Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

The Practice of Discovery

In Creativity, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on March 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

For a while, as a young man, I wanted to be an archeologist. I moved on, as young men do. I still, however, harbor a need of excavation, which is another way of saying for discovery.

Pollock at work

Pollock at work

I recently read an essay by architect, thinker, and designer, Lance Hosey. The piece was called Why We Love Beautiful Things, and the comment that caught my eye was:

“Could Pollock’s late paintings result from his lifelong effort to excavate an image buried in all our brains?”

I am drawn to this notion, the idea that the “image is buried in all our brains.” I made a note of this sentence because it rings true. I know less about Jackson Pollock’s art than I do about archeology, yet I believe in discovery and, on occasion, understand the motive behind it.


We live within the embrace of linear progression. That is, life on a line, moving

Art of Jackson Pollock

Art of Jackson Pollock

right. This fashion of cognition is a result, I think, of learning to read, left to right across the page. It does not surprise me that in Eastern cultures, where reading flows in other directions or is contained within an visual character, that life is,  traditionally depicted, not on a progressive time-line, but as mandala, a wheel, a circle.

If Pollock’s pursuit was to plumb the human psyche, it was devoid of the linear. It takes an artist to show us the myth that is progression; that the study should not be forward to become, but deep to be.


You will have to excuse me please today. I know I have grown ponderous, and perhaps silly. Sorry–it’s just that sometimes you’ve got to give an idea some breathing room, no matter what. (It is a type of excavation.)

Have a nice weekend,


So What?

In Creativity, The Examined Life, Writers on March 6, 2013 at 6:00 am
Russo's new memoir

Russo’s new memoir

I heard Richard Russo comment last night that the writer of a memoir must ask himself “So what?” Russo, a Mainer, and holder of a Pulitzer for his novel Empire Falls, has a new book out, a memoir, Elsewhere. (I own the book, but haven’t picked it up just yet.) He continued by saying that simply because the writer grew up in a rural environment, escaped to elsewhere, and wrote a book about it does not make, necessarily, for an interesting book. Hence the challenge: So what? I am reminded of Fran Lebowitz‘s comment that, “Having been unpopular in high school is not just cause for book publication.”

I walked home from Russo asking myself, So what?

Here I am, the next day, sitting at my desk, wondering still, So what? So what does it matter that I sit here day and after day and compose my thoughts and frame my questions? The question, So what? puts the kill to any good writer’s buzz, trust me. This is an honest question–and not just for the thinker in his loft on a snowy Maine afternoon. It is a question the pilgrim of any journey must ask.

Here’s what I think. I think that the very question carries its answer. By asking So what? one has engaged a degree of attention that makes the difference. It’s when we don’t ask that a soul-sucking vacuum is created. Intention verses mindlessness. I have my mother to thank for the question, What are your motivations? There is deep intention in that question and just in asking it one cannot escape the consequences. What are your motivations holds a response to So what?

The publishing writer, Russo, must ask the question So what? He is engaged in an act of commerce, as well as art. That must weigh in his motivation. Certainly, if he doesn’t ask the question his publisher or his editor will. So what?, in this instance, must be answered in a manner that includes dollars and cents. But to the self-publishing writer-blogger, to the diarist, to the lone photographer, to the home musician, to the elderly watercolorist, the laborer, the thinker, the question So what? carries a profound nuance.

Camus: "A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world."

Camus: “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.”

Without the weight of commerce associated with it, the question So what? is fraught and imposing. I cannot answer the question of So what? for you. But I can suggest that in the very question you will find a kernel of an answer; that the question alone poses a threat to the mindless action, the thoughtless gesture, the perfunctory exercise of existence. To paraphrase Camus, without asking So what? a person is just a wild beast loosed upon the world.

The Burning Purity of Creativity.

In Creativity, Photography, Writers on March 4, 2013 at 6:00 am

I’ve been thinking about obscurity. This comes on the heels of my post last Friday, A Fashion of Discomfort, where I ponder this business of playing to an empty house, toiling for the sake of the effort without promise of recognition.

Do you recall the post I put up last summer, where, while exploring the North Woods, I happen across an art installation? Here is the photograph I took at the time:

Art in a land of wild giants.

Art in a land of wild giants.

I wrote:  “She–for there was something beautifully feminine about this exhibit–she, this goddess of creation, was beyond the work and the work was purer for that. It is possible to create for the purpose of creation only, not needing the prism of ‘the other.’ It was an exhibit of voided ego precisely executed.” The nature of this discovery was to understand that creativity is sometimes simply and purely an expression–without the need for reciprocity. That is the antithesis of obscurity and leads down the path to bliss. Yes, bliss–how else to express the satisfaction of creativity for the sake of creation alone?

Since writing the post last week I’ve been thinking of Emily Dickinson. Scholar and poet, Susan Howe, writing of Dickinson, says she was “one of the greatest poets we have, and I don’t mean ‘we’ merely in America. I mean she is one of the greatest of poets.” I do not know very much about Dickinson, but have no reason to doubt Howe’s assessment. Dickinson comes to mind because despite her obvious genius she published but one poem in her lifetime. (As Van Gogh sold but one painting.) Obscurity or genius operating beyond the prism of the other? I wish to think the latter.

Here is another, more contemporary, example: Vivian Maier (1926-2009). Maier worked as a nanny in Chicago, but we know her because she left behind a body of work–photographs–that she jealously shielded from eyes other than her own. In 2007 approximately one hundred thousand negatives were discovered in a garage sale. Eventually the cache was understood for what it truly was: a life-body of work, reflecting a singular genius, heretofore unknown. It was like the Dead Sea Scrolls of street photography.

There is much I find encouraging here and it has something to do with the soaring capacity of the human creative spirit. It uplifts me, as it should any human being, to glimpse the burning purity of creativity, no strings attached. I am reminded of a passage in Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen: “This is a first principle in the study of Zen and of any Far Eastern art: hurry, and all that it involves, is fatal. For there is no goal to be attained. The moment a goal is conceived it becomes impossible to practice the discipline of the art, to master the very rigor of its technique.” There is a white flame warmth about that.


A three-minute CBS story on Vivian Maier:

Tools of Paying Attention

In Creativity, Life, The Examined Life, Wisdom on February 22, 2013 at 6:00 am
Journals, Diaries, Notebooks

Journals, Diaries, Notebooks

The action of paying attention is best practiced with a tool. The musician and his keyboard, the photographer and her camera, the meditator and her cushion, the writer and his notebook. There is an acuity of experience when traveling a city with a camera in hand that, without, is otherwise absent. All the tools of paying attention function this way: they enhance and, when loved properly, force experience in bold directions. Love is not too strong a word. There is not a devoted musician alive who does not love her instrument.

I once observed a master naturalist in the field make sketches and take notes which later in the day, around the fire, were  transcribed into elegant observations and artful renderings of the day’s work. Paying attention is a two-step process. Most people do not understand this. First comes the observation, then the transcription; first comes the practice, followed by the performance; first comes realization, then implementation. First you wash the dishes, then you stack them and put them away.

Susan Sontag, in an essay reviewing the career of Roland Barthes, wrote “[Barthes work] even begins and falls silent on the same subject–that exemplary instrument in the career of consciousness, the writer’s journal.” Let me repeat: “that exemplary instrument in the career of consciousness.” The journal as exemplary instrument. For the writer, the journal is the tool best loved. The landscape photographer loves her wide-angle lens, while the pianist loves the action of the Steinway. The tools of paying attention are as numerous as the ways in which we choose to practice the craft of paying attention–for that is what it is, a craft. If you become really good at it, great perhaps, you become the artist. Be mindful, however, there is no art where there are no tools.

One might aspire to great things–but one must, to be a realized being, aspire to something beyond the adequate. (Note: might is optional, must obligatory.) To aspire does not make it so. There is no course of human accomplishment that does not require a fashion of tool. This was lost on me for many years, as I was not, until recently, fully educated in the career of consciousness. I pass along this knowledge in the hope it will save you time. Good luck.

And have a nice weekend.


OS v1.0

In Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on February 20, 2013 at 6:00 am
Jim Harrison's new book.

Jim Harrison’s new book.

In his new book, The River Swimmer, Jim Harrison says the most succinct and astonishing thing:

“How wonderful it was to love something without the compromise of language.”

This is an observation in direct opposition to something I wrote many years ago (1992) and (re)published here recently in a post called In The Beginning Was the Word:

“It is said that we do not readily store memories until we have language; consequently, we cannot remember a pre-lingual existence with accuracy. If we were a computer we would be functioning without an operating system. The switch is on, but the screen is blank. Words are the difference; the well-written word is altogether different again.”

Harrison is, by his own reckoning, a poet first, and this comparison of quotes supports Osip Mandelstam‘s observation that “What may be meaningful to the prose writer or essayist, the poet finds absolutely meaningless.” Where Harrison calls language a compromise, I deem it functionally necessary, like an computer operating system–call it OS Version of Being 1.1. Harrison is an example of what Susan Sontag calls the “poet as elevated being.” He runs OS 1.0, the original and unadorned Version of Being.

* * *

OS Version 1.0, the Version of Being the poets run, functions on what Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892 – 1941) called the “insatiability for the genuine.” Perhaps it is captured in an algorithm. Most of us run the “upgraded” version, OS 1.1, which fixed this perceived bug. Who wants to be “insatiable,” regardless of how provocative it sounds? Consequently, we non-poet mortals find ourselves sated 24/7. There is a profundity to a Russian poet that I cannot fathom, but I once watched Harrison drink in a bar in Michigan and he didn’t seem so elevated, though I was assuredly mistaken. He did, now that I reflect on it, prove to exhibit a high degree of the genuine, however. They say the Buddha taught for forty years after enlightenment. Elevated insatiable beings walk–and drink–among us.

* * *

I experienced a phase

Of writing poetry a year or so ago.

It felt good and right, but I stopped.

If someone were to tell you: Do this thing,

You will become an “elevated being,”

You would likely do it,

Wouldn’t you?

One would think.

Most of the time I don’t know

What’s the matter with me.

* * *

Here is a video of Harrison reading. He is asked “What language do you speak when you talk to animals?” “You just squawk,” he says.

Bullet Point Number 2: Imagine “What if?”

In Business, Creativity on February 18, 2013 at 6:00 am
Book Series: Inside the Minds

Book Series: Inside the Minds

I contributed a chapter to a business book a few years ago. The book was part of a series called, “Inside the Minds” (Aspatore, 2002). My contribution, specifically, was in a book called, The Entrepreneurial Problem Solver. Other Inside the Minds books focus on venture capital, economics, personal success, and so forth. For a reason I’ve yet to fathom, I am now transcribing the chapter. Perhaps why I’m doing this will become apparent at some point–to me, I mean. Regardless, I close the chapter with a list–and we know how much I like a list. I thought I’d share it with you.

  • Be creative
  • Imagine “What if?”
  • Challenge the status quo.
  • Train for the summit every day.
  • Quest for leadership where it is not apparent.
  • Where leadership is apparent, strive to make it better.
  • Do not give up until it is physically impossible to satisfy a business need.
  • Fill the organization with complementary talent.
  • Be lean and never spend more than you have.
  • Honesty will earn trust.
  • Expect more
  • Have fun

It is obvious to me now that my business life was not significantly different from my current, non-business, life in the important particulars. Specifically, as an entrepreneur I was, by definition, not part of the herd; rather, I built a tribe. The ruling mantra, particularly during the early start-up, was that of creativity. In fact, my chapter had the clunky title, “Did I Say Entrepreneurialism? I Meant Creativity?” And, like much I think is right about how to live, starting a business and growing it is an exercise in vision, simplicity, and discipline.

In a significant way, business never provided me the degree of satisfaction I observed it often provided others. That restlessness is constant; it was then and it is now, and circles back to the question of imagining “What if?” If there were to be any wisdom a person might impart it should be close to this.

Thanks for reading. And to my last point above, Have fun!