Common Discourse is a project designed to help others (and ourselves) think through creativity, focus, and intentional work—from Alex Tan & Alice Otieno.
Every Tuesday we share words from a journal, a few ideas, a quote from somebody else, and links worth sharing. On Fridays we invite a guest to share images from their camera roll and a sound that resonates with them.
If you have a recurring project that publishes at the same time & day every week, you know what I mean when I talk about the scrambling moments before something goes live. There’s always a rush of final edits at the request of a featured guest, checking to see if links work, and obviously, blatant typos that you miss from staring at the same thing all week.
When an issue of Common Discourse goes out, it feels like a win. Alice and I virtually hi-five each other, then immediately start working on what will go out the following week.
Alice noted on Friday that we haven’t missed a briefing in 2022. This is a very different narrative from what could be said about the project last year, when I was working on it solo. At the start of 2021, I aimed to have 52 of these briefings sent out over the course the last year and only met about half that number as the year wrapped up.
Now, with the work being split and having a shared vision, we’re able to consistently deliver this project every Tuesday and Friday. Although, we both still wrestle with viewing consistency as a positive discipline, without falling into the trap of the temporary rewards that capitalism provides us for making noise on the Internet.
I think we all have this terrible habit of looking at figures that “don’t miss” as perfect role models in our creative practices.
Like Lauryn Hill releasing her one and only critically acclaimed album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), then quite literally dropping the mic as she choose not to return to the studio to record another record. From the same world is D’Angelo, who took a 14 year hiatus between his two critically acclaimed albums Voodoo and Black Messiah. And even in more modern times, we see figures like Jay Electronica who have been in the cultural spotlight since the year 2000 but didn’t release a feature length album until 20 years later.
I think we glorify this type of career so much because it feels like an anomaly inside of a society that demands our attention all of the time. I like the way Andrew Thomas Huang puts it...
“Reminder that your most important work will always be your least urgent. The grind of capitalism will never pause for you and will always demand your immediate attention.”
People will tell you one of two things:
Create work every single day/week/month and put it out there so that people can’t ignore you. Discipline creates exponential growth.
Your best work will never be urgent. Take your time.
But people rarely talk about the way we can use consistency as a form of creative self-discovery, which can allow us to make our best work in due time.
Helsinki Bus Station
In 2004, Finnish-American Photographer Arno Minkkinen arrived at the New England School of Photography to give a graduation speech which later was coined as the Helsinki Bus Station theory.
Minkkinen uses the bus system in the country’s capital to illustrate the path to doing unique and meaningful work. He starts by explaining that there is a large bus station at the heart of the city with 24 platforms, and each bus runs along the same route for about a kilometer out of Helsinki. Minkkinen continues to illustrate his idea by seeing each bus stop on the route equal to one year’s worth of time in most creative people’s journey. In his speech, he uses the life of a photographer:
"So you've been working for three years, making...studies of nudes. Call it bus #21. You take those three years of work...to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn. His bus (#71) was on the same line. Or you take them to a gallery in Paris, and are reminded to check out Bill Brandt (bus #58 which is also on the same line)...and so on."
Minkkinen suggests that many creative people will become discouraged that they are unable to create anything unique or noteworthy within the first few years of their career, and think they must start over.
"Shocked, you realize that what you have been doing for three years (is what) others have already done. So you hop off the bus, grab a cab - because life is short - and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform."
Minkkinen looks at the crowd and asks,
“So what do you do?
It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus. Because if you do, in time, you will begin to see a difference.
The buses that move out of Helsinki stay on the same line, but only for a while—maybe a kilometer or two. Then they begin to separate, each number heading off to its own unique destination. Bus 33 suddenly goes north. Bus 19 southwest. For a time maybe 21 and 71 dovetail one another, but soon they split off as well. Irving Penn is headed elsewhere.
...it could be the end of your career as an artist or the end of your life for that matter, but your total output is now all there before you, the early (so-called) imitations, the breakthroughs, the peaks and valleys, the closing masterpieces, all with the stamp of your unique vision.
Why? Because you stayed on the bus.”
I was talking to one of my closest friends yesterday as he’s getting close to finalizing a musical album that he’s been working on over the last couple years.
He said, “I’m not sure if it’s my ‘Voodoo moment’ but it feels like a step closer, if anything. You never really know until you put it out there. I just have to keep getting better at telling the truth through my music. If I make an album that follows some current trend, I’ll probably get discouraged because it wasn’t received as well as the person who originally did it. People do this their entire career—just chasing trends that are “working” right now. I know I’ll never get anywhere this way.”
A lot of us will hop off the bus two or three stops in. We’ll look around, decide we’re not happy with the results or that we’ve been compared to somebody else, then grab a cab back into the city to start all over again—hoping that we find some sort of new discovery or breakthrough immediately on the next bus. To Minkkinen’s point, our best work is uncovered when we stay on the bus.
Think back to D’Angelo or Lauryn Hill. D’Angelo sat on the bus for 14 years between Voodoo and Black Messiah. Maybe he liked what he saw at a stop early in his career, made the most of it then got back on the bus. Lauryn Hill has been on the bus for 24 years since her 1998 release and we’re all crossing our fingers that she’ll decide to jump off at a stop soon, but at this point she’s just enjoying the ride.
So again, “But people rarely talk about the way we can use consistency (Staying on the bus) as a form of creative self-discovery, which can allow us to make our best work (Voodoo moment) in due time.”
As I mentioned earlier, I look at Common Discourse as a disciplinary observation practice. How many possible things can we take note of in one weeks worth of time? How can we be better at thinking about all the things that are happening around us and using those experiences as opportunities to learn? And not only to learn, but to write about for others to learn from as well?
I know that a weekly newsletter on Substack with links, quotes and asking people to share images from their camera roll is not revolutionary—but what I do know is that I’ll find my way eventually.
The weekly briefings are only a small glimpse of a much larger achievement to come. And that achievement will not be a result of waking up one day and simply deciding that I wanted to do something bigger.
It will only be possible by looking out the window and documenting everything I see. From talking to strangers that sit next to me and get off a couple stops later, to choosing discipline over distraction.
One day I’ll look back and realize I’m only here from all that time I sat on the bus.
A few ideas
I. RUNNING OUT OF IDEAS
As I was populating the are.na this week, I realized that I’ve written 116 of these Ideas from me.
Some weeks it feels like I’ve written everything I’m capable of writing, but I’ve realized that I have likely only written about the things that come naturally to me. When it feels like you don’t have any ideas left, it forces you to think more deeply about what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it. Inevitably, this produces better results.
You either tell the same story over and over again or choose to go somewhere you’ve never been.
Luck favors those in motion.
III. FROM SLACK
From a conversation in our Slack with a co-worker:
“All you ever need is good people on your team. Insane that it’s that simple (or that difficult depending on your access and background)”
“Yeah I always think about how people just say ‘Work hard and be nice.’ but what they really mean is ‘Make sure you were born into a privileged enough situation to where working hard and being nice is an option for you.’”
A quote from somebody else
“Our obsession with speed has never really been about speed, itself, but the promises that such velocity would bring.” — Synoptic Office
Links worth sharing
📱Balenciaga is taking us back in time with their latest FW22 invite
📖 Arno Minkinnen’s full 2004 commencement speech at the New England School of Photography
👟 All Star Series featuring Tyler the Creator
🧠 patience has a harmonic resonance
🍄 Everything is connected via Minah’s Mind
🎣 allipossess.com is an online installation by Simon Freund, a register of each and every object Freund owns at this specific time. The installation is updated as soon as an object has drastically changed (i.e. is broken, was stolen, got lost) or when an object is added.
Thanks for consuming!
ℹ️ Read more about Common Discourse here.
📬 If you like this newsletter, please consider sharing with others who might enjoy it as well.
🗂 Here is every Common Discourse weekly briefing to date.
🐤 We have a Twitter feed where we populate things that resonate.
⭐ We use Are.na as a tool to archive specific aspects of this project.
Really enjoyed this week's write, Alex - such an encouraging + challenging perspective to stay on the bus. Thanks, as always.
Genuine question: How do you know that you're on the right bus? From my experience (and by experience I mean the last 3 years) I've believed that I was on the right bus probably about 4 times. And everytime I get off the bus (sometimes forcefully because shit literally just refused to work out) I'm always thoroughly confused. With where I am now, I feel a gut instinct that I'm on the right bus, but I can't help but worry that something else is gonna happen and I'm gonna find myself back at the platform. So how do you remain sure? (This question is open to anyone btw! I'm curious to here about other experiences :))