I am interested in how the intersection of our outer and inner lives affects confidence in creativity, trust in the imagination, and the development of narrative both for the individual and the collective.
This blog explores the themes of creative identity and creative process, and the way in which external conditions and life experiences intersect with how we experience these innate but often unsupported parts of our inner lives.
My writing practice overlaps into my mentoring and facilitation practices, and you can read more about those here.
I am pleased to announce that two resources I have been developing are now on sale:
Most of the people who replied told me about creative things they do like painting or making a garden or developing recipes or playing music. I really enjoyed hearing about these things.
I asked this question because I was curious as to how people would interpret the question? Would they answer ‘I’m good at drawing’ or ‘I’m good at conceptualising’, ‘I’m good at playing the banjo’ or ‘I’m good at linking disparate ideas’? Or would they tweet ‘Depends what you mean by creative skills’ which is a fair question.
Because, of course, being creative can mean knitting or acting or composing. But it also entails other skills. One of my tweeters replied “Questioning is the ultimate creative skill IMO”; another, a professional artist, said “Making a mess, encouraging others to do likewise” and these guys were nodding in this other direction, towards the other skillset required to be creative. Regardless of what your creative field is, there are skills that need to sit behind your technical skills in writing or sculpting or dressmaking. These are things like recognising patterns, or problem-solving, or designing an artistic process.
Over the years I have heard creativity discussed in different forums, ranging from studios in the arts industry to classrooms in community centres to meeting rooms in large bureaucracies. I have read blogs written by corporate consultants, artists, and workplace trainers alike on the subject. And I have learnt that creativity is often in the eye of the beholder, and ‘creativity / creative skills’ are often what the loudest voice in the blogosphere says they are at the time. And this does make sense, as different projects and fields will require different skills and qualities to manifest creativity in different contexts.
Over the last year I have found myself connecting with educators who are specialising in nurturing creativity in young people. Out of curiosity I did a little research into how schools might be defining creativity skills. I found two curriculum frameworks I liked, that resonated with my own thinking:
Inquiring – identifying, exploring and organising information and ideas
Generating ideas, possibilities and actions
Reflecting on thinking and processes
Analysing, synthesising and evaluating reasoning and procedures.
I particularly liked the way that ACARA amalgamated critical and creative thinking. All too often creative process (especially artistic work) is described as being all about the imagination accessed through disinhibition. But, in my own experience as an arts worker and also as an arts manager observing other artists at work, creative process is about an interplay between the imagination, intuition, intellect, and emotional intelligence. If you stay solely in the realm of the imagination then how are you going to bring everything to fruition? The thing that turns daydreams into finished works of art is this interplay between different cognitions and other qualities within each creative individual. The key to developing a sustainable creative process is understanding how to nurture the right balance between these elements, and how to adapt that balance for different projects, conditions, and stages of development.
As a creative mentor, meta-cognition is a large part of what I do. Reflexivity is so important to developing creative process and I love helping people to carve out a little pocket of time and psycho-social space in which they can draw breath and ruminate on where they find themselves as creative identities and how they feel about that. And so often, in their reflections, my clients demonstrate the qualities listed above – curiosity, open-mindedness, imagination, and problem solving skills. And it is so obvious to me what their strengths are but, in the hurly burly of everyday life, they don’t always spot it in themselves.
So, alongside allowing yourself to feel pride in any prowess you might have in technical skills such as singing or writing poetry or Tik Toking, it is important to become aware of your personal strengths when it comes to how you, as a person, navigate your way through your attempts at being creative. This is how you embed resilience in your creative process or, if you don’t have time for a creative process right now, your resilience in the very idea that you are innately creative.
Do you want to reflect playfully and imaginatively on what your creativity skills or qualities might be? Buy my workbook ‘Relate: A resource for connecting to your creative self’ https://etsy.me/2VNMQgJ
‘Disenfranchised grief’. Ever heard of it? It’s most definitely a thing – a recognised form of grief.
I define grief as a reaction to the radical loss of something that was central to your life. It’s an umbrella term that covers a wide and varying range of emotions, reactions, and behaviours. We often think of grief as something that happens when a beloved and close family member or friend dies, and many of our conventionally accepted rituals of grief are centred around this.
But note that I said “something”, rather than “someone dear” in the paragraph above? That’s because that sense of radical loss can also be attached to other people and things: ex-spouses, abusive parents, estranged family members, jobs, pets, businesses, and even events can all be grieved over. Perhaps the reasons are different compared to those that drive grief for someone dear to you, but their absence can still bring up sadnesses, regrets, anxieties, and a profound urge to recognise and process that absence.
Disenfranchised grief happens when someone feels a grief that is not recognised or expected in the eyes of society:
“Bereavement expert Kenneth Doka calls this ‘disenfranchised grief’. He coined the term in 1989 to capture this feeling of loss that no one seems to understand and that you don’t feel entitled to. ‘Disenfranchised grief refers to a loss that’s not openly acknowledged, socially mourned or publicly supported,’ he says.”
How is our grief being disenfranchised?
In 2020, I wrote The next day: A bundle of notes on grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless in response to the job losses and industry shutdowns experienced during lockdowns because I was concerned that the very real grief that was being felt by many who experienced a loss of vocation would be a form of disenfranchised grief. I wanted to talk to an experience of grief that would probably be brushed aside as a side-story to an economic event. In a sense, given how widespread this vocational displacement was, the grief over loss of vocation was also a collective grief.
Right now, I sense that my networks in Melbourne are undergoing collective grief over our forced transition from a community that enjoyed low rates of community infections of Covid to a community who is dealing with a rapidly growing outbreak that effectively rules out a return to our former state of either small and brief outbreaks or no infections at all. I write more about my reasoning behind my idea that we are undergoing collective grief here.
The reason why I am writing these blogs about collective grief is that I don’t think that we live in a very grief-literate society. Even when my mother died in 2019 – an event that society was happy to acknowledge as one deserving of grief – I found the reactions of many people to be clumsy, crude, and unhelpful. It was as if they had no idea what to say or do. When I talk about grieving for a vocation, or over Melbourne’s recent travails, then people look at me askance. They think I’m wrong: ‘I’m not in grief. I just cry all the time, can’t sleep, or concentrate on my work because of lockdown and the way I wish things were as they were before. But I’m not in grief.’ So, our lack of grief-literacy leads to groupthink in which we deny our own collective grief.
But there is another disenfranchisement of Melbourne, and perhaps other community, grief that has been happening which is far more egregious and sinister. And this disenfranchisement is not the result of unthinking alignment to societal norms around grief; it is quite deliberate.
During 2020 and 2021, the Melbourne community has suffered constant trolling by the Murdoch owned press as well as criticism from our own federal government. The public health strategies that were successful in 2020 and early 2021 at controlling outbreaks of Covid, but which cost the public undertaking the strategies dear, were railed against by journalists and editors working for News Ltd and also by our Prime Minister, federal Treasurer and federal Health Minister. Our state government leaders, who have done everything they could to keep us alive, were denounced as power-hungry or inept, and the public who chose to commit to our state public health strategies were jeered at as “sheeple” or as suffering Stockholm Syndrome. A fair share of vaccinations, income support, and other considerations have been hard wrung from our federal government and given begrudgingly.
During 2020, Victorians suffered through one of the longest and toughest lockdowns of anywhere in the world up to that date. This lockdown was also successful in driving down rates of infections to zero. We deserve to be proud of our effort, but it was achieved through real sacrifice. We have never been thanked by our federal government or, I believe, News Ltd. and our collective griefs – over a loss of freedom, agency, sense of safety, or finances – have never been acknowledged. Instead, we have been denounced repeatedly as a rogue state, a problem community.
This heaping up of abuse was relentlessly layered down on top of our experience of living with anxiety, tedium, loneliness, frustration, and, for some, fear for extended periods of time during lockdowns. As I write this in September of 2021, I can detect a lowness, manifesting as anger in some of us, depression in others, hopelessness and apathy in others still, that is lower than any other collective mood I have noticed so far. Partly this is due to real grief over the current state of affairs (a runaway Delta outbreak seeded here in Melbourne due to another state’s desultory incompetence) but it is also due, I think, to the fact that this grief we currently feel, and all of the complex feelings and thoughts that came before it in 2020, have been utterly denied and dismissed by our federal government and many in the media.
Grief is hard.
It’s yuck. But, embraced, it can also be profound and enriching. Grief shows us things about ourselves by amplifying our feelings about what we are mourning: the qualities or values or conditions that we miss so badly give us clues as to what is important for us right now. And in these insights lie the paths to healing, resilience, recovery, and the capacity for future joy.
Disenfranchising grief blocks that. By forcing us into a stance of psychological defence each time they denied or cheapened or offended our collective grief, those political and media ‘leaders’ drew off energy, focus, resilience, and emotion that we needed to deal with our grief. This was a terrible thing to do to our community.
Last year I wrote ‘The next day: A bundle of notes on #grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’. People have lost their place in the world. How do they grieve for that? I wrote some notes on how to start unpacking grief over being displaced in the world.
You might find it helpful. And I most definitely need the cash. Available here.
Feeling sad and mournful? Or perhaps angrier than usual? Maybe your emotions are volatile, swinging from one state to another at breakneck speed? Or are you just numb, moving through your days in a deadened state?
How are your energy levels? Maybe you’re feeling apathetic or listless, like everything is too much trouble? Perhaps you are feeling a little manic, compelled to burn up nervous energy? Are you sleeping more than usual, or insomniac?
Right now, Melbourne, where I live, is slogging through our 6th lockdown. As I write this, we have been in a total of 230 days in lockdown since our first began in March 2020. So many people around me are reporting in via social media, phone, Zoom, and email that they are feeling, well, crap. Not themselves. Bent out of shape. Prone to mood swings, disrupted sleep patterns, or with patchy concentration. And struggling to maintain motivation, hope, patience, a sense of proportion, or long-term thinking.
I have friends who are reacting in different ways, variously experiencing tearfulness, apathy, fear, pessimism and other moods or emotions that are uncharacteristic and disproportionate. Using myself as one example, I regularly feel anger: bitter and black-hearted. I’m not usually like this; I have to fight the impulse to be cruel every day. But I have insight into why I feel like this and that helps.
People are wondering ‘what is wrong with me?’
We all know that we are exhausted by lockdown and then Covid in general. And here in Australia we have good cause to be angered, disappointed, and cynical about some of our politicians who have bungled quarantine and vaccination programs and, in NSW, lockdown measures, leaving us a population with too many people unvaccinated (through no fault of their own) while at the mercy of Delta outbreaks. So, there are plenty of reasons for Aussies to feel fatigue, stress, and frustration.
But the dark moods and disorientation I am noticing in Melbourne have a particular flavour during lockdown #6, I think. And I have a theory as to what it is that is affecting my networks.
If you are asking yourself ‘what is wrong with me?’ then have you considered that you might be in grief?
Grief is a word that gets bandied about, often used to describe depression or trauma more generally. But, in the context of this blog, I am using it very specifically.
I define grief as a response to the radical absence of something that was important to your life. And I think that Melbourne, or that part of Melbourne I know or can observe, is in a state of grief.
Recently, Melbourne has lost something. Last year we used lockdown, mask-wearing, social distancing, and other public health measures with great efficacy to drive down a big second wave of Covid, from many hundreds of infections a day to zero. We didn’t enjoy it, it was hard, it cost us, but it did work. Collectively, we were brave and disciplined. We stopped Covid from getting out of control not just in our own state but from spreading across the country. We bought Australia some time.
In the first half of 2021 we enjoyed weeks at a time with no or only a few community transmissions of Covid. When small spikes did happen then we resorted to short circuit-breaker lockdowns to drive the infection rate back down to zero. We all badly wanted (and still want) to be done with lockdowns, and looked forward to being vaccinated but, at least we were living a reasonably calm and safe life and knew that we had strategies in hand to control small outbreaks.
This state of affairs has been taken away from us.
It has been taken away from us by a federal government that bungled quarantine and vaccination. It has been taken away from us by the NSW government not controlling their own Delta outbreak (which then spread across state borders to infect Melbourne). These politicians have been incompetent and negligent in their duty of care to their communities to a sociopathic degree. Their lazy, dishonest, callously careless, and delinquently inadequate approach has imposed upon us an outbreak that, this time, has spread rapidly. Our state premier, whose government has tried so hard to keep Covid at bay over the last 20 months, has finally had to admit that we will never see zero community infections again.
We did not choose this.
A set of conditions under which we could effectively control outbreaks has been wrenched away from us. Other federal and state politicians from outside of our own state, encouraged and abetted by their corporate cheerleaders and the Murdoch press, have pissed on our public health achievements from a great height. For the first time in months, we have people in ICU in Melbourne hospitals. For the first time since 2020, some poor souls have died.
Now we have to live with not just another long lockdown and general anxiety about Covid, but a sense that something that, just a few weeks ago, was possible and achievable will now never be achieved by us again. So, this is why I think we are processing grief. We are dealing with a loss.
I don’t enjoy experiencing grief (who does?) but I do find it a fascinating state and do believe that having awareness that you may be in grief helps. It has helped me to understand my strange rage – I still feel angry but I have a sense of where that anger is coming from. This sense of orientation helps me to resist its worst impulses.
So here are some pointers about grief:
Grief is not just one emotion, but more of an umbrella term that covers a whole range of emotions, reactions, and behaviours that make themselves felt in the emotional, psychological, physical, behavioural, and spiritual realms. (For a list of symptoms of grief, click here).
You are entitled to your grief, so give yourself permission to be a little emotional or unhinged. Watch out for recklessness, though, as this can be another manifestation of grief. You are entitled to feel the feels and think your thoughts but not entitled to get reckless with someone else’s safety. So, non-mask wearers, if your grief is manifesting as “Fuck it, everything’s useless” then you still have to wear your damned mask.
You can feel grief over things or people you didn’t like or had mixed or ambiguous feelings about. Even if something you hated, like living in lockdown, is suddenly yanked away, and that thing was central to your life, you may still feel a weird sort of grief: you still have to process its absence and the ramifications of that.
Finally, I believe that a healthy grieving process can be an enriching and profound experience, if an uncomfortable or challenging one. But watch out for complicated grief, which is where you get stuck in your grief and start to experience depression. Educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of depression and do not hesitate to get help if you feel that you are affected.
Apologies to my interstate and overseas readers for this Melbourne-centric blog, but I have badly wanted to reach out to my fellow Melbournites who, I can see, are struggling right now. I don’t think I have ever seen us so collectively low. If you are reading this and from outside of Melbourne, perhaps you can ask yourself if your community, too, is processing grief over things that belonged to a pre-Covid life that have been ripped away.
Wherever you live, before you chide yourself and ask, ‘what’s wrong with me?’ perhaps consider that you may be experiencing grief. In which case nothing is wrong with you. You are just being human.
Last year I wrote ‘The next day: A bundle of notes on #grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’. People have lost their place in the world. How do they grieve for that? I wrote some notes on how to start unpacking grief over being displaced in the world.
You might find it helpful. And I most definitely need the cash. Available here
Maybe it’s the cliché of the artiste starving in the garret. Maybe it’s because making creative work is challenging. But, somehow and often, people talk about their creative lives as some kind of travail. Social media is full of writers bemoaning their writer’s blocks, or the head-banging frustration of editing or rewriting content that doesn’t quite feel right. Similarly, people who act, paint, compose, or invent shiver in fear of being denounced as idiots and impostors. So many of us feel that our flights of inspiration fall down to earth with an ignominious clunk when faced by the cold hard reality of teasing our ideas out of our imaginations and into some kind of tangible process and output. As a creative mentor I often talk to people who are frustrated because they don’t think they are being as creative as they could be for [reasons]. And now lockdown is finished (or, depending on where you are in the world, nearly finished) and no one wrote King Lear.
It’s good to get your worries and anxieties off your chest. And great if, in the process of doing so, you discover that you aren’t Robinson Crusoe. But does talk of being creative or of making creative work or developing creative process always have to be negative?
Have you noticed that when things go right people will tell you curtly that they are ‘good’ or ‘great’ and that’s that? But when things go wrong, these same people with deliver a monologue, detailing their personal failings in rigorous and colourful detail. Delivering these monologues can be highly therapeutic and, as a professional listener, I encourage people to do it. But why can’t we invest the same energy and avid focus on detailing the things that delight us. Especially within ourselves.
‘Especially within ourselves.’ There’s the rub. We have been coached into believing that to be humble or a good learner or to cultivate grown-up levels of self-accountability we have to favour focusing on the negative rather than the positive. And failure, perhaps, does have a natural pull on our attention given how much it hurts and nags and prickles us.
A disproportionately solid diet of negativity does nothing for our sense of resilience or our boldness, and creative work needs both. Surely being reflective about your creative work in the service of being accountable for your attitudes and behaviours means being honest and avoiding bias in self-assessment. And as undesirable as it is to be too soft on yourself, nor is it useful or healthy to be too harsh or gloomy.
“Happiness, too, can be precise.”
It’s important to put an equal amount of energy and focus into the parts of our inner lives that give us joy. That – shock, horror! – we might even like about ourselves. A way of sending this energy and attention to these parts of ourselves is to find ways of expressing or articulating them, even to within the privacy of our own minds, with precision. If you find it all too easy to complain about how non-creative you are or the ways in which your creative output falls short, balance this out with challenging yourself to identify what it is that you do ‘right’. And in terms of creativity, this ‘right’ will look different from person to person and situation to situation. It could look like playfulness, joy, comfort, hope, stimulation, satisfaction, groundedness, or fun.
Get precise. Find that part of yourself that does create, or which yearns to, and describe it in specific and vivid terms to yourself. Bask in the way it makes you feel. The self-recriminations or doubts will come, and you will need all your resilience and boldness to deal with them when they do.
I have devised thought-exercises and simple word-games as conversational prompts for me to use in mentoring dialogues or workshops to encourage people to explore and articulate their creative skills and identities. I decided to write them down and share them. The result is Relate: A resource for connecting to your creative self. You can buy it here.
I mentor people about creativity, specifically about learning to identify and relate to their creative selves, to trust their imagination and other creative cognitions or qualities, and to develop a creative process that works with the conditions under which they have to live their lives.
When I talk with my (wonderful) clients I often like to ask:
‘As a creative person, what are your strengths?’
It has often struck me that people find this question hard to answer, sometimes out of shyness or a lack of confidence but sometimes because they have never really thought about it. I get the impression that they simply have no framework or vocabulary to apply to this vital part of their personality.
Our society distrusts creative people. As evidence, see how often artists are decried and denounced as being wankers and airheads, and how willing politicians are to cut arts funding as a waste of public money. Our society also makes very little room for creativity – the way the organisations we work in are historically structured and enculturated to mitigate against the risky, messy, experimental nature of creative work, often in the interest of making us all conform to standardised norms of professional activity.
So, as someone keenly interested in how people experience their individual sense of creativity, and whether they can manifest it somehow, I am interested in and horrified at how our society leeches the confidence, time, and energy for people to explore their creative selves and how those selves might find expression.
Creativity is a human quality; we are an innately creative species. You can’t be human and not be creative. As universally shared as this aspect of our humanity is, the really lovely thing is that creativity does not manifest in the same way in any of us. When we talk about ‘creativity’ we are talking about a large range of qualities, talents, instincts, and skills that are honed or nourished (or neglected or denied) by life and work experiences, including upbringing, education and training, paid and unpaid work, and the attitudes of the other humans we share our lives with.
We are all walking around as these richly complex and abundantly fascinating sentient bundles of creativity but so many of us do not get the chance to explore or celebrate this. Too many people, when tasked with focusing on this part of their inner landscape, appear to be disorientated.
As a mentor, I wanted to help my clients identify and express this part of themselves. As a counterbalance to the negative internal commentary that many people have running in their heads about their creativity, I put together some exercises that I thought might help people shift their thinking. I wanted to give people an ‘in’ when it came to exploring a part of their personality that may not have been fully appreciated, and I wanted to support people in being able to relate to this aspect of themselves playfully, imaginatively, and lovingly.
Although I started out devising these exercises as simple conversational prompts for me to use in mentoring dialogues or workshops, I decided to write them down and share them. The result is Relate: A resource for connecting to your creative self.
I am proud to announce to launch of Relate. I hope that it can be a support for people exploring there creativity. You can buy it here.
Making creative work can be a lonely business, certainly for people working by themselves on a book or composition or artwork or some other solo enterprise, but even for people who are a part of a small team of collaborators who are just – ‘just’? – seeing the same people and hearing the same voices while working on their creative project.
It follows, therefore, that creators can feel bored / isolated / hemmed in / unnerved / disorientated by occupying the same mind (or hive mind) day after day. So, it’s natural for creators to want to connect with other human beings to feel less alone and to access friendly encouragement, or motivational pep talks, or just a good listening ear in which to rant. It’s also natural that, as technical or aesthetic challenges arise during the work in progress, creators might also want to access more technical instruction. A creative working process can be a complex undertaking, messy and demanding to establish and maintain during the undertaking of an equally complex project. Creators may need to analyse, unpack, debrief, and seek guidance on aspects of this working process such as the management of time, energy, focus, and other (more material) resources.
All the above are valid reasons for a creator to reach out for support. Not all of them are necessarily about asking for feedback. But not all creators are as conscious of this as they could be, and there are societal expectations around the valorising of showing raw work and receiving brutally candid feedback. In my experience in the arts industry, I felt there were too many times when I saw artists (from a variety of art forms) emerge from their studios – blinking in the sunlight and tenderised raw by the demands of making work – only to be subjected to a barrage of criticism that left them reeling (and perhaps unable to process feedback as objectively as they might have). Yes, their work needed feedback – and they did know that – but they, as creators, needed other sorts of support – different types of dialogue – first and as well.
My advice to feedback-seekers is to be mindful as to what kinds of support – be it mentoring, or cheer-leading, or feedback – you ask for. And feedback-givers need to be mindful as well.
When someone approaches you to ask for feedback, perhaps test the waters conversationally to ascertain as to whether they do want feedback or some other sort of dialogue? You can do this by asking what they want feedback on, or how they have felt about working on the project.
If they can answer with specific details about what in their project works or not, or if they have questions about the impact it has, then they probably do want feedback. But if their answer is vague or veers into their subjective experience of making the work then maybe they need mentoring or a debrief?
You can always move onto feedback-giving later. And if you do, then you will find the creator more inclined to be receptive to what you say.
Feedback is essential for the making of good creative work, but it is something that many of us do badly. There are many feedback-giving sins. This blog deals with one of them.
A common fault among feedback givers is that they tend to tell you how they would have done your piece of work if they had been you, its creator, instead of telling you how experiencing it affected them.
They don’t comment on the work that exists – the work that you made. They comment on how a hypothetical work – a work that exists only in their imagination – could look. They compare your actual draft to their pie in the sky fantasy, and find the actual work wanting.
When people, in the guise of giving you feedback, undertake to ‘correct’ your work by trying to change it into what they would do they’ve missed the point of giving feedback. Worse still, they sometimes latch onto your project in a way that is almost parasitic. In the past, especially during my theatrical existence, I used to have people who would try to muscle in on the making of the work. Having blithely speculated on how they would have crafted the material differently to the way I did, they would then announce, uninvited, that they would be happy to give me a hand.
But I didn’t necessarily want this. Their vision for the work was not the same as mine – they had demonstrated this to me by not addressing the work I had made but by inflating their lungs and talking about the imaginary work that lived only in their heads.
Asking for feedback is not an invitation to collaborate.
And not addressing, specifically and directly, the content in front of you with thoughtful and constructive feedback does not advertise you as a good potential collaborator.
If you give feedback, then you must focus on commenting on the content that exists. If seeing that work inspires other thoughts then be quite clear whose head they exist within, i.e., yours. If you can act on those inspirations without plagiarising the extant draft your friend or peer has shown you then go ahead. If you can’t then tough; respect the work that someone else has put together through their own sweat, blood, and tears. Turn away from your fantasy.
If you would really love to collaborate with the creator who has just asked you for feedback, then tell them so. Tell them what you liked about their work instead of instructing them to change it. Tell them that their work has kickstarted your imagination but accept that this might not be the right time for them, as immersed in their own project as they will be, to want to know how.
If you are giving feedback, then remind yourself to respond to the work in front of you. If you feel impelled to make suggestions, first make sure you understand the intentions behind the work – what the creator is hoping to achieve – and then only give advice if it supports those intentions.
Otherwise, accept that this is not your project to play around with and that a possible collaboration with the creator may not happen during a project that has been under way before you gave feedback on it. Giving constructive and honest feedback with sensitivity will demonstrate your ability to be creative. If the creator wants to hear more about your suggestions, or even to invite you on board, they will feel encouraged to respond by your constructive and respectful approach.
“If you have to shoot an arrow of truth, first dip its point in honey.” – Paulo Coelho, The Archer
Receiving feedback can feel like a fraught experience for the creative who has just shown their new work to someone. Earlier this year, novelist Eleni Hale tweeted:
“Waiting for feedback on a #WIP is a special kind of torture.”
We all know that getting feedback is an essential part of the creative process. Having been immersed in a work that is important to you, it is all too easy to lose perspective and to become blind to your work’s strengths and weaknesses. But it is this very act of immersing yourself in your work – living and breathing it so that it almost becomes a part of you – that makes the act of offering it up to the scrutiny of others feel so raw and risky.
“Every time I read that someone’s said something bad about me, I sob… I stop writing… I lose my appetite, I smoke less, I exercise, I go for walks along the shore… and I ask the seagulls, whose ancestors ate the fish that ate Ulysses, why me…” ― Roberto Bolaño
Not everyone reacts quite as strongly as Bolano, but most of us have received feedback that has made us cringe and feel disheartened. The popular take on this reaction is that most of us have egos that don’t want to hear anything but fulsome praise for our creative work. And maybe there is some truth in that.
But over the years, especially in my work as an arts administrator where I was a third-party witness to creatives giving and receiving feedback to each other, I have grown to realise that many of us are actually quite bad at giving feedback, that the cringe-inducing reactions were not always down to the vanity of the creator but rather the brutality of the feedback-giver.
Giving feedback is a privilege and responsibility. There is a skill to it, to achieving a balancing act whereby honesty about a work-in-progress’ flaws and strengths can be expressed so constructively that the creator feels inspired and reassured by that same honesty.
There is even something of a skill for asking for and analysing feedback. Creatives can make life a lot easier for themselves if they are mindful and specific as to how they frame a request for feedback, and then filter out the useful feedback from the inappropriate.
In my mentoring work I have talked with people who were left discouraged or confused by non-constructive feedback. This has inspired me to write a resource – a collection of notes – to help people with the feedback-giving process.
Arrows and honey: how to give, ask for, and analyse feedback on creative projects looks at what constitutes useful and constructive feedback, analyses the major feedback giving sins, and lays out some provocations to help you shift your thinking around the experience of giving and receiving feedback so that it becomes more positive.
I wish I’d taken my phone with me on my walk beside the creek early this morning. I would have liked to get a couple of photos. One was of a cyclist I saw who had zipped his whippet snugly into his backpack. The idea pleased me: I feel that all cyclists should have a whippet in a backpack so that when they stop at traffic lights they can feel, against their back, its body gently shift and settle in the backpack, or hear it sigh into their hair.
The other photo I wished I could’ve taken was of two glorious black swans solicitously tending their cygnet, which, as the legend instructed me as a child, was indeed ugly (but cute): a deflated football covered in grey fluff.
And perhaps it was thinking of ugly ducklings growing into beautiful things – or not – that turned my thoughts to the mess of writing that currently infests my laptop. As I write this, my computer is littered with documents containing strange drafts that I thought were going to be great but, now that I’ve spent some time with them, I can see aren’t. But I only know that now that I’ve tried to write them.
I also have tottering piles of notes-to-self: light bulb moments, scribbled down in a moment of excitement. I regularly go through these and cull most of them. Many no longer make any sense, while the meaning of the rest may be evident, but I find myself wondering why I got so excited about them in the first place. Some even make it to the stage where I do some research on them, resulting in a folder of photocopies, handwritten notes, and newspaper articles, only to find that I’ve disappeared up an imaginative and intellectual blind alley.
But then there are the ideas, research projects, and drafts I stick with. With a magpie mind like mine, I find it best if I regularly clean out my files – both digital and paper – to weed out dead projects, otherwise I would drown in them. But some I hold onto, sometimes for years, before finding a way to bring them to fruition. I’m often not sure what I will do with them – whether they will become a blog, a pamphlet, a zine, a resource, a book, or a workshop. Keeping a hold of them is an act of faith, like discovering a sentient deflated football covered in grey fluff and knowing it will become some kind of a bird if allowed to live, but not even being sure if that bird will turn out to be a swan or not.
So how can you pick the difference? At the beginning, it’s not always easy. Sometimes the piece of writing is an ugly duckling that, with enough care, can grow up into a swan. And sometimes it turns out to just be a deflated football.
This morning during my walk, I was thinking all of this through and then it hit me. To switch analogies from swans to romance, it’s a bit like the difference between infatuation and love. You meet someone, you feel attracted, maybe even smitten. For a little while, this someone exerts a fascination over you. And then that starts to wear off and you realise that it was just a crush. But every now and again, even after the fascination has started to pall, and you’ve started to notice the wrinkles and the bad habits, you still persevere with it, continue to invest energy into the relationship and learn about this other and about the way you are in relation to this other, and then you realise that it’s love.
Starting all of those funny little drafts and research projects are like dating: you respond to an attraction or the opportunity to have a little fun. You give things a try and, mostly, end up thinking after a while “what the hell was I thinking?”
But, to find an object worthy of devotion, you still have to flirt a bit, go on a few dates, try a few things on for size. Because you never know before you try.
Are you trying to figure out where to invest your energy creatively?
I mentor professionals working on complex creative projects and help them to map their way from scary beginnings, through the messy middle to a meaningful resolution. My clients regain their creative confidence & the resilience required to finish their projects.
The performing arts and writing are very different art forms, demanding quite different approaches, techniques, and processes. Do they have anything to do with each other as a practice?
My creative practice has spanned a few different vocations. During my muscly sinewy youth, I was a performer and choreographer; later I moved into arts administration and management, while keeping my hand in with a little choreography and acting. In recent years I have turned to writing; in 2018, I published my first book.
Writing that book took two years, and that writing process came off the back of years of recreational research and thinking. I loved the process of writing that book, even when I didn’t. I forget what it was that prompted me to begin; I do know that the writing process spanned two years of very difficult and disorientating conditions in my private life. But through it all I kept writing. Chipping away at the book in evenings, weekends, and ‘holidays’. In fact, in a way, writing the book was a grounding experience. I felt that so much of my life had been swept away by my struggle to just survive each day that I wanted to keep just one promise to myself, to keep on doing one thing that really mattered just to me.
And so, even during the times when I wasn’t sure if I could finish, or do good quality work, I kept plugging away. Writing is fascinating but it is also hard work. Sometimes torturously so. Over the course of a long creative project there are plenty of opportunities for your inner demons to make themselves known. They question the worth of your project, the validity of your ideas, the sanity of your approach. They detail the opprobrium your finished work will attract and speculate on whether there is an audience for it at all. As you tap away at your manuscript, alone, late at night or in the grip of tiredness on what is supposed to be your day off, the little buggers line up inside your mind and shout their lines.
But finish I did. I generally do. And, in between swatting my demons away, I managed to enjoy parts of the writing, and be interested in the others. I learned a huge amount, and by the time I did finish, bone-weary, I was able to see my manuscript’s shortcomings as things I looked forward to tackling in my next book.
I’m a good finisher, even when I produce bad or mediocre work. By this I mean that I reflect, learn, and get ready to do it all again*. So, what sustained me during the writing of my book? And, even more importantly, during the writing of my first book, which saw me learn, on the hoof, about sustaining narrative, tone, and themes over a much longer arc than that afforded by a blog?
I walked away from my earlier career in performance and arts management due to poor health caused by burnout. This was a healthy decision but also the cause of grief. In the years that followed, I puzzled over what decades of effort had meant – had been worth – if anything. And then, while I was writing the book, I had a surprise.
Sitting on the shoulder opposite to the one occupied by the demons I had an angel, who knew what to whisper into my ear to counter the damnations offered up by my shadow selves.
“You know what this is,” it said when I descended into a mid-project funk. “You’ve been here before.”
“You’re not going to do anything while you’re sulking like this,” it suggested another time. “Get away from your laptop. Take a walk. Get some fresh air. And think about your writing while you walk. That will help.”
Later still: “Ignore that demon. Don’t stop. Keep writing. Push on through.” And so on.
The angel seemed to always know what to say, when to encourage, admonish, absolve, or challenge according to the stage the writing was at and the mood I was in. It always seemed to be able to find a way to keep pushing the project forward through doubt, exhaustion, or writer’s block. It seemed to have endless life hacks to help manage energy, time, priorities, and complex ideas.
“You know what this is. You’ve been here before.”
Who was the angel? It was my younger self. The performer. The arts manager. The choreographer. The brave one. The reckless but determined one. The one who had tried and tried and tried to make good work. The one I had had to retire because she burnt herself out but who, as it turned out, had also been reflecting and making notes during all of those earlier years of effort. The performing arts are a very different art form to writing. But all art forms are demanding: all see creators plonked into the middle of a challenging process geared towards rolling out a complex creative project. All require resilience, the ability to stay the course.
It was quietly amazing to rediscover this other self, sitting soberly inside my own head, not wishing to duplicate the bad habits or regrets of the past but to share a hoard of self-knowledge and experience to help me to not only finish my projects but to help me be enriched by them.
During the two years of writing my book it was the dancer self I used to be that coached the writer I wanted to become. The depth of experience I had from earlier creative practices sat comfortably beside a first-time book author learning by doing.
I took two things from this: The first is that nothing is ever wasted, the wisdom we often go seeking outside of ourselves can live within. And the second is that self-knowledge is the key to sustaining creative practice.
*That’s not to say I have never quit anything. I have! Sometimes it’s the healthiest thing you can do. But that’s the subject for another blog.
Making creative work can be tough, asking us to be vulnerable, take risks, maybe even fail. If you are struggling with your sense of creative identity or have hit a rough patch in your creative process, then maybe my mentoring sessions can support you? Contact me to organise a brief chat (either on the phone or face to face or on Zoom) about what you’re up to, where you want to go and how I can help?