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?