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This website is focused on my writing. On it you will find my articles, plus links to my books and research.

I investigate creativity, innovation, and resilience.

As well as writing about these things in non-fiction, I also do this by facilitating discussions, storytelling sessions, interviewing people, and delivering workshops. I offer mentoring around embedding resilience into creative practice.

My latest major project is ‘The next day: A bundle of notes on grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’. You can download it for free here.

 

The Theft

The Theft

She was perhaps the most negative person I have ever met.

Don’t get me wrong. I have met worse people: people more vindictive, more morally devolved, or people who I suspected were actually sociopathic, such was the degree of their callous disregard for, or malicious undermining of, the wellbeing or rights of others. I have been unfortunate in my life to come across one or two people who destroyed others for the sheer giddy nihilistic joy of it. In terms of applied spite, she wasn’t in their league.

When I say she was the most negative person I have ever met it is because she was permanently sunk into a state of discontent and apathy that sapped her energy and spread a miasma of gloom around her, like a permanent fog of psychic fart.

Everything was a complaint. If her account was to be believed, and I never saw why not, she was a physical collection of aches and stiffnesses. “Oh, my knee… oh my back… ooh I just had a twinge…” Perhaps this deserved sympathy, and – God knows – I did my best to muster some, but my condolences were drowned in a litany of grievances about everything else – the weather, the rude man on the bus, young people today, the state of the world.

If I complimented her on something – a scarf or a new haircut – I got a disbelieving grunt in reply. Her opinions about other people outside our office – other tenants in our organisation’s building, stakeholders from funding bodies, even our clients – were coloured by vague but, for her, compelling paranoia. Recently when I attended a masterclass on analysing workplace culture, we did a quiz on signs of incivility. Of the ten signs listed I was surprised – but not – to see that she exhibited every single one, every single day. In the nine months I stuck it out as her direct report I didn’t hear her say one positive thing, about me, about anyone else, about anything.

So, she was not a fun person to be around. But I undertook not to buy into this, reasoning that that was her problem, and I didn’t need to respond in kind. Until I found another job, my responsibility was to turn up, act civil, and do my best to perform my work as directed. I was more bemused by her constant nurturing of the grumps than seriously upset by it; I just chose not to give the situation more emotional energy than I had to and, if anything, I pitied her somewhat.

The thing that changed this, that inspired my darkest and truest contempt? She gate-crashed my grief. I cannot forgive her for that.

Detail from The Sorceress by Jan van de Velde II

My mother was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, an aggressive cancer, on the 1st of April 2019. She requested of her oncologist that he not give her a prognosis, understandably not wanting a deadline (her pun and intended) hanging over her. We hoped she’d have a few months, perhaps until Christmas. By the 19th of May she was dead. I was away from work for three weeks overall: the last week of her life, the week after she died and during which she was cremated, and a further week to get a grip on myself.

When I returned to work something had changed in the dynamics. Suddenly it was no longer enough for my boss to sit in her own puddle of discordancy, she started actively targeting me. Perhaps it was the hiring of a new employee – a lovely man with terrific skills, but his appearance was a change, and this lady didn’t do change well. Perhaps it was the thought of her impending retirement, something long overdue considering her lack of productivity and her constant running down of our organisation but which she, nevertheless, resisted because she had no idea how to be anything other than a rusted-on appendage to our work. Certainly, she was challenged by the idea that had been mooted by our Committee of Management that I take over her job. She had been in the role for so long that she viewed it as an extension of herself; the complete and utter lack of progress of our organisation and its projects under her ‘leadership’ was an externalisation of her own bereftness. The very idea of anyone else being in her role and, therefore, doing things differently (and perhaps better) was an affront to her carefully cultivated sense of insecurity.

And perhaps, in addition to all of this, when I returned from my three-weeks’ away of nursing my dying mother and witnessing her death, I presented an enticing target – a focus – for her irritation with the cosmos. Up until then I had successfully brushed off her lack of graciousness with a cheerfully non-committal manner. There was nothing cheerful about me when I came back, although my new colleague kindly reassured me that I presented as calm and professional as ever. But still, she had to have known that underneath my grounded manner I was shaken and raw by Mum’s death. Under pressure by her impending retirement, unsettled by change in the status quo, poisoned and disorientated over the years by her own staged retreat from the world, my status as newly bereaved might have just been too obvious to resist.

A nasty month culminated in an act of breathtaking treachery where she somehow persuaded the Committee of Management to acknowledge her as retired in name only, but also to grant her continued pay, the right to work on a vaguely defined and scoped vanity project at home – and therefore without their scrutiny – and also to have the right of continued oversight of myself and my colleague. We were to continue at the same pay rate performing the same ill-defined and rather pointless duties. It was a ridiculous state of affairs.

During that month I endured relentless and unreasonable scrutiny of my work. This resulted in a barrage of baseless criticism of everything I did, right down to the individual sentences I wrote in my emails or spoke out loud. Her manner was patronising and sneering. Attempts to discuss this with her were met by gaslighting that was so obvious and crudely applied that it added a further layer of offence.

Particularly upsetting was the fact that she challenged my right to take compassionate leave to deal with my mother’s dying. I easily proved that I was legally entitled to it, but to have to even argue the point was distressing.

Detail from The Sorceress by Jan van de Velde II

As I stated at the top of this piece I have been shafted by experts – dealt blows that could have seriously ruined my career and reputation, and which did, for a while a few years ago, damage my mental health. This woman wasn’t capable of that, thank God. The carping was mean and petty, and my pride was certainly offended at having to deal with it. But writing this now, I am struggling to recall specifically what she might have actually said, even though the effect she created still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It was remarkable how, the instant I departed for good, my spirits started to recover and my memory started to jettison. Her insults were nasty enough, but, of themselves, they didn’t leave much of a mark in the end.

But the one thing she took from me that I can’t recover, and the one thing that really hurts me as a consequence, is this: she took my time and energy and focus during that last month I was with her, which overlapped with the first months of my grief. I coped with her, but I coped because I made sure I did. This coping required an investment of emotional and affective labour. And, at this time, I badly wanted these things for something else.

Grief is interesting. It is not an easy process, but it is an essential one. It is the gift – I will call it that – which helps you to adjust to the space a person leaves behind when they die. In the book, The woman who fooled the world, oncologist Mark Rosenthal is quoted as saying that the time before someone’s death is “a special time, not an easy time, but a special time.” I think the same about the time just after death.

It is special, for the first little while after someone dies. We all grieve differently so I can only speak for myself but in the first weeks the world even literally looked different to me: the light was different, colours were sharper, more heightened. Feelings were more intense, alternating with equally intense states of exhaustion. Thoughts took on more significance, memories were viewed from different angles. Grief isn’t fun, but it is rich. I haven’t enjoyed it, but I have valued it.

But crashing into this special time came this woman, with her lumbering states of paranoia, her self-centredness, her pettiness, her meanness of vision, her shrunken scope of living. With each bit of carping, each demand on my ability to stand my ground, she pulled me towards her bullshit and forced me to focus on it, even if that were just to brush it off. Each act of reasserting myself and of recovery, still cost me time and energy. I was forced to be resilient when I didn’t want to be. When I wanted to open myself to my grief and let it scrub me raw and clean, I was forced to build defences and hold myself together.

Detail from The Sroceress by Jan van de Velde II

I soon left the organisation. The situation there was absurd and was leeching energy I should never have had to expend. I have recovered quickly, an indication that all of that workplace melodrama was nonsense – rank, putrefying nonsense, but, in the final analysis, just mere stupidity all the same.

But when I emerged from this, when I fully reclaimed my focus, those sharp heightened colours of grief had faded. The grieving feelings were still there waiting under the surface, but now I had to sort through a jumble of more workaday thoughts to reach them.

I had a sense that that special time which should have belonged to me, where certain sensitivities and perspectives that aren’t available at any other time in our lives, had passed and closed off. My grief was interrupted; I won’t ever get that special time back.

If witches were real and I were a witch, I would call down a curse upon her.

 

Images sourced from Public Domain Review.

Creativity: Having the courage to finish

Creativity: Having the courage to finish

“So please kondo your ghost projects and all artifacts associated with them: Give them away, throw them away, just let them go.” ~ Megan Hustad

This was the starting premise for a fascinating discussion in The House of Beautiful Business’ annual gathering in October 2020, facilitated by author and editor, Megan Hustad, and inspired by an article she had written.

While discussing whether or not to cull unfinished creative projects, someone spoke about people who never finish their projects because they can’t seem to stop working on them. They keep making drafts, finding new bits of research, showing their project to a vast array of mentors and coaches and test audiences and beta readers and friends, accumulating an equally vast array of constructive criticism to respond to and incorporate into their work. I am sure I have witnessed instances where the numerous and different pieces of feedback started cancelling each other out.

For all this effort the project never seems to get finished.

Have you seen the movie The Wonder Boys? The main character is a writer who is working on a second novel, having already had success with his first. He has been working on this thing for years; when the movie’s storyline takes place, his unfinished draft is the size of a metropolitan phone book. Another character – one of his writing students – reads the draft and reminds him that, in his teaching, he advises his students to make choices. She opines that his draft reads as if he has failed to do this. And his character is, indeed, a man who cannot make choices – his personal life is a mess because of this, and apparently his writing is too. He seems to be paralysed by the trappings of success – a best seller under his belt and a teaching job at a respectable university – and as a result is unable to take risks, whether that be to expose himself to the love of a human or the scrutiny of readers.

I wonder if something similar happens to people who can’t finish their projects. Are they are paralysed by the creative options open to them, scared of what will happen if they choose the wrong one, or anxious about rejection?

This hasn’t ever happened to me, not because I am gifted with preternatural boldness or discipline, or such astounding levels of ability or talent that I don’t have to worry about adverse reactions. My early life as a performer took care of procrastination: as an independent performer and choreographer I would set a date for a performance (sometimes as part of a curated event or sometimes my own production) and then work towards it. I would have weeks or months to get ready but, come hell or high water and in sickness and in health, I would have to go on stage at that date. If my work was too raw or unready or unlovable, then tough.

Photo by Michael Nash

I learnt something from all of that: your work is never ready. There is always something else to learn, to master, to refine… Just before writing this, I was listening to one of Paul Holdengraber’s wonderful interviews where his subject – the inimitable Henry Rollins – says about musicians who think they have mastered their craft:

“When you think you can take a dragon for a walk, leave.”

Another incredibly wise quotation I treasure is from Anne Patchett:

“Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.”

Do the best work you can, forgive yourself for not doing what you wanted to do, remind yourself that no one can walk a dragon, and show your work. Your audience may criticise – fairly or not (and there are always know-it-alls to contend with) – but there will be many who appreciate what you’ve done. Or even what you’ve attempted. I also learnt in my performance days that audiences are sometimes happy to forgive some rough or raw material in order to support an interesting experiment or an honest effort. Give your audience the power to surprise you with their delight in, and engagement with, your work.

How do you know when to sign off on a project? Not when it’s perfect but when you have stopped learning from it, when you need to move onto the challenge of building a new piece of work to lift you to a whole new level of endeavour.

Creative Guinea Pigs wanted to be debriefed

Creative Guinea Pigs wanted to be debriefed

Recently finish a big gnarly creative project? How was that for you? Still processing?

I offer coaching services to people working on creative projects. I support people in developing confidence in their creative identity and sustaining their creative process so that it develops their resilience, reflexivity, and – yes – creativity.

As part of this practice, I am going to start offering debriefing sessions for people who have just finished a creative project. The focus of these sessions will be on unpacking the personal ‘felt’ experience of working creatively, especially on complex projects and / or within complex conditions.

Based on my various experiences as a performing artist, arts manager, and project manager, I believe that it is important to debrief a creative worker on their experience of working on a project so that they:

  • Gain insight into their own sense of resilience, agency, and creative impulses;
  • Gain insight into how whatever external conditions they were working under affected their sense of confidence in their creative identity; and then
  • Gain enough perspective so that they can move onto a more objective evaluation of their project and ‘lessons learnt’.

The debriefing sessions will be useful for anyone who is grappling with a sense of failure and / or a ‘failed’ – uncomfortable / stressful / unsatisfying – working process left over from a recently completed project. But they will also be useful for anyone who has recently had a positive or successful experience – successes must be dwelt on with as much energy as failures!

During April 2021 I am offering a limited number of free sessions to test the framework I have developed for these debriefings. The sessions will be 1 hour long and can be held for individuals or small groups of up to 4 people. If you are interested in being one of my ‘guinea pigs’, then please contact me.

Artist: George Morland
I have but one job

I have but one job

A blog about a poem about a painting.

“I have but one job:
to keep you looking, though I’ve snatched the breath
from your throat.”

These lines come from a wonderful poem by Danielle DeTiberus. The poem – The Artist Signs Her Masterpiece, Immodestly – comes from “a series of poems about the artist Artemisia Gentileschi’s work and life.” This particular poem was inspired by Gentileschi’s striking painting Judith Beheading Holofernes.

The poem is as stunning and immediate as the painting itself. It references Gentileschi’s own history as a survivor of rape (and an ensuing court case) and reflects the brutal mastery of her painting technique. I particularly love the way DeTiberus works into this poem ideas about the role of the creator and their relationship to their work. It’s a neat thing for a poet imagining an artist thinking about her work to do.

“I have thought it all through, you see. The folds

of flesh gathered at each woman’s wrist, the shadows

on his left arm betraying the sword’s cold hilt.”

These lines, and others, in the poem show us how detailed and specific art making (in any discipline) must be. Many people assume art making to be done in a welter of disinhibition – the artist as anarchist chucking paint at a canvas or toking on a joint in front of a typewriter or throwing a tantrum during a rehearsal. Too be sure, too much inhibition will kill the creative process, and playfulness and experimentation are important parts of arts practice. But alongside the moments of instinct and imagination, art making is about choice making. You have to think it all through. You have to get the details exactly right: choice of adverbs, shades of colour, angles of limbs, the inflection in your voice on a certain word at a certain beat. If you don’t make the right choices about bringing the right details to life, then your inspiration cannot be conveyed to your readers / viewers / audience.

“Some say they know her thoughts by the meat of her

brow. Let them think what they want.”

These lines are talking about viewers assuming they know what Gentileschi’s Judith is thinking in the scene depicted in the painting because of the expression Gentileschi has painted for her. DeTiberus’ Gentileschi is unconcerned with this in this poem: “Let them think what they want. / I have but one job: to keep you looking…”

The truth of the matter is that you cannot ever control what an audience is going to think or how they will interpret your work. That is simply not within your power. DeTiberus’ Gentileschi is right: an artist has one job and that is to engage their audience. What the audience does with that engagement is up to them. And as a woman, the Gentileschi in this poem is assertive and businesslike in tone; she is not concerned with minding our sensibilities for us. The emotional labour she performs is as an artist portraying a scene, not as a woman pandering to others.

The closing line is pure defiance:

“Ergo Artemitia. I made this—I.”

DeTiberus writes that in painting, Gentileschi, working in an era where female artists were less likely to be supported much less celebrated, and also working as the survivor of rape, “… reclaims her agency through making and naming. Ultimately, then, this poem is an ode to survivors and to Gentileschi’s exquisitely manicured middle finger to the idea that she could be erased or silenced.”

DeTiberus’ Gentileschi has done her one job: she made us look.

DeTiberus has done her one job: she made us think.

 

The Artist Signs Her Masterpiece, Immodestly

Danielle DeTiberus

After Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (Uffizi, 1620)

Because I know what rough work it is to fight off
a man. And though, yes, I learned tenebroso from
Caravaggio, I found the dark on my own. Know too

well if Judith was alone, she’d never be able to claw
her way free. How she and Abra would have to muster
all their strength to keep him still long enough

to labor through muscle and bone. Look at the old
masters try their best to imagine a woman wielding
a sword. Plaited hair just so. She’s disinterested

or dainty, no heft or sweat. As if she were serving
tea—all model and pose. No, my Judith knows
to roll her sleeves up outside the tent. Clenches

a fistful of hair as anchor for what must be done.
Watch the blood arc its way to wrist and breast.
I have thought it all through, you see. The folds

of flesh gathered at each woman’s wrist, the shadows
on his left arm betraying the sword’s cold hilt.
To defeat a man, he must be removed from his body

by the candlelight he meant as seduction. She’s been
to his bed before and takes no pleasure in this.
Some say they know her thoughts by the meat of her

brow. Let them think what they want. I have but one job:
to keep you looking, though I’ve snatched the breath
from your throat. Even the lead white sheets want

to recoil. Forget the blood, forget poor dead Caravaggio.
He only signed one canvas. Lost himself in his own
carbon black backdrop. To call my work imperfect

would simply be a lie. So I drench my brush in
a palette of bone black—femur and horn transformed
by their own long burning—and make one last

insistence. Between this violence and the sleeping
enemies outside, my name rises. Some darknesses
refuse to fade. Ergo Artemitia. I made this—I.

The Next Day: About grief, hope, and optimism

The Next Day: About grief, hope, and optimism

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

“All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know” ~ WS Merwin

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

Optimism versus Hope

The words ‘optimism’ and ‘hope’ may seem to be synonyms, but in a blog Doug Muder on his The Weekly Sift website made an elegant distinction between the two.

“Hope is not optimism…

  • Optimism and pessimism are beliefs about the future. Optimists expect the future to turn out well; pessimists expect it to turn out badly.
  • Hope and its opposite (despair) are attitudes towards the present. Hope holds that efforts to make life better are worthwhile, while despair asserts their pointlessness. Hope says, “Let’s try it” and despair answers “Don’t bother.”

I believe cultivating both – attending to our present and sense of the future – to be vital.

Grief can colour your expectations of the future, but how, exactly, will depend on the way you experience grief. People for whom an absence of something that brought complications into their lives may experience a sense of lightness or relief. People who are dealing with the loss of something beloved may dread going through life with it no longer there. The disappearance of something that has become familiar and central to us can be disorientating or stressful; at my mother’s funeral, my father used the word “trepidation” to describe how he felt at facing a future without his companion of so many decades.

Emotions aside, grief can affect how clearly we envisage a future life, or how concrete we feel our plans can be. It can take time to get used to a radical sense of absence, and then make adjustments to a sense of self and its relatedness to the people and situations that still exist as well as anything new that arises. Some people may have long-held dreams or wish lists that they have been dying to try but for which they never had time; the death of one way of life may actually allow them to do this. But, for other people, looking into the future may be like looking along a path that disappears into a fog.

The pandemic has disrupted what we had all been calling normal. What the ‘new normal’ will turn out to be is not apparent yet. The loss of a job or vocation or sector can knock anyone’s sense of optimism, especially if that is experienced against the background of a pandemic that is challenging the economy and just about every societal norm you could name. The challenge is to develop a sense of potential in the future at a time when that future is hard to see.

“The future is unknowable since to know the future is to change it.” ~ from episode 23 of ‘Monkey’.

The future is liminal

Optimism, at its healthiest, allows us to develop expectations of good things happening in the future. Optimism is like looking at a map of a path and seeing that the landscape it leads you through is coloured green.

Hope is what we employ when the fog descends onto the path, where we can’t see what lies ahead. Hope is what we need to keep us going, waiting for the fog to lift and trusting that, when it does, we will like what we see. Optimism points us towards opportunity; hope demands that we have faith that there are possibilities.

Hope takes us off the edge of the map. Here be dragons, but where dragons are there is also gold, magic, wisdom, and adventure. The artists reading this will know that it is places of liminality – places of threshold and transition – that afford rich experience and ideas. This future space that many of us can’t see properly holds the unexpected; there is nothing to dictate that every single unexpected thing will necessarily turn out to be bad.

Are you struggling to find hope or optimism right now?

The poet WS Merwin said that “Our hope is not a thing in the future; it’s a way of seeing the present.” If you feel that you have no hope for the future, it’s not because the future literally does hold no hope. It’s because your present is so hard that it has, temporarily, drained the little pool of spiritual or psychological energy you draw on to build a sense of hope. I say ‘temporarily’ because many people find that, as they travel through various stages of grief, their sense of hope may come and go. As I wrote in an earlier note, grief never leaves you, but you do rebuild the capacity to experience a new life – and joy in that new life – after a while.

But I also say ‘temporarily’ as a reminder that a lack of hope should only burden you for a short duration. If it doesn’t – if it seems to be a constant – then that may be a sign that you are slipping into depression, which is not the same as grief. If this is the case, please go and seek professional help. Please. You do not have to do this alone. You have not been specifically marked out by the universe to live abandoned in the dark. No one has.

“Who shall conquer the world and the world of death with its many gods? Who shall discover the shining way? ‘You shall,’ said the Buddha.” ~ from episode 22 of ‘Monkey’.

How do you locate a sense of optimism in a frazzled brain that is dealing with a world that is in a state of flux? If optimism is based on a set of expectations about what feasibly could happen, then I guess you could argue the same about pessimism. And we are living in an age where things like COVID-19, climate change, and increasing inequity may indicate that we should, going on current form, be pessimistic.

I would be the first to argue against propagating toxic positivity, the irritating and downright unhealthy practice of refusing to acknowledge or articulate negative things. Actually, I was partly inspired to write these notes by enormous anger and disgust at how certain types of workers have been excluded from the JobKeeper wage subsidy or made redundant. Being realistic about the things that are unfair, unhelpful, or unhealthy is an important step in tackling them. The process of grieving can help us to face up to uncomfortable truths.

But this realism is not the same as pessimism, or optimism, for that matter. Pessimism and optimism are attitudes – stances – that we choose to adopt to prepare us for what may happen in the future.

If you have been bludgeoned by difficult circumstances it can feel like it’s impossible to ‘choose’ anything but pessimism. Repeated disappointments, sleepless nights, being surrounded by distraught colleagues on the cusp of being made redundant, the pressure to find rent money, hearing political or workplace policy that makes you angry, hearing bad policy being given good press… all of this can crowd in on you and overwhelm your psychic defences. It is all too easy to miss the tiny specks of evidence that point to the possibility of alternative and more positive futures.

A distressed brain can have a febrile imagination. A distressed imagination can fire out virtual catastrophes at the rate of knots, and these can feel overwhelming.

In the article That discomfort you’re feeling is grief, grief expert David Kessler provides some good tips on managing anxiety, including this one:

“Our mind begins to show us images… We see the worst scenarios. That’s our minds being protective. Our goal is not to ignore those images or to try to make them go away — your mind won’t let you do that and it can be painful to try and force it. The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking. If you feel the worst image taking shape, make yourself think of the best image.”

In other words, put that busy imagination to work: for every catastrophe it shows you, make it design a near miss, a spectacular recovery, or a complete triumph. The important thing is not to make this an exercise in denial – it’s important to acknowledge risk – but in identifying potential and making a choice. Remind yourself that there are no guarantees that the worst will happen, and there is equal potential for great things to come about.

No one knows how the ‘new normal’ will look and function. Our world does face massive challenges and huge risks. But it doesn’t follow that in that new normal there is also not a place for you to realise your potential to be safe, to be happy.

In a video posted online as a response to Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death, US Senator Elizabeth Warren at one stage says “Hope is not given to us – it is created by us;” both a call to arms and a note of reassurance. On the same day as I watched this, I read Rebecca Solnit, writing in The Guardian, referring to restorative justice activist Mariame Kaba’s idea that hope is a discipline. And I think that the same could be said of optimism – as I said above, it’s a stance you choose to take.

So how does this sit with grieving? It can be hard if your grief takes the form of devastating sadness, regret, resentfulness, numbness, or feeling bereft. But consider this: grief can also help you to find hope. Grieving is a process of adjustment. Each emotion or reaction, even the awful ones, are part of you shifting and recalibrating yourself to deal with and, if you want, to learn from the absence of something. Grief changes you. It can give you the opportunity to grow. And that is something to be hopeful about.

Rain Light by WS Merwin

 

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

You can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Get angry. At everyone.

Get angry. At everyone.

This is a blog about Facebook, Newscorp, and the Australian Federal Government. It is a blog about why I have been steaming with rage ever since I woke up at 7am yesterday morning and found reports on Twitter that Facebook had blocked what it deemed to be news both to and from (and, notably, within) Australia some time during the night.

Let me be clear: I don’t like Facebook. I do have an account, although not for much longer. I use it to check in on a family member once every couple of months. Years ago, I was extremely active but grew disenchanted due to the platform’s continual mucking around with formats and the heavy-handed presence of its algorithm. In the years since I have been disgusted at various privacy scandals and also at the role the platform plays in spreading fake news, misinformation, and trolling activity. So, I won’t miss Facebook.

I also want to make it clear that I loathe and detest everything NewsCorp stands for. Here in Australia, they have used their saturation of our media landscape to stifle sensible and necessary discussion into issues like climate change, refugee and asylum seeker rights, Aboriginal Australian rights, industrial relations… Actually, the list is enormous. As in the USA and the UK they have damaged our democracy. As a Melbournian, I personally resent the way NewsCorp trolled and undermined those of us who complied with our State’s four-month lockdown strategy last year – a strategy that was responsible for preventing the illness and death of thousands. NewsCorp’s unrelenting abuse of our community was the most distressing aspect of lockdown for many of us. I consider the corporation to be a real danger.

The proposed legislation that Facebook is pushing back against is a badly designed confection of our federal government – as inept as it is corrupt – that, if passed, will ultimately line the pockets of NewsCorp. Our government (and, given that they do nothing that doesn’t advantage their corporate cronies, I use the word ‘our’ loosely) has a toxic and co-dependent relationship with NewsCorp. Two years ago, Scott Morrison sailed into an election leading a party with nary a policy to their name; unbelievably they won off the back of a wave of fake news, misinformation, and distorted commentary that was poured into our electorate by an unholy alliance of corporate trolls and village idiots. Facebook was an enabler, but it is NewsCorp that gets its government of choice across the line in every election and who has a vested interest in maintaining control of ‘our’ ‘democracy’. The legislation that Facebook doesn’t want a bar of is dodgy and driven by the venal and insular interests of our career politicians, Rupert Murdoch, and a few other legacy mainstream media outlets. The same legislations does nothing to improve the fortunes of the many small but important independent news publishers in Australia.

So, I am angry at NewsCorp – actually the English language doesn’t have the words to describe how angry – and I am angry at our government. I am pissed off at Google for caving and entering into a contract with NewsCorp – how I hate to see money going into that old menace’s coffers. At exactly the same time, I am angry at Facebook for its protest. I am angry at the way it was done.

In Australia, thousands of Facebook users went to bed on Wednesday night and woke up on Thursday morning to find their pages blocked and their content gone. Mainstream news companies found this but so did an astonishing array of other organizations who would never consider themselves to be news publishers. Private businesses, community groups, arts organizations, sports clubs, charities, hospitals and health organisations…. All found their information blocked. State governments and the Facebook pages they had set up to disseminate public announcements were blocked, including pages that broadcast information about bushfires – like the department of Fire and Emergency Services WA – or COVID-19. The Bureau of Meteorology was blocked. Domestic violence organizations and women’s shelters were blocked. Indigenous Australian community pages were blocked.

Even bloggers were blocked. I found I couldn’t post a link to this blog to Facebook. That’s actually no loss because I don’t use Facebook to promote anything, but… really? And pity the poor bloggers who run their blog as a sort of combination public-service and cottage industry like this one.

The effect was of having an entire country’s networks of communications – networks of community information, connection, resourcing, and outreach – censored and attacked. It was a stunning display of corporate thuggery. Facebook was less a renegade and more of a stand over merchant, less taking the fight to the Australian Government and more holding the Cat Protection Society NSW and the Asylum Seeker Refugee Centre and the Melbourne Fringe Festival hostage. It was disgusting.

To those cool cats who dismissively say “Oh! There are lots of alternative platforms / search engines / websites” and to just move to one of those: You are completely right, and I agree with you 100%. You also miss the point.

To those lucky lofty aloof folks who condescendingly scoff that “If you rely on Facebook for your news then something’s wrong with you”: You are actually completely right, and I agree with you 100%. You also miss the point.

To those policy wonks who point out that Facebook is just responding to badly written policy when it included a bewildering array of accounts in its definition of news outlets, you are completely right, and I agree with you 100%. You also miss the point.

To the business-heads who point out that Facebook is a private corporation who has every right to back out of the unreasonable business practice that our federal government is trying to force it into, you are right, too, and I agree with you 100%. You also miss the point.

To those shallow commentators who shrug and say “Facebook did warn you – they did say they were going to do this” I even agree with you, but you miss the point.

The point is that the action Facebook took showed a disregard for its own community of users that was breathtaking in its callousness. It was prepared to throw this community, who have spent painstaking care and effort on developing Facebook pages and groups of followers, under a bus to make its tantrum look just that little bit more spectacular. If the proposed legislation is passed, Bush Search and Rescue and Brain Injury Australia will never be eligible to enter into a commercial relationship with Facebook.

As others have pointed out, there were many pages that were suddenly blocked by Facebook that shared information that was time critical, for example, emergency and public health announcements, or information for domestic violence situations. Facebook suddenly yanked that from public view with no warning.

Consider, too, community pages that fill a niche for groups for whom information is not otherwise readily available like the Council to Homeless Persons or Women’s Legal Services Tasmania Inc. These pages may be run by volunteers or underfunded organizations, their content and follower-bases built up over time and with much effort. You can’t just transplant these groups to another platform overnight.

And what about the small businesses who have, with Facebook’s own aggressive encouragement over the years, incorporated the platform into their branding, marketing, sales, and customer service operations. Strangely, some of these were also swept up in Facebook’s algorithmically driven attack of spleen.

In Australia, we have Facebook and its arbitrary acts of bastardry on one hand, and our Government and Murdoch’s determination to profit from our polity on the other. I considered writing that this is like eating a shit-sandwich, but I feel like us ordinary folk are actually the shit stuck in the sandwich. The corporations and our political leaders have created a mess, all in pursuit of money and power, and we are the ones who have to wade through it. It’s an awful state of affairs.

Whether it’s through the marketing strategies of the tech giants, or the desire for expediency and cheap efficiencies of our government, we are all being herded onto the internet and encouraged (sometimes compelled) to channel more of our everyday activity through it. Today was a reminder that, while they want us to live digitally, they – the tech giants and our political ‘leaders’ – are also hell-bent on making our connection to the internet a precarious one. I wonder how long this will be tenable, and when it isn’t will the powers-that-be give a stuff?

In her excellent article Facebook vs. the media code: whoever wins, we lose, Lizzie O’Shea asks: “What does it say about tech policy in this country that the human rights of users were almost entirely left out of the conversation?”

We’re not supposed to be living in a society where corporations can ride roughshod over the human rights of their customers. But with a government that is, itself, entangled in the interests of corporate mates and sponsors how can we prevent this?

I can’t dismiss this. No “LOL I’ll go on MySpace” for me. I am mad at everyone involved in this mess. And I’m going to maintain that rage. There is too much at stake.

Grief and having to function: dealing with other people

Grief and having to function: dealing with other people

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

When I was in grief I wanted to hide from people. I hated people. Nothing they could do or say was right. I was too tired and too raw to be around anyone.

Sometime over the last year, I forget when, I read a lovely account of a woman in grief for whom people were a lifeline. She didn’t know how she would have got through it all without her people. One image from the thing she wrote (and I can’t remember her name or the name of the article) described her as sitting on the floor, surrounded by friends, and feeling like she could rage, cry, laugh, shake in front of them, and feeling, all the while, safe in their midst.

Grief is funny in that it is universal – absolutely everyone on the planet will mourn the death of something sometime in their life – but it is also highly individual. Grief levels us all, but it does so in ways which are unique to each person. Grief is, at once, a common denominator and the single best counteraction of homogeny ever.

Our society is terrible at dealing with grief.

We mistake sentimentality for sympathy, projection for empathy. We cluster around people being ‘helpful’ by giving them ‘sympathy’, which often means inflating our lungs and talking about crap things that actually happened to us, and ‘advice’, which often means prescribing activity, reactions, and timeframes for grief that are completely misaligned with the circumstances and personality of the bereaved.

Part of the problem is that our modern society has learnt to try to ignore death, to make it less visible. This means that we have unlearnt any effective responses our ancestors might have had, leaving us to fall back on mawkishness or denial.

Our society often denies people the time and freedom to experience grief adequately. As mentioned in an earlier note on disenfranchised grief, we are not even good at acknowledging when people might need to grieve. Our scope of reference is small and narrow: people can cry – a bit – for dead people, but other things in life we are expected to get over lickety-split. Perhaps we can have one night on the piss if we lose our lover or job, but that’s it.

How has your grief left you feeling about other human beings?

Avoidant or needy? Or a mixture of both depending on the person and / or context?

So, how will you go negotiating new relationships with people in your new work life? Depending on what you do, you could be meeting new colleagues and supervisors, or cultivating new clients. Are you enjoying the distraction from your sadder feelings, feeling a welcome sense of connection to a new community after the disorientation of your job loss, a sense of new potential? Or is it exhausting or making your skin crawl. Do you feel that you have to ‘perform’ competence or collegiality when all you want to do is curl up in a ball?

If the latter, then bad luck. In our society, people stuff can’t be entirely avoided. So, the question then is: how do you cope with performing in public if it feels like a drain on your energy or an intrusion into your need to heal? Can you access counselling or the love of a friend, or should you be more assertive about carving some time out of the day to be alone? You do deserve it, you know.

How do you feel about authority right now, whether that be wielding it or submitting to it? If grief has left you feeling raw or vulnerable then dealing with power dynamics might be hard. If you are feeling numb or preoccupied, your ability to make discerning judgement calls about other people’s intentions or behaviours might be off. I don’t want to put the mockers on you – if you get a great opportunity in your new career or vocation, then go for it. But perhaps be aware that you might need support in taking on a new workplace culture. Or, in the case of someone assembling a team to manage in their new small business, setting up a new hierarchy made up of personalities new to you.

If you are striking out as self-employed, are you proposing to go it alone as a sole-trader or enter into a partnership with someone else? Why? Over the years I have witnessed, and sometimes been involved in, partnerships where, too late, I realised the partnership was formed not because there was a strong business rationale driving the decision to do so but because the person who instigated the whole deal was unconfident or lonely. You can be friends with business partners, but do not make the mistake of inviting someone into a business arrangement if all they are is someone you like hanging out with.

There is a lot of magical thinking about collaborations, that automatically herding folk onto a team will result in gold. When they work, group efforts can produce wonderful outputs while delivering enriching experiences for those involved. But even the best collaborations – by which I mean the most harmonious, productive, and inspiring – are still bloody hard work. Emotional labour, affective labour, communication skills, negotiation skills, assertiveness, and ego maintenance skills all get a huge workout.

Collaborations that go sour are absolute hell, destroying potential in both projects and people.

Starting a micro-business is hard work. If you are processing grief on top of this challenge it is understandable if you might feel in need of support, of having someone else make the journey by your side. But it is important to understand what exactly the support is that you need. If your proposed partner(s) brings skills that will help the actual practice, then they are a good partner to have. If you are inclined to have them on board for moral support or as an act of charity – you want to give them an opportunity – then maybe think again. There are other ways of getting support and advice – line up a mentor, have coffee with a friend, join a networking group. And there are other ways of giving someone else a leg up – mentor them, invite them to your networking groups, write them a testimonial. If their reasoning is clear as to why they should be partners, and they have negotiated terms and boundaries, I don’t see why friends can’t enter into a partnership with each other (although I have met business advisors who frown on this). But friendship isn’t enough to sustain and ground a business partnership.

Other people are wonderful. Other people are aggravating. Other people inspire us. Other people exhaust us. As stated at the beginning of this note, grief made me (temporarily) into a misanthrope, so that probably colours my opinion that most people are bad at grief. If you have a friend who you find to be compatible support for you in your grief, then bind them to you with rings of steel. Otherwise, be assertive about your right to grieve. Be mindful that your (otherwise enriching) grieving process may make you a bit weird or hypersensitive to deal with. Be empathetic of other people in their own unique grieving process. During 2020 there are a lot of you around…

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Middles are perplexing

Middles are perplexing

“Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster. That’s why the most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning.” ~ Sam Shepard

I recently came across this quote from playwright and actor Sam Shepard; I’m unsure of the context he was originally referring to. He may have been referring to the structures of plays, but the quote made me think of the creative process of working through a complex creative project.

The part of the quote that resonated most deeply with me was “middles are perplexing”. But I also agree that beginnings are exciting. You have that light bulb moment, that ‘Eureka!’ epiphany that propels you into the studio or onto your laptop. The potential of your project spins and twinkles in your mind like a new shiny toy. Some people splurge on new equipment to celebrate. The unmarked pages of a writer’s journal or that empty rehearsal studio just beg you to fill them with great new inspirational stuff. Beginnings are exciting. They’re meant to be: your creative self sets out to catapult you into making.

Personally, I wouldn’t describe endings as being a disaster although there is what I call The Big Nothing. For me, there is always an odd phase when a creative project finally grinds or peters or shudders to a halt. Whether it’s been acclaimed or derided, and whether or not you have enjoyed the process, any creative project sucks up an intense amount of imaginative, intellectual, and emotional energy. Back in my dancing days I would end up physically exhausted as well. And some creatives have a practice that takes them on a spiritual journey, too. I used to find that when it all suddenly stopped – when there were no more of extraordinary outlays of energy – then I would feel somewhat disorientated, split between my need to rest but also feeling unused to being consumed by my creative labour. Finishing a project well – learning from it, celebrating it, mourning its shortcomings – is an art form all of its own.

‘Waltz’ from Le ‘Magasin Pittoresque’, August 1840, by Grandville

But it’s the middles of projects that most capture my attention. There is an art to beginning well – conceptualising, scoping, and planning a creative project – and there is an art to finishing well. But the middles have their own particular challenges, their own minefields. This is that part of a project where that exciting beginning is far enough away in the past so that the first rush of blood to the head has faded, and where the finishing line with its hoped for applause and then a chance to rest is still some distance in the future. That part of the project where you have spent just enough time working on it to amass bits and pieces or drafts of work, but not enough time to figure out how to fully realise them into something coherent and engaging. That part of the project where tiredness is starting to seep in, but so is a sober realisation of how much more stamina you will need before you can relax. Where you have had enough time to encounter a few knotty technical, or structural, or conceptual problems so that the hopes and dreams of the light bulb moment are being countered by some nerves or frustration.

That part of the project is perplexing. I used to find this when I worked in performance; I found it to be so when I was writing my books; I witnessed it in other creatives when I was an arts administrator; and I hear about it now when I mentor people.

But it is also a fascinating phase. That hard, sometimes tedious, slog is where the truly rich elements of a creative work are layered down. Regardless of how brilliant or exotic the original concept might have been, it is only going to realise its potential if its is worked with integrity. And this integrity – this realising of technical and conceptual values – is what is ground out of people’s efforts during that middle phase. It is where creatives, too, get to practice. Soldiering on through enough of these middle phases in enough projects leads to proficiency.

Dealing with the perplexity is where people learn about themselves as well. Delivering a complex creative project requires resilience, but, if you do it right, it should embed it within you too. If it doesn’t, then something has gone very wrong with either the project or your creative practice (but that’s a subject for another blog). We all have our own ways of building up resilience; in day-to-day creative work we find out what they are. So, soldiering on through this perplexity leads to a kind of psychological proficiency too.

So, yes, the middle phase is perplexing. It should be. If you want to achieve that ending that “revolves towards another beginning” then you need to work with that complexity and find out what it can teach you.

Necessary evils: grief and dealing with ‘The Establishment’

Necessary evils: grief and dealing with ‘The Establishment’

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

‘Working for the man.’

‘Day job’.

‘Wage slave’.

‘Death and taxes’.

‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…’

There is any number of dour expressions to describe interactions with the establishment. What do I mean by ‘the establishment’? I mean all that pesky… stuff we have to deal with to function and keep ourselves fiscally, legally, and civically nice while we live in this society. Some of this stuff will include things that we are happy to comply with; stuff that, by its presence, keeps our society stable and civil. Years ago, I used to teach small business management at a community centre in an outer suburb of Melbourne. All of the adult learners in my class were migrants, most were from refugee backgrounds and had fled regimes that were dangerously oppressive and corrupt. When we would come to work our way through the various rules and regulations with which they would have to comply, I would come armed with rationales to explain why, although this stuff was boring, compliance was essential. My learners were way ahead of me. “Red tape might be boring,” I heard on more than one instance, “but I come from a country where there was no red tape, or where the officials were untrustworthy. I prefer to be in a country where there’s red tape.”

So far, so edifying. If we’re honest, though, we have to admit that not all aspects of society work as well as they should. Some of this stuff feels burdensome, some of it induces anxiety. In ‘Money’ I referenced an article that talked about arts workers falling behind with their tax paperwork and opined that this was a result of nervousness about dealing with such matters. Centrelink has become so difficult to deal with over the years that I know people who consider it to be an actual risk factor in their lives.

Ways in which the parts of this overarching latticework of rules, laws, obligations, and their bureaucracies might be impacting your life during this weird time may include:

  • Negotiating a rent holiday or freeze with your landlord if you have been without income
  • Having to start looking for a job after your sole-trader practice fell off a cliff when the lockdowns started
  • Applying for a job stacking shelves after you lost your casual work at a university
  • Applying for the JobKeeper wage subsidy from the Australian Tax Office
  • Thinking about the consequences of, and applying for, early release of Superannuation from the Australian Tax office
  • And, of course, applying for Newstart via Centrelink and signing up with a Jobactive Provider.

If you are in grief you may not want to be doing any of this. But if you have lost an income stream you will have to find a way to do it even so. This is tough. Depending on how your grief has affected you, you may be feeling short on physical energy or mental focus or determination, and this stuff demands all of those.

And, perhaps, the cause of your grief – suddenly finding yourself excluded from the way you had chosen to make income or shut out from the workings of your sector – will make your reaction to dealing with the establishment even more acute. In the way you previously worked you had found a place within the establishment. It may have been a harmonious place – doing a job or running a business that you loved. Or it may have been a bit crappy, with you slogging your way up a ladder towards a vocational goal. But, either way, it was a place in the establishment. Now it has gone, and that little place in the broader scheme of things has either been locked down for the duration of the pandemic or you have been excluded from it by job loss. If one part of the establishment is suddenly shut off to you, and the only other part of the establishment that has a place for you is the dole queue, or even just a few months on the JobKeeper subsidy leading into an uncertain future, then a sense of loss may be amplified.

How is grief inflecting your attitudes towards the establishment right now? Have these attitudes shifted from how you felt in the ‘old normal’?

Are you dealing with forms of bureaucracy that you find to be tedious? Constraining? Unnerving? Threatening? If so, what forms of help are available to you to mitigate these effects: free legal advice, counselling services, financial counselling, community advocates, peak bodies?

If you find dealing with some of these entities to be difficult or testing, then it is important that you be aware of whether or not this will compound your grief. Grieving is a temporary phase you will (eventually) pass through. While grieving it is important to get the tricky balance right between allowing yourself to feel whatever it is you have to feel but not to fall into the trap of assuming that these feelings now define you or your future life. Feeling raw or shocked after the loss of a career or vocational pathway is one thing, to then be pummelled by Centrelink’s inefficient and punitive processes is quite another. The problem is, experiencing external negative pressure from, say, Centrelink may serve to reinforce feelings of being bereft, and this could, in turn, lead to feelings of hopelessness and a heightened state of stress. Dealing with Centrelink requires no little amount of resilience, and people in grief may feel lacking in resilience. It is absolutely vital that, if you are dealing with Centrelink, that you make a conscious effort to organise support systems around you to dispense moral, emotional, and informational support. The same goes for any bureaucracy or set of regulations that you find onerous or terrifying.

How have you dealt with establishment stuff in the past? When did you do it well? Make a list of past achievements to remind yourself that you do have strengths: grants successfully applied for and acquitted; projects well-managed; contracts negotiated; complaints you raised and had resolved in your favour; administrators befriended and petty bureaucrats defied. Artists are often characterised as flibbertigibbets or arty-farty wankers. But producing creative work is complex, both logistically and creatively, and many artists tend to overlook just how good they are at rolling out complicated projects. Other workers may have found the same – that society, through ignorance, characterises their work as being less demanding or skilled than it is. Do an audit on your past work; nominate the skills in dealing with establishment stuff; remind yourself that, even when functioning under duress, you have a history of holding your own against the demands of an impersonal civic society…

 

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

Every Wednesday at 9am (AEST) I will be posting an excerpt from these notes (there are quite a few!) but if you don’t want to wait then you can download the entire bundle in PDF format for free HERE.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

Map making

Map making

Traveling our inner lives.

The Saturday Paper has a great column called In Progress, wherein Maddee Clark and Kate Holden talk to artists about the “work they are in the process of making, rather than the work they have completed.” It provides interesting insights into creative process.

Kate Holden, herself an acclaimed author, interviewed international best selling author Garth Nix for one of these columns and I really enjoyed reading it. For example, I liked that Nix is unapologetic about incorporating walking the dog or taking naps into his workday. Being well-rested is essential for creative work, as is carving out thinking time and daydreaming time – the brain shifts into the different gears that are essential for creativity. I personally call it sitting-under-a-tree-and-staring-into-space time.

Another example: I found it interesting that Nix reckons that it takes him years to write a book, with most of that time spent thinking it through inside his own head and mere months writing it all down – “five years thinking about it, six months writing it. So, it took five-and-a-half years.” Of course, we’re all different in how we work but this is a healthy reminder that creative work can’t be rushed. It takes its own sweet time. And also, that the kind of visible labour – writing words onto a page – that our society is pleased to dignify as ‘real’ work is just the tip of the iceberg compared to the invisible but essential work of imagining and thinking.

But the part of the interview that really resonated with me, personally, was in the delightful phrasing of a question by Kate Holden:

“What do you do then, when you reach a bad blockage? You must have a good map by now of your psychological hills and valleys.”

The kind of work I do currently is centred around helping people to sustain creative practice, to explore how their lives, and how their experience of being creative, shapes their sense of resilience and agency, and how that resilience and sense of agency loops back to help them to be creative.

Part of doing this is being able to map out those “psychological hills and valleys”:

What frustrates you? What bores you? What energises you? What unblocks you?

Are you spurred into action by deadlines or word counts, or do these inhibit you?

Are you encouraged, or reassured, or stimulated by group activity, or do you find this draining and find freedom inside your own self when alone?

How are you resourced? What conditions do you create under? Does financial precarity bring anxiety into your life? Or is your time and energy eaten up by full-time work? Do you have to be opportunistic about when and where you create because you are dancing attendance on shift work? Are you surrounded by friends, family, or work colleagues that support you or undermine you?

And so on… We are all different. But, in taking on creative work (and especially complex projects), we are all going to find ourselves wandering up and down those “psychological hills and valleys”. Mapping those out – developing self-awareness and habits of reflexivity – help you to develop the resilience to traverse this inner landscape, and even enjoy the view.