Inspired by Deadlines

Happiness for most interpreters is seeing a school bus leaving your interpretive site. Other interpreters and interpretive designers find complete happiness and satisfaction in their work by coming up with an original idea, working with it through the development process, and creating a program or piece that communicates the intended message and works effectively with visitors. I find happiness in sugar-based cereal, my children sleeping, and discussions about letterforms. Oh yeah, and being married to a wonderful woman.

I recently have found myself working from deadline to deadline with very limited amounts of time to dedicate to important projects. This is not how I like to work, but it is where I find myself. Working in this form and fashion does not allow much time for finding inspiration.

How can one become inspired? If we are in the business of inspiration or inspiring others, should it not come easy for us to be inspired? David Larsen in Meaningful Interpretation writes, “Interpreters must channel their own understandings, enthusiasm, passion and love for the resource so that their audiences can form their own understandings, enthusiasm, passion and love for the resource.” As interpreters know, this is no easy process and we must constantly work to develop programs and products that assist this process in taking place.  The best interpretive products, personal and non-personal, ever developed were led by inspiration.

There are many ways to become inspired. Most people in careers outside of interpretation believe that interpreters have the best jobs in the entire world. They think about how great it would be to work in that park, museum, aquarium, historic site or nature center. This happens to be one of the first things that interpreters forget about at work. They forget what brought them to the field of interpretation in the first place. I came to interpretation for the guacamole (if that makes no sense check this post out). It’s easy to do. Budgets, staffing, groups, visitors, emails, discussions about baseball, meetings, phone calls, and many other elements of day-to-day operations cloud the view of where we work.

The first thing you can do to help improve your inspiration is remember the resource. Get out in or bury yourself in whatever resource is at your disposal and be inspired by it. If you work at a zoo the latter part of that suggestion may not be the best idea, but draw colors from what you see, extract shapes from what you find, take textures and turn them into products, and finally develop meanings and relationships from what you love. Freeman Tilden referred to this as the “priceless ingredient.” This ingredient is something we hold that others would love to hold. Take advantage of how close we are to that resource and love it. Tilden wrote:

If you love the thing you interpret, and love the people who come to enjoy it, you need to commit nothing to memory. For, if you love the thing, you not only have taken the pains to understand it to the limit of your capacity, but you also feel its special beauty in the general richness of life’s beauty.

Remember, to find that first love that you had with a site or subject and inspiration in that area can be expected to follow.

Some find a steady flow of inspiration through thought and study. Immersion into thought is difficult to many designers and creators since it can be difficult and exhausting. Some of the greatest composers in the world speak to how fatiguing the thought process can be before creating. Freeman Tilden writes, “Except for the rare instances of inspiration, I should guess that the adequate interpretive inscription will be the result of ninety percent thinking and ten percent composition.”

The largest factor contributing to unsuccessful thinking is the demands on our time (and for Paul the digestion of sausage). There are always deadlines and to-do lists that are in the back of our minds blocking the creative flow. That is where thought or study through collaboration can be a great friend.  By joining forces when the blocks hit can allow developers to move forward in the creative process. Another set of eyes or cerebral lobes can bring out small elements that spark the imagination leaving you saying, “I didn’t look at it that way” or, “That’s a good idea.”

Back-up plans also include copious amounts of caffeine, frustration-driven design and finding a job where you can make real guacamole…like a restaurant. No matter how inspiration is discovered, remember where it came from, so the next time it is needed you can draw from the same source or use it to inspire new sources.

Serial commas: With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.

Call it what you will: the serial comma, the Oxford comma, or the Harvard comma. It is the cause of much consternation to writers and editors. It causes fights in bars (okay, discussions in libraries). Devotees of the Chicago Manual of Style insist on its use. Those who adhere to Associated Press style consider it superfluous. And there are those who say that it doesn’t matter whether you use the serial comma or not, so long as you are consistent.

Cereal comma: Snap, Crackle, and Pop (note the comma after "Crackle")

Cereal comma: Snap, Crackle, and Pop (note the comma after "Crackle")

I have always been a believer in the serial comma because I think that it eliminates the possibility for confusion. If you’re looking at a list of 1, 2, and 3, it’s clear that 1, 2, and 3 are three distinct items. Consider the example of this hypothetical book dedication from the Chicago Manual of Style:

With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope

You can picture the editors of the Chicago Manual of Style chuckling smugly at the notion that without the serial comma, readers might think that the hypothetical author’s parents are Mother Teresa and the pope. The absence of a serial comma might cause the reader to think that “Mother Teresa and the pope” is one unit equal to the author’s parents. As a believer in the serial comma, I’m laughing right along with them.

If you look at the popular style guides that do not use the serial comma, they are mostly related to the news industry (Associated Press, The Times, The New York Times, etc.). As a former journalism student and journalist, I can tell you that many styles espoused by newspapers are designed more for conserving ink than for clarity of writing (that’s why you see single quotes used in headlines instead of the more correct double quote). The style guides that call for the serial comma (the American Psychological Association, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and the Chicago Manual of Style, to name a few) are more concerned with clarity of writing.

Opponents of the serial comma will argue that it can sometimes actually cause confusion rather than clear it up. A surprisingly engaging and in-depth entry on Wikipedia uses this example, again a hypothetical book dedication, this time inspired by editor and writer Teresa Nielsen Hayden:

To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God

Here, the reader might believe that Ayn Rand is the author’s mother when the serial comma is used, but without the serial comma, the confusion is eliminated (“To my mother, Ayn Rand and God”). I argue that you have to work a lot harder to create a scenario where the serial comma causes confusion rather than eliminating it. Another example from the same Wikipedia entry is this:

My favorite types of sandwiches are pastrami, ham, cream cheese and peanut butter and jelly.

Without a comma after “cream cheese,” the reader is not sure whether the peanut butter belongs with cream cheese or jelly. With that, I’m off to the library to pick a fight with a journalist and then go out for cream cheese and peanut butter sandwiches.