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.

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?

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?

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?

Middles are perplexing

Middles are perplexing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuck in the messy middle of a complex (and now perplexing) creative project? I’ve mentored professionals from across sectors and time zones to gain confidence in their creativity, build resilience and coax that great idea out of their locked bottom desk drawer.

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.

Map making

Map making

Traveling our inner lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stuck in the messy middle of a complex (and now perplexing) creative project? I’ve mentored professionals from across sectors and time zones to gain confidence in their creativity, build resilience and coax that great idea out of their locked bottom desk drawer.

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 Great Wave, Production Values, and… Values

The Great Wave, Production Values, and… Values

In a year when everyone is complaining of ‘being over’ Zoom and itching to reconnect with other people face-to-face, how can an online event draw on the technology that everyone claims to be sick of in order to provide an experience that feels uplifting and human?

During October of this year I ‘attended’* The Great Wave, “a four-day global-local, virtual-physical festival to make business more beautiful.”

It was a fantastic event, inspiring and intriguing. I have written three blogs about things I noticed in my reaction to it, and in this, the first, I want to talk about the production of this online event and some subsequent reflections I have had on my own practice.

The Great Wave, produced by The House of Beautiful Business, incorporated a mixture of online happenings. These included keynotes; panels; podcasts; activities including walking, meditation, ritual, mask-making, and dance; performances including music, dance, and performance-art; short film and digital art. Participants tuned in from all over the world, and because the event’s audience was spread across so many time zones, the organisers valiantly tried to program virtually around the clock for over three days. The Great Wave’s website boasts of offering over 300 hours of material in its programme.  Included in the event ticket is access to a temporary library of recordings of most sessions; this is welcome as it enables us to catch up with things that happened while we were asleep. The overall impression was of a technologically sophisticated and highly innovative festival.

I was raving on Twitter about what a dynamic atmosphere this event had, how connected I felt to other attendees even though I was ‘attending’ physically alone in locked-down Melbourne, and how impressed I was with the production values. A tweeter replied, asking what technologies were in use to achieve all this. Apart from one exception, I found myself listing the usual suspects: Zoom, Soundcloud, Vimeo, WhatsApp.

That one exception was an online art experience created by Waltz Binaire called Journee, an online immersive landscape that participants could enter and wander around, staring out to a digitised sea, ambling through an animated forest, discovering art and each other, absorbing a peaceful atmosphere. It was gob smackingly beautiful. But apart from this bespoke and cutting-edge piece of technology, it struck me during that tweeted exchange that, otherwise, I wasn’t talking about anything exotic in terms of digital tools or platforms in use at The Great Wave.

I realised that what made this digital event really fly were good old fashioned human creative talents and event production elements that have always been applied to the best offline events (in my past, I have worked in events management and arts management, so I always pay attention to this sort of stuff). The elements that gave The Great Wave event impact and made it such a compelling and engaging experience included:

  • A strong and unifying theme: a program of incredibly diverse content was held together by the theme of a great wave: “This has been a challenging year to say the least, and given the continuing uncertainty ahead we believe we can find some solutions from the fluidity and momentum of a Great Wave: a wave of imagination, connection, and optimism to carry us forward to a fresh start”
  • An array of topics (related to the theme) that kept the event surprising, engaging, and stimulating.
  • A wonderfully diverse group of speakers, presenters, or performers whose contributions all seemed to be of uniformly excellent quality. This is a reflection on the skills, knowledge, and preparation of those presenters but also, surely, a reflection on a compelling theme and good program curation.
  • Attention to the user experience or journey, examples of which include the beautifully designed and easy to navigate event portal which allowed us glitch-free access to sessions, and which continues to function as a temporary library until the end of the year.
  • Efficiency. Good old-fashioned organisation – stuff happened when it was scheduled to happen. There were hardly any snafus. Information was ready to hand.

So, what reflections has this led to with my own online practice as a facilitator and mentor? I do not have The House of Beautiful Business’ resources, so do not expect me to produce my own Great Wave anytime soon. But, when I reflect on the elements above I also reflect on the low-tech (or human) qualities that sit behind The Great Wave: imagination, originality, hard work, attention to detail, care, an appetite for risk-taking tempered with an appetite for efficiency. These are ‘resources’ that I can access if I want to.

Alone in my flat, hunched over my laptop, the scale on which I operate may be humble but that’s OK because humble does not preclude good. Using my imagination, being diligent in my preparation, practicing my Zoom technique, putting thought into designing my material, I can aspire to excellence. This is one gift that The Great Wave has given me.


*It’s funny how these words from old-fashioned offline events still creep into my speech when I talk about ‘going to’ a purely digital event.

Solitary mind: quality of energy

Solitary mind: quality of energy

Vincent Van Gogh

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.

Vincent Van Gogh


2020: quite a year! How are you feeling? Was lockdown an opportunity to get in touch with your creativity or did the stresses and demands of the year block it? I help people to reflect on their sense of creativity and nurture confidence in their creative process. If you are trying to get a handle on it all then why not contact me to find out about my mentoring services?

Solitary mind: The creativity and resilience loop

Solitary mind: The creativity and resilience loop

The Tomb of the Wrestlers by Rene Magritte

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.

People stuck at home are making videos and art, gifs and essays, singing folk songs, and singing opera from their quarantined balconies. On Twitter, Patrick Stewart reads one of Shakespeare’s sonnets every day. Yo Yo Ma plays us #songsofcomfort. A British family has gone viral with their own witty coronavirus inspired lyrics set to a soundtrack from Les Miserables.

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 don’t think resilience = tough. I think these two things are quite different things.

2020: quite a year! How are you feeling? Was lockdown an opportunity to get in touch with your creativity or did the stresses and demands of the year block it? I help people to reflect on their sense of creativity and nurture confidence in their creative process. If you are trying to get a handle on it all then why not contact me to find out about my mentoring services?

Solitary mind: triggers

Solitary mind: triggers

Recently I had a dream.

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.

nacht-in-saint-cloud 1890 Munch
Night in Saint-Cloud by Edvard Munch

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.

Get creative.

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.

Recommended resource:

The On Being Project has put together a Care Package for Uncertain Times. It contains poetry and podcasts; you can find it here.


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If you can’t afford to support me because Covid-19 has knocked the stuffing out of your income streams, please know that you have my profound empathy. The very best of luck to you.