Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Douglas Adams and the Importance of Baths

Every day we are exposed to a huge amount of input.  More than ever with it now being so accessible in so many forms.

All of this input is fantastic and we can learn many interesting things, but there is one major flaw to it all.  Brain noise.  Brain noise is that soup of ideas and memories all zapping from one synapse to another with no real direction, like a huge brewing thunderstorm.  So much input has gone in that it needs output.  But what output?

This is a huge problem when you're trying to create something.  There are many blogs, books and lectures about focus and motivation and "just doing it", some of which hit the nail on the head very well.  So why is getting over that doing hurdle so difficult?  In part it's to do with brain noise.  You want to "just do it" but you have so many ideas that picking one is like finding a needle in a haystack of needles.  The only thing left to do is to try to sort the noise out and get on with it.  Many people can never leave the literal brain storm stage.  I just hit a wall and try to get over it.

Because of constant daily input, quite often the only downtime for the brain to handle all the noise is during sleep, which is actually not as useful as it sounds.  There is plenty of research to suggest dreams and "sleeping on it" is a very important part of the brain's cycle to disseminate information, but it doesn't really give much of a feedback loop to the conscious mind.

Meditation is supposed to help clear the head, but the problem with that is many meditation practices require you to empty your mind, getting rid of the noise entirely and then letting it come back later to give the brain a break.

So what is the middle ground?  This is where Douglas Adams comes in.

If you're a fan of Douglas Adams you will probably know he had a wonderful ability to not get anything written on time.  Like most authors (I hate using the word "creatives", because everyone is creative) he knew the battle of the blank page. You can insert canvas, presentation slide, ball of wool, paper, clay block etc. as you see fit, but authors tend to have days when they are struggling for every single word, and other days when sentences flow like water.

Douglas Adams was notorious for missing deadlines due to this struggle. He's even famously quoted as saying  "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."
During the writing process however he was also known for taking an extraordinary amount of baths.  Baths were very important to Adams.  It was so ingrained in the idea process that they eventually sold his bathtub for the Save the Rhino charity.

It seemed that baths helped sort out his struggle.  Not to mention the whole towel thing.

I've generally always been a shower person so I'd never tested the theory out.  Then today, it all changed.

In the process of getting fit again i've hit the usual problem of overdoing it.  Today was particularly hard on my shocked body, so I did the sensible thing and ran a bath with some muscle soothing salts.
Because I was so completely exhausted I probably lay there for about half an hour not attempting to move.

The thing about sitting anywhere for any length of time is your mind starts to drift.  My thoughts fuzzled and whirled and then slowly coalesced into daydreaming.  The thought cloud drifted to the place in my head where a creative project i'm currently working on sat and nestled nicely into the gaps that were missing.

I didn't think about what had happened until I pulled the plug.  I'd just solved a few major roadblocks in my project.

So what is the difference between that and just taking some time out to daydream?  Baths provide a great antidote to information input: They're not friendly to electronic devices or paper.  Input is limited.  I did of course think of bringing in an audio book or podcast set far away from the water (yes, I'm that bad at shutting off the flow of information), but I scratched the idea since I had only intended to be there for a short time.  I wasn't, and the result was marvellous.

My mind had no choice but to cling to solid ideas for stability in the stormy seas.

Your situation may be entirely different.  You may not have the problem of shutting off the noise or taking in too much.

Nevertheless, a bath seems to do wonders for the creative process.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Top 5 Friday - Blog feeds

I love RSS feeds.  I follow way too many.  Here's a top 5 i'm enjoying at the moment:

Austin Kleon's Scrapbook blog: Austin already has a a great blog of his own work, but he's also got a tumblr feed where he posts interesting and inspiring stuff he finds.

XKCD: Don't let the simple stick-figures fool you.  This is one of the best online comic strips today.  Make sure to hover your mouse over the image for the alt text closing words.

Derren Brown: Illusionist and painter.  What makes his blog great however is that it doesn't just cover magic and painting.  He has a very dedicated team (predominantly two called Phillis and Abeo) who post numerous interesting articles across a range of curious topics.

Parka Blogs: A great art book review site.  What separates his review style from most is the amount of images he posts of the pages alongside a video of actually flipping through the book content. When you're thinking of purchasing an art book this is very useful.

MAKE Magazine: Because I just love the maker community.  So many cool and fun projects going on with everything from art to technology.

Friday, May 13, 2011


For those that don't know, I tend to lean towards the theatrical. I traipsed the boards in musicals for many years before giving it up for a long time due to a heavy work load and other projects popping up.

Shortly after moving to London however, I hit upon an amazing group known as Hoopla, and suddenly an addiction was born.

For those that are unaware of the delightful art form known as Improvisational Theatre ("Impro" to some, "Improv" to others), there's a tiny clue in the name.  Everything is improvised on the spot.  No script, no rehearsals.  Rather than take you through every type of what it is and how it works, I recommend you read the wiki entry mentioned above.

Impro is not as simple as taking a suggestion and running with it.  Performing a show is somewhat like cooking when you don't have a recipe book.  There are still rules you have to follow to make it work well, or the end result may vary between a delicious treat and a tasteless slop.  It all depends on your skill of using what ever you find in the cupboard (maybe I'm taking the cooking analogy too far).

Good improvisers can take any offer they are given by an audience member or a fellow actor on stage and turn into something wonderful.  More importantly they know how to serve the scene, not themselves.  Most importantly however they have a unique skill that can take a long time to sink in.

Fear of failure (a theme you will see come up often in my writing) is the first roadblock a beginning improviser has to get over.  Beginners always try to hard to be clever, funny, or control the scene.  Usually when this occurs nothing flows and the scene fails.  The beginner hesitates, gets frustrated and can feel a bit stupid when they can't think of anything.

Here's the secret knowledge that helps you to go from bad to good in impro.  Are you ready?

It's okay to screw up.

No really. That's it.

There are other helpful rules obviously ("Always say 'yes'", "Don't block an offer" etc) but improvisation is essentially about reaction and flow.  Something happens, you react and move the scene forwards.  Not much thinking is required.  Sometimes thinking is actually the worst thing you can do.  When something fails, it's okay.  You keep moving on and learn from what you did.  Often a screw up can end up making a scene even better.

If you're already involved in impro, I suggest these excellent articles on how improve your craft:

How to get Better at Improvising written by Heather Urquhart.
Fear is a 4 letter word, so is good. by Patti Stiles.

I actually highly recommend you put the kettle on and read the entire contents of all three of the blogs above, but this will be a good starting point.

Happy improvising.