Our friend Micah Player is an amazing writer/illustrator. When he announced that he had some spots open for portraits, and we jumped at the chance. We couldn't be happier with the work he did. This is an absolutely perfect representation of the Petersen 5 at this point in our lives, and we can't wait to hang the print in our home.
During a faculty meeting where we were having yet another discussion about "the rising generation" of Whippersnapchatters™ and how to reach them, I came up with a new approach to assessment and feedback: I'll grade their assignments with selfies of my reactions.
Sun on the windows
shocks my eyes, so I look up
to find half a moon.
I'm going to start a new thing. For years I've been taking photographs, and many of them have fantastic stories behind them. I'm going to present a photograph and tell a little bit of the backstory.
In 2004, my friend and neighbor Rick heard that his National Guard Unit was called up to head back over to Iraq for a second tour. He had just cleared his duty requirements, and he was free of any responsibility to deploy. Even though he had two little girls and a newborn son, he felt a deep need to go, despite the ridiculous logic of the decision.
He came to me a few weeks before he had to leave and said, "Hey, you take a lot of pictures. I need one of Wyatt, to take with me when I go. I have a good one of the girls, but none of him."
I told him I could so something. I had a Canon G3 viewfinder, a solid camera, but nothing spectacular. Digital photography was just starting to be something that could really challenge film. I'd recently taken a photography course at the university where I was working, and I'd learned the basics of wet darkroom process. In the winter of 2002, I ended up teaching that introductory course for the teacher who'd been called upon to shoot video for the Winter Olympics in Park City. All this is to say that I knew a little something, but not much.
We set up to take a regular formal portrait of Rick in uniform with the boy in his lap. The baby was fussy. Almost without thinking, Rick let his finger relax, and the baby took it into his mouth. It wasn't there long, but I snapped this shot.
I did a little bit of Photoshop work on the image, but not much. Mostly I color-shifted to pop out the red of Rick's freckles, then dropped the dark shadows to black. I'm not the best at even exposure in the camera, but I got lucky with this one. There were no lights or reflectors. This was all natural light.
Halfway through Rick's tour, he called me from Kirkuk to tell me that he was on guard duty earlier that morning (for me it was the middle of the night) and he'd been shot at, that it has been close fire. Rick and the other solider on duty emptied their magazines into the dark and then sat there laughing "like idiots."
"What am I doing here, Todd?" He asked.
I didn't know what to say at first. When he asked again, I said, "Rick, I don't know, man."
"It's crazy over here," he said.
"I'm sure it is."
"I gotta go," he said suddenly.
He didn't wait for me to answer before he hung up.
“I never feel that it's finished, but you have to stop somewhere.” — Annie Proulx
“A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” — Paul Valéry
This is the third in a series of posts on creative process. The first was on the trouble with starting, the second on the long, boring middle of a project. The latest one is about finishing, which is maybe the hardest thing of all.
The first two posts came easily, and this third one didn’t. During the past few weeks I’ve retreated in all the stereotypical ways: cleaning, web surfing, fiddling, organizing, rethinking processes, tweaking, sorting, goal setting, clearing out inboxes, fixing broken things, replacing unfixable things, re-watching old movies, finding new music, making lists, doing nice things for people, journal writing, finding lost items, trying out different pens, re-organizing, and learning new skills.
I’m never better at starting things than I am when I need to finish something. There’s so much more uncertainty in finishing than there is in traveling through the middle, which I often do mindlessly “grinding” like the kids do with their video games.
There is also a world of difference between finishing and being done. Sometimes I’m ninety-five percent through something, and in my mind I’m already done. It’s not actually complete, but there are no more big creative decisions to make. All that’s left is the drudgery of doing it. The work that’s left is entirely bereft of the excitement of discovery I’ve felt throughout, none of the exhilaration of starting a new thing.
Sometimes as I’m wrapping something up, my attention is already on that glimmering new thing on the horizon that pledges everything this project promised back when I was close to wrapping up the previous one.
When my friend Kyle Bishop and I are bored with the courses we’re currently teaching, we often begin planning future ones. These plans are so perfect, smooth, and far off, so full of potential and possibility and not at all fraught with the drudge work of the present. Who wouldn’t want to choose new books or films to study tomorrow instead of grading the assignments of today? It is a highly refined and productive form of procrastination. It’s certainly not loafing, but is sure isn’t shipping either.
Seeing a project through to its absolute end speaks to a creative person’s character more than their talents, vision, intellect, or flair. The world is bulging with geniuses who have nothing to show for it.
The writer, marketing guru, and man about the internet, Seth Godin regularly reminds creative people that they aren’t “creative” for a living, they “ship” things for a living. Conceptually, this isn’t that hard to wrap your head around. The difficulty is that we’re so often afraid to ship. Godin tells us this is because our lizard brains, which are motivated by fear, deprivation, and death. The lizard brain becomes active the closer we come to shipping. It says, “Hey, man. Once you finish that, you’re going to have to share it, and people are gonna laugh. They’re going to think you’re ridiculous because you spent so much time on such a ludicrous project. You should probably just keep it under your hat. It’s totally safer.” Since so many of us have lived through middle school, we trust the lizard.
The people we consider creative are the ones who’ve decided to finsh. They see stuff through to the end. They’ve figured out how to shut up the lizard brain, so they can do their work. All of us need to know how to mute that inner voice.
This whole problem might be easier if there was just one kind of finishing, but there isn’t. Sometimes you don’t get to decide when you’re done. Someone else is going to do that for you: a teacher, client, boss. You’re done, not because the work is done, but because you have to hand it over. At that point it is what it is. You’ve hit your deadline or not. Most people rely on this kind of finish becuase it doesn’t take any presence of mind other than watching the clock. Your boss pokes his head in the door and says, “I need the Henderson Report by three.” This kicks your adrenal glands into gear, and your lizard brain has nothing to say about it. You hustle blindly until you’re done. Every time you see your boss walking through the office or everytime you look at the clock, you get juiced again.
When there’s no external pressure, a lot of projects just dwindle or peter out. You keep working until everything on your to-do list is crossed off. Little by little the work just dissolves. The thing is done, and it probably got done because you had good work habits. You showed up every day and stayed on task enough to do what needed to be done. This kind of finish is often capped off by a celebration, because without one it’s hard to know that you’re even done, especially if it’s not something that will ship. You’re going to put it on the shelf and move on. A celebration is the sign that some fairly invisible processes have gone on, and we all need that.
Graduation is this kind of finish. I’ve earned three degrees, and each time the ending seemed like a non-ending. I didn’t finish so much as I stopped, or rather I was told it was okay to stop. Graduation is also a lot like the first kind of finishing, if you add to it all kinds of questions that come from the institution that graduates you. Did you finish the program as it has been laid out? Did you pass everything. Do you have enough credits? Has the work been turned in? Is it the end of the semester? Okay, you’re done.
Interestingly enough, I get the same feeling twice a year when I submit grades. I push the button, and there’s a little green banner that says I did it. I usually try to find someone and go get a Coke, or something, because it seems like at least a little confetti should drop from the ceiling. I didn’t make anything, really; I just came to the conclusion of the work. Tomorrow there will be no work, or different work, but not this work, not anymore. It is that kind of finished.
God himself knew that you have to pause after you accomplish something and take note, or maybe no one else will remember to. When He wrapped up each stage of the creation, He took stock of His labors and said, "It is good." It seems like this kind of reflection is a best practice. I wish I did it more often. Sure, I want a "day" of rest. Who doesn't want to put up their dogs and grab a nap? When I wrap up a project I rarely notice if it's any good. Mostly I'm just glad it's over.
Sometimes I’m done before I’m finished. There’s an old Hollywood story about Alfred Hitchcock sleeping on set. They say he’d done all the hard work with the script and the storyboards, so shooting held very little interest for him. That’s what it’s like when I’m done before I’m finished. If there’s no actual discovery and excitement, if I’m just slogging it out to round things up, then there’s no intrinsic motivation for me to finish. It’s all external, and it’s easy to tell when the character of the project changes from pleasure to work.
For me this is how professionals are made. Pros can push through this part. Amateurs often wander off to something more exciting, leaving a mostly done but entirely unfinished project behind.
This is like the difference between the climax of a story and its denouement. After Frodo drops the ring into the magma on Mount Doom, there’s almost a hundred more pages of get home, say goodbye, and mope around in pubs realizing that you really miss the adventure.
I often feel relief at the end of a project but not much joy. I'm also usually more than a little sick of it. Familiarity breeds contempt, yadda, yadda, yadda. Part of the feeling is that I want to move on to all the other little sprouts that have come up during the time I've been indisposed.
After I defended my dissertation, I remember taking a whole week. I parked myself on the couch, ate bagel sandwiches, and watched old samurai movies. Eventually, it was clear to me that I couldn't just lie there forever in sweatpants, but I did feel like (a) I couldn't just jump into another project without a recharge, and (b) it was clear I needed to find something fitting to work on. I did wonder, for fleeting moments, if I would ever write again. And more secretly, I wondered if I ever wanted to write again. At that point I was thinking if I was going to exert any creative energies again, I would do something useful, like build a boat. That impulse faded, sort of. Brian Evenson who got me through the lion's share of that project told me that it's normal to go through a period of not wanting to write. He said to keep reading, and eventually the ideas will return. He was right. It has happened every single time. It’s happening right now with this blog post.
After every big project I feel like there is a refractory period when you just can't jump in for another round. Of course there are outliers like that jerkface Anthony Trollope who would just chain smoke novels and make the rest of us look like dopes.
Finishing can be scary because you’ve been living in a project for a while, and once you’re done working, you’re going to have to share it. Sharing is scary for a lot of people, because when you finish you’ll move out of striated space and into smooth space. Instead of examining the work day by day, you now have to start thinking about it as a coherent whole, and what if it isn’t coherent? What if isn’t complete? What if it doesn’t work? What if people don’t like it? What if people offer feedback and criticism that will involve more work? What if you yourself decide that you must go back and start over or rework major sections?
Don’t worry. This is actually common. Work often has to be redone. Sometimes, in order to finish you have to be willing to start again. Iteration is part of the work.
The people in my family are project-doers. Their ability to imagine an outcome far outstrips their skills. This gap creates a lot of frustration for everyone, each, of course, in their own way. Kid projects used to regularly result in melt-downs when the work and the vision didn't jive. The thing that saved us was the idea of prototypes and iteration. When anxiety would run high with the kids (and also with the grownups) we'd casually ask to see their prototype.
As they would share their work, we'd start asking them what kind of changes they were planning to make. How were they planning to remedy this fault or that one. Then we'd say, "I'm really excited to see what model 2.0 is going to look like." All of this we'd say just like it was the most normal thing in the world. Before too long the kids started to absorb that language and reflect it back to us. After teaching in higher education for a long time, I can think of no better equipment for professional life than being able to see creation as a series of cycles and not just as a linear path to completion.
I've been working on a pattern here with the Super Friends Initiative. This week I've got 75% of the Fantastic Four in place, all of them scientists with attitude. Dr. Taylor has been killing it in the public sphere lately with general education, so I thought it would work to light this guy on fire.
Taylor's eternal youthfulness, the lack of hair on the Human Torch, and the complexion change, all made for a particular challenge on this one. I'm sure the big question now is who will be Sue Storm, The Invisible Woman.
This one is for that ultra-flexible science guy who does the STEM center, animal ambassadors, and all the other stuff, too.
It's only appropriate that geologist, T-Bird Professor of the Year, and man-about-town, Dr. Johnny Maclean be rendered as everyone's favorite rock-fisted juggernaut. It's clobberin' time.
Also known as Magik.
Also known as Wonder Woman.
After doing superhero portraits of SUU President Scott Wyatt and Provost Brad Cook, President Wyatt requested that I do one of our new finance VP, Marvin Dodge. At the time I didn't know Marvin really well, and I like to have a good sense of the people so I can pick a suitable hero. One day I noticed Marvin having lunch on campus by himself, so I just sat down and struck up a conversation with him. I'm sure he thought it was a little strange. I small talked him until the idea for Hawkeye clicked. I thought about doing him David Aja style, but I ended up going with the Avengers movie version of the costume, since I'm more sure that Marvin is aware of that one.
In any case, what's more perfect hero for a CFO than hero with impeccable aim?
President Wyatt said he's going to print all three pictures and hang them in the President's office suite on campus. Boom!
In my last post, I wrote about the problem of starting and how it's often fear that keeps us from starting things. This fear will keep us from starting things we really want to work on, not just the garbage that we feel is wearing us down.
A lot of folks shared that post and wrote back to tell me that was just the pep talk they needed. This is one of the things I like best about this blog. I can reach an audience of people who matter to me.
It was nice to learn that I’m not the only one who gets a little spooked by starting something. It’s also nice to know that a little nudge is all it takes sometimes.
When I was living in Oklahoma, I started hearing an interesting new (to me) regional phrase: “fixing to.” Someone might lean back in a chair and announce that he was fixing to change the oil in his pickup. Or someone else might be fixing to take all that brush out to the burn pile. I quickly learned that this meant they weren’t quite gonna do it yet, but they were about it. Someone who is “fixing” to do something has a starting problem. Could be lassitude. Could be the heat. Could be that it doesn’t matter that much.
Once you’ve moved past fixing to and come to doing it, there’s the matter of commitment. Once you get the job, you’ve got to show up for work. Once cracked open the Coke, you’ve got to drink it. Once you’ve asked the girl to marry you, you’ve got to show up and say, “I do.” Once you say “I do,” you are obliged continue doing until you’re done. For marriages in my faith, this means forever. Death doesn’t absolve you of the obligation, or the benefits.
Being a creative person brings with it a lot of obligations and duties, which is not something they tell you when you’re getting started. There is this idea floating out there that creative people are flakes. I’ve seen my share of people who start things but don’t finish. I’ve seen plenty of folks lose interest in their projects and move on to some other new thing.
When I was just starting my master’s degree, the director of the program, Geoff Chase stopped to talk to me in the hallway. He wanted to check in and see how things were going. I don’t know how the conversation started or really what we talked about, but I do remember him saying, “Todd, there are a lot of really smart people with unfinished graduate degrees. This race doesn’t go to the swift or to the brilliant. It goes to the persistent.”
Those three sentences carried me a long way through my school work, my cancer treatments, and then through the process of getting tenure and full professor at my present institution. Starting is one thing, but you can’t finish if you don’t hang in there. I think about this principle every time I’m on a long international flight. It’s exhilarating to take off and have your journey underway, but after the first hour you have to start getting your head and your body ready for the eighth hour and the time when all you want in this world is not being on an airplane anymore.
Lao Tzu said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That’s a great way to encourage a person to start. But if you’re coaching somebody, you can’t leave them there, because a thousand mile journey is a hell of a long trip, like walking from Chicago to Denver or from Amsterdam to Rome. After that first step, however, this hiker is going to have one million nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine more to go. This is not some kind of smart alecky comment. On average people get about two thousand steps per mile, times a thousand, so it's just math.
People who plan on going the distance need to know what they’re getting into. They also need to know they can do it. Starting is an impulse. You can just throw yourself into it. Middles take another kind of thinking. Middles are about endurance, persistence, fortitude, stamina, tenacity, determination, resolution, and grit. For every project that never comes into being because somebody won’t start, there are a bunch that die on the vine.
In my last post I used the parable of the Ten Talents to talk about worrywarts who won’t start anything because they are afraid to fail. Another parable is equally instructive here for middles: the Parable of the Sower. In this one a sower tosses out some seed (good for him, he got started). Some of the seed falls by the way side and the birds gobble it up. A few hit stony ground, sprout and grow fast, then wither in the sun because they don’t take root. Some of the seeds get tossed in with the thorns. When these ones grow, they get choked out by the competition. A few of those seeds land in a good place with good the right soil, water, light. These ones do great.
Ideas are like this. Which is why you can’t really be a creative person if you’re only carrying around one idea. The way this parable ties into middles is this: once your project lands in the right ground, which means once you have the right resources, then the project has a chance. But this parable doesn’t go on to talk about the nurture that is necessary. In the wild, a plant is tended by its environment. Alas, my ideas and projects don’t tend themselves.
Long projects are a serious commitment, and it’s easy to lose interest, or more precisely it’s easy to become enticed by the novelty and allure of a new project. There’s a thrill to it. It’s work to keep your head in a project. Familiarity breeds contempt. There is often clarity in the start of something. The first step is to simply leave town, and it’s easy to tell which way to go. You drive one direction until there’s nothing, and then you keep going.
Most people quit soon after they start. Not many people stick with it, which is why the world is littered with the first chapters of of a trillion unfinished novels.
The middle of any project is what separates the poseurs from the genuine article. People are much more interested in the thrill and adrenaline rush of beginnings and are soon distracted. You have to keep coming back again and again and again. You can’t even think about product or finishing because it’s too disheartening. You better love the daily work. This is not like being a janitor, where you can clean the building, lock up and leave.
In the middle of a big project, there’s chaos and boredom. You better be okay with that. Making things takes dedication, because like most work, it’s repetitive. When it’s not being repetitive, the work often feels like it’s not working. I spend most of my time in the middle of a project thinking that I’m wasting my time. I have no clarity on the whole.
The most wisdom I’ve every been given on the matter comes from my old guitar teacher who said, “Music is like riding in the back of a pickup truck. You can only tell where you’re going by looking at where you’ve been.”
When you’re in the middle of a project, you sometimes can’t even see the backwards. In their book A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari talk about the distinction/relationship between smooth and striated space, which like so many of their concepts have a proliferations of possible meanings.
One way to hack the concept of smooth space is to use it to describe a project/action/system as seen from afar. Striated space is the project, when you are down in the weeds. It is where there are delineations, chunks, periods of work, items to check off of a list. Progress is made in the striated space. In the smooth space there is coherence, flow, comprehension. When you’re in the middle of a project, you must give yourself over to the striated. You won’t see the end from the beginning. You won't have access to the smooth until you're done, and maybe not even then.
You’re like a ship that has been hugging the coast and has now turned away from the known. The horizon lifts and obscures the starting point. Ahead there is open water. And as you forge on, more open water. You put in a day’s work and retire. You rise again, more open water. A storm strikes. You let it run its course. You collapse from exhaustion and in the morning rise again; more open water.
It will be this way for a long time. You will make progress, but it will be hard to tell. There are long waves rolling underneath your hull. Clouds blow past in a variety of directions. You can count days, like someone in a prison scratching marks in the wall. You can also transcend and lose all sense of time and fall in love with the work. The second path is a better one.
This feeling is, at the same time, why so many people quit in the middle and why so many people return to large projects. They endure to the end, not because they are “hanging in there” but because they have fallen in love with the process.
And when it seems like you're never going to make it, you'll see someone out there in the distance, who has. You can use them as a guide.