Angel on my shoulder

Angel on my shoulder

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.

Raphael

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?

Laying foundations

Laying foundations

I recently read an essay – In the bird cage: Finding out what funny is – by Steve Martin in The New Yorker describing his earliest years as a working comedian.

As he tells it, Martin started off performing family friendly theatre at a rural tourist park and worked his way into performing comedy routines.

Nowadays we all know Steve Martin as a hugely successful comedian (my favourite film of his is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). His comedy always looks effortless, even while his performances are marked by high energy. So, what struck me in his essay was how many years it took him to find his style as a comedian, how many different approaches he tried – from old fashioned ‘Dad jokes’ to Avant Garde shenanigans – and how much he described himself as searching and being unsure as to what kind of comedian he wanted to evolve into. The subtitle to his essay – “finding out what funny is” – is apt.

Not to put too fine a point on it, his early routines sound a bit lame. By his own admission, he ‘pilfered’ what were already standard jokes from the routines of other comedians. But he pays tribute to these efforts as well, noting that in his earlier humble bookings he was at least able to clock up precious stage-time:

“I strung together everything I knew: some comedy juggling, a few standard magic routines, a couple of banjo songs, and some very old jokes. My act was eclectic, and it would take ten more years for me to make sense of it. However, the opportunity to perform four or five times a day gave me confidence and poise. Even though my material had few distinguishing features, the repetition helped me lose my amateur rattle.”

Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

And this is what I value about his essay: One of the world’s most famous comedians revealing that his apparently natural style was the result of years of slog; that the early path to being hailed a star was littered with average performances, mediocre material, and a few failures.

Behind every overnight success in the arts I have witnessed lies a similar story. You can only get to be good at your creative process if you’re prepared to experiment, sit in uncertainty, risk failure and perhaps embarrassment, and put in the hours.

And yet, we are sold the myth of creative epiphany. Countless movies show great artistes responding feverishly to a burst of inspiration to dash off masterpieces. The problem is when real people – not movie characters or celebrities propped up by an entourage – start trying to produce creative work, they get bogged down in the slog and challenged by uncertainty or a realisation that there are no guarantees for producing good work, that all creative work is risky. If they have internalised unrealistic expectations, they can feel dismayed and assume that they are the problem.

It is easily done, especially when mastering a new technique, say, or working on a complex project. When the excitement of the beginning phase of the project is far enough behind you, and the fulfillment of the finishing line lays still far ahead, you have had just enough time to get yourself into mischief by creating some work but not enough to figure out how to bring it all together. It can be so easy to feel marooned in amongst all of the rough, scrappy, unfinished, unpolished pieces that you have churned out. This is when it is vital to be reminded that, in real life, making creative work is slow and mastering creative skill is gradual.

Martin’s essay details various influences he had as a youngster, ranging from performers he shared the stage with to old girlfriends to subjects he studied at university. He doesn’t record any moments of epiphany. Rather he seems to describe a young life of quiet determination to accrue experience, notch up stage-time, and try out material. And it’s good to be reminded that this work – this layering down of experience including the mediocre with the good – is the foundation that resilient creative process is be all about.

Mercy Killing

Mercy Killing

In the days after I killed my vocation, I felt at a loss.

My newly dead vocation – as an independent performing artist – had demanded intense amounts of time, energy, focus, and resilience. Vampire-like, it sucked these things out of me but gave very little back in terms of satisfaction, endorsement, or viable income. So, it had to die – my mental health was failing, and it was either me or it – and when I killed it I experienced intense grief, as I had loved it all my life, loved it even when it had turned into something wicked and mean and dangerous.

This grief manifested as a feeling of incredible lightness and relief alongside the sort of sorrow that makes your bones ache. When I say ‘grief’ I must emphasise that at this point of this story I didn’t know I was in a state of grief; it was not a word I ascribed to the mercy killing of a vocation.

The lightness came from the laying down of a burden of having to care about an impossible dream. The reclamation of energy felt so marked, so profound, that it was disorientating. I had lived up till that point of my life as someone who was constantly and frantically busy, and busy with the complex work of making art using my mind, body, heart, and soul. After I killed my vocation, I suddenly had access to time and energy in ways I had never experienced. I was at a loss as to what to do with it all.

Stumbling through my days – relieved and disordered – I thought that I might do some volunteer work in order to explore other sectors and other types of jobs. One day at some event that I have now forgotten the name of, I bumped into a woman who ran a charity that provided support to palliative care patients. She mentioned that she might have volunteer roles available. She seemed nice and I thought ‘why not?’ It sounded like a good cause. I decided to think it over.

I knew nothing about palliative care, only that it involved slowly dying people, which sounded serious and weighty to me. So, I thought that, in order to make this decision with the gravitas it deserved, I should do some research about palliative care to see if I were a good match for the cause.

Evening by Caspar David Friedrich

Down to the public library at Northcote I went, and started borrowing books about palliative care, and dying more generally. They interested my mind and moved my heart. Through them I learnt about grief and realised that my new happy-sad and calm-angry and grounded-discombobulated raw state of reacting to my newly dead vocation was a form of grief. This made sense to me. The idea pleased me. I reasoned that even though my vocation had to die, and even though I was the one who had murdered it, the presence of grief still made sense because I had loved it, even when I hated it, for all those years. My feelings of grief went nowhere, but my feelings about having those feelings were set aright. The ground steadied under my feet somewhat.

One day I was checking out a few more books about dying – this was in the days before the check out process in libraries was automated – when the librarian doing this noticed my borrowing record.

“You seem to have borrowed out quite a few books about death recently,” he said gently. “Are you alright? Do you need to talk to someone?”

It took a moment for me to understand what he meant, and then I was able to reassure him by telling him about my upcoming decision about doing volunteer work with palliative care patients.

He grinned, and his shoulders sagged with relief. “Bless you,” I thought, “for even thinking of trying to reach out.”

I decided not to do the volunteer work, after all. But I have treasured the memory of that little intellectual and emotional journey I undertook in Northcote public library. In the midst of life we are in death, the old hymn tells us. And in the midst of death we are in life, say I. The death of my mother from cancer a couple of years ago showed me that, physically, when your number’s up, it’s up. But in the ordering our own inner lives we can choose to take life from some parts to reclaim it for other parts of ourselves. And even though we do this in our own individual and unique ways, the wisdom available to me in books and the encounter with the observant kindly librarian showed me that we don’t have to do it unsupported and wholly alone.

Back in those days, I thought that it was my actual creativity that had died, so exhausted and unresponsive that side of my nature had become after years of grind. But it came back – with time and the resurgence of energy it snuck back in new and delightfully surprising ways. This was my other lesson from this time: our creativity is innate. It cannot die. We just need the right conditions to nurture it and to let it live.

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?

Learning and reacting

Learning and reacting

Learning and reacting are different. It’s important to honour both.

As part of my coaching practice, I have put together a framework to debrief people at the end of their work on a complex creative project. And I have been treating this debriefing process as distinct from, and different to, evaluating the project.

I am probably being quite arbitrary in creating this distinction (I do this sometimes – don’t get me started on the difference between resilience and toughness). But in my experience, there are two different conversations that need to be had at the end of a creative project.

Evaluation is where a project is reviewed, and lessons learnt: did we achieve our objectives? What worked and what didn’t – what could we do better next time? Did this project meet the measurements by which we define success?

This is a useful and necessary conversation to have. But before this discussion happens, I think that there is another that needs to take place. And this other conversation needs to concern itself less with the apparent successes and failures of the project in the eyes of the world and more to do with the creator’s subjective experience of working on the project. And this is where the difference between learning and reacting become important.

Working on creative projects can be an intense undertaking, especially if the project is complex and / or being worked on in challenging conditions. Even if the project goes well and achieves its objectives, project workers can emerge from the process feeling frazzled, exhausted, anxious, or even dissatisfied. A whizz-bang project emerges into the public eye looking new and shiny; the people who put the project together alone know the stress and strain of putting it together. I have been involved in of performances that garner applause and glowing reviews while the cast and crew are feuding and bitching backstage. I have been a part of corporate event teams that have produced events that entertained, informed, and promoted with elan, while we were stumbling with fatigue and losing sleep over logistical nightmares. Or known of award-winning online learning programs that had their creators literally banging their heads on their desks during development.

The intensity of creation
‘Rive gauche et rive droit’ by Grandville

Creative projects are challenging, some more than others. Sometimes the sense of challenge can be so consistent or so severe that it leads to a sense of overwhelm for the people working on it. This can lead to a sort of dissonance between a personal lived experience of tiredness and constant worry about the project and the success and positive reception of that same project. When I used to be a choreographer, I remember being in a foyer and receiving praise from audiences for my work while thinking “You’re wrong. That was shit.” In my exhaustion I lost sight of the fact that I alone knew how the finished dance piece fell short of my original hopes for it; I would somehow not hear the actual audience tell me how the actual piece worked for them: that they loved it.

In short, I was reacting to my experience of working on the project. In my past work as an arts manager and project manager I used to try to lead teams who were swaying with exhaustion through discussions to evaluate a project and found that I was dealing with their reactions to this experience of work, which came from a subjective place. If those reactions were strong enough then they couldn’t analyse or evaluate – they couldn’t learn.

Discussion of this subjective experience is very important – developing self-awareness around your personal capacity for working creatively, and how that pans out for you, is important. Gaining some perspective, too, of how the exhaustion you are feeling or the tension you have felt are colouring your attitude to the project itself is vital. Honouring your personal journey of working on a creative project can allow you to shift from a shell-shocked sense of “OMFG!!!” to reclaiming the ability to celebrate or commiserate or forgive your efforts. Only then, can the true objective learning begin.

Through mentoring, I help people to reflect on their sense of creativity and nurture confidence in their creative process. If you are trying to get some perspective on these things then why not 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?

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.

Through mentoring, I help people to reflect on their sense of creativity and nurture confidence in their creative process. If you are trying to get some perspective on these things then why not 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?

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.

Through mentoring, I help people to reflect on their sense of creativity and nurture confidence in their creative process. If you are trying to get some perspective on these things then why not 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?

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.