explain it is almost the last I piece I wrote.  I've drafted a dozen tributes to Alan since - each one is in the trash: too contrived; not enough structure; no conclusion of merit. Sometimes it's perhaps best to say it straight: Alan died, I was very sad, it affected me more than I realised; I think I've been trying too hard.

That last point is important.

When I studied for a degree in creative writing the most difficult process was restarting after receiving a high grade. It felt as if the only way was down - which on reflection, is a rather arrogant view of my own output. As a consequence, my next piece was often dreadful. On the positive side, the only way was then up - creative confidence restored!

All of which is a rambling excuse for the quality of this post and for not writing much recently.

I should add that the saxophone continues to obsess me; that I've lost two stones since January (can't be creative while dieting; can't explain why), have barely had a drink in all that time (whisky and writing are bedfellows), and despite all of this, have a deadline of December for a contribution to an anthology on 'Place'.

Meanwhile, Cait asked me to answer four questions; I'll keep this part brief:

What am I working on?

An anthology of Place; a book on writing in business; a response to my sons leaving home. The latter two are largely just ideas - see 'my process' below.

How does my work differ?

I like to think it's plain and honest - and it's carefully crafted, the tone especially so

Why do I write?

Because there's much I want to say - if only to myself.  And because I know of no better way to clarify what's spinning and shaping in my mind.

How does my process of writing work?

In part, I've covered this above.

More directly, I write a lot in my head; I seldom take notes; I think a great deal - getting it down requires days alone;  hours at the keyboard; words moving till the light dies.

'Word's moving till the light dies'....  Gosh, it's 10.30pm; seems an appropriate ending for now.