Monday, October 13, 2014

turn it off

I grew up with public radio, and nothing soothes me like a calm and uninflected public radio voice. When I moved from Santa Cruz to the Bay Area, one of the perks in my mind was access to KQED, which is talk 24 hours a day, my favorite. Early on, I developed a studio habit of always having the radio on, always listening.

After 9/11 happened and the wars that went with it, I started recognizing that having tragedy pour into my ears all day was visibly eroding my mental health and ability to concentrate while I worked. For the first time, I started listening to music stations in my studio instead of talk all day. Then I discovered podcasts.

I'm addicted to podcasts, especially story telling and interview ones. Don't worry, fellow junkies, I'll list all my favorites below in the comment section, and I expect you to do the same. I will download 6 or 7 hours of podcasts to listen to while I work. Nothing soothes me like the opening music of my favorite podcasts.

But I've been noticing something about listening to podcasts all day while I work. My brain is constantly tuned in to listening, and when I'm tuned into listening, I can't do much of any other kind of thinking, like creative thinking, which is a problem. Then, a flood of thinking starts happening at inconvenient times, like when I'm trying to fall asleep or at my other favorite time, at 3 in the morning. I've noticed this problem while I'm gardening as well, and I stopped putting in earbuds while I garden over a year ago.

So I did something crazy last week, which was to turn off all my podcasts while I work. Also, since this is a cold-turkey kind of thing, all music too. Why music? Because even music tends to sweep me away, and I want to train myself to be present again. Complete and meditative silence in the studio while I am working.

I was afraid I would be bored somehow, but I wasn't. And isn't it a weird thing to be afraid of boredom anyway? Our whole culture is afraid of being bored. No, I wasn't bored and after I got over the initial discomfort of not feeding my podcast addiction, I liked the silence, didn't need the voices. And I was able to concentrate on problem solving some business-related things, and even come up with creative ideas as I was moving along. I've actually had to start keeping a notebook at hand to write down all the little things I was thinking about.

I think those of us who have a studio practice are prone to constant radio or podcast listening, even if we use it as a "background" thing. We generally work alone, so having that voice presence can make us feel comforted. I'm pretty convinced that for me, having an auditory distraction always going on is undermining my creative thinking, and I've been doing it for years. What do you think? Do you listen to anything while you work, or even watch things? Let me know if you think it affects you creatively.


  1. Favorite podcasts, in no particular order:
    The Mental Illness Happy Hour
    99% Invisible
    Third Coast
    Death, Sex, and Money
    The Moth
    Dan Carlin's Hardcore History
    Tobolowsky Files
    Homemade Stories
    On Being
    Love + Radio
    Snap Judgement
    KCRW's Unfictional
    Tales of a Red Clay Rambler
    Radio Lab
    The Truth
    What Some Would Call Lies
    State of the Re-Union

  2. I'm an audio addict, but do turn it off when making new forms/deco. When not listening to podcast, I also go for Pandora/Thievery Corporation Station for nice flowing background that keeps me loose.
    On Being
    Tales of a Red Clay Rambler
    Radio Lab
    Brian R Jonescast
    What's Your Story
    Potters Cast
    All Songs Considered (NPR)
    Ted Talks Audio
    How She Really Does It
    After the Jump
    NCECA Podcast - now being produced by Ben Carter. Really enjoyed last two eps.
    (I love your blog Whitney. Thank you for sharing your experience.)

    1. Thanks Patricia, for the list and the kind words. I have never heard of Ask Dane or How She Really Does It... I will check them out!

  3. I hear you…I turn it all off sometimes because my mind needs quiet. One thing I've trained myself to do is to not put earbuds in while exercising, specifically riding my bike long distances (for safety reasons first, though I see people riding with earbuds in all the time). This was really hard at first because I used to run (before injury) and always plugged music into my ears to make it less difficult/and to motivate me to keep going…a distraction if you will. Not listening to anything forces me to be in the moment and to be aware…though I find myself day dreaming all the time.

    A few podcasts that I'm currently subscribed to and listen to in the studio:

    The Splendid Table
    Radio Lab
    Brian R. Jonescast
    Tales of a Red Clay Rambler
    Stuff You Should Know
    Savage Lovecast

    There's more, but I don't consistently listen to them.

    I've also started listening to books on Audible which I really like - it feels like I'm too tired most nights to read anymore. Very rarely do I listen to music in my studio.

    1. Yes, I also stopped listening to stuff while exercising outside, partly because we have such a problem with muggings and hold-ups in Oakland that being plugged into your phone just makes you a target. And I really don't understand people who wear earbuds while bicycling. Part of staying alive on your bike is hearing what is going on behind you! I feel way to vulnerable if I can't hear traffic.

      I love listening to books on long car trips, Audible is so great.

  4. Another great post!

    I went through a phase in grad school where some of my studio mates would listen to their music out loud while working (apparently this was before headphones were invented), and listening to THEIR music always distracted me. If I didn't like what I was listening to it was almost impossible to tune it out. That led to some strange hours for my studio time. But it also led to another observation. One of the music playing studio mates had a preference for Madonna, and I swear that her work started looking like Madonna the more she listened to it. I worried that what I was listening to by choice actually had some influence on the way my work was developing. It suddenly felt as if the work was somehow less my own and more the musicians' in my head......

    So I went through a period of many years without any non-natural noise accompanying my art practice. I wanted to have full authority over the work being made, or to share it with the clay as a conversation with my medium. I didn't want my art to be a conversation with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page....

    I'm less dogmatic about it mow, and I understand that you are not always influenced in content, but also that sometimes you can get to a space for working where the results will be much more what you want by directing its course with appropriate background music. You can use music to guide you in positive ways as well.

    Interesting observations, I thought..... :)

    1. Oh my god Carter, please, you have to tell me what Madonna pottery looks like!

  5. For me it really varies on the activity in question. Cooking, cleaning, and strangely enough, studying/writing reports (I'm a scientist by trade) are easiest done when I have something to listen to. Podcasts are fine for cooking and cleaning since my focus can be split and still accomplish whatever is going on. For studying/report writing I need the background noise, but whatever is on is going to ultimately be ignored. I find movies I've seen hundreds of times, very familiar music, or lately, Hindi musicals are great because they are very easy to tune out, but provide enough distraction noise that I'm not side tracked by every person walking past.
    Gardening, walking, or in the science lab itself, I really want the meditative quiet. I get rather frustrated when neighbors walking past want to talk when I'm gardening...rather tough when I'm on a corner lot.
    As for podcasts, I really only listen to a few, Spilled Milk, Shortest Longest time, and Thread Cult on occasion. That's enough for me since I don't have a lot of uninterrupted time when cleaning or cooking, unfortunately.

    1. It's interesting to me that some people need background noise while they work to help them concentrate. When I write, I need absolute quiet, even music is annoying to me. But nothing takes the sting out of housecleaning like a new episode of my favorite podcasts!

  6. I turned off music and podcasts in my studio and found that four hours just FLEW by. You're right. It was good to be present in the making moment. I did put on a podcast today as I was cleaning things up for firing and doing the more mundane tasks involved in pottery making. But I'm intrigued by your observation of getting all these ideas from the quiet....It sounds like you're tuning into something there.
    I do run with earbuds because I have social anxiety and find I can't run if I don't have a distraction. I'm too concerned with what "might" happen and feel panicked. I take my dog with me so I feel safe but often I need to peace out on my own mind so I can get something done.....
    Maybe moderation is the key?
    Thanks so much for sharing your honest opinions about things, I really value that.

    1. Always happy to share my opinions, Liz!

  7. I've never listened to music when I'm in my studio; the sound of silence is best for me when I am working. My last studio had a window I faced when I worked and the birds and animals would distract me (pleasantly), now I take a walk outside if I need a break but still no music or podcasts. when I was in a college clay studio the radio was always played and that music was very distracting to me. I go inside myself when I work and can concentrate much better without outside noises.

    Sometimes when I'm through working in the studio I'll go in another room and put on some music and dance to it to unwind.

    1. I'm thinking that is going to be the best approach for me too. Although I sometimes take a dance break in the middle of the day.

  8. My favorite podcasts: On Being, Radiolab, and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, and Tales of a Red Clay Rambler. I usually just listen to them when cooking or cleaning, though. Listening to music is essential for getting through tasks that I tend to procrastinate. But for working with clay, I really enjoy silence. I work in a community studio, and I'm grateful for studio mates who are usually willing to work with headphones (and a few others who also enjoy the quiet).

  9. I sometimes listen to a classical music radio station. All will be going really well, then someone starts to sing and totally spoils it. Pop music stations are repetitive and the conversation aimed at teenagers...mindless twaddle. If I have no sound, then I think too much. It's a tight rope.