Hello, my name is Sandy.

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.

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

8 articles to think about

I have a collection of bookmarks titled, "Growing up, feeling better". It consists of insightful, often validating articles that make me reflect on life and self, and feel like maybe things will turn out all right.

It's late and I'm behind on today's post, so mind if I just share a few of these favourites with you?

There Are Two Kinds of Passion: One You Should Follow, One You Shouldn't

Understanding the difference between "harmonious passion" and "obsessive passion" — one is driven by intrinsic reward; the other, extrinsic — will help guide us toward making truly fulfilling choices. And once we put effort into the right kind of passion, says Kaufman, we naturally become even more passionate.

Art and Math and Science, Oh My!

The technology/art dichotomy discourages people who might otherwise be interested in one or the other, or forces people who are interested in both to pick one or the other. Even if you pick one or the other, understanding both helps you communicate to the people you work with that do the other.

Escape from the matrix: The fear of missing out haunts our social networks and our real lives alike. But there is a way to break free

This simple approach was first introduced in 1956 by Herbert Simon, an American multidisciplinary researcher and Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics. He used the term ‘satisfice’ – a portmanteau of ‘satisfy’ and ‘suffice’ – to suggest that instead of trying to maximise our benefits, we seek a merely ‘good enough’ result.

The Origin and Cultural Evolution of Silence

‘Sound imposes a narrative on you,’ he said, ‘and it’s always someone else’s narrative. My experience of silence was like being awake inside a dream I could direct.’

Is Kindness Physically Attractive?

These results suggest that sometimes our initially hardwired gut reaction to appearance can be overridden, and sometimes even without effort. All it may take is increased familiarity about the person. As the researchers note, "Among people who actually know and interact with each other, the perception of physical attractiveness is based largely on traits that cannot be detected from physical appearance alone, either from photographs or from actually observing the person before forming a relationship."

8 Signs You've Found Your Life's Work

Passion comes from the latin word 'pati,' which means 'to suffer.' Your life's work is less about following a passion and more about your willingness to suffer along the way.

Why nerds are unpopular

At the time I never tried to separate my wants and weigh them against one another. If I had, I would have seen that being smart was more important. If someone had offered me the chance to be the most popular kid in school, but only at the price of being of average intelligence (humor me here), I wouldn't have taken it.

No One Knows What the F* They're Doing (or "The Three Types of Knowledge")

To really understand how it is that no one knows what they’re doing, we need to understand the three fundamental categories of information. There’s the shit you know, the shit you know you don’t know, and the shit you don’t know you don’t know.

Making friends on the internet

When I first got online, I was 13 and very few people I knew had internet access. With the exception of one cousin at university, the only people I emailed and chatted with were people I had met in chatrooms and newsgroups. I'd stay up all night sometimes, on alt.something, email, IRC, ICQ, AIM, BBS, just 'hanging out' and having heartfelt conversations with these screen names, these people I had never met but felt very comfortable talking to.

There was a period where I felt closer to my online friends than to my offline friends. It should tell you something that I'd make the distinction at all between online and offline friends. That's what it was like back then. I was a kid with two distinct lives.

In the real world, I was a nobody teenager with braces, bad skin and a confusing social life. In the virtual world, which felt no less real to me, I had amassed a small audience through my writing and made friendships I still hold dear to this day.

My online friends and I swapped mail, talked on the phone, one even flew over to visit, though in hindsight, I was wholly unprepared and way too unsure of myself to know what it meant to suddenly become friends offline too.

As I got older, I started getting to know people in my city who didn't live close enough to just hang out with. It happens, I guess - you grow up, get jobs, meet more people. And offline friends moved away too and became online friends through distance. Technology made it possible to stay close.

The way I understood friendships changed, broadened. Rather than being based on how much I saw a person or how often we giggled together, the relationships I valued came to be based on trust and care, mutual enrichment and a willingness to relate.

Some friendships are better over distance. There's just not enough of that day-to-day compatibility to weather constant contact. But some friendships are far better in person, especially when you respond to situations in ways that make the experiences more fun for both of you. These measurements, I realised, applied to every relationship regardless of whether they started in meatspace or on the internet.

As the years passed, it felt more natural to refer to online and offline friendships as simply "friendships". Turns out the distinction doesn't matter. One of my best friends lives a few suburbs away; we see each other every couple of weeks. Another bestie lives on the other side of the world; we talk every day, more than we used to when we lived in the same city.

Another good friend and I chat almost exclusively via post. We talk about life and love and fear in one long conversation stretched out over weeks and months. We've known each other nearly twenty years. We still haven't met.

The psychological toll of book club

Come July, I have a book club thing with a handful of mates. I'm super excited for it, even though I generally don't do book clubs. Or movie clubs. I don't do monthly get-togethers either; seasonal kibbutzes, other regular things like that.

There's something about monthly whatever clubs that starts to feel old very quickly. At least for me. Even in that first month, with the excitement of doing something new, I still get the sense of staring down a long sentence without parole.

Of course, in reality, parole happens. People take breaks, wane in enthusiasm, fade into the background. You're never truly locked into a book club.

But I don't like dithering on commitments. It doesn't feel good. If I accept an invitation to book club, I want to be sincere about the implicit promise to be there for someone in that bookish way. And I can't. I'm picky about the media I consume, I don't want to be told what book to read next.

It's not just that, though. I get the same feeling with monthly, or weekly, dinners or lunches or movies or picnics or catchups or so-and-sos. Most of the time, I want play-dates, not play-marriages. So as soon as I hear there's a time-based ball to chain myself to, I'm out.

Perhaps it's an underlying fear of commitment fuelling my aversion. Or what if I've cultivated a pattern of avoidance through type-A perfectionistic tendencies bordering on delusions of grandeur? That's getting heavy for a blog post on book clubs, isn't it.

To date, the only thing I've given myself to with regularity is indoor football. Christians have church, geeks have conventions, I have weekend team sport. I adore the psychological toll here. But then, maybe deep down it's because I know I'm on a time limit. That there's three decades at best left in my footballing body, barring some superb science or fitness secret that could make me match-fit until I die. I stare down this sentence of week after week, and wish it were several lifetimes long.

Well then. I'm trying something different with this book club by removing the regularity. None of us are trying to read more, just have a bit of fun. If anything, this affair is a big ask because we're all avid readers taking precious time out of our regular schedule to do this together. So, as the organiser, I want to respect that by eliminating the routine, the locked-in feeling.

Just one 398-page dalliance in July because we want to. No strings attached. They don't have to call the next day or month. We're ships, passing bookishly in the night.

Garden things in June 2016

Confession time - I've had almost no motivation for gardening since the summer. For some reason, the fact that we're renting has weighed heavy on my mind, despite every assurance when we moved in that we could treat the place like our own.

But you know how it is. When something isn't yours, it's hard to pretend it is. I don't want to leave a legacy the owner or next tenant might not want. I don't want to add all these adornments we'll end up having to shift when we eventually get our own home.

Yet, maybe it's none of these things. Maybe this comes from being in my mid-30s and feeling the urge to nest my way. Whatever the reason for this horticultural malaise, my garden has become unkempt.

Not totally forgotten, though. Let me show you things.

nasturtiums spilling over the garden bed

The nasturtiums are going nuts, as they did this time last year. I thought they'd all died over the summer, but they seem to be a permanent seasonal fixture in this garden. Same with those arum lilies you see peeking over the top.

I see now why people say to observe your garden over a year before making drastic changes. I had intended on adding mediterranean plants over the warmer months, but now I realise they would simply be overshadowed by winter growth. To ensure our garden stays beautiful without severely upping the effort factor, I'll need to account for its natural ebbs and flows.

What I have done is expanded our no-dig bed (to the left) with kitchen waste, twigs, prunings and lawn clippings. But instead of using the space as a food producer, I've decided to make it a flowerbed. Something pretty and relatively low-touch for however long we remain in this house.

geranium in a broken pot

So far there's a Geranium Calliope (Pelargonium) in the back, decorated with a piece of broken pot we found by the side of the road. It currently looks like crap, but over time, the setup should look nice and quaint enough that it won't bother whoever lives here next.

Not sure what to plant there next, though. Maybe some flowering ground cover or pretty weeds.

rocket weeds

Speaking of pretty weeds, our rocket plants went mental and have made babies all over the yard. We now have them growing like weeds pretty much everywhere. I'm OK with this. It's been nice going outside and sitting around snacking on fresh leaves. They're super peppery and very satisfying.

radish overgrown with rocket

This (above) was my attempt to convert the rocket bed into a radish bed. Well played, nature.

white alyssums

flowers and herbs in a no-dig bed

In another part of the garden, we piled on more clippings and prunings, and planted herbs and flowers. Initially, the pile was as high as the grey brick, but eventually sank to a more reasonable level. As these plants grow and spread, this bed should become a pretty little sight in place of what was once a barren patch.

Grass and weeds are having their wicked way right now, so it'll take more attention to make beautiful, but we'll get there. Bit by bit.

wild veggie patch

Finally, my veggie bed. What can I say? It's a mess. Nasturtiums are poking through and will have to go. The basil is going nuts and we haven't the time to harvest and make pesto. It's a race against the flowers, because the plant will die back after going into full bloom.

The tomatoes are... I can't tell at this point whether they're succeeding or failing. Two tomato fruits started to grow on one of the plants, but they look like they're withering on the vine. The foliage in the back bed is looking healthy, but that end doesn't get enough sunshine to really take off.

At least we know planting basil and tomato in autumn is not a dumb idea in WA. :)

Outside the beds, grass has been growing beautifully. I think it's a type of buffalo grass, but I'm not sure. Last winter, this whole bed was a pile of thorny prunings we dumped deliberately with this exact situation in mind. It is now looking mighty lush.

So, there's a lot of green in this post. If I'm lucky (and not lazy), the next garden update should include other colours too.