I used to dislike the word composition. We did essays at school when I was quite young called compositions. I quite liked them but they were very mechanical. Whenever I read the word later, where it was associated with art, I thought of the academy, of young ladies trying to draw; it was no use to me. Later, doing photography I met people I respected who talked about composition and ‘good composition’. It had no meaning for me beyond getting some interesting elements in the frame in a harmonious way, probably a bit cheesy looking. I mean some of Cartier-Bresson’s shots are only an inch away from cheese and some of his Indian shots are cheesy- and he was the master of composition. I preferred the seeming chaos of New World photographers Friedlander and Winogrand. And all of this was because I had the wrong association with the word composition. But I kept the word in mind. It rattled around, homeless, no meaning, no use, but hopeful, ready at hand if a use could be found for it. And after a year or two I started all of a sudden, taking more care in the framing of my shots- not in a 2D way but in my point of view, my angle of attack- a combination of where I stood, the angle of the camera, how everything balanced up in three dimensions not two. Suddenly I got this whole composition thing. Before I had a 2-D sort of graphic design idea of simply moving stuff around in the frame. But instead of thinking about that think of circumnavigating your subject looking for the right slant, the right way in, the right balance. And not just a planetary circumnavigation, zooming in and out as you circle it too. Zooming by moving bodily I mean rather than using a camera zoom which puts you back in the 2 D world I feel. I used to think light was everything, now I think composition is everything- I’ll recover.
The French foreign legion provides a ready made identity to men wanting a tough adventurous life. The purpose of the identity is to keep you on course. You look at yourself in the mirror and go ‘yeah, I’m a soldier/sailor/tinker/tailor and this is what I do’. The identity gets you through the days. With an identity you can persist and achieve something worthwhile. Identity is like a suit if clothes. Imagine having to do a job in public stark naked- you’d keep having to fend off people’s stupid comments. Well those comments come from your inner critic when you have no identity. Simply being clothed lets you get on with it.
The reason identity is a big deal is that your identity gives you assignments. If you are a ‘writer’ telling yourself to write a novel is no big deal- it’s what writers do. But if you are in ‘tinker’ mode you’ll be full of self doubt. Also the identity includes an off the shelf set of behaviours that help you achieve what people with that identity usually do. It’s like getting the overalls and toolkit of a plumber and so, when you turn up to fix the tap you are halfway there already…which reminds me, a friend who is a builder told me that everyone now has workwear and proper tools whereas in his day you just wore your old clothes. People have a stronger need for identity these days- traditional identities are seen as compromised or even repugnant- the St George’s cross of England is identified by some as signifying far right sympathies. The ‘working class’- originally a strong identity becomes diffuse with the creation of a welfare state and free universal education. Without strong ‘off the peg’ identities people have to work hard to create their own. Hence the American habit of spieling out your lifestory/mission purpose whenever you meet someone new- this is your identity.
If you are unable to give yourself big assignments, or big enough assignments; or you can’t take such assignments seriously, then you need to tweak or change your identity. The easiest way is to hang out with people who already have that identity. Just as an actor can ‘catch’ a character by hanging out with someone, so, too, can an identity be caught. Strangely enough, when you know all the mannerisms and details of an identity the bulky mid part of actually doing what the identity does is relatively straightforward (easy or not).
Identity is the very devil wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein- and it is! When we have a strong identity we find our motivation is clear. We know what we have to do. I know writers who complain bitterly about doing PR talks on the radio and at bookshops and festivals ‘I only want to write’ they complain. But they do it, because all that PR is now part of the identity ‘writer’. You see how identity ‘creep’ begins. Eventually an identity can have nothing to do with its original activity. This doesn’t seem to matter, unless, perhaps, you want to pursue that original activity…sometimes the only way to do that is to adopt an ‘outsider’ identity. Outsider artists are able to dispense with many of the silly attributes of modern artistic practice (commercialism, publicity, academicism) and just get on with being super productive. It gets even more confusing when insiders mimic being an outsider artist…
The way to cut the Gordian knot of identity is to ask the simple question- is it using me or am I using it? If you have to spend twenty years in the army doing the dirty work of politicians in order to feel tough then I suspect you’ve been used.
There is nothing magic about an identity. Think of it as being like a cartoon. You can have the barest outline and get the character immediately. Or you can have a very lifelike drawing that lacks verve and movement, seems dead in fact. You could go to all the trouble of joining the army only to find you have a desk job. You have the externals but not the inner reality. So the essence of identity is having the bare minimum to get the job done. How much ‘baker’ identity do you need to bake a decent loaf.
The essence of character lies in details. Why do army uniforms have all those fiddly bits on them, all those tassels and braid? Because these details constitute a distinct identity. One key to identity is it being distinct and prominent- it should be burnt into the cells of the brain. This is either done through repetition of an activity or through it being memorable…the important thing is to have just enough identity to get the motivation to do what you want to do. Going on a course is often a good way to get a new identity- often more important than what they teach you on the course.
For a long while I didn’t tell people I was a writer even though I did a fair bit of writing in my spare time. Then I decided I would, it helped me complete and publish my first book, it added a bit of steel to my purpose. If you’re an ordinary bod getting a book published is a big deal, but if you’re a writer it’s normal. Anxiety levels drop.
Maybe that is the key. Anxiety is the big killer of successful attempts at things. We get anxious and we fail. I’m not talking about the slight tightening and tuning that comes with being stretched, I’m talking about dithering and losing confidence and going to pieces. Your identity, like the soldiers uniform, helps you to avoid this. You have a new normal. Of course, identity is no guarantee of succeeding in any enterprise, it is just one more tool that may be of help. The main thing is to have just enough detail to con your chattering brain you can do the job...
We live in a success oriented culture- the trick is to have access to as many forms of success as you can. Some allow themselves to be trapped by the money version of success, the fame version or the longevity version. But we should try to come up with more, many more. One sort of success I've been looking at recently is simply improving your environment. Your absolute proximate living space. Incrementally make it better, keep improving it - not in a big sweep but by taking small bites. Entropy wears things down over time so to balance it you need to keep an improving state of mind rather than a steady state.
Improving your environment connects easily to what I've thought of as 'bulking up'. Gather together all that you have done of something- be it creative, memories, written material. File it. Print it. Publish it even. Be proud of it. Don't let your personal archive be treated disrespectfully.
There is a kind of fake humility which masquerades as humility but is really a giving up, a sort of nihilistic impulse.
When is a problem not a problem?
Most of the time. I've written before about a friend on a long desert walk who was there to 'think through' various probelms in his marriage. At the end of the walk he claimed he was no nearer 'solving the problem' only it just didn't seem so important any more.
There in lies the nub. A blistered foot is not a problem. Ignore it too long and it may become infected and even gangrenous. Problems require a certain amount of wise attention, but not all our attention all the time. The key thing is- how important are they really? To us? In the grand scheme of things?
Having a problem, conceiving of it in this way suggests there is something to be done which will solve the problem. Merely observing that there is a problem of some sort is often enough to mobilise solving forces. Being aware of 'problems' without being drowned by them perhaps requires us not to think of them as problems. In any case thinking is usually not the best way to solve things- we end up going round in circles. Unpacking the problem, making lists for potential solutions- this is a better start.
We worry a bit about our mental capacity, our IQs, memory, grades, skills, talents and so on but less, it seems, about our attitude. Whereas attitude is by far the biggest element in determining the success of any outing, project, work, journey.
Though, like many others I am drawn moth like to the entrancing flame of polymathy I am aware of the many pitfalls associated with too great a celebration of polymathy. First, the word itself is a bit of a mouthful, but that aside, the real heart of it is that polymathy is a pretty slippery concept. I have defined it elsewhere as demonstrable expertise in three or more areas covering the wide terrain between what is generally thought of as art, science and practical/physical skills. It isn't just about being a head person, you need to have some body skill or manual skill too. Not for nothing did the old rulers of turkey insist that the king have a real trade such as carpenter, carpet weaver or mosaic maker. Professor Richard Gombrich once suggested I train as a plumber whilst writing poetry- and I probably should have done it!
Polymathy is slippery, but practical polymathy less so. I think of being a 'practical polymath' as a pretty good identity and 'party hat' to wear. You go to a cocktail party or some other gathering of humanoids in search of oblivion/company and tell people you are a polymath- they read this is a 'bit of a wanker'. But say you are a 'practical polymath' and things might progress in a more interesting direction. I hold there is no point in revealing yur profession/identity unless something fun/useful/interesting comes of it. Better to get a laugh by saying you are a pig rustler than the sorry silence that accomapnies a real admission of one's trade. In italy people feel Ok being introduced by their chosen identity- thus a cloth salesman can be 'the poet' and a dustman can be 'the philosopher'. brits and yanks are more lieral minded, poor souls, so craft yor identity well, make sure it works.
Practical polymathy is about acquiring micromasteries. That is, small, definable lumps of skill that can't be taken away from you. It is also about recalibrating what you know in terms of micromasteries. Thinking of it in this way. It is then about using the synergy that occurs when you have moe than one micromastery.
Your best writing is always about the things you hold dear. Oh, sure, you can rant and hate on something and get a good funny article or poem but it all runs out after a while- and often the haters are using the tool they hold dear- words and rhymes- as the 'subject'- but in the end cleverness devours itself and leaves that monotonous dulled feeling behind. Whereas resonant images are the gift that keeps giving. When you hold something dear you can return again and again for inspiration and material. Get used to thinking and identifying 'stuff you love'. Become like a foodie with their somewhat over the top interest in flavours and ingredients- search out the good stuff. And much of it will be in your past- places you have seen and people met and things experienced. Or it could be a story or image from a book or movie that has simply grown over the years incubating in your noddle waiting to be used. Cultivate these images, work on them, play with them: they are the essential building blocks of the dream that becomes your book, story, novel, film.