Practice

Practice is something that comes naturally to me in some areas of life but not in others.

I enjoy practicing sports. It’s fun, it’s healthy, it’s challenging, and it’s relatively easy to see and feel the progress made.

Sometimes with work, I forget to practice. I try to do as much as I can - make things, write things, draw things. I try to apply my skills as often as possible.

I’m glad to be applying my skills, but when I do that applying I have a clear goal in mind: to make an illustration that someone else finds interesting; to sketch out an idea in a way that helps someone else understand it; to teach a skill in a way that helps someone else learn it.

I like practice because it makes it easier to play, to take risks, and to explore avenues that I might not otherwise explore.

The past few days I’ve been practicing my hand-lettering. I imitated a font that I like from a letterer that I admire. I payed attention to the angles, the widths, and the curves that someone else created while simultaneously developing the dexterity of hand to create those angles, widths, and curves myself.

And it wasn’t stressful because I wasn’t emotionally attached to the outcome. I was emotionally attached to the effort.

Having put in that effort, I can be satisfied with the practice of today and optimistic about the work of tomorrow.

Should I share this?

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I spend a lot of time thinking about how to share my work. This Tumblr blog is the latest in a long line of formats with which I’m still experimenting. So far I’m liking the daily(ish) sharing of some progress I’ve made or an idea I’ve learned.

The question, “Should I share this?” comes to mind frequently throughout any given day, and I like the model that Austin Kleon provides in his book Show Your Work! I read the first half of the book earlier today. Just as with Steal Like An Artist, it’s one of those books you can read in a day but spend a lifetime acting on.

Austin combines words and images together as well as anyone I’ve seen. And his most recent book is definitely worth a read for anyone doing creative work (which is now most of us).

Invention, it must by humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself… Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.

– Mary Shelley, from the Author’s Introduction to Frankenstein

American Gods

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I just finished Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and I’m left with that satisfying feeling you get when you finish the final sentence of a good book and then set it down for the last time.

I’m also left wanting more of the characters and the world that Gaiman created. Looks like there might be a TV series coming in the near future. 

This is the first work of Gaiman that I’ve read. I became interested in him after watching the commencement address he gave in 2012. I’ve watched that speech at least a half dozen times over the past year and I’ve been inspired by each.

Now I’ve got more digging to do. The Sandman will be next, then probably back to another one of his novels.

While reading American Gods I became increasingly interested in what for me is a new type of creating, a creating of something less literal than what I’m used to. Maybe that means writing fiction, maybe it’s telling stories through poetry or music (which my friend Jeffrey Martin has come to do so well), maybe it’s a new style of illustration that I haven’t found yet.

As I followed Shadows exploration of America and its culture, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I’ve got my own exploring yet to do.

"He sat down on a grassy bank and looked at the city that surrounded him, and thought, one day he would have to go home. And one day he would have to make a home to go back to. He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while, or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough."

- From the Postscript of American Gods

Water and shade

I’m getting real good at juggling a soccer ball. It’s one of three things that I do to exercise these days. The other two: shooting hoops in the driveway and spinning on the elliptical in the rec room.

Of the three, juggling’s my favorite. I played soccer in high school, and even then I had more fun juggling than I did actually playing the game. 

I get bored juggling in one place, so I’ve given myself the challenge of seeing how far I can run while juggling before the ball hits the ground. Sometimes I wonder what my neighbors think when they see me pacing back and forth across the driveway, spastically jabbing my legs out at a yellow ball to keep it from touching the concrete.

It is surprisingly entertaining. And tiring. But what I love about any sort of physical activity is that you can take just a minute to catch your breath and grab a drink of water, and then you can get back to it. I’m sometimes amazed at what a minute of standing in the shade and getting some liquid back into my system can do for the next round of juggling.

My juggling habit came to mind today while I was working on some curriculum development. I wondered why mental activity wasn’t more like physical exercise. I wished that I could take a short break, get a drink of water (or the mental equivalent), and then return to the activity re-energized.

As I pondered that comparison I realized something important - that I rarely give myself a break while doing mental work. Sure, I’ll go get a drink of water or maybe stand outside for a few minutes - but my mind stays on the work back in my office. That’s not a complete break. That’s like taking a break from juggling a soccer ball by walking a hundred feet away and then continuing to juggle. That’s not rest, it’s a change in scenery, which is nice but it’s not what the body needs.

What the body and the mind need is a complete break, even if just for a minute or two. I think it would serve me well to remember that throughout my work day.

The question now is this - what’s my water and shade? What’s the proper break from the mental work that I spend much of my day engaged in? It has to be something toward which I can devote all my attention so that my mind doesn’t wander back into work mode.

I like moving around, so maybe it’s something lightly physical that I can do inside, maybe even in the office or the hallway.

I think it’s time I go buy myself a hacky sack.

Happiness

I spend a lot of time thinking about how I spend my time. Maybe too much.

But then again, we’ve only got this one life, only so many hours, only so much time to spend.

It was during a moment when I was thinking about how I spend my time that the idea on the post-it note above came to me - that my happiness corresponds in large part to how wisely I spend my time. I like to lay my head down at night and know that I didn’t waste a day. One of my definitions of a good life is waking up energized and going to bed satisfied. It’s what I do with the hours in between that determines how I feel at the end of a day.

Recently I even began to track my time, but just the work hours. When I’m not working (and often even when I am) I like to forget about the concept of time altogether and get lost in whatever activity I’m engaged in. 

Earlier this week I listened to a TED Radio Hour episode on the subject of happiness , which reinforced many ideas that I had heard before but that are always useful to reinforce: that mindfulness, minimalism, and gratitude are the keys to happiness.

I’m finding that paying close attention to how I spend my time (and going so far as to track many hours of my day) has the added benefit of keeping me mindful. When I start tracking a new activity, my mind switches into that mode and I find it much easier to keep it from wandering. Unless wandering is precisely what I want my mind to be doing. Gotta make room for that in my day too.

A pen and some ink

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I rode the sinking ship
Down to the bottom of the sea
Where in the darkening deep
It burst into flames

And I warmed my teeth
On the impossible heat
And found my feet
Underneath me again

Then I went kicking to the surface
Just like a newborn thing
Ready to begin
What I needed to begin

I felt the cracking of the whip
And hiss of industry
And saw the men who were
Dying to live



Now there’s blood in my eyes
From all this trying to see
I am deeper in
Then when I first came

And I have traded my gold
For a pen and some ink
And I’m trying hard
To write my name

My friend Jeffrey Martin came out with a new album today. I spent the second half of my morning listening to it while sitting in the shade on the back deck.

I don’t do that often enough - just sit and listen to music. Most of the time the music I listen to is just a backdrop to work or driving or exercise. But it was worth it to just listen today.

The lyrics above are from a song titled Newborn Thing, which spoke to me more than any other song on the album, especially on second listen when I took the time to write down some of the lyrics.

Jeff and I crossed paths in graduate school, each on our way to becoming high school teachers. Though I think Jeff would do a fine job in the classroom, I’m glad to see he’s sticking with music for the time being. He’s doing with music what I hope to do with illustration and sketchnoting - discover a voice, a style, and something worth saying.

And I have traded my gold
For a pen and some ink
And I’m trying hard
To write my name

Pick up Jeff’s new album here.

Curriculum design

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Gosh it feels good to be in teacher mode again.

I’m in the process of designing a set of one-on-one sketchnoting courses, and I’m in that exciting phase in which I get to map out the learning experience and build the resources to support it.

Curriculum design, they call it. I enjoyed that aspect of being a high school teacher just as much as (and sometimes more than) the actual teaching.

In this case I’ve got the benefit of knowing that I’ll be working with students one-on-one. If you’ve never stood in front of a classroom of thirty kids you have no idea how much of a luxury that is.

I’m digging how it’s all coming together, and I’m getting more and more excited about putting these courses to good use.