How to reconnect with your creative work when it’s the last thing you feel like doing!
The season of lurgy is upon us, and in the last week, son number one has been floored by the flu, the baby is a snotty, coughing, crusty-eyed little dumpling and I sound like I smoke 40 a day, despite the fact that I have never smoked a cigarette in my life. Not a whole one, anyway. Oh, and I’ve also had mastitis. For the second time.
Why am I telling you this? Because my creative plans were scuppered the moment I got the call from lovely Anja at school.
‘Can you come and collect Ollie? He’s not feeling well at all.’
And that was it. The hours I had earmarked for writing were spent administering Calpol for the children and Lemsip for myself while I went slowly out of my mind watching endless episodes of Danger Mouse, little boy lying like a ragdoll in my arms.
Just to be clear, I wouldn’t change a thing. But…
I miss having time for my creative life. It’s tough enough when we’re all in the full bloom of health, but when the January bugs descend and it’s all I can do to pull back the covers of a dark and gloomy morning, creative Jude is nowhere to be found. (Probably off in the Caribbean somewhere – sensible girl.) And my work sits neglected. My stories don’t progress. I’ve still not figured out that character’s intention. I’m nowhere closer to a finished draft. And the truth is, it all seems like far too much to deal with and I really struggle to be bothered.
And then the gloom descends yet further still.
Now, If I were, a creative coach, for example, I would probably have some good advice for myself, and I would encourage myself to ‘listen up and listen good. (My creative coach was a Drill Sergeant in a former life.) And the advice I’d give myself would be as follows:
- When life gives you Lemsip, add some honey, collapse on the couch, crawl under a blanket (when children allow) and look after yourself. You need this time out. Now is not the time to stress about finishing the book, or finding a producer, or sorting out your non-linear story arc. Your creative work does not need to become another stick that you beat yourself with. Not now anyway. You have a temperature.
- When you can’t be creative, immerse yourself in it instead. Pull over the beanbag, crawl under said blanket and find ‘The Greatest Dancer’ on iPlayer. Dance was my first love and watching a wonderful dancer dance gives me such joy. It reminds me of just how beautiful humans can be and soothes my soul in this mind-boggling era of daft politicians and the senseless destruction of our planet.
- Grab a little notebook and do a little brain dump. Let your fevered mind go where it will, don’t put it under pressure and just jot down ideas as they come to you. Ideas can be shy – they’re likely to appear when they don’t think you’re looking for them.
- It’s been a while since you shook the metaphorical dust off the BOOK folder on your laptop – so just open the folder and read back over the last paragraph you wrote. But you’re not allowed to do anything with it. Confession: I got this one from one of Liz Gilbert’s magic lessons. When you’re struggling with your creative work, she suggests you ban yourself from doing any. Guess what usually happens? You get back in the saddle pretty darn quick.
- And finally, remember, there is no such thing as balance. (Another of Liz’s revelations). You’re doing the best that you can do. Being a mother/wife/daughter/sister/colleague/friend can, occasionally, be ‘challenging’ (translation: unbelievably fucking hard). There will be ups. There will be downs. The whispers of your creative soul will grow faint from time to time. As long as you can hear them and keep doing all you can to answer the call, you’re doing bloody great.
As I shared with my Facebook group yesterday – the process of birthing a new play is messy, emotional and a bit of a head fuck. The highs of creating your characters and developing their story into a piece of dramatic art are often dampened by the painful process of having to shape that story into a narrative that will make even the vaguest sense to your audience. And as a first time playwright, I’m having a difficult labour, for not everyone who comes to see this show will be as butterfly brained and non-linear as I am. Some people like structure – this happens and then that happens and the story flows from A to B. My brain is to structure what Donald Trump is to intelligent oration and it’s proving to be somewhat problematic.
Having received feedback from a writer and director I admire a lot to the effect that my play was a little all over the place and somewhat confused about its purpose, I found myself in a mild funk yesterday afternoon. Draft 4 and it’s still a meandering mess – maybe this play is just not meant to be. Maybe it will be the play that teaches me how to be a better writer, that coaxes my rebellious brain into playing by the rules when it comes to story arc and process. And maybe that’s OK. But then again, maybe that’s not. What is a writer to do?
Not trusting my brain to come to the right conclusion, I did what I do the majority of the time when faced with a question to which there could be many ‘right’ answers. I decided to sit with it and ask my body what it thought. What was my creative gut telling me on this one and how did I feel about its pronouncement. I went for a ponder wander, I meditated and rather than chasing the answer, I decided to just let it ‘download.’
And the conclusion I came to was this. My mentor is absolutely right. This play is non-linear, it doesn’t follow a sequence of events and it might even be a bit of a mess right now, but honestly, I am absolutely OK with that. And then, as if to further convince me to trust my gut, the Universe sent me a sign. As I darted through my Facebook feed trying to avoid the politics, I came across an interview with an Irish film director called Mark O’Connor. Responding to a review of his latest film, which had been described as a ‘mess… but a beautiful mess,’ he said: ‘I like it when scripts go off in tangents… some of the best moments in cinema are simply about being in the moment… All I have ever wanted to do is make beautiful messes… I’m not a structure person.’
And I literally shouted at my Macbook: ‘Neither am I, Mark, neither am fucking I.’
And I decided that I wouldn’t go back to my script and unpick it and unpack it further, or cut characters, or make it about just one thing. Not just yet. Because this play is about more than just one thing. Life is messy and complex – we are all the product of the myriad experiences we have had; the traumas, the heartbreaks, the losses, the ‘bad’ decisions, the toxic relationships, the secrets we have harboured, the shame, the fear and the love. God almighty the love. And I wanted to write about all of those things. So I did.
As makers of art, we have to be prepared for criticism; not everyone is going to get what you do or see what you see in it. And 100% yes, we must learn to be humble enough to take the advice on board, go back to the drawing board and try to make some sense of the meanderings. But we must also learn to trust our creative souls, be the guardians of our stories and remember that one man’s non-linear is another man’s beautiful mess. Let your work lead you where it will, stay open to the ‘downloads’ and enjoy the chaotic, crazy, painful and wonderful process of birthing your art into the world.
I am a person who struggles with structure. I don’t like to feel hemmed in (absolutely hated office life with its cubicles and 1pm lunch hours), I don’t like to make plans, I don’t like to make to-do lists, and I loathe project management software. I’ve bought countless numbers of those pretty ‘ladyboss’ style diaries and planners, all promising to help me get my shit together, get organized and crush my goals and business milestones. They are all happily gathering dust on my desk, with precisely zero pages filled in and zero weeks planned. It’s just not how I roll.
On the other hand, and somewhat confusingly, I have come to the conclusion that I am a person who absolutely must have structure in order to retain a modicum of sanity as I juggle my coaching business with motherhood, house renovations, the usual ups and downs of being a human being on this here planet and a burning desire to write stories and share them through the medium of theatre.
You could say there are two entirely different souls jostling for space in the same body and on any given day I struggle to decide which one is the dominant twin!
How am I to reconcile these two very different sides of my personality, seemingly completely at odds with one another?
I have decided to try a little experiment. I’m looking at ways to get more organized without feeling like a slave to plans and deadlines. ‘Structure Lite,’ if you will. This has involved taking some time on a Sunday evening to plan my week – loosely I might add – with the help of a terribly unattractive yet thoroughly functional whiteboard. Ten minutes on a Sunday evening is spent filling in the sections with what I think I might be able to accomplish in any given day. No pressure, just, you know, the tasks are there should I feel inclined to tick them off the list.
And whaddaya know – shit is getting done quicker than it has gotten done for the past year. I have discovered that my planner gives me the impetus I need to get the ‘work’ work done quick smart, so that I can focus on the creative work with a clear head and a free heart, and no little ‘guilt’ monkey sitting on my shoulder screeching that my plays won’t pay the damn mortgage.
While I do think it’s part of the creative sensibility to be a little all over the place, brain jumping from one idea to the next, head firmly in the lovely fluffy clouds, I am realising that lack of structure and planning can cause more anxiety in the long run. Hours can go by in a fog of random Googling, looking at paint colour charts for the spare bedroom, the newest additions to RiseArt or Art Finder, the obligatory check in with Facebook to observe the latest politically motivated scrap between friends – anything but actual work. And before you know it a deadline is looming and bugger all been done.
Today marks my fourth day of obeying the commands of ‘The Whiteboard’ and I can honestly say it is working a lot better than I thought it would. I suddenly seem to have so much more time. I’m not scrabbling to hit those deadlines and I can set aside periods throughout the week that are entirely dedicated to my creative work. As opposed to staring at my script at 10pm when I can barely keep my eyes open and my writing is fuelled by Diet Coke and sheer grit. Nothing wrong with the latter of course, but it is so nice to write from a place of calm, allowing the ideas to download with ease and enjoying the process without any guilt. ‘The Whiteboard’ is here to stay and ‘The Monkey’ has been silenced.
If any of this resonates with you, why not try your own version of ‘The Whiteboard’ – just for a week. See how you get on and feel free to share your experience in the comments!