Saturday, May 26, 2012

Create a Summer Adventure List & Start the Summer Off Right

Memorial Day weekend arrives, marking the unofficial beginning of summer.  It’s time to bring out the grill, and also time to break out the markers and a piece of paper on which to compose your Summer Adventure List. 

A great tool for keeping all your summer ideas, plans and projects front and center, a Summer Adventure List is a great way to start the season off right.  It ensures that the summer doesn’t fly by without making time for those “This summer I want to . . .” activities that can fall by the wayside once the summer is off and running.  A Summer Adventure List also means that you'll have on-hand ideas for a summer full of activities that embody good creative thinking habits: adventure, exploration and play.   

My extremely organized friend, fellow paper lover and list-maker, Danielle, gave me the idea to create a summer list several years ago when I was lamenting that the summer goes by too fast.  She mentioned that she made a list of summer time activities that she wanted to get in by the end of the season and paper-clipped it to her kitchen calendar.  Since then, I have seen the idea appear in a few places, including this month’s Better Homes and Gardens magazine where they call it a “Sand Pail List” (a clever seasonal twist on the traditional Bucket List.)

My Summer Adventure List is not exclusive to only big-deal adventures.  Rather it contains a wealth of activities and projects that I want to approach with the mentality of an adventurer—from research on a writing project to visiting local historic sites.  Adventuring, as I have written about for the Summer Challenges, is a key ingredient to creative thinking, and as a frame of mind, it allows us to remain open and curious as we observe the journey.  It can make a boring task or obligation feel fresh and new, or it can take something that feels overwhelming and foreign and make it feel approachable.

My Summer Adventure List is sometimes a traditional list and sometimes it is a mind map.  I use a list format to capture an overview of the activities I want to do, go to, or need to plan for.  I use a mind map when I also want to include summer reading and creative projects.  I often create both, keeping the list on the refrigerator as an everyday reminder and my mind map in my sketchbook, where I can cross reference it as I work.

I encourage you to take an half hour this weekend, alone or with your family, to create a Summer Adventure list.  From taking an evening walk to get ice cream to planning a day trip, any adventure, big or small, that you want to do this summer should go on the list.  Have fun creating it and make sure to leave room on your list and schedule for additional ideas for adventures that will come to you over the next several weeks of warm weather.  

Do you have a tradition of keeping a Summer Adventure List?  If so, what are some of your favorite activities to list?  For those creating their Summer Adventure List, what are some of your activities listed that you are looking forward to?

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is an adventure wrongly considered. – G. K. Chesterton       

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Creative Thinking Tool Kit #2: Walking

A set of stone steps I discovered on my walk today.
This post is the second in a series on what I call the Creative Thinking Tool Kit.  The tools themselves are a series of essentially low-key activities that have a big impact on creativity.  Their purpose is to both cultivate a habit of nurturing creativity and to bring our attention to the present with a sense of curiosity. Individually, they can spark strong ideas, but used in sync they become a natural spring for creative thinking.  I have listed ideas for applying or practicing with the tool at the end of the post.

I slip my house key around my wrist, tuck five dollars in my pocket, lock the door—and I am off! Bounding down the front steps, I head out into the world and weather, free to roam, explore and engage in my heart-and-mind’s favorite creative activity: going for a walk.

One of my favorite things about the best tools for increasing creativity and generating a better creative thinking process is that they are deceptively simple.  This often makes them difficult for your adult brain to rationalize, so the irony is that you have to work very hard to make them happen.  One rule of thumb for activities that support the creative process is that if it is something that makes you feel happy, curious, and eager, involves movement or making something with your hands, and makes you completely unaware of time—then you are onto something good. 

Going for a walk is my go-to thinking tool.  I find that this simple act—not solely for the purpose of getting anywhere, but for the sake of moving and thinking and looking—outright liberating.  It is one of the rare times that I leave the house without about 10+ pounds of purse, tote bag, notebooks or laptop with me.  I choose the roads and paths that are interesting or mysterious, not contingent on the clock or a schedule.

When I walk, my feet beat a steady rhythm for the melody of my thoughts.  Ideas come and go, alternately sparked and interrupted by the scenery around me.  Walking is low pressure thinking time for me to mentally touch on what is coming in the weeks ahead, what projects I am working on or need to come back to.  But it is also time to daydream, to take in the world, and let my thought be free—not governed by work, conversations, books, TV, movies—just time to roam unstructured.    

Going for a walk is not just recess or “refresh” time for your current thoughts; it is also an ideal incubation tool, allowing ideas to be mulled over in your subconscious, making connections that are influenced by the world unfolding each footstep at a time.  Author Julia Cameron, in her book The Vein of Gold: A Journey to Your Creative Heart (and a follow up to The Artist’s Way), writes of the importance of walking and the creative process, “A creative life is a process, and that process is digestion.  We speak of 'food for thought' but seldom realize as artists we need thought for food.  Walking with its constant inflow of new images, gives us the thoughts that nourish us.  It replenishes our overtapped creative well and gives us a sense of . . . well, wellness.”

Walking also allows you to indulge your senses, an important part of “refilling the well.”  On familiar parts of my walking route, I look for and note the changes from the week or season before.  I listen, noticing that on my walk today there was no bird song, which I’ve learned usually means a Red Tailed Hawk is nearby and on the hunt.  Out across Spy Pond, near Elizabeth Island, I could see that the one of the swan couples had their two cygnets with them.  Upon returning to my neighborhood, I could smell the early scents of summer: a spicy fragrance from a newly bloomed plant, the pungent odor of blacktop in the heat, freshly mowed grass, and the smoke from a grill.  A pleasant reminder that summer is at the doorstep—and that means lots of weather perfect for going for walks, or making walking your number one mode of transportation for a happily creative summer.      

Applying & Practicing:
  • Walk everywhere: In this post, I focus on the joyful and liberating act of going for a walk, but walking as a means of transportation can have just as much power to it.  In fact, when I lived in downtown Boston and walked to the Prudential Center for work, I often did my best thinking and mental preparation for the day during that walk.  If you have a chance to add walking to your day as a part of your routine—whether it is to work, taking your kids to school, or grabbing a coffee—give it a try and observe what happens to your thinking and mood.  
  • Walk to decompress and digest:  In his book The Accidental Creative, author Todd Henry writes about including time in your schedule to decompress between activities such as work and home time.  If you already have a job that you can walk to, you may be familiar with the importance of this “buffer time.”  Taking a walk immediately following work often allows for the calming of the day’s stresses and time to digest new projects and ideas.
  • Just get out the door:  As I mentioned in the post, with the exception of when I good for a walk, it is rare that I leave the house without enough items to keep me occupied through a siege, or at least a really long business meeting.  Walking should be simple.  Walk in what you are comfortable wearing—you don’t need special clothing or even high tech shoes.  Compile the bare necessities that you need on your walk and make them walk friendly.  For me, this means a small wristlet that holds my money, my key and my phone (on silent).  It is easy to grab and get out the door before I get distracted by something that needs to be done around the house.
  • Walk for 10 Minutes: If you a struggling to add walking to your routine, or feel self conscious tooling around your neighborhood by foot, look up places in your area that are walk-friendly.  Or just jump in, get out the door and walk in any direction for 10 minutes.  By the time you reach the 10 minute marker and, if you still want to head home, the time to go back will have put a 20 minute walk under your belt.
  • Keep a journal or sketchbooks of your walks: Walking in my family is strongly connected to a chance to appreciate nature.  The Sundays of my childhood were filled with family walks around Todd’s Point in Old Greenwich where I remember that my mom would bring birdseed and feed the chickadees from her hand.  On walks now, I take pictures of the birds that I see, or call my mom when I get home to let her know that I saw a Baltimore Oriel or a Cormorant.  Keeping a journal of your walks and noting the changes in nature, the migrating species, or what you’ve observed can be a great way to learn the patterns of the natural world through the ritual of walking.  If you are in the city, or just want a more casual way to record your walks, you can keep a journal of your thoughts or route, or even sketch out what you saw.            


Monday, May 7, 2012

Nostalgia: "Before You Were Here" Vintage Postcards and Capturing the Spirit of a Place

The Sea Island Casino, vintage postcard roughly 1940/50s
History fascinates me as much as paper nostalgia, especially vintage postcards, which is one of the reasons I started The Paper Compass.  When someone speaks about history, I am all ears.  When I travel, I often read up on the location, my curiosity driven by questions such as how did this place come to be? What did the people who shaped it see and think and do?  This is why, very naturally, and gradually over the course of the last two decades, I have unsurprisingly found myself a collector of vintage postcards.

My first vintage postcard set the trend.  I found it in a thrift store in Lake Worth, Florida my senior year in high school.  It was a view of Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, looking towards the Boston Public Garden from Kenmore Square, with a statue rising out of a fountain as the foreground focal point.  I bought it with the romantic notion of finding the scene featured once I arrived at Boston University, and I pasted it to my new dorm room filing cabinet.  As synchronicity would have it, “the end” of the Commonwealth mall, part of The Emerald Necklace, was about two blocks away from my dorm.  I recognized the statue one evening after leaving my friend’s apartment in The Braemore.  It was smaller than I thought it would be, the fountain was dry, and the grandeur of the view was marred by the overpass to Storrow Drive.  But I had found it!  I was captivated by the fact that this view of the city was still there 70+ years later.  So began the trend of collecting vintage postcards of places that I wanted to visit, dreamed about (the original Coney Island), or had been.

My recent travels (the inspiration for my last post) took me to back to Georgia’s Golden Isles, where I consistently visited my grandparents, once a year, for the first 25 years of my life.  My memories of time spent on Sea Island, at the hotel, The Cloister, located there, and also on St. Simons run vivid and deep.  They are some of my most favorite memories with my family and of my childhood.  And because time always marches on, so many of the locations, are truly that now—just memories. 

The courtyard of The Cloister roughly 1930/40s--you can
still see the wilderness of the island off in the far distance
Built in the 1920s by famous Florida architect Addison Mizner, The Cloister, a casino, a pool and a resort, soon became the summer haunt of Atlantians, and some of Hollywood’s and Washington’s rich and famous.  The hotel (and island community) survived The Great Depression by printing their own money.  After WWII the hotel continued to expand, and by the time my childhood memories of Sea Island and The Cloister began it had grown into a thriving resort and cottage community.  So highly was it regarded, along with the beauty of the island, that The Cloister hosted the 30th G8 summit there in 2004.  After that, the hotel decided to expand, to upgrade and improve.  The original Mizner hotel was torn down, a new hotel built with more modern amenities and better views.  Next, the original Beach Club was torn down, a new pool area built (minus diving boards—too much of a liability).  And, last but not least, a gate house was built so that only those with special access can get on the island.  Everything that was once there is completely razed.  Everything is new.  Modernized.  In what feels like having a waking dream, everything there is inspired by the same rooms, hallways, pool decks, and dining areas that came before it—so that it seems familiar, smells the same—but doesn’t feel right. 

The new hotel and beach club are truly beautiful.  Like something out of Architectural Digest.  In some cases I will agree that it is “improved.”  My memories, though, are of a place that was much more fun, full of traditions but also casual.  Inviting.  Which is why the two vintage postcards featured here are some of my collection favorites.  They are of the Cloister before I ever knew it, but they feel familiar because the old hotel always had the glamour that is present in vintage postcards.  Even without a message they seem to say, Wish You Were Here—celebrating the golden age of an era when handwriting and postcards were as common as fingerbowls on the dinner table.
It is not easy to capture the spirit of a place.  Especially, its place in time.  But I find that if you look in the right places—such as a dusty box in the corner of an antique shop—you just may be able to find the vintage postcard that does. 

For fun: a 1980s postcard of the Beach Club
that looks like it came right out of my childhood memories

A postcard of architectural renderings of the "new" Cloister hotel


Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Creative Thinking Tool Kit, Tool #1: The Getaway - Traveling & the Importance of “Filling the Well”

This post is the first in a series on, what I call, The Creative Thinking Tool Kit.  The tools themselves are a series of essentially low-key activities that, when practiced routinely, can have a big impact on creativity.  Their purpose is to both cultivate a habit of nurturing creativity and to bring our attention to the present with a sense of curiosity. Individually, they can spark ideas, but used in sync they become a natural spring for creative thinking.  I have listed ideas for applying or practicing with the tool at the end of the post.

In her book The Artist’s Way, on recovering personal creativity, author Julia Cameron calls the exercises and experiences that restore or create new memories, “filling the well.”  Having just returned from vacation time spent visiting with my family as well as some places both fantastical and hauntingly familiar, these phrases were on my mind. 

Traveling, or even a new experience, is one of the most powerful tools for creativity.  Traveling is like a feast within the desert of routine that many of us hold ourselves to in order to “Get Things Done” (a phrase I find myself using with troubling frequency.) While vacation time or traveling may not be frequent, it has a huge impact because it allows us to do two things: break for an extended period of time the current pattern of our everyday living; and take in many new experiences to call upon later. 

Traveling, in the sense of a trip, vacation or journey, takes us out of our routine and causes us to look and interact with awareness.  Time feels different on vacations, usually because many of our mile-markers of habit are removed, such as watching TV or listening to a radio program at a certain time.  More importantly, time feels different because we are focused on the present and the experience unfolding in front of us.  As Cameron writes in The Artist's Way, “Our focused attention is critical to filling the well.  We need to encounter our life experiences, not ignore them.”    

This kind of awareness is something that comes naturally to children, but is something that as adults we must cultivate, because we’ve picked up habits and adopted preconceptions over time that, on a reptilian-brain-level, have helped us survive but have also made the world a much less surprising place where adventures are usually a monstrous inconvenience.  Traveling takes us out of that mindset, especially if we set out open to, or in search of, new experiences, and causes us to see things from a fresh perspective.  This is where “filling the well” comes in.

In the space of the last six days, I went from an existence comprised of what seemed like an endless volley of emails and a series of meetings that defied the natural laws of time as governed by my Microsoft Exchange calendar, to sitting next to my sister filled with unabashed delight as we watched a mermaid show at Weeki Wachee State Park.  That same day, on our drive north we discovered a winery in the vast wilderness of route 19 on Florida’s gulf coast and impulsively stopped for a tasting.  The last days of the trip were spent revisiting the coastal islands of Georgia where we’d vacation and visit my grandparents during my childhood.  So many things were different there, but others remained wonderfully the same as I remembered. 

I arrived home tired, but feeling refreshed.  Satisfied.  Filled with new experiences to share with others, to spark my curiosity and imagination.  The best part is that I don’t have use them right away.  That is the importance of “filling the well.”  The memories and experiences are there for when I need them, whether it’s in bringing an idea to fruition or just to sustain me until the next time I can “get away.”

Applying & Practicing:
·         Put a vacation or trip on the horizon: Whether it is the trip to Paris that you’ve always dreamed of, or a day trip to a new local within easy reach via car, train, or boat, save the date on your calendar for time to get away.  Not only does this give you something to look forward to, but it helps to make it real. Goals that are written down are 80% more likely to happen than the ones that just exist in your head.
·         Cultivate a sense of mystery: As it’s been established in this blog, I am a huge fan of Nancy Drew.  The girls’ mystery series has always entranced me with the way that the way that adventure lies in wait around every corner.  When you are Nancy Drew a mystery can find you when you are shopping for a dress or walking to the post office.  I have found that even on the most boring day, reminding yourself that even small journeys can become big adventures or lead to new ideas.
·         Get away: This winter I’ve written about what todo when you are in the dark a.k.a. "stuck" and the importance of incubation in the creative process, that both touch on the value of walking away from an idea or project that is stuck.  “Getting away” is a very powerful action that puts you back in control of the idea, especially if you use that time to “fill the well.”  A walk around the block can, if badly needed, be as inspiring and refreshing as a trip around the world.  Try and bring both to your life to nurture your creativity.
·         Don’t wait until the well is dry: “Filling the well” is something that should be done on a routine basis, and not just when you feel like you need an emergency vacation.  As Cameron notes, often ideas “dry up”–especially when the work is going well and we use them quickly.  The more we replenish the stream of images and experiences we have to draw upon, the smoother and more consistent the creative process has the potential to be.