Nov 212014

I recently read Walter Isaacson’s “Jobs,” the recently-released bio of the Apple/Macintosh/Pixar pioneer. While I didn’t care much about his personality, his ideas and approaches were amazing. His original iPod Shuffle had no display, little in the way of actual controls, but was as simple as it gets. Jobs built his computer brand around simple operation, a stripped-down interface, around Zen art.

He liked to keep things simple, and maybe even idiot-proof. Although the old SPARC operating system played with the concept of a graphical interface, Jobs and Steve Wozniak were the first to really pull it off with the old MacIntosh. This made computers much more accessible, because clicking on an icon is a lot simpler and friendlier than trying to remember what to type at the command line. And despite what Microsoft loyalists say, the first Windows system looked like a dead ringer for the old Mac interface.

I don’t know if it’s the ease of operation and the art of minimalism that drives Apple’s success these days or its cult factor. I’d say both, but I’ll give extra weight to simplicity.

But Jobs still had his over-engineering (or more correctly, over-designing) moments — the company could have slid down the toilet while he vacillated between a pure white or smoke-gray computer housing. Even in the name of simplicity, the wheels sometimes fall off.

Keeping things simple. That in itself is an art. Charles Mingus, the great jazz bassist put it well:

“Making the simple complicated is easy. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

Think about it. It’s like the hoary tale about the public speaker who said if you wanted him to talk for 15 minutes he could have it ready in a couple of days. If you want him to speak for two hours, he’s ready now.

Anybody can come up with a convoluted mess. The real art is in trimming it down to a manageable size and simplicity.

Notice this. Mingus did not say anything about making things easy. As a bandleader he was a taskmaster with an explosive temper, and he liked to change timing structures right underneath the soloist. His piece “Passions Of A Woman Loved” shifts through multiple time signatures, and the band really had to be on the ball.

But if you can get something as densely-packed as a Mingus composition or as wide-ranging as Apple’s computing concept and make it simple, that’s creating.

(Video: Charles Mingus, on a 1964 concert tour. He wrote this song for his alto sax player Eric Dolphy, who was the second sax soloist.)


If you’re so inclined …

You can get Jobs for your Kindle here. I think I rated this book four stars out of five.

Disclaimer: I get a small commission for copies sold through this site. If enough of y’all order, you might even defray the cost of my own copy. But it’s a good read.




Aug 092013
broken light bulb

Sometimes, shooting the lights out seems like a good idea.

Because of this blog, I’m always interested in articles that help a person become more creative. Of course, even if I didn’t have this blog I’d still be interested.

I recently read an article in Inc. Magazine about adjusting your lighting to boost the creative process.

Oh, really?

In its article, Inc. cites a study by two German researchers that suggests dimming your lights if you want to be creative.

Seriously. I can’t make this stuff up. This is from the horse’s mouth:

“Two researchers based in Germany, Anna Steidle and Lioba Werth, used six experiments to observe different aspects of creativity. The first three studies primed participants by having them describe a dark or bright environment or do a word search where the words were related to one of two illuminations. From there, creativity was measured by an imagination task, an alternative-use game, or a speed-accuracy test … priming dark conditions induces a risky, more explorative behavior, leading to creativity, Steidle concluded. But to generalize it, she and her partner had to use actual lighting variations …”

Don’t mind saying, I’m a little skeptical of this. Not all the way, though.

If you’re a cubicle dweller, you’re probably in one of those offices with fluorescent lights blazing nonstop, and they’re probably flickering all over your computer screen. Really, how creative do you feel in such surroundings?

Thought so. Kind of makes you want to shoot a couple of the lights out, doesn’t it?


Lights low in the studio

When he recorded one album, Charles Mingus used the same band that played in a club called the Showplace for about a year. In the studio he adjusted the lights to simulate the darkened club.

I’m pretty sure he wasn’t thinking about what scientists studied about creativity. He just wanted to recreate the surroundings where his band did its best work. He even went so far as to talk to the nonexistent audience between songs, just like he did during the live gig:

“We do not applaud here at the Showplace where we work,” he warned the non-audience at one point. “The reason is that we are interrupted by your noise. If you must applaud, do it at the end of the set, and it won’t even matter then. No rattling of ice in your drinks, no cash register ringing. Got it?”

During that recording, his band was every bit as strong as it was in a live set. This is quite unusual for jazz, especially the highly improvisational style Mingus liked.

But the lights? Maybe he was onto something.

Mood lighting … in more ways than one

I can’t vouch for the lighting trick myself. Really haven’t tried it, though the level of illumination does make a difference with me. I have two periods where I’m at my best: In the early-to-mid morning, and fairly late at night. Most of the time my morning work session is done while sitting in the doorway in a camp chair, front door propped open, bare feet hanging out the door. Enjoying the sunshine. About the only issue here is keeping the laptop screen halfway shaded so I can read it. The only dimming going on is when the clouds roll in.

Late at night, I’ll have lights on. Preferably from the side rather than in front or behind me, but I’m thinking of screen readability here. The lighting’s not like office fluorescents, which is probably a good thing.

Don’t know if it’s universal or just me, but I need natural light when at my creative best. Lots of it. But it has to be actual sunlight. I have those light bulbs that supposedly mimic natural light, but I can tell the difference. It’s a poor substitute for the real thing. Artificial light doesn’t do it for me, especially when too much or too little.

That’s why I don’t do much writing at the library. All fluorescents, but they’re not on all the way. No window nearby, so I usually do nothing but upload my copy from there. At Starbucks I can at least grab a window seat or write outside on the patio.

I know lighting seriously affects my mood. I can go wild during the summer (sometimes running faster than the Muse), but that’s not always such a good thing. Sometimes I go off the rails. On the other hand I’m in pretty sad shape during the winter. Even in South Carolina, the sun is just a rumor for weeks at a time. When the Muse shows up then I might tell her to bug off.

Or something.

I don’t understand how a person can live in a place like Seattle, a place Bill Cosby once said was where the people would cut up a calf and lay it out on a rock whenever the sun came out. But up there, people are doing amazing stuff with computers. In Redmond the Microsoft coders come up with extremely creative ways to screw up your computer with each new release.

I wonder if a lack of sunlight contributes to all the depressing angst-ridden music that comes from Seattle. More than likely, I’ll wager. Give it this, though. It is creative stuff.


@work in different surroundings

On the home front it’s a battle keeping my lighting the way I want it. The town drunk who painted the interior went with a murky color reminescent of something you’d shovel in a horse barn. Just looking at it zaps my mental and creative energy. I have several 4×4 whiteboards on the wall to brighten the place, and of course some real heavy jazz or some energetic bluegrass playing.

As I write this, it’s around noon. The weather is cruddy, and the intermittent rain puts the kibosh on the feet-hanging-out-the-door setting. I have the drapes open to let in some natural daylight (such as it is), and the lights are off. Don’t need them right now because there’s enough sunlight punching through the rain clouds. John Coltrane’s playing a live version of “One Up, One Down.” The stereo’s not loud enough to grab the attention of North Charleston’s Finest, but it’s pretty close. I can operate on that, and in fact I’m kicking out some pretty good work right now.

Some other surroundings where I’ve done good creative work:

  • Parked in the driver’s seat of my old taxicab, windows opened and the car aimed so I get the best breeze. The steering wheel serving as a desk.
  • In the front of a newspaper office, in some stinkin’ cubicle but close enough to the huge front window. In Arizona. If you can’t find sunlight there, you’re not gonna find it anywhere.
  • Speeding along a curvy road in southwest Indiana during the summer, clipboard on the console, and I’m writing without even looking at it. Sometimes it’s even readable when I get to the newspaper office.
  • Pounding out a few hard miles on a bicycle. Forget about actually writing stuff down then, so I hope I can remember things when I get somewhere I can take things down.

Only common denominator I can see here is natural light and lots of it.

I can sure see the idea of muting the lights when indoors. But if it’s the real stuff let’s have it full blast.

Tell the researchers to take that dimmer switch and … well, it seems so appropriate to suggest someplace lacking sunshine, but let’s not go there.

# # #


What say you? What lighting conditions are best for your creative work? Leave a comment and we’ll talk about it.



Aug 082013

C’mon Charles … quit pulling your punches. Tell us how you really feel without going all PC on me.

“I say, let my children have music … rid this society of some of the noise so that those who have ears will be able to use them someplace listening to good music.”

— Charles Mingus, from his liner notes for Let My Children Hear Music.


Oh, yeah. Vintage Mingus, for your listening pleasure:

Haitian Fight Song (That’s one scary album cover).


Tensions (He’d make coffee nervous).


# # #




Aug 102012

It was pure slop, but you know I planned it that way. Honest.

I got into an online discussion with some other writers about plotting a story vs. merely letting it run organically. There’s a lot to be said for both methods.

The creative process gets real interesting sometimes. Fiction writers will tell you about those times when the characters in a story conspire to burn the author’s original outline and take over the whole story on their own.

Musicians will start on something, and no one is sure where it ends up. Other artists say the same thing about their work.

Even someone starting a business will use his research and plan things out, while making things up as he goes. From there it’s just a matter of proportion — how much was planned and how much wasn’t?

When I was a kid, my parents had a pool table and we worked out many a blood challenge there. We had an ironclad no-slop rule. If you pocketed a ball on pure luck at our table, you were supposed to say, “I planned it like that.” Whether the shot was allowed depended on how shameless a liar you were.

The planned/unplanned mix varies. Bandleader Charles Mingus said that as long as everybody starts together and ends together, everything else was wide open. Contrast Jimmie Lunceford, frequently reviled in jazz circles for his over-trained over-rehearsed over-standardized band of “trained seals.” OK, so he liked everything just so. Both Lunceford and Mingus had their fan bases and a sound that defined them.

I read this blog post by a writer I “met” on Linkedin, and he’s planning out a new novel. He already has an idea how many chapters he’ll have, plus word counts for each part. Of course, the story line is already figured out and the characters developed.

He hasn’t started the first draft yet, and he knows all that stuff.

Other writers will fly almost totally blind through the first draft. I mean the starting point is already determined. Might even know how it ends (whether the main characters are still alive, whether the protagonist gets the girl). Other than that, it’s all quicksand.

I’m somewhere between those two, though leaning more toward the improvisational side. I’ll put together the barest of outlines — my starting point, how I want to finish, and maybe a couple of steps in between. Fill in the blanks as I go, and at some point step back and tighten up my outline. Plotting on the fly.

I’ve had those moments where my characters take on a life of their own and hijack the story line while I stand there at the keyboard sucking my thumb. A little rough for the OCD-riddled control freak in me, but I actually love it when that happens. The only real work then is to keep up with the characters and ride herd, and the end result is much more alive than I could have done on my own.

I was the same way when interviewing. I would have an objective and a couple of main questions, then free-associate a few more just seconds before the interview. But when talking, I may use a few — or none or all — of my prearranged questions, and go with the flow of the conversation. It all depends.

Preparation is part of the process. One needs to know the general direction he is going, and know his tools. For a writer it’s in the vocabulary, grammar, and just plain knowing how to lay out a story. For a musician, the tools include his facility on the instrument, music theory, and his knowledge of dynamics. The better you know your tools the better you’ll perform, no question there.

But knowing the fluidity of real life helps temper all that knowledge, makes the process fun and gives the product a life you never knew it had.


(How appropriate: I started to write this post on one subject, but one short paragraph took it another direction. But that’s fine; what I ended up with became a living example of the subject matter while my original post remains on my hard drive, ready for another day.)

Jul 262012

Jazz great John Coltrane had such facility on his instrument and such advanced harmonic thinking that Lee Konitz, one of his contemporaries, suggested Trane practiced 10 hours a day.

Bassist/composer Charles Mingus took his practice a different way. As he progressed he spent less of his practice time actually playing his instrument and more time listening to others play. His reasoning was that physical practice existed mostly to a) build up his stamina, b) improve his facility and speed, and c) increase his muscle memory. Writers may not spend more than a few hours actually putting stuff down on paper or disk, but the best ones read everything in sight.

Your practice should include time when you’re actually doing your work, and immersion time studying the work of artists you admire. Both count as practice; the trick is to find your ratio and to be consistent about it.