Gettin’ into the flow

This article was originally published in The Emerging Writer: An Insider’s Guide to Your Writing Journey, as part of the Emerging Writers Festival, 2012.

At this very moment I’m tearing at my brain for words. I’m attempting to write something witty and well-formed but it’s hard. That sort of writing requires me to be ‘in the zone’ and right now I’m not. In fact, I’m editing every fourth word and trying to make it seem like I haven’t. Writing shouldn’t be like this—words should spill from my unconscious in reams of genius, goddamit. At least I think they should.

As a former advertising copywriter I’ve never had to write anything longer than one hundred words. If I’m going to become a well-paid features writer, the sentences better start flowing, or I’ll need to find a new job. This desk is costing me rent and I really don’t want to write about yoghurt ever again.

At first I thought I was afflicted by some psychological anomaly. Maybe I’m doing something wrong, I thought. Maybe I’m dumb. Pushed by this neuroses and self-doubt, I stumbled through Wikipedia articles about psychological conditions, falling at the feet of a thing called flow. The article described flow as “the mental state of operation in which a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of an activity.” I’m convinced this is what I’m missing. Wikipedia doesn’t lie.

Apparently flow was first discovered by Hungarian psychology professor, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, a key figure in positive psychology for over twenty years. He seems like a self-help weirdo to me, but a harmless one with a PhD in Psychology, so I gave him a break and bought some books from Amazon in order to find out more.

In his 1990 bestseller, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikzentmihalyi studies the processes of writers, painters, chess-players, factory-workers, students and other people who partake in activities requiring focus. Through his research he discovers the most successful ones experience a feeling of flow and each feel incredibly productive, happy and content with their life. He says the way to flow depends on our ability to control consciousness.

Our brains have the capacity to process 126 bits of information in any given second. If we’re able to devote one hundred per cent of that capacity on a task, we’ll control consciousness and fall into the productive abyss called flow, bursting with creativity.

But our attention is in a constant state of division and chaos. Our senses (sound, sight, touch, smell and taste) each demand a part of our consciousness—otherwise known as Distraction. It’s up to us to focus on what we want to achieve, to control consciousness, and direct our attention on completing whatever it is we’re trying to complete.

But the most interesting element of Csikzentmihalyi’s theory of flow, is that flow experiences only occur when our skills match the challenge at hand. If we’re under-skilled we get anxious; if we’re under-challenged we get bored. If we continually match our skills to an appropriate challenge, we’ll achieve flow, gradually becoming better at what we do and enjoying every moment.

I think I get it now. Maybe this isn’t a psychological problem with achieving flow, but my brain telling me I need to get more skills. In my state of neurotic panic I thought I might not be suited to long-form writing, but I suppose that’s probably wrong, and all writers must train themselves to write in a state of flow for longer and longer each day.

In Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Csikzentmihalyi devotes twenty-six pages to flow in writing, asking authors what flow feels like for them. A poet, Mark Strand, says, “I could never stay in that frame of mind for an entire day. It comes and goes. If I’m working well, it’s there. I will be in a daze, I mean, I will be very disconnected from everything around me.”

This makes me think I should speak to other writers about this thing I feel. It’s a much better way to beat neuroses than half-reading Wikipedia pages about Psychology.

In a final sweeping conclusion, Csikzentmihalyi finds a way to jam the writing process into some sort of logic, and even though it reeks of spoil-sporting, it kinda makes sense.

“[Writers] usually start a working day with a word, a phrase, or an image, rather than a concept or planned composition. The work evolves on its own rather than the author’s intentions, but it is always monitored by the critical eye of the writer. What is so difficult about this process is that one must keep the mind focused on two contradictory goals: not to miss the message whispered by the unconscious and at the same time force it into a suitable form. The first requires openness, the second critical judgement. If these processes are not kept in a constantly shifting balance, the flow of writing dries up. After a few hours the tremendous concentration required for this balancing act becomes so exhausting that the writer has to change gears and focus on something else, something mundane. But while it lasts, creative writing is the next best thing to having a world of one’s own in which what’s wrong with the ‘real’ world can be set right.”

Thanks Dr. Csikzentmihalyi. You’ve made me realise I don’t have a psychological condition at all. In fact, all I need is some more skills, to relax, and flow the hell out.

08/1/12 -- Features -- 0 Comments

Stupidity is a rusted car x Smith Journal

Check it out—my first feature for Smith Journal, the snazzy magazine for men.

Click the image of me and my piece of shit to see the PDF. Otherwise just read the text underneath.

Guess what? I bought a car. It doesn’t have a roadworthy, isn’t registered and doesn’t reverse. There we are above. Me and my piece of shit—my new pal.

It’s a Mazda 1500; a classic car from 1969 designed by Italian Giorgetto Giugiaro for Bertone. Legend goes that Alfa Romeo rejected Bertone’s design, so Bertone sold it to Mazda. Old men get all excited when they hear “Italian designed, Japanese made”. Personally, I like the windows.

I met the owner late one night at his house in the suburbs. The car looked great and worked as well as all cars should, particularly the brakes. I slammed those puppies so hard the tyres quietly screeched to a stop, as if to say, “I’m in perfect working order, sucker!” We shook hands and the deal was done. I had a car.

Days later my stupidity slapped me square in the forehead, along with rust, leaking cylinders and an unending amount of worn parts. The structural rust of my own stupidity lay behind a flaky surface of unearned confidence and I was forced to face the consequence. Either I learn to fix my piece of shit or acknowledge my own stupidity.

I found a mechanic in Collingwood called Little Sam’s. The place belongs in an episode of Twin Peaks. Car parts are scattered about and guys with greasy hands walk from room to shed and back again. All these things make it live up to my idea of a good, noble mechanic, at least aesthetically.

Blue Overalls sits at the desk and asks if I’m in for a service. In my best deep voice I explain I’m not, that my 1969 Mazda is parked out front, that it doesn’t reverse, but could they please make it reverse, because that’s the most important thing to fix right now, wouldn’t you say?

As I walked to work my brain exploded in fear. How much will it cost? How long will it take? Am I really that stupid?

I’ve never been a car person. In school I’d feel left out when the other boys talked cars, but it didn’t bother me. Cars were for troublemakers and kids with learning difficulties. I didn’t need cars as much as I didn’t need to listen to NOFX, because those things were not “me” things, or for “me” people. Now my perspective has changed. Restoring a car represents values and lessons completely relevant to “me” people: lateral-thinking, patience, stamina, decision-making, learning a language, problem-solving, being frugal, working with others, confidence and identity. It’s a framework for learning about life. I’ve never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but I imagine it’s the same thing.

Two days later I found Blue Overalls sitting at the front desk, yet again. “It doesn’t look good. The gear shift linkage is worn. We’ve made some calls but there’s no replacement part.” I had a feeling this might happen. I opened the hood and saw for myself. The gear selector mechanism was held together with cable ties.

I consulted the Gregory’s workshop manual I’d bought from eBay. I studied the transmission and began to understand how the gear stick connected to the shift arm. At first it made no sense, but now I think I can fix it myself: a generic ball joint, a new bushing, a u-clip or two. There’s a YouTube tutorial for everything.

I’m not stupid. In fact, I’m clever enough to find the shift arm on a transmission, godammit. If anything, this fixing-a-car process has helped me understand my own self-doubt and find confidence to complete a project and complete it well. It’s taught me a lot of things, but most of all, how not to buy a piece of shit even when the windows are slanted in the most beautifully perfect 1960s Italian-designed angle possible.

04/18/12 -- Features -- 0 Comments

The Rise of the Riso x Desktop Magazine

This article was originally published in Desktop Magazine. 

Stuart Geddes’ RISO RP 3100 AW Risograph Printer.

Two years ago I met my first risograph machine. It was pretty underwhelming.

I was visiting Stuart Geddes at Chase and Galley, his studio in Fitzroy. He said hello and pointed at a very boring, very grey box, sitting in the corner. “Nice one, Stu,” I said, then flattered him some more. I had no idea what he was pointing at, what it did, or the sudden obsession this machine would inspire within Melbourne’s art and design underbelly.

The obsession has become so great, a group called the Melbourne Risograph Printers Guild runs regular meetings, featuring Geddes as a member. The group of five like-minded designers and printers, each with Risograph printers, swap stories and ink drums over beer every few months. They want to combine their powers to purchase drums and paper in bulk, share technical information, and fight for better service from the Australian distributor.

The whole thing is nuts. These guys are nuts. It’s just a printer. What is it about the Risograph that gets these guys so giddy? Everywhere I turn, designers are gathering around a Riso to print their stuff, and generally in groups. Not only that, but it holds my favourite Melbourne designers captive, and they’re printing almost everything on second- hand machines found on eBay. It’s just so fascinating. I had to know more.

So down the Risograph rabbit hole I went, searching for answers.

Geddes tells me it works just like screen-printing. The Risograph burns an image with little perforations onto a paper stencil. The stencil is wrapped around an ink drum inside the printer, paper is inserted, passes over the drum and appears on the other side with a neatly printed image. That’s if you’re printing one-colour. For two or more colours, the original print is fed back through, each separation is sent to print individually, and registration is checked as each colour is added.

It’s a simple, hands-on process, and will often produce mistakes. But that’s what these guys love the most.

First, the registration may be a little off. In the world of Risograph, that’s totally OK, and misregistration can give an image a spooky haze. All of a sudden, the printer has become part of the design process, and the fingerprints of the Risograph are stamped on each print. It’s the first of many idiosyncrasies.

The colours of a Risograph print are remarkably bold, but inconsistent. You’ll usually see reds, blues, yellows or purples, and sometimes a mixture of the lot, but with so many colours, it’s difficult to get the same print twice. For the Risographer, this only adds to the handmade quality of a Risograph print, and makes the outcome more desirable.

But the real benefit of these machines is their economy. They’re cheap to run and produce work quickly. One of Geddes’ favourite anecdotes is that most Risograph machines used in Australia today are owned by church groups and government offices with small printing budgets. The Japanese manufacturer, Riso Gaku Corporation, started selling to community groups looking to print cheap, short run brochures and signs back in 1986.

It’s these economic reasons that motivate Risograph groups to form around one machine. A group of designers can publish whatever they want, whenever they want, quickly and cheaply. Groups like this are starting to appear all over Australia.

In Sydney there’s Rizzeria. Its members liken themselves to a food co-op. Anyone with something to print can use their facilities. Three friends in Perth run another with similar ideals called Bench Press. These groups follow the lead of several overseas co-ops, printers and small-scale publishers running Risograph ventures, such as Ditto Press, Rollo Press and Swill Children. It seems the Risograph is inching its way, full-bleed, across the world.

And it’s this story that has hypnotised the wide-eyed designers of the Melbourne design community. Even I’m not immune – I love its weird history and colourful prints.

But we’re not the only ones with an interest. The independent, art gallery community of artist run initiatives (ARIs) is in on the movement too.

Limited budgets and short print runs mean Risograph printed art catalogues and essays are popping up at art openings around Melbourne. I saw a neatly stacked pile at a packed opening just weeks ago. I got a free beer too. I felt really cool.

I walked outside and bumped into a friend. He asked if I knew a printer who might print a book of his photography. I knew just the thing.

After using the catalogue as an example, I said I’d introduce him to my good friend and fifth member of the Melbourne Risograph Printers Guild, Xavier Connelly. Connelly runs his own Risograph printing and publishing company, Dawn Press, in Collingwood. He prints most of the art community’s catalogues and is one of the only Melbourne Risograph printer who isn’t a part-time hobbyist. It’s his full-time job.

We go to visit Connelly, the two become friends and they make plans to print the book. Afterwards, I stay a while to talk to Connelly about his own obsession and slump myself in his comfy green couch.

But talking is difficult. The printer is loud and he is on deadline. Five days later he has a flight booked to New York to meet fellow Risographers at the New York Art Book Fair and these jobs aren’t going to print themselves.

As the Risograph wails in the background, Connelly tells me how he discovered it for the first time.

“I wanted to publish my own photo book, but I couldn’t find anywhere to get it printed. Not the way I wanted. It was going to cost more money to make than I wanted to sell it for.”

So after some research online, he decided to buy a machine, and turn it into a business. “If I wanted to do this, there must have been others out there too.” And he was right. There was soon enough work for Connelly to quit his café job and print full-time.

Well into our conversation, he begins to talk about the Roycroft movement, a community of master craftsmen from the US, active during the early 20th century. They were highly skilled printers, furniture makers, leathersmiths and bookbinders loosely attached to the popular Arts and Crafts movement. He sees many similarities between their philosophies and his. “There was a matter of quality with what they were searching for and that was the important thing. They also established strong relationships with the people they worked with.”

But this relationship between printer and designer can become a sticking point. The idiosyncrasies of the Risograph are turning into a fad. “Now I’ve got people getting disappointed when it doesn’t look shit. When there’s no misregistration. It’s weird.”

I’ve heard others say the Risograph explosion is just a fad too. Designers sometimes copy the effects of a Risograph print in offset prints. But Connelly refutes the icons of the fad.

He’s obsessed with the restrictions of a Risograph, and how they inspire production, rather than replicating a popular aesthetic. It’s a likely story, but I genuinely believe him. He’d rather others become obsessed with the process than the product too. It’s where the best ideas come from.

“It’s important that people can see it and know how to use it. The better our relationship is, the better the results.” It really is a lot like the Roycrofters.

Then he hands me a book published by UK Risograph printer, Bedford Press. It’s issue two of its Civic City series, Design and Democracy. Connelly talks excitedly about the beauty of the publication. He says it’s perfect. No paper or ink has been wasted. It communicates the information effortlessly. This is obviously Connelly’s ultimate purpose: the reason why he does what he does.

Weeks after our discussion, he is at the New York Art Book Fair, meeting like-minds and swapping stories. I ask him for a comment regarding his trip. The following is his hurried response. “Been inspired by many things, hard to narrow it concisely. The way of thinking, the common sense of people, the adaptable nature of things, improvising, keeping things sustainable.”

The Risograph is Connelly’s ticket to other cultures, people and ideas. It’s the perfect vehicle for a communal craftsman, a neo-Roycrofter.

Now, two years since I first visited Stuart Geddes, I pay him another visit. There are examples of Risograph prints everywhere. Each one trying something new. It looks like he’s searching for something within these prints. A solution to his burning need to publish something great. With the Risograph, he can continue on his eternal search, without the anxieties that come with large print runs. It’s the perfect outlet for his work.

The same day I run into a friend at a café. He’s just bought a Risograph printer on eBay with a group of fellow designers. They’re planning to use it to make some cash and print things they really want to publish.

This Risograph thing is really taking off, I think to myself. I’m going to put that in my article.

02/19/12 -- Features -- 0 Comments