This blog has been inspired by some jottings I made in my journal last year, and which I just came across while I was tidying up my laptop:
I woke up this morning at 4.13am, which is way too early. I lay in bed and thought through all the day job stuff I had to do that day – the emails to be sent, marking those assessments, following up on paperwork, preparing for a meeting. Then I thought about how much I wanted to carve out some time for my writing, and resolved to do it. Then I felt worried about how I was going to do all of this.
My journal goes on to explain that I wasn’t worried about fitting all of that stuff into the day. I had oodles of time, especially by waking at 4.13am. I was worried about energy. I worried about fulfilling my tasks and errands with accuracy, and without forgetting something or making stupid mistakes. I wondered how I would feel by the time I got to do my writing in the afternoon, usually my peak creative time. I dreaded sitting down in front of my laptop to do the thing that meant the most to me and feeling like I had a head full of cotton wool.
You might have the time, but do you have the energy?
As a society, we talk endlessly about time management. Why don’t we talk about energy management instead? It’s all very well to do as all of those self-help books advise, and set your alarm for 5am each morning and then haul your sorry arse out of bed to do your writing. Or, like so many creatives I know, to set aside a couple of hours aside after 9pm each day to work on your projects. But if your days are otherwise split between working a day job, parenting, caring, jumping through hoops for social services, running a household, or a combination of some of the above, then how are you going to feel at 5am or 10pm? Where are your energy levels going to be? What is your ability to focus going to be like? Are you going to be clear headed or foggy minded? Is your imagination going to be firing ideas at you or are you going to be distracted or numbed by the burden of workaday worries?
Even worse, what if the cumulative exhaustion of cramming creative work in and around other responsibilities sets up a pattern of you resenting that creative work? What if instead of being the thing that inspires you the most, your creative project turns into the thing that leeches the precious time you need to rest and relax?
Poisoning the well.
Right now, many of us are leading a weird new existence due to the pandemic and its associated lockdowns. People are surprised at how tired they feel, at how the constant hum of stress, uncertainty, and tedium in the backs of their brains or roiling in their guts eats up a lot of their energy – mental, emotional, and even physical. Time management is still a challenge for a lot of us, but in completely different ways to what it was before.
There are opportunities, of course. Depending on the conditions you are working with, you may have the chance to disrupt and change priorities, routines, or habits. You may be able to access more time and energy for creative work. And, if so, that’s great. But if you are finding that you are grappling with exhaustion, and therefore a resulting dip in inspiration or energy or discipline, then your opportunity is of a different sort. Put simply, your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to figure out how to protect your own love for the creative work that means the most to you.
What do you have to get rid of, or say no to? Where do you have to compromise? What other activities that are demanding that you use up your energy can you jettison? What do you have to give up on?
The old standards and expectations should no longer hold sway. Don’t let your creative work feel like just another obligation, sitting alongside others that may have little meaning for you anymore. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s – do the stuff you really must – but get rid of everything else, and reclaim your energy for the things that give meaning.
Are you wondering why lockdown is making you so tired all the time? Read this article to find out why.
I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me during these precarious times, please consider one of the following:
Twitter right now is a double edged sword. On the one hand it is full of hysteria and nonsense and prolonged exposure to this is definitely not recommended for peace of mind, but on the other it is full of lovely things. In response to the pandemic of physical distancing and isolation that has spread across the globe, many people are taking refuge in their imaginations. The stuff people are sharing range from the silly to the playful to the beautiful to the profound.
August institutions are sharing their resources online: you can read fine essays or view galleries from the quarantined comfort of your home. Author Robert MacFarlane is conducting a reading group on Twitter.
Under these stressful conditions people are trying to find a way of staving off tedium and the blues. They are looking for meaning. Endeavouring to comfort and entertain themselves and others. I think it’s delightful that so many people are hunkering down with a sense of playfulness and / or an appetite for the artistic.
Obviously, for many people thrown upon their own inner resources to combat one of the most disruptive and serious crises of our lives, the instinct they are drawing on is their sense of creativity. I’m not surprised. I have long felt that creativity and resilience work in a kind of a loop. We are living in strange times that demand resilience, where we are challenged to make sense of, and outlast, the hitherto unexperienced. And to do so in a way that means we emerge from this with some sense of being coherent humans able to rebuild normal lives, whatever that ‘normal’ turns out to be.
Working creatively is psychologically challenging in different ways. You have to be prepared to risk failure. You have to be prepared to risk succeeding on your terms, only to have these terms misunderstood and denounced by others. Making creative work is an alchemical process, combining themes, ideas, techniques, resources in a process of trial and error. Creative people get used to working while feeling doubt, frustration, ambiguity, disappointment, and fear at their own audacity.
So creative work demands resilience, that ability to persevere while being vulnerable.* But the neat thing is that, while you are drawing on your personal resilience as a creative, your creative process is embedding things that, in turn, make you resilient. A rich inner world; learning to get your critical mind to work with your imagination (instead of letting one overwhelm the other); the ability to sit in uncertainty; the ability to learn from your mistakes; being able to recognise when a change of course is required; a sense of playfulness; determination; curiosity. All of these things may be called upon when steering a light bulb moment to tangible outcome. All of them can feed your ability to be resilient. And that resilience helps to sustain your creative process.
I was in an old house that was initially accommodating other people but which, by the climax of my dream, seemed to be deserted. At the point at which I realised that I was alone, I also became aware that my room was haunted by an ancestor of mine called Elsie. The ghost wasn’t malevolent in intent, but she was overwhelmingly sad. The atmosphere she spread was so heavy it was debilitating and I didn’t want to be around her, but there was nowhere else to go and no-one to help me. I knew the ghost was terrifyingly alone and somehow her haunting had cast a pall of repulsion over the whole house that repelled other people. It was just me and her. Isolation begat isolation.
It was easy to interpret this vivid dream when I awoke. Like many other people, I am anxious about how the Covid-19 crisis is going to play out. I am currently self-distancing and working from home. In one way this makes me feel calmer. Perhaps it just gives me the illusion of being in control, but I also do believe I am taking practical action to care for myself and my community.
But in doing this – and therefore thinking deeply about what it is to be isolated and also possible consequences of the pandemic – certain other thoughts and memories are being flushed to the surface as my brain scrambles for a point of reference in amongst the different ideas, opinions, facts, and speculations that are bombarding us all via our employers, governments, news organisations, and social media networks.
These memories sit alongside any other intellectual objective thinking I might be doing. As we all socially distance or self-isolate, memories and the visceral or emotional reactions they can inspire can have real power, especially in the face of the distortions of a disproportionately high exposure to the online world and less face-to-face interaction than we are used to.
We are at risk of being triggered.
The dream I recounted above is connected with past experiences I have had of being severely socially isolated. The ghost of an ancestor represents a former existence of mine; the dream evoked a link between being shut away from people and feeling a terrible and debilitating sadness about that. When I have dreams this easy to interpret I actually feel proud of my subconscious for its nifty work, even if the dreams are not fun to experience.
The favour my subconscious has done for me lately is to let me know that this present situation is triggering my fears of isolation possibly engendering sadness, even depression, at feeling cut off. That’s fine. Forewarned is forearmed.
What do you do with these triggered feelings or memories?
Consciously remind yourself that they are just feelings and memories. They are not an indication of your ability to survive this; they do not predict your future. This can be very hard to believe if you are experiencing depression or anxiety – believe me I know just how hard – but it’s true.
If you are struggling with mental health issues then please do ring someone who can help you – not someone who will tell you to get over yourself but someone who can listen with compassion. Perhaps Google phone services that offer trained counselors, such as Australia’s Lifeline.
Analyse what your reactions to your current experiences are telling you about yourself and your journey through life: do you fear poverty, abandonment, uncertainty? This stuff is hard to sit with, but once you have some insight you can start thinking about how to respond constructively.
Use this stuff. Express it. Let the feelings and memories inspire some writing, or drawing, or singing, or whatever takes your fancy.
One of the best things about being creative is that you can use the worst bits of your life as fodder for your work, and, in so doing, transform what was bad into something that transcends that.
One of my first pieces of performance work, made many years ago now, was inspired by my experiences with a prolonged and crippling bout of depression I had suffered as a teen. Making and then performing this work in front of an audience – connecting with those people – felt alchemical. I took something ugly and nihilistic and made something communicative and beautiful out of it; what had been an isolating experience for me reached other people and moved them.
Even an upsetting dream I have had recently has served as the inspiration for this blog. People often talk about creativity as if it is just a state of play and disinhibition. While these things are important components of being creative, there is more to it than just that. What I love about being creative is the sense that your imagination, emotions, and intellect are all at play together. Creative thinking works in harmony with critical thinking; there is an interplay between instinct and choice making. You give your imagination a workout, but also your ability to make choices about how you might like to frame or work with the deep, raw, messy insights that come seeping out.
The On Being Project has put together a Care Package for Uncertain Times. It contains poetry and podcasts; you can find it here.
I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me, please consider one of the following:
This morning I found three tweets that delighted me.
The first was someone tweeting an idea suggested to them by a friend as a way to pass the time during isolation or quarantine:
Our friend Fiona has started giving us a daily challenge to keep up entertained during the lockdown. Today was Day 1. The challenge? Recreate famous works of art using only clothes, towels and bed linen. Our submissions: #CoronavirusLockdownpic.twitter.com/L3CgPMctXK
This is probably not something that most of us could reproduce precisely, although, again, it could be a prompt for a fun exercise for kids to experiment with making music or even basic instruments out of household items. But I love the way this sound artist has highlighted the extraordinary quality of sound that can be produced by ordinary objects.
The third tweet left me gobsmacked by its ingenuity:
We’ve all seen other clips of people who have used household items to make a domino effect, and they’re always fun to watch, but this was an especially witty attempt. I loved how several times, for example when the glass is spilt or the baby appears, things seem to be about to go to pieces but it turns out that these apparently random elements are part of the choreography. The design has a neat juxtaposition of mess and precision, which is apposite at a time when people, shut up in doors, are forced to micro-manage their environment but, in coping with a pandemic, feel subject to chaos.
The thing all three of these tweets show is people responding with creativity to the theme of being constrained to interacting with mundane objects. This reminds me of Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey Around My Room. Published in 1794, and written while de Maistre was under house arrest for 42 days for his part in an illegal duel, it parodies travel diaries of his day by taking a tour of his room and going into rhapsodies on the ‘sights’ he sees.
Although she wasn’t imprisoned in her room, and therefore able to write about a set of people and not just items, another person who lived a more physically constrained life than we are used to was Jane Austen. In the (pre-digital) times in which she lived, people, and especially women, did not travel far or often and were limited to much smaller face to face networks than we have available to us. Austen’s writing focused minutely on her small social world, but she did so with an acute eye for human nature that makes her writing still dynamic today. Austen said of her writing that she was working with “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” I’m not suggesting that you pin your hopes on churning out something like Pride and Prejudice during your quarantine, but why not find your own precious bit of ivory to whittle?
It’s tough being cooped up in the same old place with the same old company day after day. The tedium, alone, can be disorientating and even depressing if it goes on for long enough. Our challenge will be to allow ourselves the psychological space to connect with our feelings, whatever they may be. Emotional denial leads to the festering and building up, pressure cooker wise, of truly dark thoughts and moods; denial is not your friend when it comes to sustaining your psychological resilience. You need to allow space to be real to yourself, otherwise you court psychological disorientation.
At the same time, it is vital that you don’t allow yourself to slide into gloom and a sense of hopelessness either. And, given that normal life has been disrupted, and that our previously habitual range of social checks and balances have been distorted by a lessening of face to face interaction and changes of scenery, your challenge of resisting this slide falls disproportionately onto you and your frazzled brain and whatever your cordoned off environment provides.
What resources do you have to work with? What ‘ordinary’ things could you be looking at from a new perspective? A towel, a baby, a glass of juice, a candle, a pencil holder full of springs? The three tweets above show creative people working with things in such a way that explores different visual, aural, or tactile textures. Can you play with your stuff and discover things that delight your senses?
The same applies to the ‘stuff’ that lives inside us. You have your own imagination and curiosity. Take a look at the workaday thoughts and reactions that trudge through your head every day. These have probably now been jolted off piste; what is their trajectory? Where have they fallen? Observe them where they lie, watch where the light hits them and where the shadows are cast. Mentally pick them up and turn them this way and that. What haven’t you noticed before? And what can you do with these new insights? Write them down? Draw them? Sing them?
This weird time we have at home will be over one day. When we are allowed a bigger physical world to roam in, what highly worked little bits can we take with us back into it?
I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me, please consider one of the following:
Living in a society in thrall to a pandemic is new for many of us in Australia; it certainly is for me. The experience of living in isolation to counter the infectious nature of this particular coronavirus is one part of this adventure that we all have to share as a community, and yet it is something that we can only undertake alone or in small household groups.
Most of us have not been constrained to staying in one place for long, with contact with our networks reduced to whatever we can access on the internet or by phone. I can see that attitudes to self-isolation or lockdown vary. Some people are assuming that the risk has been overstated and have not even thought about preparing for it. Those of us that do take the threat seriously have been confounded by the footage of multitudes of oily bodies packed onto Bondi Beach. Over the weekend, as I went on my (responsibly socially-distanced) daily walks in my local park, I was disquieted to see large groups of people crammed onto picnic rugs or strolling shoulder to shoulder, apparently assuming that contagion happens to other people.
Some people are alarmed by the pandemic, and are prepping for it as if we are looking down the barrel of a nuclear winter. Some of the worst behaviours have been manifested by the panic buyers – those wild-eyed, grim-faced hoarders of toilet rolls, prepared to trash the social norms that hold our society together in order to push and shove their way to grab that last bottle of hand sanitiser.
I find the Hunger Games style panic buyers and the “it’ll never happen” brigade to be equally worrying for all that they occupy different ends of whatever bizarre spectrum they’re on: neither seem to be processing information and thinking about consequences. Both are reacting to the ‘feels’. We are all at odds. It is against this background of communal dissonance that we are preparing to lock ourselves down, to last out weeks of living alone (if you’re like me) or with just the same few flatmates or family members, day after day. The Premier of the state where I live in Australia – Victoria – announced just last night that all non-essential services would be locked down. It’s official: with just the digitised anger and anxiety of Twitter to accompany us, we are to isolate ourselves from the real life presence of most other human beings for most of the time.
I’ve been here before
I am as new to coping with pandemics as anyone else, but in terms of social isolation I do have some form and this, I think, I hope, will help me understand the challenge of the weeks ahead.
My own bouts of past isolation arose because of poverty. Working as a freelancer in the arts and community sectors saw me living, precariously, on low wages, on short contracts, with short stints on welfare in between or when contracts were cut short due to the funding running out. I was bedevilled by unpaid invoices, late paid invoices, organisations that were tardy in paying my wages, or my dole accidentally getting cut off (Australia’s social security bureaucracy is notorious for its inefficiency). Despite careful budgeting, I would sometimes just run out of cash. Although this belongs to my past, I have strong visceral memories of what it is like to starve for a few days, or to subsist on a limited unhealthy diet of cheap carbohydrate (basically toast) for a few weeks. It was horrible. I lived permanently frightened.
A psychological relic of my past is that, alongside hunger pangs, I have indelible memories of what prolonged isolation did to the inside of my head. When I used to run out of, or low on, cash I would not just have to skip meals but could also find myself unable to afford phone credit, internet credit, or public transport fees. If the hunger went on for too long then I would find the physical symptoms of that – the shaking legs, stomach aches, dizziness – would make going for long walks impossible; I just didn’t have the stamina; I was ill from hunger. This means that while I was waiting for the next pay date, or for an overdue invoice to be paid, I would be unable to leave my home, or phone, text, email, or otherwise connect with other people. I have had to live like this for a week on a few occasions; I once lived like this for six weeks and I really thought I would go mad.
I would be stuck at home, alone, with my thoughts. I would try, very hard, to distract myself and, to some extent, would succeed: initially I used the time alone at home to write, or to rehearse, or to clean, or to plan, or to research. But, as the physical hunger and emotional stress grew day by day, it became harder to focus on these things. My head would ache and my eyes would blur from physical fatigue making concentration difficult. This was a constant reminder of my situation that it was impossible to ignore. Did you know that you can ache from hunger, literally? I used to, and, no matter how hard I worked at steering my thoughts to affirmations or inspirations or disciplines or work, my body would urgently remind me of the material reality of my situation. I could distract myself up to a point, but beyond this distraction was impossible. Then there would be no respite from the fizz and hiss of anxiety or the heavy surges of dread. Getting over these dark thoughts took longer than recovering from the physical hunger once the money started flowing again. This, for me, was where the real test of resilience lay. I learnt to keep one small part of my head separate from the rest; this couldn’t do much by way of work or optimism but it could, at least, take note of the exact nature of the waves of emotion as they lapped at me. This gave me some sense of control so that on my better days I could mitigate the effects and on my worst days, in the words of Gerard Manly Hopkins, “not choose not to be.”
Finding a toehold
I realised that, even though my life would be put on hold for a while, and even while the conditions that forced this were damaging, I could still retain a toehold on whatever projects I had been temporarily forced to stop working on, or even on the kind of life I wanted to envisage for myself. This doesn’t sound like much, but it allowed me to start to rebuild when conditions improved.
I survived my past, somehow, and I am proud of that; I owe much of my current resilience and ability to cope with a crisis to that survival.
Because I am in a better place in my life now, I think that, during the next few weeks of isolation, my mind won’t stray into dangerous territory. I do keep reminding myself that self-isolation due to Covid-19 will be a different type of aloneness, with different conditions, for better or for worse, than my previous periods of isolation. But I also keep reminding myself that I have this history of survival to draw upon. I don’t exactly know what the forthcoming experience will be like; I just know that it could be challenging. Having had my resilience undermined previously by isolation, I know the nature of that challenge will be psychological. Having outlasted previous crises, I must admit that I’m confident I’ll make it through with my mental health intact this time. It probably won’t be all bad. I’m an introvert and I’m determined to enjoy a few – maybe many – quiet days indulging my own whims. And I must admit to a curiosity as to what exactly will test me during my time alone: what rogue ideas or moods will bubble to the surface? I’m going to use them as fodder for my writing. I am alert for them, but not alarmed.
People who subsist on welfare will probably have had similar experiences to me. People who haven’t may have no idea what to expect during periods of self-isolation; for some of them, maybe many of them, the nature of the challenge will be unexpected, perhaps difficult, and perhaps even radical.
“While we know social isolation has a negative impact on health, we don’t really know much about what the effects of compulsory (and possibly prolonged) social isolation could be. But we expect it could increase the risk of loneliness in the community.” (Michelle H Lim and Johanna Badcock)
Since those past experiences of hardship and isolation, I have long been interested in how you can embed resilience in your life, especially in your creative practice. How do you find those tiny but valuable toeholds that let you cling on for just long enough to figure out how you climb a mountain? When your life has been stripped of the resources – time, money, human – how do you keep an idea, an intention, alive? What tactics can you use? How can you carve out those little pockets of awareness, of courage, of cunning in an otherwise besieged brain? I’m going to use these Solitary Mind blogs to try and share some perspectives and provocations that might help.
If you are finding the experience of lockdown to be unnerving or discomfiting, then be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself the time to adjust, and then start a dialogue with your inner-self. And take reassurance from the knowledge that this won’t last forever. I survived being cut off from society in the past, and so will you now.
Author Josie George has written a remarkable resource called Inside – A Guide. Due to health conditions, Josie has been forced to spend prolonged periods of time inside her house. She has written a guide as to how you can find meaning and resilience under such conditions.
I derive my income from a mixture of casual and freelance work. If you would like to support me, please consider one of the following:
It was recently my good fortune to attend a Masterclass in Learning Facilitation, created and facilitated by Helen Palmer. It was a fun and incredibly useful day, with lots of insights, advice, and a variety of techniques made available to us. Helen obviously has a ball while she facilitates, has an acute sense of when to deploy any of her huge repertoire of facilitation techniques, and generates a lovely energy during her sessions.
One thing that made me prick up my ears was during the section of the Masterclass when Helen was talking about preparing to facilitate. She mentioned that she makes sure that she puts aside half a day before and after a day of facilitation in order to be quiet, calm, and to reserve energy to give to her facilitation process. As an introvert, and an introvert who enjoys people, this approach made sense to me.
We are all familiar with the phrase ‘time management.’ Lately I have been thinking that we should also talk about energy management. We should not just think about when we do stuff, but also about the quality of energy we bring to the doing of those tasks. Working with people, working creatively, working technically, working intellectually, performing emotional or physical labour: these things all require different kinds of energy. Are we managing our lives so that we take not just enough, but the right type of energy into those tasks?
Helen also made the comment “Some things like turning off my phone (before facilitating) I almost treat like a ritual… so that I have the cognitive space to deal with the unexpected.” Again, this pointed to Helen deliberately shifting focus so that she brought the right kind of energy to her facilitation work.
Those of us who facilitate know how rewarding it can be: creative, interesting, satisfying, and just plain fun. But it is intense. To do it well you have to be incredibly present and responsive. This Masterclass equipped us with lots of techniques, and that is useful and important, but the discussion around preparing to facilitate – I would call it preparing your energy – was equally important. I guess the secret to succeeding at any task or undertaking is to make sure that you have the right techniques and the right amount and type of energy. We are often good at identifying what we need for technical efficiency; are we as good at understanding how to manage our energy?
I caught up with artist and arts administrator Tiyami Amum for a cup of tea recently, and we talked about this and that, as you do, except that our ‘this and that’s’ normally revolve around discussions about what it takes to sustain a micro-business in the arts industry.
The conversation drifted onto playfulness, and three things about its importance in business practice struck me during our chat:
As we all know, playfulness gets the creative juices flowing. It’s great for generating fresh and original ideas and approaches.
Tiyami and I agreed that the fun factor of playfulness is a helpful thing when it comes to sustaining wellbeing. Deriving enjoyment from your work, even if it’s hard or intense work, finding and refreshing your sense of inspiration, making your workload feel beguiling instead of a chore or a to-do list, alleviating stress while you work – these are all ways that playfulness can help sustain good mental health.
(This one is the really interesting thought that emerged, and I am not sure if it even plays out the way I think it might. But…) It struck me during our conversation that playfulness might help to build a narrative around an evolving brand.
During our conversation we had been talking about the challenge of developing a brand that allowed for shifts, adaptations and evolutions as a business grew and matured. The nature of creative work is such that creative people are constantly developing their process. Steering the products of the imagination from light bulb moment to tangible outcome stimulates experimentation, learning, reflectiveness, and innovation. The creative people I know are constantly curious, adding new skills and experiences to their repertoire, discovering new ways of doing things, coming up with new ideas. All businesses need to innovate, but I think creative practice is ultra-prone to shifts and growth.
So how do you develop a brand that at one and the same time marks your business’ identity out as distinctive and coherent, while allowing wriggle room for that business to change services and markets as it evolves. I wonder if you embed playfulness as a central value in your brand, and manifest this in your marketing strategy (say through content marketing?), then you are better placed to nudge your branding strategy in new directions. If you signal to your networks that you are playful – experimental, joyfully random, prone to toying with new things – then those same networks might be more inclined to travel with you as your brand changes.