Sticky middles

The beginning of a any project is a breeze. The idea is enticing. The possibilities are swirling through you, energizing and exciting. You can’t wait to get going, to let this pour out of you and onto the page, to see it come to life. Your eyes light up when you think or talk about it. It’s a lot like falling in love. And you are – you are in love with this thing that you’re going to create. It’s bright and shiny and the best thing ever, and it whispers your name in the night in its most alluring voice.

That’ll get you through maybe the first third. The next bit? Not quite so pretty. The middle bit is where it gets scary. The middle bit is where you don’t feel quite so inspired. You’re not sure why you started. You’re really not sure if you’ll ever finish. The path you thought you were going to follow has disappeared, stones sinking down into the ground beneath your feet, leaving you in the mud without a clue of where to tread next. A fog descends. You can’t see clearly. All you know is that you’re standing in a swamp, sinking, unable to see the bank on the far side – your ultimate goal – and meanwhile the shore you just left has vanished in the mist behind you. This, my friend, is the sticky middle. Sticky because you get stuck in it.

The truth? Most people give up at this point. Most people who decide to have a crack at writing something – or any artistic endeavour – will embark with great gusto, write that first exciting chunk and then hit the swamp of the sticky middle with an alarming splash, belly-flopping and lying face down in the mud. On lifting their heads, they peer at the fog-ridden wasteland, feel the fear, doubt everything about themselves and their story and then quietly back out, pulling themselves back up onto the safety of the shore before walking away, whistling. Perhaps they keep on walking and never come back. Perhaps they dive straight into the next project, believing that this one will work better, this time everything will be fine. As if it just takes finding the right idea to guarantee that there will be no work involved – the words will just flow, spilling out of their own accord until The End is reached and success is guaranteed. Because we are artists and artists flow, right?

We don’t tend to talk about work in conjunction with art, there’s only “the work” itself, the final, polished piece. And anyway, it’s not real work – it’s not like having to clean the toilets at the Mall, dig for coal or sit for ungodly hours in a call centre. So very many people want to buy into the myth that art and work are diametrically opposed; art is inspiration and flow, work is drudgery and slog. It can come as a shock to discover that art can involve bloody hard work – the slog of doggedly seeing it out through draft after draft, the slog of pushing on through the sticky middle right to the end, the slog of constantly pushing yourself to take risks, to be inventive, to stare down your own fear of failure and self doubt. The work can be as much inner as outer, facing down your demons – your insecurities, the critical voices in your head that keep whispering this is shit, this is shit whenever you even think about writing, the shakes you get before hitting send or publish on a new piece of work. And the work can be about the mundane and often challenging stuff – the admin, the filling out of grant applications, the emails and phone calls that you don’t want to make but have to if your work is ever to see the light of day.  It can be about the bravery of putting it out there for the first time and asking what do you think, and being willing to listen to what people have got to say about it without taking it personally. Most of all though, the work is really about sticking with it no matter how hard it gets.

When you’re in the sticky middle, it feels like you can’t succeed. It’s so easy to lose track. It’s so easy to abandon this one as a lost cause, move onto the next idea – the one that’s now whispering a siren song into your ear; pick me, pick me! But you have to keep going, or else all you’ll have to show for it is a stack of half-finished projects. The sticky middle is bleak and seemingly endless. You will get lost in it. You are supposed to get lost in it. The trick is to accept your lostness and keep going in the blind hope of reaching that other shore, the moment when you suddenly realise you’ve hit solid ground again and can sprint towards the finish. The more projects you complete, the more understanding you gain about your process, the more confident you can be that the far side of the shore will be there if you just keep going. The more projects you abandon, the less progress you can ultimately make, the less you believe in your ability to complete anything – and so the power of the swamp grows.

Keep going. Just keep going. Ignore the safety of the harbour at your back and keep on going. If you doggedly persist, no matter how uninspired you feel (for you will feel entirely uninspired at times), no matter how much you doubt yourself or your work – you will reach the finish, step by step through the fog and the mud. Others have gone there before you, forging their own precarious paths and if you peer hard enough into the mist, you might catch sight of the occasional lantern of a fellow traveller, guiding the way. But just like the infamous Bear Hunt – there’s no going under, over, or round the sticky middle; you just have to get through it.

Keep going.

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London Eyes

IMG_20140911_174515413_HDRThere are wonders all around us. Most of the time we don’t see them. It helps if you’re around small kids, or if you are a small kid yourself. Beginner’s mind, I guess. Being a stranger in a strange town works too. A man has dressed as Yoda and is levitating outside the National Gallery. That doesn’t happen every day, folks. At least, it doesn’t happen in Stroud every day, although granted it’s a possibility in Trafalgar Square in tourist season. But how few stop to pay attention, let alone drop a coin in his hat?

IMG_20140911_174400502_HDRSeriously? I could not figure out how they were doing it. Not until I got home and studied the pictures with my kids and formulated a hypothesis. I am basically easy pickings for a street magician, my brain doesn’t work that way. I’m happy to go Wow! Magic! and leave it at that. Further along from Yoda, a young guy was playing Bob Dylan songs, meanwhile a man was sitting on the ground playing a traffic cone. I didn’t take a picture of him, figuring there were some mental health issues going on there, but the story of the man playing the traffic cone has kept my kids amused all weekend.

IMG_20140911_164300867Round the back end of the Royal Opera House, an amazing mural/installation by street artist Phlegm. Inside, a series of his drawings. Most people walked straight on by – I didn’t see a single person stop to admire it or take a picture. A party of Japanese tourists posed for the camera underneath the famous Covent Garden sign instead. Me? I was blown away. I even asked in the shop if there were any postcards/prints of the drawings but the man stared back at me, confused. Why would I want that rather than a picture of a famous opera singer in costume?

And I’m thinking Just me? Really?

IMG_20140911_180835521How often do we stumble around, blind to the wonders in front of us? Taking everything for granted, questioning only when it goes wrong? I reckon things have to go wrong occasionally just to remind us of how lucky we are in the first place. It’s only when the boiler goes on the blink that you truly appreciate the luxury of hot water that comes out of a tap or the invisible, reliable heat pouring out of a radiator at a pre-set time. And perhaps that sounds a bit Little Miss Pollyanna, but then I don’t have gas central heating, this will be my first winter as a single Mum and I’ll have a hell of a lot of wood chopping and coal hauling going on – so trust me, I will not be taking heat for granted. Leaving me and my mounting phobia of winter aside, what does it take to get us to open our eyes and see, really see?IMG_20140911_120400047_HDRThere’s a game I like to play when I’m in London, hick from the sticks that I am. I call it Smiling in London. It’s really simple. You just smile at people as you walk by and watch their reaction. At least 80% of the time, it freaks the fuck out of them. They have places to go, jobs to do, credibility to maintain and a fierce filter in place to screen out anyone else who might invade their personal space. You will be ignored. You do not exist. They refuse to see you at all. But then occasionally you’ll be rewarded by a rare return smile – a tourist, a builder, a kid. Congratulations. Life for both of you got a bit sunnier, momentarily. A tiny flash of connection.

IMG_20140911_165253179Do not go gently into that dark night, I think. Rage against the dehumanisation of humanity. Rage against it with smiles, with colour, with art, with love. Keep noticing. And keep intervening – place art in people’s paths and see if you can get them to miss a step. Do unexpected things in mundane places. Leave a note for a stranger in a cafe. This is for you. Yes, you. Have you any idea how amazing you are? Draw on the pavement, paint on the wall, leave postcards with inspiring quotes on the bus. Sit on the pavement playing a traffic cone if you have to. Or just smile at strangers.

Or write. Write odd, random things, write beauty, write truth, write from the heart and write in the desperate hope that maybe, just maybe one day your words might wake somebody up. Might make them see.

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Feeling the fear and doing it anyway

_Do you think I would have lasted 48

My pre-interview terror has led to an exchange of emails with a writer friend, also in a state of panic about something they’re writing. Which led to the inevitable question; why do we do this to ourselves? Which led to this;

We do it because we’re fucking insane, obviously. And you’re taking a big leap with this one, so of course it’s going to be terrifying. In any artistic endeavour worth its salt, failure has to be a possible outcome. Otherwise you’re not reaching far enough. But you’re doing the right thing and pushing yourself hard to create something new, original, innovative – something where you’re probably not entirely sure whether or not it’s going to work. Because that’s the best way to create; open, excited, terrified, raw. Not ticking boxes, trying to be trendy or impressive, or churning out something you don’t really care about, or something that’s been done a million times before. Writing from your gut and heart and soul, pouring yourself into it and shitting yourself in case none of it actually works and people laugh at you. Of course it’s going to be fucking terrifying.

Acknowledge your fear, it’s merely trying to protect you. You’re going to have to learn to work with it on this one. Reassure the fear that you’re going to get all the support you need with this piece, it’s not going to go out in front of the audience as a half-baked piece of shit which people will jeer at (isn’t that always the fear?) There’s still plenty of time to get it into shape, plus then you’ll have rehearsal time with a talented director to hone it further. It can help to write out exactly what those fears are so you can counter them, because some of them sound stupid in the light of day (“if this goes wrong, none of my friends will want to be friends with me any more.”) If you’re blocked, you need to work out what the fears are so you can move past them. And keep telling yourself something like “Yes it’s scary but I’m getting through it anyway.” Or whatever works for you – just something to recite in your head when the gremlins start to whisper. Ask yourself/your fear what might help – I find taking mine out for cake and writing in a cafe somewhere really helps, it just makes it feel safer somehow, especially if I’ve not even been able to read it through because I’m that scared. And then at some point you’ve just got to pull up your big girl knickers and get on with it.

Unfortunately we’re all getting screwed at the moment because the opportunities that would have been there about 3 or more years ago just aren’t there any more, which further damages our confidence and makes it harder to progress as artists; we’re not getting the practice we need. While it’s terrifying now, take a moment to imagine how you’re going to feel on the other side of it – visualize the audience erupting into rapturous applause, knowing that you’ve done a fucking amazing job. Really feel it. Because the only way to get from here to there is by going through it, and once you’ve gone through it you’ll be so much more stronger and experienced and -fuck it, I’m going to say it – rad than you are now. And in a much stronger position. Even if you completely stuff it up (which you won’t) – you’ll learn so much from the process, and screw it, it’s not the National, so it wouldn’t even matter. Breathe, dig deep and keep going.

Seriously; cake, big girl knickers, deep breath and keep going. You got this.

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Going all the way; how far will you go for your writing?

game-of-thrones_1909019c(an entirely superfluous picture of Sean Bean, because why the hell not?)

On Thursday I’m heading down to London for the interview. Friday, I’m off to tour a nuclear power station. Hell, why not? Purely because I was invited to by one of the researchers I’m working with as part of Bristol Bright Night. And only then because they needed to make up the numbers. But I figure it will be interesting, and doing interesting stuff is what keeps the creative juices flowing. Admittedly, the kids have started quoting dodgy statistics about nuclear accidents which they’ve read on the internet so must be true, and we’ve been told not to wear skirts/shorts above the knee or open-toed shoes, so I’m not entirely sure what I’m getting myself into. And dammit, I was hoping to wear vintage Quant with peeptoe stilettos, so someone should definitely sort out their health and safety issues.

It got me thinking though of what other crazy stuff I’ve done in the name of writing. Leaving aside all the weird and wonderful productions I’ve sat through, the plethora of books read, TV watched, films consumed and workshops participated in, there has been plenty of things undertaken mainly in the name of research. Either directly applicable to something I was writing at the time, or an opportunity seized because it might come in useful one day. There were the pole dancing lessons I signed up for because one of my characters wound up doing it. Anyone reading this who actually knows me will likely be pissing themselves with laughter at this point at the merest thought of it, and all I can say is that it’s clear that I’m never going to be earning a living from swinging my ass around a pole. I learned a few valuable lessons though; one, that it’s a bit bloody difficult and you need some kind of actual upper body strength. Two, you wind up with bruises like you wouldn’t believe – I had a massive purple bruise running from my crotch down to my knee, while my ankles were battered and swollen from banging into the pole. This was an insight I was able to put into my writing, a tiny bit of authentic experience which I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. Three, no really, it’s bloody difficult – have you ever tried to climb up a pole? Four, the Gabrielle was totally my move, bitches. Five, remembering all this is making me question the wisdom of planning anything else set in a pole dancing club and so my next play will now feature a knitting circle instead.

Working behind a bar should be essential for anyone wanting to write, although admittedly I was doing it for financial reasons rather than artistic integrity at the time. If you’re young, with ambitions to write and in need of a McJob then definitely work in a pub. Not a trendy bar where it’s too loud to hear anyone speak, but a proper boozer where you can have a conversation with the clientele. During my barmaid years I chatted to physicists, stonemasons, conmen, scallies, entrepeneurs, labourers, anarchists, madmen, alcoholics, dreamers, drunks – the whole world comes through the door of a pub, eventually. The hardman who turned to writing poetry after the death of his daughter. The ex-soldier and fugitive from the French foreign legion, who had been a hired mercenary but was now wasting away with Gulf War syndrome. The cancer patients who would come in a group, all wearing the black marks on their bodies which would target the radiotherapy. The guy who would walk in at 6.30 every night with a cry of “Pint of Carling, Darling.” The male nurse who used to liberate beagles with the Animal Liberation Front and before that was a homeless punk, sleeping rough under the Hyde Park bandstand only a few weeks before the IRA got to it. The “driver” who asked me out, who I’m fairly sure was involved in organised crime. And married. Frank the Wank – his words, not mine – who claimed to be a gynaecologist and would regularly offer his assistance with any problems you might be having “down there” – you can’t make this stuff up. And that’s before you get to the intervention we tried to stage for the sixth former about to go home with the male stripper her friends had hired for her eighteenth birthday. Or the sorry tale involving the stripper, the stag and the stocking, which involved tactical use of the lemon knife – but some sights you take with you to the grave.

Men too. There were definitely men I dated way back when, not because I found them attractive or even suitable but because they were interesting. I had a hunger for character, for experiences and stories way beyond the life I’d lived so far. Storing up insights and sparks of inspiration for things I might one day write. Christ, I dated some strange, dodgy and entirely unsuitable blokes (see “male nurse” above) and did some incredibly stupid things but my inner story treasury is all the richer for it and Facebook hadn’t been invented back then so I just about got away with it. Not sure if I’m going to embark on a similar strategy now that I’m single again, but given that 90% of the men on online dating sites work in IT, it seems unlikely. I haven’t met any Beagle Liberators so far, although there’s a guy in his sixties who wants to take me for a ride in his helicopter, so who knows?

I’m thinking this over because of a Facebook conversation with a friend who has agreed to some kind of monstrous ice-immersion thing that makes the ice-bucket challenge look like tea at the Ritz with Benedict and Andrew. I did my utmost to teach him appropriate use of the word “No.” He responded that he’s found that life is getting far more interesting now that he’s saying Yes more. I wholeheartedly agree – but with the proviso that it has to be a genuine yes, not an I’m saying yes because I think I should but I don’t really want to do this at all. Women tend to be masters of the had my arm twisted into the yes position and need to learn No more. I’m not a fan of the ice bucket thing, mainly because I don’t like the nominations aspect – to me it feels like manipulating/guilting someone into doing it. I’m not about to undertake the ice bucket challenge (nominate me and you’ll lose an eye) – but would I do it in order to research a character? Yes. Although I wouldn’t post it on Facebook, so let’s not bother. Manipulation aside, it’s good to go for the Yes in life, the uncharted glory of doing something for the hell of it, for the new experience, for the sod it, let’s just put the show on right here of it. And as a writer, if there’s something your character needs to go through and it doesn’t involve anyone having to die for it, then please do give it a go. Until you’ve tried it, you won’t know what you’re missing out on.

I wonder sometimes. What must it be like to be someone like JK Rowling – so hugely successful and wealthy that life has changed beyond all reason? To be so famous that you can no longer live an ordinary life? It doesn’t happen to more than a handful of writers, it tends to be performers that are affected in this way – actors, rock stars, the perma-tanned desperadoes from reality TV series. How is it possible to have a life which is interesting and authentic and open to the big almighty Yes, if you can’t get into your car without being papped? Limos, private jets, exclusive parties that make the pages of Hello magazine… it’s all a bit empty, surely? We elevate a small group of people to elite status, to something way beyond real life, then watch with morbid fascination as they crash and burn and fuck things up entirely. I’d rather be stood behind the bar with Rach, groaning as Frank re-introduces himself to her for the umpteenth time (“Hello darling, my name’s Frank, Frank the wank, they call me…”) because he’s so over-excited at the prospect of talking to a blonde that he’s forgotten he’s already met her. Or lying helpless with laughter on the plush carpeted floor of the Ladies in a posh restaurant, again with Rach, because one of the regulars had treated us to a meal and we’d gotten ridiculously accidentally drunk and could. not. stop. giggling.

It might seem pointless to mention a situation which isn’t going to affect any of us – namely worldwide fame and fortune – but how many times do we think about its opposite? Of what it’s like to not really fully live, not because there are paparazzi hiding in the bushes, but because there’s another deadline to meet, another opportunity to try for, something else to write – always something else to write even though the sun is shining outside and winter is coming*. A life lived entirely on a laptop isn’t really a life at all, and just what the hell are you going to be writing about if you’re not actually out there living? Write fully. Live fully. Take classes in things you’re terrible at, and roll around on the floor laughing with your friends. Write about it, or don’t write about it, do it badly or brilliantly – it doesn’t matter. What matters is life itself – living and loving and laughing and crying and risking and messing it up and occasionally getting it very right indeed. Go all the way, and see what happens.

(*I finally caught up with the first season of Game of Thrones. They chopped Sean Bean’s head off. Sorry, spoiler alert. I won’t be needing to watch the rest of it then.)

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I’m Creative! And Interesting! But also Professional! (How to get through an interview for a writing job.)

Beaker

Evidently, I’m crap at interviews. I know this, because over the last year I’ve been shortlisted for several opportunities, had interviews and have landed precisely none of them.

Ouch.

Big problem – I have an interview coming up for something MAJOR and I really want to land it. I don’t want to stuff it up through being a muppet when it comes to talking about my work, and yet I can’t help wishing that I was being judged on the work itself rather than my ability to talk about it, or talk about myself. So much of what it takes to be a professional writer has so little to do with the actual writing.

Part of the problem is that you’re talking about potential projects, about things that remain ideas swirling in the mists of your mind, rather than anything concrete that you can dig out and point to. Here’s the thing; I’m allergic to bullshit. It’s an allergy that’s getting more severe the older I get. And while I fully intend to figure out how to stop getting older and start getting younger at some point, if only to make it easier to take up yoga, in the meantime I need to avoid the bullshit or I’ll develop a severe case of hives and wheezing. So I don’t want to feel like I’m bullshitting anyone else either, which makes talking about things you haven’t written yet rather tricky. I like to keep my writing process open, I want to be open to the possibilities that arise along the way rather than setting everything in stone before I’ve even started. What discoveries can be made that way? What’s the point in doing research and talking to people if I’ve already decided what I’m going to write? In every artistic endeavour, one of the possible outcomes needs to be failure. We should be reaching for artistic impossibilities, stretching for the thing which might not come off – otherwise what’s the point? Turning out an endless chain of mediocre, safe work? No thanks. So how do I talk confidently about my process, when my process is a willingness to get lost in the woods and not know what the fuck I’m doing?

You can see my dilemma.

Hopefully some of you even share it.

The people doing the hiring will generally talk about risk, innovation, thinking outside the box etc etc, but usually they’re more comfortable about risk being managed with some kind of 12 step plan. Someone sitting there saying I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing but it’s going to be brilliant, hopefully, doesn’t usually manage to tick off the right boxes on the right forms. That’s just too much of a risk. Only risky work which simultaneously manages to be completely safe is desirable in these strapped-for-cash times.

Of course, sometimes the interviewers themselves don’t help – holding interviews in a noisy cafe, for example, where you’re straining to hear what they’re saying and can barely hear yourself think. Or introducing you to other members of the team, who evidently don’t want to be there and aren’t really engaging. Having had an interview at an incredibly noisy venue which included a sulky team member, I wasn’t exactly chuffed to be rejected by email on the grounds of “not being forthcoming enough.” I managed to resist the urge to email back saying What the fuck do you want? Cartwheels? but only just.

Another time I was invited for an informal chat about my proposal. Here’s a hint; it’s never an informal chat. People are always keen to emphasize that it’s just an informal chat, but it’s not. It’s an interview. Informal chats take place on the sofa with a cuppa, while this was 3 other people sat around a table hurling questions at me. And even though I knew the three other people and they’re all lovely, I still stuffed it up. It had been years since I was in any kind of interview situation, and while I thought I’d prepared thoroughly for it, I’d evidently prepared in the wrong way. I was expecting really in-depth, specific questions, so the opener of Can you tell us about your idea? completely threw me. I know. Obvious, isn’t it? Obvious and yet unexpected and therefore it threw off my game plan and I spent the rest of the interview struggling to get back on track. No, I wouldn’t have given me the job either. And yet I know that the idea itself would have resulted in creating something magical. I’ve got faith in my writing abilities, just not my interview technique.

More recently a Skype interview, after which I once again didn’t get the job, on the grounds of them choosing someone who had more comedy experience. I have comedy experience, I thought to myself. But you didn’t ask about it. The interviewer not shutting up long enough to give you time to speak is another major issue, or not asking the right questions to allow you to prove yourself. Peering way back through the ages, I had a University interview with a London college, where I would begin to confidently answer the questions put to me only for the interviewer to interrupt and change tack. Every. Single. Time. Until he’d found something I knew nothing about and proceeded to relentlessly grill me on it. Given that other people on the interview day were emerging from different rooms with smiling faces saying “That went really well,” or “She was really nice,” it felt a bit unfair. Wanker. If someone is determined to find your Achilles’ heel, then I don’t know that there’s much you can do about it, but hopefully they’re the exception rather than the rule. I mentioned reading James Caan’s book Get the Job You Really Want in a previous post – he makes it clear that interviewing is a skill, and sometimes the fault lies with the interviewer rather than the interviewee. Lawks, it’s a wonder that anyone ever gets hired.

I put this one out to tender on my Facebook wall, in the hopes of gaining a few insights. Here’s what came back;

They want to get a real sense that you are burning to write this thing and have loads of ideas for and about it. Be prepared to talk about what it is you are interested in, and if you don’t know all of the plot (and why would you?) talk about the bits you do know. they want to feel that the money they pay you will turn out a great script so you have to act like that is guaranteed even if you don’t feel like that! (Dawn King)

Stop talking yourself out of it for a start you dickhead… Prep for it and then try and let yourself show them your passion. (Bea Roberts)

I had this problem for years talking about my work as a director in interviews. For me the trick came by somehow de-formalising it and also remembering that if I had got that far they already thought I was good. So it’s not about proving you are good, they already think that or they wouldn’t interview you. It’s about whether your idea fits with what they are trying to achieve. I’ve found thinking that way it becomes more of a conversation about ideas rather than proving yourself to the proper people. (Sita Calvert-Ennals)

Imagine that you are going to get someone to pay you to bake a cake that has never been baked before. You have to go in there and show them that all the ingredients for the cake are really delicious and also persuade them that you know how to bake a cake. That way they will think the end result will be great. (Dawn King)

That is a fantastic metaphor, but if I start imagining Paul Hollywood peering at me with his judge’s head on, then I will definitely be tongue-tied and will quite possibly pee myself with nerves. Although my salted chocolate brownies are second to none, so maybe I should go in with a tray of them?

If you can, make a telephone date with someone who can warm you up. After you leave the house and before you go in. It helps get your brain in gear and calm you down to be your best self. Preferably someone who has already heard you talk about why you want the gig and what your strengths are. I’ve found this really helps me and others I help out. It’s like taking practice shots before the match. (Rebecca Manson Jones)

Excellent advice, if I could get over my crushing self-consciousness about BEING A TOTAL MUPPET IN INTERVIEWS. And if you’re a friend of mine, you’ve probably realised that I don’t phone people ever, so that’s two major hurdles to get over. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? If achieving your dreams were easy, we’d all be living in our castles in the sky by now. It’s not the easy bits that trip us up, it’s the bits we find hard. For me, putting myself in a position of having to please/impress someone who appears to hold power/authority over me is really really hard after being severely bullied by a teacher to the point of losing all confidence in myself and trust in others, amongst other things. It’s kinda hard to trust that the situation is going to work out in my favour. But then I want to kick myself, because Christ, that was over 20 years ago and it’s not the same situation, and I’m no longer the same person, so why does it still have a hold on me? It turns out that achieving your dreams means facing your demons at some point. Facing them, feeling the terror and then pulling up your big girl pants and doing it anyway, despite the fact that your heart is pounding and your palms are sweating and you really don’t think you can. If you want to substitute growing a pair instead of big girl pants then go ahead, but I like my genitals the way they are, thanks.

In terms of an action plan, the first thing that needs to happen is for me to change my thinking. Stop dwelling on all the times I’ve stuffed up an interview and remember the ones that went well – my Bristol Uni interview in which I enthusiastically banged on about phallic imagery in the Aliens films to two rather alarmed male tutors, for example. Stop convincing myself that it’s going to be horrendous and I’m going to be crap. Remember that it’s JUST A FUCKING INTERVIEW and not a fight to the death, Hunger Games-style. That the person interviewing me is probably going to be really nice and definitely isn’t going to be my former Deputy Head. And as with all things, remembering to be grateful for the opportunity, then going back and getting with my passion and belief for the original idea. Phoning my excellent friends for help (phone phobia, you’re next up), calming the fuck down, breathing deep, remembering why I want it, thinking of the interviewer as a potential collaborator and maybe doing my utmost to enjoy it rather than fear it. I’ll keep you posted.

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USP? Yes? No?

Firstly, you’ll need to read this, Richard Aslan’s piece for Theatre Bristol about artists being required to think and market themselves like businesses. I found myself wanting to answer it, not because I entirely disagree with him – I’m not knocking him at all – but rather to throw in a couple more angles.

Next time you are tempted to promote your product, try saying bollocks to business. Think about ways to meet people whose work you find exciting that might also find your work exciting, instead.

Firstly – most artists are rubbish at business. Really rubbish. I mean I’ve sat in a production planning meeting and worked out that the number of actors involved will be double the number of audience able to attend. That kind of ratio worked out for You Me Bum Bum Train only because they weren’t paying anyone. It’s hugely frustrating to have someone sitting there saying But why would we pay the writers? while planning a production that stands absolutely no chance of making any money because people are so wrapped up in their own artistic glory as to not give a shit about financial reality. It’s possible to create amazing work while still turning a profit. I’m now a single mother on benefits. To get myself down to Bristol for potential work means £10 in Bristol, and generally £10 in parking, on top of having to drop whatever else I was working on that day. £20 currently represents 2 days worth of food for me and the kids, so please don’t be offended if I poke you in the eye when you suggest that I work for free. For others, that means losing a day’s paid work. Working for free doesn’t mean working for free, it means that your input is essentially subsidising someone else’s project – you are losing out financially, not merely working for free. I’m fed up of getting dirty looks when I ask about money, as if my enquiry proves I’m somehow less of an artist, or less committed because I should be DOING THIS FOR THE LOVE OF IT. Oh fuck off. If you want to be a professional in this industry, then figure out where the money is going to come from so that you and everyone else can be paid fairly for your time. That might be ticket sales, G4A, profit-share, box-office split or corporate sponsorship for all I know, or getting your heads together with like-minded collaborators to create something now with the intention of getting paid for it later. But please stop putting together projects that stand absolutely no hope of being profitable while expecting other people to give their time and effort for free. If you’re going to start a business, you need to figure out how it can actually make money. I think a lot of artists could learn from that.

Next time you are thinking about ways to improve your marketing, try saying bollocks to business. Think about what it was in the first place that made you spend days, weeks, months of your time making work, and what it is that keeps you making work (clue: it probably isn’t the money) and then think about exciting ways to tell people about it.

Secondly – most artists are rubbish at business. They squirm awkwardly at the mention of marketing and networking and tell you that they’re hopeless at selling themselves, as if selling themselves really did mean standing on a corner of Easton in a G-string and asking passing drivers if they want any business. And because they are artists and are determined not to develop any business skills, because artists are artists and not business people dammit, they don’t look into how to improve their skills at stuff like marketing and networking. Which means that while they might be creating works of staggering genius, nobody’s heard of them, nobody commissions them and nobody gets to see them. So it’s all a bit pointless, ultimately. And if they took the time to learn a bit about how to market their work in a way which feels authentic, a way which honours the imagination and energy and sheer hard work it took to create it, a way which knows that there are people out there who will love coming to see it and get so much out of it – Jesus, that’s a win-win situation, surely? Let’s get a bit devil’s advocate-y about it; if your work never gets out there or never gets seen then is it really work or is it more of a hobby? If you’re inspired and passionate and creating something amazing then for God’s sake tell us about it. Marketing doesn’t have to feel like cold-calling or selling your sell, at its basic level it’s just letting people know that you’re doing something which they might like.

Next time as an actor, or a designer, or a director, or a producer, you are asked to interview for a position, try saying bollocks to business. Walk into the room as a potential collaborator looking for potential collaborators to make art with.

Thirdly – most artists are rubbish at business. Which means that the artists who sidle into administration and desk jobs don’t feel that they have to look very hard at productivity, schedules, planning, that kind of thing. Who hasn’t had the frustration of dealing with the woolly-minded Arts Professional? You know, the one who is nominally “in charge” of the Arts Centre, or at least the bit of the Arts Centre that you’re liaising with. I’m doing my best not to get too ranty, but Christ, the number of opportunities that are advertised with less than a week’s notice to get your application in, something posted up on Friday 7th that goes along the lines of “Send us your ideas, CV and letter of application by 6pm Mon 10th, all applicants must be able to attend interviews on Wed 12th.” Which basically means firstly giving up your weekend to get your application together, and then all applicants must either be sitting around doing nothing all week, every week – ideal candidates for the job then – or must be able to spend Tues 11th continually checking their email to see if they’ve been successful, drop everything at a moment’s notice, get time off work and/or sort out childcare, travel arrangements etc and rush to the interview to try to dazzle someone having had less than 24 hours warning. Sorry, but it’s a little bit shit. As is not being given enough time to put together a proposal because the Arts Professional has left it to the last minute before asking you. As is continually being messed around by people not doing what they said they were going to do, or turning up late, or cancelling/rescheduling at the last minute. I’ve had friends take time off work and travel to London at their own expense for writing jobs, only to have a phone call from the Arts Professional wanting to reschedule it to a different day. Um, no actually, it’s not possible for me to do that. Basically there’s a lot of Professionals in our industry who could do with being a lot more professional about it.

If you’re feeling really brave, next time you fill out an A4E application, try saying bollocks to business. Remember it’s A4E, not B4E (yet) and fill those grey pages with line after line of colour.

Fourthly – most artists are rubbish at business. You get my point? *Insert your own example here.*

I agree that we don’t want to develop a business mindset which crowds the creativity out of creating. I agree that it can feel a lot like your spine has been turned into a blackboard which someone is now raking their acrylic nail extensions down to have to turn an unformed morass of inspiration and ideas and exciting possibilities into a fully-planned G4A funding application. But do I want someone with a half-baked idea to win thousands of pounds from the Arts Council so they can play around for a week in a studio just to see whether it has legs, culminating in a naff showing of a work-in-progress before quietly dropping the idea? That’ll be a no, actually. I’d like that funding to go to someone who has put time and effort into making damn sure that their idea is as watertight as they can possibly make it before asking for money for it. The development process is uncertain, exploratory and needs to remain open and playful, but there’s no need to make it a piss-take. I agree that art shouldn’t have to be a commercial product in order to succeed, and how the hell do we define success in this context anyway? But at the same time, there’s a hell of a lot that artists can learn from business and about business in order to improve their own practice, productivity and chance of building a sustainable career.

The language of business is a tool like any other. It has a sharp end designed to do a job. We should make sure we grasp it accordingly, and never assume that it was designed to make us better artists.

Aslan might be talking about the language of business rather than business itself, but let’s not trip ourselves up with our artistic snobbery and assume we’re above all that. Funding and opportunities can be tight and competitive – in which case surely it makes sense for artists to have to be able to justify what’s being spent on them, or to be able to use the time and space that’s being offered to them in an effective, productive way, or to be able to plan their work so as to be able to make it actually happen. Being an artist doesn’t mean that you get to faff around all day. Play is vital, but so is productivity. And given the funding cuts and continuing squeeze on the arts, developing entrepeneurial skills might be the only way forward for many. Business could learn much from artists but there’s also a lot that artists can learn from business. And one of those lessons is that business doesn’t have to mean soulless jargon or joylessly mouthing the words to the corporate song in the hopes of conning some money out of someone. Business can be heartfelt, vibrant, colourful and authentic. It can also be profitable. If you believe in your work as an artist then business and entrepeneurial skills can enable you to be more productive, make shit happen, and get your work out to the people who want to see it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean defining your USP or creating a marketable brand either. Instead of saying bollocks to business, perhaps we should be expanding our horizons about what business is, or could be – challenging the status quo where necessary, but picking up the skills we need to succeed along the way.

 

 

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What would you write?

What would you write if you didn’t have to worry about the money?

What would you write if you weren’t so nervous about how it might be received?

What would you write if you knew it would be the last thing you’d ever write?

What would you write if its success was guaranteed?

What would you write if you had the time?

What would you write if you didn’t have to worry about where/who to send it to, how to pitch it, how to market it, who might buy it?

What would you write if you were dipping your pen into your own blood?

What would you write if you didn’t know anything about writing?

What would you write if you had the attention of a world leader? or God? or your unborn great-great-grandchild?

What would you write if you were listening to your heart? If you let your soul pour out across the page?

What would you write if there weren’t so many chores to do?

What would you write if you didn’t have to do your day job?

What would you write if you were better at writing, or more well-known, or fully-funded, or being given all the support you needed?

What would you write if you were sent on a Writing Retreat to a remote cottage by the sea?

What would you write if someone was holding a gun to your head?

What would you write if you were uncontrollably happy?

What would you write if you were savagely depressed? If your best friend was depressed and you wanted to reach them?

What would you write if you weren’t so fucking scared?

What would you write if you finally ran out of excuses as to why you couldn’t?

Write it anyway.

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Maya Productions Opportunity

This landed in my inbox via the Tamasha Arts mailing list so I thought I’d pass it on. Deadline 5pm Friday 12 September.

MAYA PRODUCTIONS SEEKS WRITER

Maya Productions are a London based theatre company that makes theatre that reflects and celebrates diversity. Our vision is of a world where people of all ages, abilities, cultures and classes can be inspired by and contribute to theatre as audiences and theatre makers. Working from the cultural heart of South East London we create excellent productions and projects that explore the local landscape and nurture an appetite for national and global ideas.

SUPERHEROES: SOUTH OF THE RIVER

Maya Productions are looking for a writer to create a new piece of professional theatre for teenage audiences to tour to schools in London in 2015/16. Combining martial arts, comic book storytelling, and theatre, the play will focus on the creation of a new team of South London Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic superheroes and will be developed alongside a group of young people from Refugee Youth (www.refugeeyouth.org)  in Autumn/Winter 2014/15.

For more details please go to

http://www.mayaproductions.co.uk/index.php/category/jobs-and-opportunities/

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I know nothing; ignorance and creativity

fibonacci-spiral

Bank Holiday weekend here in the UK, so if you’re reading this at home then you should probably rethink your life and go and find a queue of traffic to join. Undoubtably it will rain, and so a soggy trip to the nearest beach should also be at stake. It’s tradition. Don’t fight it.

Currently I’m working on pieces for Bristol Bright Night, part of the European-wide Researchers Night happening in September. It has so far involved talking to several researchers at Bristol University to find out about what they do, then going home and transforming that into pieces of street theatre. And yes, you did read that right. The call-out has just been put up on Theatre Bristol, so if you’re somebody who might be interested in performing some street theatre, check it out here. I’m fairly sure it’s unpaid as the intention was for it to be performed by students. It’s been fascinating entering the world of academia for a short while, finding out about things I know nothing about and seeing a fresh perspective to life on this marvellous planet of ours.

One researcher admiring the necklace I was wearing (a star) before going on to explain about the Fibonacci sequence, the mathematical ratios involved and how that was consistent with the varying lengths of the arms of the star on the necklace. All I could think was Wow, we really experience the world in different ways, don’t we? Because I just see a pretty star. For a moment, I wondered what it would be like to walk along the street and see ratios, angles and numbers, the patterns of the world revealed in mathematical formulae. Just for a moment mind, because frankly it made my head hurt. Still, in that moment it was like disappearing down the rabbit hole and into a strange new wonderland. With all of the researchers there was a moment of ooh, that’s interesting, and the chance to not only find inspiration for the project, but to mentally file an idea away for future reference. And also – given that there can be so much woolly-mindedness in the arts – a glimpse of a search for definites, a desire to change uncertainties into certainties, all of it backed up by real, actual funding. Different world, I’m telling y’all. Interesting also to have moments in which I was told No, it’s not like that at all when I’d put forward an opinion/question – I realised I’m not used to that in the arts; we tend to take on board multiple viewpoints and contradictory ideas, somehow absorbing them all rather than stating no, it’s like this. It’s refreshing to admit your ignorance at times, and to walk into a situation where you’re not expected to know anything, then come out more informed.

On one of my research days, I had a gap between appointments and so popped into Bristol Museum to see the Jeremy Deller English Magic exhibition. The film which forms the centrepiece of the exhibition featured slow motion, high definition close ups of birds of prey in flight, stunningly beautiful and powerful, along with a steel drum orchestra, a car being crushed and a giant inflatable Stonehenge. Again, it took me to a different place, a new appreciation of something I hadn’t really thought about or merely taken for granted – just how intricate and well-adapted a bird’s wing is, how amazing their ability to fly – alongside questions of identity and Englishness and achievement. A moment of beauty, anyway, which is a rare and wondrous thing. There’s a video here - but without the larger screen and high definition, I’m not sure if it’s as worthwhile. The colours seemed so vibrant on the real thing, not so much on Youtube.

So, the Creative Friday challenge this week is to see the world a different way. Find a rabbit hole to disappear down and see where it leads. Investigate something you know nothing about, watch a documentary you’d normally avoid, pick up a newspaper you’d like to see burned and see where it takes you. Or start googling one of the scientific terms you’ve vaguely heard of to see if you  know what it actually means. String theory, chaos theory, butterfly effect; anything that strikes you as interesting but which you know precious little about in real terms. See if over the weekend you can have a moment where the world suddenly looks a little different – even if you’re sitting in a queue on the M5. And then eat an egg sandwich and have a cup of tea from a Thermos – because, you know, tradition.

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How to actually cope with depression

I'm depressed!!!So then. Following on from my last post, you might have worked out that I’m a bit of an expert when it comes to depression. I’ve not only got the T-shirt, I grew the cotton and wove it together, stitching it up into a slightly saggy grey tank top with I’m Depressed!!! stamped across it above a picture of a smiley face gone sad. I’ve actually lost count of the number of times I’ve had depression, particularly if we’re going to throw in Mild Depression as a category.

One of the not-so helpful things about depression is that once you’ve had it, you’re very much scared of getting it again. So if you’ve had a bad week, a bad day even, there’s this shrill voice in the back of your head trilling oh shit, am I getting depressed again? That voice is enough to trigger an inner panic, a shutting down inside yourself and a bit of a withdrawal – all of which seem to confirm that yes, indeed, you are getting depressed. Fear of depression can be enough to start you off down a panicked bunny-in-the-headlights spiral down into depression. Bit of a vicious circle, that one. So one of the things that has helped me the most was words of wisdom from an acupuncturist, which went something like this;

The Chinese believe that emotions are like the weather. You can’t avoid a particular state of feeling any more than you can avoid the rain. Therefore neither fear any particular emotion, nor try to cling onto a way of feeling. It will all just pass through, always moving and changing.

The image of depression as a literal black cloud helps. Yes, it’s pissing down now, but it will pass. The sun will come out. And while there might be more rainclouds in the future, they too will pass. You will not have to live with this forever. It also helped me to realise that it was fine to have a bad day, or to feel a bit down, to feel blue, without that cold grip of terror that I was going to be depressed again. Telling myself I’m just having a bad day is incredibly reassuring. Paying more attention to the menstrual cycle and knowing that it’s PMT week is also useful – you’d think that as women we’d have figured that one out by now, but it’s incredible how many women go about beating themselves up for feeling shitty or having a rough time and not coping when it’s actually down to hormones. Supplements really can make a difference – I know by now that I need to take starflower oil (similar to evening primrose) or I start getting insanely irritable and down. In other words – make sure you give yourself what you need, in terms of nutrition, supplements included and also rest, sleep, exercise, fresh air, relaxation and fun. You know, the things that actually build up to a balanced life.

Without delving too far into medical research, I’m going to divide depression into two different types for the purposes of this post (I’m not talking about bipolar disorder, nor postnatal depression.) Firstly, the deep dark pit that is clinical depression, with an added serving of suicidal thoughts. This one is the absolute monster, the head-on collision with the wall of pain. If you’re feeling this way, like the pain inside you is too great to live with – GET HELP. Don’t try to tough it out or get all macho on its ass, it doesn’t help. You’re ill and you can get better, but you need help.

Firstly tell someone close to you – and this can feel incredibly hard to do, you’re in a state of withdrawal and so reaching out to someone can feel nigh on impossible. Right now, you possibly believe that your loved ones would be better off without you – but that’s the illness speaking. They would prefer the chance to help you. If all else fails, sit them down in front of this blog post. Then make an emergency appointment with your doctor (as in if the receptionist asks you whether it’s urgent, the answer is YES, GET ME A SODDING DOCTOR NOW, not No, that’s fine I’ll wait until next week.) I’ve found that a more holistic practice is the most useful, somewhere where they might be able to put you into some kind of therapeutic programme such as art or gardening therapy. At the very least, get yourself signed up for some counselling, even if you have to pay privately. It might be possible to get a reduced rate through certain schemes, eg with a trainee, or sometimes counselling services are available through your Union. Please consider taking the tablets, bearing in mind that it might take a few attempts to find the right one that works for you. If you’re adamant that you don’t want anti-depressants then St John’s Wort can help. Consider this a state of emergency; you need immediate support. Cancel everything and get the help that you need.

If you’re trying to support someone in this state of severe depression, then do the legwork for them. Book them in at the doctor’s surgery and take them there. Go to the chemist and get the drugs. Find out about counselling/therapy in your local area and book them in. It’s probably not worth asking them What do you want to do? because they don’t know. They’re not capable of making decisions in this state and are entirely locked down. The best approach is probably that of a kindly Girl Guide leader – sympathetic but firm, with a brisk, practical touch when needs be. You’re going to have to lay down the rules. Once the emergency measures are in place, then make sure that they eat well (they’ll likely have a loss of appetite and certainly won’t be bothered to cook for themselves), that they get some fresh air (the outside world can seem too bright, too raw) and perhaps a quiet, gentle walk or the chance to sit by the sea. They won’t want to be around other people, so if you go out, it needs to be secluded. Be a coat of armour around them, wrap them in a security blanket – literally as well as metaphorically. But do try and get them outside, even if it’s just sitting on the backstep for a few minutes. Use Come on, we’re going to… rather than Would you like to… If it’s too much to take on by yourself, create a support group around the depressed person to provide the daily help that they will need.

The second category is a much milder form of depression. The kind that creeps up on you gradually, that if you’ve had it before you can feel yourself sinking down into. You feel less interested in life, more reclusive. Nothing feels that appealing, you’ve forgotten what fun means. The world is a grey place, and right now your favourite activity is sleeping. Shadow comforts creep in, like addictively playing a computer game, or becoming a night owl and going to bed ridiculously late because you prefer the world when everyone else is asleep. Drinking too much or relying on drugs or sex to fix your mood. Losing interest in personal hygiene – you don’t want to strip off and get into the shower because you can’t be bothered, it takes too much energy, and being naked makes you feel too vulnerable. Living in sweatpants and a baggy T-shirt, starting to sleep in the clothes you’ve worn all day. Eating junk food, skipping meals and bingeing on rubbish. Avoiding going shopping – or to the supermarket at least, so there’s a lack of healthy options. Sometimes spending uncontrollably or impulsively because the shiny new toy might make you feel a bit better for five minutes. Feeling incredibly irritated with people, unable to keep calm. Anger can often be masking a depression. Things feel bleak and pointless, there’s no joy in the world and you’re not sure if you can be arsed carrying on, your life seems a bit meaningless. Also in this category is the depression which comes from sheer exhaustion – working three jobs, looking after children, burning the candle at both ends, getting insomnia. Feeling trapped in a job you hate, house you hate, and seemingly a life that you hate too.  Although milder, as in it’s not severe enough for you to realistically consider killing yourself, it’s still painful. You might wonder if you’d prefer to die, but you kinda know you’re not going to try it, not yet anyway. You can live like this for a long time, half-alive, never really thriving. Sometimes it eases off of its own accord, sometimes it worsens and spirals down into a far deeper depression, sometimes you just get used to feeling this way and forget that life can be any different.

It can.

I see depression as a Winter of the soul. A retreat from normal life, when things have got out of balance. A necessary withdrawal in order to build yourself back up and make the changes that need to be made. Because something is wrong, and this is your body’s way of letting you know.

What would it be like if you gave yourself permission to be depressed? To go with it rather than fearing it or fighting it? To stop thinking of it as depression and start thinking of it as retreat? To use this time as a period of extra nurturing, of really looking after yourself; going to bed earlier and getting more rest, eating well, journalling your thoughts, putting yourself on a news-fast and only watching and reading things which will be inspiring and uplifting? To seek out beauty, spend more time in Nature, have fresh flowers on the table, take more baths, indulge yourself. To spend time thinking about the way you’d like your life to be, of what changes you can make to improve it. To ask yourself what do I need right now and act on that. What one small thing would make you feel better, whether that’s baking cupcakes, going for a walk or curling up for a nap?

See, I believe we need times of retreat. Our lives are busier than ever and completely out of alignment with the lifestyle that our bodies have evolved for. Once upon a time when our lives were closely tied to the land, we rested in Winter. There wasn’t anything else we could do, before electricity and the invention of the light bulb. So for several weeks, we’d sleep more, eat home-cooked meals (take-out hadn’t been invented), tell stories and rest. Nowadays if we get a holiday, we’re likely to be still checking our emails. We’ve lost sight of the necessity of taking a break, and of looking within. And often when depression bites, it’s because we’ve ignored our needs for so long that we’ve forgotten we ever had them.

Once you’ve ascertained what you need right now, ask yourself again what do I need? The list should include time spent outdoors, fresh air, sunshine, sleep, healthy food, laughter, friends, some form of creative expression, exercise. But what does your personal list look like? What do you consider to be beautiful in life, and how can you get more of it? You have, as Hamlet said, lost all your mirth. How can you go about getting it back? How can you be better supported, how can you simplify your life? Depression brings with it a necessary simplification – nothing is that important any more. Go back to basics, cancel whatever you can, spend time beautifying your environment (sounds better than tidy up), weeding the garden, watching your favourite comedy whether or not you feel like laughing. It’s okay to laugh when you’re depressed – sometimes we don’t allow ourselves that luxury in case other people pronounce us cured far too soon or don’t take our depression seriously.

The final piece of the jigsaw – gratitude. You’re dwelling on the negative right now, and that drags you down. I mean it – stop watching/listening to the news or reading the papers; trust me, you’ll still find out what you need to know, but all that bad news isn’t helping you right now. Stop reading/watching dark, disturbing films. Ask yourself whether something is going to lift you up or drag you down before you do it. And every night before bed, reach for your journal and write down three things that you’re grateful for, whether profound or banal. I’m grateful for; strawberries, not having to go out in the rain, being able to read. This activity in itself can be life-changing, as it makes you focus on the positive. Depression can tip over into self-indulgency at times, and a determination to dwell in the negative just to reinforce the fact that I. Am. Depressed. Just in case anyone was wondering. So be a bit strict with yourself and make your gratitude list every night. Consider it a prescription.

I don’t want to demean the suffering and pain of depression – it’s very real. But we can also decide to learn from it, and to fully utilize it as a time of retreat and inner growth. Use depression as an alarm bell, a wake-up call, your body’s way of drawing your attention to the fact that you’ve wandered off-course – whether that’s because you’ve been continually under-nourishing yourself for years and your body is now depleted, or whether it’s because you hate your job and your life is too stressful, or whether it’s because you never had the help you needed way back when. Just as the plants die back in Winter, shrink back to their roots, so can we. In Spring, the fresh shoots and leaves will emerge and blossom. We too can make use of this time of pulling back, in order to recharge and renew ourselves, before re-emerging with fresh inspiration and energy. It feels controversial to suggest that depression can be a positive thing, but why not? Depression is painful enough without us adding more stigma to it, so why not wring it for all it’s worth? If you’ve got to go through it, then go through it determined to benefit from it. And if you can do this every time you feel yourself slipping down, then you might find that you start averting the depression just by pulling back and giving yourself what you need.

You will get through it. This too will pass, remember? One small step at a time - what do I need right now? What will help? -  and plenty of rest. And when it feels safe, ask again; what can I learn from this? What does depression have to teach me? What would I like to get out of this?

You might be surprised by the answers.

 

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