TAoN No.47: Observation X Creativity

PLUS: Invent A Commute; and A New Icebreaker

The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday offers exercises, prompts, provocations, games and things you can actually do to build attention muscles, stave off distraction, pick up on what everybody else overlooked, and experience the joy of noticing. Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Knopf. This newsletter offers related news and ideas and noteworthy projects that have come along since I finished the book. ****Subscribe or unsubscribe at: robwalker.substack.com.****

Creative Observation

“Not writing is part of writing,” novelist Marie-Helene Bertino observed recently*. “Gathering, ie: walking around the world noticing with an empathic, grasping mind, is also writing.”*

I like this a lot. In The Art of Noticing book (and talks) I try to underscore that noticing, the act directing your attention, is no mere means to an end — it’s a (rewarding) end in itself. Sure, observation can inspire creative acts. But I think observation can also be a creative act. And I happened to be ruminating about Bertino’s point when I encountered a rather extraordinary example of highly determined, even obsessive noticing, by Dan Kois, an editor and writer for Slate.**

In a nutshell, Kois walked every block of the suburban Virginia ZIP code he lives in, and steadfastly documented … the font style of all the address numbers. Walking 1,114 blocks in all, he cataloged and mapped (don’t miss the map) the instances of serif vs. sans serif fonts, and made other observations. In a comprehensive write-up of his findings, Kois argued that the style of the address number on your house sends a message. As he writes in his piece:

Sometimes that message is one of individuality: My house, the numerals say, reflects my own personality, and is unlike any other house you might encounter. Sometimes it’s a message of conformity: My house fits in securely with all my neighbors’.

I’m prepared to believe that, but for me, the conclusion is not the point. What I love is the undertaking. First, because who doesn’t appreciate a crazily obsessive project like this? Second, because he came up with some pretty fun insights — from the big-picture implications of serif vs. sans serifs patterns and their associations, to smaller observations all the way down to instances of bad kerning. (One of the prompts in the book — inspired by George Nelson’s How To Seeinvolves counting with numbers you see: spot a 1, then a 2, then a 3, etc. Doing this on bike rides, I’ve contemplated address font styles, too, but not so systematically! So I really dug Kois’ insights.)

Finally, the very best part of this is how the project made Kois notice other aspects of his neighborhood, from yard signs to street basketball hoops to his actual neighbors. As he writes:

Walking every street in my ZIP code helped me truly see, for the first time, the place where I live and the people who live here.

This brings me back to Bertino’s point. To write, you actually need to not write. It’s possible to observe productively without ever creating a thing. On some level, the fact that Kois wrote about this is merely a fun bonus; even if he didn’t, it was clearly a revalatory expreience.

But to create anything worthwhile, careful observation is mandatory part of the process. And I love what Kois ended up writing, and creating. He’s a Hero of Noticing. If you missed the links above, read about his adventure here.

Pix by Dan Kois.

* Bertino made this point in an installment of the #1000wordsofsummer newsletter, which I mentioned previously; the 2020 version has ended, but there’s more on that terrific project (created by friend of TAoN Jami Attenberg) here; sign up now to participate next time, here.

** Big thanks to valued friend & collaborator of TAoN Josh Glenn for the tip! (Bonus: Listen to Josh on Cool Tools show!)

Invent a Commute

In his always-enjoyable advice column, friend and inspiration of TAoN Dan Ariely recently fielded a question from a reader struggling to find balance in a lockdown-era work-from-home scenario: “Since my living room is my office, there’s always a temptation to answer one more email or work on one more project.” Probably a lot of people are struggling with the loss of a harder line between work and home, two distinct places now combined.

Ariely’s suggestion: “an artificial commute.”

This is borrowed from his colleague Nina Bartmann, who writes here about her own five-step plan for re-establishing work/life boundaries. It revolves around an invented commute — say a 20-minute walk or bike ride at the beginning and end of the work day. You could presumably invent some other indoor ritual — time on an exercise bike, or just walking laps around your apartment listening to music, or something else. The point is a clean break, time to gather thoughts, and decompress.

When you’re “home,” you’re home — no more work till your (invented) morning commute!  More here.

Icebreaker Of The Week

  • There’s now a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here. || There’s also an Icebreaker Slack app, here. (Back story on that here.)

This week’s icebreaker comes from Bethany Crystal. It requires no particular preamble:

What’s the most expensive habit you’ve started as an adult that you now wish you could break?

Here are answers she got when she tweeted this question — an experiment she tried “because it occurred to me that, the more you know, the better quality you grow to expect.” This is why I’ve resisted learning too much about wine ;)

Bethany (who admitted to developing some “expensive tastes” around candles) continued: “What was fun about asking this question was that it also lends itself to a lot of easy follow-ups. (When did you start that habit? Any fond memories you can share?)” Agree, this is a fun one. Thanks, Bethany!

I’m still working through the icebreaker backlog, but I’m happy to hear more new ideas! So as always:

Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or got it elsewhere) to consumed@robwalker.net

In Other News

@pcshirls, @zoomkp, @contrarians_bookshelf

Okay, that’s it! Next issue in two weeks.

As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, and your icebreakers: consumed@robwalker.net.

Thanks for reading!

P.S. If you enjoyed this, share it and/or sign up here: robwalker.substack.com.

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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