Want to be happier? Make things with your hands says, Rachel Cooke

This article reviews books about making things, and the author argues that the practice is central to happiness for at least a crafty few. Need a guidebook for how to do something more than read or write? Check out Rachel Cooke’s full list at The Guardian.

Colorful masks

Paper mache masks by Louise Godley (left) and Anne L’Ecuyer (right) made at Art Works Now.

For me, the crafting of objects makes for a nice balance with both desk work and writing. It forces me to slow down, think in more geometric and visual terms, and problem solve using different methods and tools. Sometimes it includes a feeling of delight with the outcome – if the object I make is appealing to me. It’s ok, if not. I still return to other tasks refreshed in spirit and perspective.

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Get yourself satisfied, says Michael Meng

Michael Meng is an historian with an admirable work ethic. He came to the writer’s retreat to complete research for one project, but very quickly I learned about his previous projects and books he had planned into the future. That’s one luxury in writing about history, I suppose, a lot of material.

An attempt to illustrate the relational dynamics among different independent networks.

An attempt to illustrate the relational dynamics among different independent networks.

What interested me about Michael was his approach to writing practice. He explained that an increase in his productivity came when he got his own work done right away in the morning. He had been feeling put-upon by his students. A reaction that many teachers experience when the balance tips away from one’s own interest and toward a multitude of others. By closing the door in the morning and isolating the time he had for his own research, he was able to be more open and present in afternoon student meetings. A technical shift on the calendar transformed his equanimity. By the time he came to the retreat, he had woven that way of being into his whole routine, including research, composition, editing, and the business of his profession (not to mention exercise and nutrition). He seemed to be on the early end of everything, no matter what time of day.

I’m excited about a similar shift in my own schedule. I’ve set a course to complete regular morning pages, do a concept illustration, and polish a blog post each day. I’m enjoying the time in studio, the chance to play with visual languages and new tools, and to be in both theory and craft at the same time. Taking after Michael’s insight, my mantra is ‘get yourself satisfied.’

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Workspaces offer clues to creative genius, says Summer Anne Burton

Perhaps the first insight about this photographic collection of the workspaces of famous artists and writers is that they existed at all. A designated time and place for creative practice makes it real and important, something to do that involves focus, repetition, and tools.

The aesthetics of the space matter too, in that they either reflect or contrast one’s own notion of what art making looks like. I have a faint love of the book-filled studies like those of the novelists depicted, but in fact my workspaces have always looked a little more like the illustrators, designers, and journalists. I’m more in the world in both practical and aesthetic ways. Same goes for the isolated paradise. I would love it there, so much that a nap or a walk is a far more likely outcome than work.

The pictures powerfully evoke the artists’ bodies and their personal lives too. There are creature comforts that need heeding, like a decent chair. The presence or absence of love and social connection is palpable when you know the story of a particular author. Though I have always craved a room of my own, I’m also mindful of the painful depressions endured by both Virginia Woolf and Anne Sexton. There are times when it’s better to set the work down and get outside those four walls.

For more great pictures, look at Allison Meier’s photo essay from the Smithsonian’s image collection. Want to check out some amazing creative spaces in the DC region next weekend? Come over Saturday May 9, 12pm-5pm for the Gateway Open Studio Tour!  After party at Gateway Arts Center 5pm-8pm.

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Humanities aren’t a science, says Maria Konnikova

I’d like to split the difference with Maria Konnikova in this insightful essay about why the scientific imagination has so often lost the plot with the humanities.

“Here’s the truth: most of these disciplines aren’t quantifiable, scientific, or precise,” she writes. “They are messy and complicated. And when you try to straighten out the tangle, you may find that you lose far more than you gain.”

I agree, except that science and technology may be savvy enough now to examine the knot in place. For example, I appreciate what neuroscience is doing to account for the ephemera of thought. Acute subjectivity (that awful hunch that it’s really just you) turns out to be much more common a human experience than heroic character writers would have us believe. The implications of creativity as a human trait make me think the science is worthwhile.

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Writing combats the traumatic effects of war, says Ron Capps

Items posted here are usually unfettered by moral dilemma, at least for me. Not so with this article about the Veteran’s Writing Project and the NEA’s Operation Homecoming.

I’m angry that so many soldiers are coming home with traumatic brain injuries. Hell, I’m angry they were in Afghanistan and Iraq at all. I’m also angry that it takes such horrific human drama to make salient the humane value of life.

But I profoundly relate to the soldiers through our mutual dependence on writing to make sense of the absurd and I’m thrilled that they found these tools. I’m also proud that artists and scientists are working together to craft a response to war that is ultimately liberating for those we’ve saddled with such a burden.

Now, might we better employ the arts to prevent the problem altogether? It’s asking a lot, I know, but if it’s liberation we’re after then surely it’s worth the same kind of investment. Where is the NEA’s partnership with The U.S. Institute of Peace?

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Social norms never just settle; artists must negotiate them, says Alan Jacobs

In this essay from the Atlantic, Jacobs is primarily concerned with the duel between online and offline realities. We can take comfort, he says, that this is not a new battle. Artists mediate space between the real and unreal. Always have, always will.

I also appreciate his popular treatment of a trend that is somewhat unpopular among artists. “Perhaps in that sense the optimistic view that all of us are becoming creators is really true,” he writes.

Social media gives everyone online the opportunity to at least act like an artist. It may be unsettling for a certain artistic ego, but it’s a boon for those who teach creative practice and a new knife edge for those pressing their disciplines.

There’s new territory for artists in his notion of recalibration, too. Historians mediate the facts and stories of the past. Artists repurpose its tools. Jacobs calls it a “fetishization of the offline.” I think that’s a bit harsh. I’m excited for the new era of the printing press and the sewing machine, not for their outdatedness but for what they are still becoming in the online world.

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Keep not doing what you’re doing, says Frank Partnoy

I once worked for a guy who told me there was ‘too much thinking’ going on in my office. I didn’t work for him long. Procrastination is the dirty word for reflection.

In the new book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, Frank Partnoy explain why studying a decision makes for a better outcome. He also offers a simple calculation for how to identify the last possible moment to make up one’s mind. Megan Gambino interviews the author for the Smithsonian.

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Intellectual shift workers have to manage social jet lag, says Maria Popova

For years, I’ve been trying to get a close friend to give in to her body clock. Her natural sleep rhythms are so disrupted by the office workday that she’s developed a cascade of coping mechanisms (coffee, food, pharmaceuticals) that draw her farther and farther away from health and productivity. The ‘work’ in her workday is consistently deterred by the fatigue-driven fog in her mind.

Now, German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg has uncovered some new science behind the wisdom of following one’s bio rhythms. Our technology and industry-driven transition away from natural sleep cycles have caused a new stressor called ‘social jet lag.’ We experience social jet lag when the demands of external life go against the body’s normal circadian rhythms. An early work schedule can be to blame and it’s a particular problem for teens and school hours. Maria Popova explains the research in Internal Time: The Science of Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired.


I went native with my sleep cycle after my last desk job. I got rid of my alarm clock, slept as much or as little as I liked, and gave in graciously when fatigue pulled me away from work. At the beginning, I was afraid of becoming lazy and unfocused. Instead, I became calm and clear, and my productivity increased. Now I work when I’m alert, sleep when I’m tired, and often stop to recharge with meditation or hypnosis. I still have social jet lag, mostly from having a partner at a five-hour time difference, but understanding the sleep science helps me mediate the effects.

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Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice, says Tim Kreider

I share Tim Kreider suspicions about why we make ourselves so busy, and why slowing down is the trick to both productivity and happiness.

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DC is full of landmarks for writers, says Carolyn Parkhurst

In Poets & Writers City Guide, DC transplant Carolyn Parkhurst notes the places in the nation’s capital that are monumental to writers.



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