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Hello, my name is Sandy.

Breathing in, comfortably

Lately, I've struggled to blog. It could be residual burnout from #blogjune, but it's just as easily bad timing. When I make a point of sitting down to write a blog post, I simply don't feel like saying anything. As soon as I go have a shower or do something on my ever-growing list of chores, my brain is all blah blah blah write this down next time you're at a computer. Then when I get to the computer, you know the rest. It's a cycle.

I have, however, felt very compelled to work on my novel. Since finishing the first draft, I've realised so much of what you write for NaNo is only good for putting in the bin. Sure, some writers are so good that they produce a workable first draft under duress. But for less good writers like me, NaNo is there to open the door.

The past nine months have been an excruciatingly slow process of stepping through. Then stepping back. Another cycle. In the time it takes me to not finish my manuscript, a child could be conceived and born. Maybe by the time I'm ready to contact an agent, that child will have grown up and had a child of its own who can write a novel faster than me.

In case you were wondering, yes, I did just sit down at the computer to complain. :)

A recent-ish issue of German designer Tobias van Schneider's newsletter introduced me to the idea that creativity is like breathing. Usually, this concept is framed as a "work vs rest" deal, which is tricky to balance if you love the work you do. If your work matches how you see yourself. If you have workaholic tendencies beneath your wings.

But breathing - that's easy! My brain doesn't have to spare the clock cycles to wonder if what I'm doing qualifies as work or rest, or if the fun I'm having might be slightly more taxing than it should be. That meta-thought is hard work too. Somehow, I know instinctively if I'm breathing in or out. No worries, no dramas. This metaphor is good.

So I've been relaxing and self-care-ing guilt free, taking in movies and playing games in the name of breathing in, and it seems to be working. I exhaled a lot too over the last few days and still managed to write this post without feeling breathless.

And now, it's time for bed. Nite nite. :)

Signals and noise

It is decided. After much pondering and wondering, I'm starting a newsletter. Friends and family have been super supportive, and my cats have wandered across the keyboard several times in solidarity.

You can get more details and subscribe here. :)

Other than that, my week has been eventful:

  • My dentist confirmed I definitely need braces. First consultation is next month.
  • Our moving plans are officially official. Konmari 2.0 has begun.
  • Work on my novel no longer feels like I'm clutching at straws. I've learned that creating good characters is harder than making new friends.
  • I'm totally OK with Star Trek Beyond being pretty much a Fast & Furious remix of Star Trek TOS. Once again, Pine nails the Shatner body language when he and Spock banter. And they pulled off the Sulu stuff in a dignified and classy way. Well done, movie-makers.
  • Finally, I'm still reeling from Stranger Things.

What have you been up to lately? Tell me on facebook or twitter.

Garden things in July 2016

The flower bed has progressed, with the addition of pansies (Viola tricolor var. hortensis) and lobelias. I believe some native violets (Viola hederacea) have sprung up as weeds; not sure if that's actually what they are, but we've had them as weeds before. And on either side of the geranium (Pelargonium) at the back, I've planted aeoniums (Aeonium arboreum, also known as houseleek!).

The bed is still a mess, though!

overview of the flower bed

This house has Hedera ivy and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) all over it, which will serve as lovely coverings for the very plain fence. I'm expecting the aeoniums to grow to just above knee height as the geranium gets bushier and taller. With the rosemary and lemongrass too, this is going to be one odd flowerbed, but hopefully it won't look unattractive.

tiny flowerpot and tiny triceratops

I found a tiny triceratops in our yard, and for some reason, we have a tiny flowerpot too. I'm sure there are stories behind both, but their new life will be in a yet to be decided tableau. Would be nice if this was the start of a floral arc sweeping around that bare front section.

main garden bed with arum lilies and nasturtiums

Here is an experiment. The three arum lilies seem happy doing their own thing. So between them, I've placed the bottom half of the broken pot, filled it with soil and scattered cat mint (Nepeta spp.) seeds in and around.

There might not be much to look at when the lilies and nasturtiums take over the bed, but when those die back, I'm hoping what's left is a lovely patch of catnip continually growing and self-seeding.

In front, there's an osteospermum daisy to provide colour on a similar schedule.

maroon osteospermum daisy

I'm not sure yet what to plant around it, but we're getting there. Maybe next week, I'll decide. After five years of playing in the garden, I'm satisfied that these things take time to cultivate - mentally and horticulturally.

purple pansy

pink pelargonium with a purple pansy perimeter

Time, however, is now something we don't have a great deal of. I thought we'd live here a couple years, but we've pulled the trigger on moving again, aiming for sometime in the next three months or so. I've decided that's my timeframe for making the garden presentable for the residents after us. So maybe next week, I'll have to decide.

rainbow radishes

Harvested a little rainbow of radishes! They tasted sooooooo peppery and went straight into my pickle jar. We have coriander, garlic & chilli salt pickles now.

rainbow radish row

That's it for now. Stay tuned for more garden make-nice adventures. :)

Creativity and freedom

Someone once told me the best canvas for an artist was a postage stamp. Seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? You'd think a creative person could go on for ages. So I don't know if there's any truth behind it, but it still stuck with me throughout the years. Every now and then, it comes to mind.

Are we more creative when we have freedom, or do we need constraints?

When I worked as a designer, I always wanted more freedom and more time. I suspect this is always going to be the case when you spend the bulk of your day on buttons, banners and mockups for stakeholders who "know a thing or two about design" themselves.

Jokes aside, it might have been unrealistic to want a lot of freedom here, because the purpose of design is to solve problems, and problems are created by constraints. Juggling canvas space restrictions, colour palettes, brand styles, user attention, stakeholder idiosyncrasies and the technical limitations of the medium posed the total challenge. I wasn't asked to be artistic, I was asked to design an optimal answer within a particular combination of constraints. Therein lay my measure of creativity.

Some people need the pressure of a deadline to be creative, to get anything done at all. I've met many creatives who admit to squandering the luxury of time on procrastination. And even more who fall into the trap of over-thinking. When you have too much time and not enough parameters to give you direction, anything is possible - and not necessarily in a good way.

Say you're asked to design a couple of mockups, and are given a ton of freedom. Now you're not just solving a problem, you're finding solutions for several problems that may or may not be relevant to the greater objective - but you'll only know for sure after you've done the work and put it through the wringer. That's a lot of sweat, tears and Photoshop hours. Sometimes that much wiggle room triggers a creatively agoraphobic panic, even if you have heaps of time to consider every possibility. The task just feels big, you know? Insurmountable. Higher thought shuts down, and you fall back on safe, same-samey patterns just to get by.

Maybe I just wasn't a good designer, and this is what happens. But I can't deny how useful it can be to have limitations. I did find my creativity would skyrocket during highschool and uni exam time, or when I was sick - periods where I was technically busier or more stressed. Something about the pressure got me fired up.

On the other hand, science suggests we need freedom from cognitive load to be creative. I can't deny that either. It's hard to think imaginatively when burnt out - hard to think of anything but survival. There's a lot to be said for giving ourselves a chance to relax, giving our brains the space to process stuff and apply some higher thought. We're just treading water otherwise.

Perhaps the question is less about whether freedom or constraints make us more creative, and more about how much of both we need, and what we end up doing with it. It's not that we need to wish for free time or more space, but for purposeful time, with just enough constraint for guidance, in which we can freely move toward what we want to achieve.

For the past month, I've been tethered to this blog, promising myself I would publish 30 posts in 30 days. But not just any old post. The aim was to push myself - so there could be no BS token effort. And the content had to stay true to this blog. Nothing stupid, nothing not me for the sake of ticking a box. Those were the rules, and there were busy, uninspired days where I wished I could break them. But I didn't. I accepted the constraints and took liberties where I could.

Towards the end, words seemed to come more naturally, even when I was stuck for ideas. I found I could speak on things I was tongue-tied about before. Now on the last day of this challenge, I'm feeling sufficiently pushed, and more confident about my writing and creativity.

I guess this experience has taught me that to improve in any area, to achieve a more natural feeling of creativity in any discipline, it takes focus and a sense of purpose. Not the whim of inspiration - you can go to that mountain if it doesn't come to you. Not the luxury of free time - I've written less on longer deadlines. There's no two ways about it. If you want to reach a rewarding goal, you simply have to work for it.

What a bastard of a thing.

Putting together an RPG kit

We're about to descend into next-level nerdom and try D&D5. My least favourite part of our Pathfinder sessions has been faffing around looking for stationery and equipment, so I'm putting together a role-playing kit. How very girl scout, I know.

But as with everything in life, it pays to be prepared when fighting goblins and dragons. So please excuse the fussing over stationery and trinkets while I share what I'm putting into my inventory.

A set of dice. This is standard fare for every adventurer. Mine came from Tactics: a 7-piece sets of coloured dice, containing d4, d6, d8, d10 pair, d10 and d20.

A trusty pencil. Essential for filling in character sheets, jotting down notes, and occasionally writing rude words in your teammate's notebook. I'm using the lucky pink 0.5mm mechanical no-sharpener-needed pencil that's given me +2 to note-taking for the last few years.

An eraser. There's nothing quite like the feel of a premium erasing experience. I've used Staedtler plastic erasers since I was little, and regard their performance as the erasing standard. The debris is large and soft, not dusty and gross like what you get with cheap don't-care erasers. As a tool, the Staedtler stays fresh for ages too; mine has gone unwrapped for years, and it still feels soft and moist.

An adventuring journal. AKA, a notebook. It must stay open on its own, or be easy to keep open. The paper must hold both graphite and ink well, ie. not be too smooth that it easily smudges. And generally, it must simply be a joy to use. I'm considering a paperblanks Old Leather for getting in the mood, but I've never written in one before. It's tempting to fall back on a trusty Moleskine, or try a Leuchtturm or Rhodia after reading high praise about them on Chisa's blog - if only they made books with medieval style.

Character management gear. AKA, a character sheet. In our case, an app - which may negate the need for a notebook, pencil and eraser. But then again, it may not. Right now, we're looking at Lone Wolf Development's Hero Lab and Lion's Den's Fight Club 5.

I think that's everything I need. What do you reckon? Have I missed anything? Ping me on twitter and tell me about the tools you game with.

Music roundup - Lemon Tree

For a brief period, I was obsessed with the song "Lemon Tree" by German band Fool's Garden. The song itself was cute and whimsical, but it was the versions in other languages and styles that lit me up.

Here is the original:

Here is a live acoustic version:

There are the Mandarin and Cantonese versions by Tarcy Su:

Vietnamese version by Lam Truong:

Korean version:

A bluesy cover by Taiwanese artist Joanna Wang, English and Mandarin versions:

A rad jazzy (English) version by Thai band Mellow Motif:

A punk cover by German band Outsiders Joy:

A poppy English/Mandarin ukulele cover on Voice of China:

This post has been sitting in my drafts for a long time. After seeing the ukulele version, I'm curious how easy it would be to learn this song, which only adds another thing to my to-do list. Ah well... Maybe one day I'll get around to all of these things.

But nothing ever happens and I wonder...

lemon tree artwork

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