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.


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:

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.


Solitary mind: little bits

Solitary mind: little bits

Ingenuity and the mundane

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:

This is a really good exercise on two levels:

  • It’s just good silly fun that anyone can easily join in doing
  • Because you have to think about colour, texture, shape, and perspective in order to reproduce the images, it’s an effective way to get involved in art appreciation.

I think this would be an especially great thing to do with kids – an enjoyable way of home shcooling them in art – but I’m sure adults would enjoy it too.

The second tweets showed us beat machines made out of household objects:

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.

Jane Austen editing technique from OpenCulture
Jane Austen’s editing technique. Imaged sourced from Open Culture.

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?

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?

The solitary mind: I’ve been here before

The solitary mind: I’ve been here before

A blog about clinging on.

We are all at odds.

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.

Illustration from HG Well’s ‘First Men in the Moon’ (1901 ed.) by Claude Allin Shepperson

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.

Recommended resource:

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:

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.