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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Depression, and talking about it.

You're not perfect, sport.

As I write this, the TV is showing Good Will Hunting, in tribute to Robin Williams. I’m not about to eulogize him, but looking at the screen it’s hard to believe that he’s no longer with us; anybody with that amount of presence, that larger than life persona leaves a hole behind. Here’s the thing – we’re all going to die. But we’re uncomfortable thinking about it, talking about it. We’re superstitious about it, to the extent that a man struggling with depression and addiction, a man facing a progressive life-limiting disease is called a coward for choosing to take his life – as if suicide were somehow letting the side down, spoiling things for the rest of us. For the record – suicide is not the coward’s way out. For the record – that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing either.

I’m not comfortable with any of this. The way that a bandwagon has seemingly been created around his death – Christ, I’ve had emails from health food companies simultaneously wanting to memorialise him while also selling me spirulina at half price. The sudden spurt of We need to talk about depression, and the amount of patronising guff that ensues. “We” – whoever that may be – seem to have been talking about depression for quite some time, and yet precious little seems to have changed. In the rush to reassure everyone that depression is a mental Illness, small m, capital I, as if it’s something you catch from boarding a bus without anti-bacterial wipes, much is left out and subtlety ignored. Celebrities come forward with their My Depression Hell cash-for-stories, memoirs are written by someone who once had to deal with depression but is much better now and everyone agrees that depression is a bad thing, a thing which strikes seemingly at random and really can’t be helped.

For the record – yes, I’ve had depression.

For the record – yes, I’ve had suicidal depression.

It doesn’t seem to be something I talk about much. For one thing, it’s – well, depressing. For another – it’s kinda boring. But there’s so much bullshit talked about depression, that maybe it’s time I did. Also – there’s a lot of pressure to write something beautiful about depression, something meaningful and moving. Well, bollocks to that, frankly. Depression doesn’t feel particularly beautiful, meaningful or moving when you’re in the middle of it. It doesn’t feel that way when someone you love is in the middle of it. And it sure as hell doesn’t feel that way when you lose someone to it.

So then. Depression. I’d say it hit me for the first time at 17, yet there were hints long before that. An episode of Fame years before in which a character either attempted or actually committed suicide and finding myself crying in my bedroom afterwards because it somehow resonated with how I felt a lot of the time. My mother of course telling me to not be so stupid. But 17, hit with a wave of family problems of the holy shit, batman variety, under pressure at school, and some ugly problems of my own – all on top of the normal adolescent angst, that’s when the so-called black dog really bit for the first time. I remember getting ill, a chest infection which turned to bronchitis and the relief of being able to legitimately take time out, miss school, sleep – it was bliss. It was of course depression, and the truth was that I couldn’t face going back to school, couldn’t begin to imagine managing it. My best friend would come round with details of what I’d missed, homework assignments because A-levels were only a couple of months away, and I’d stare blankly at the words on the page, knowing that I couldn’t do it. That there was no way my mind would cooperate and I didn’t know how to even start. When I finally had to return to school, struggling to hold myself together, I was then bullied by a teacher I’d previously confided in about the problems my family was going through. She really didn’t help.

A few months later and I dropped out of the university course I was on. I’d picked the wrong course for the wrong reasons, but perhaps I might have been able to get on with it had it not been for the undiagnosed depression bubbling away just under my skin. I started getting panic attacks instead. At one point I ended up sitting across from one of the University’s counsellors, but sitting was all we did. His approach was to sit and wait for the patient to talk rather than asking questions. I sat there and cried, unable to talk, partly out of shyness with this complete stranger, partly because I didn’t know where to start and partly because I knew that if I started to let go and open up then I ran the risk of unleashing an unstoppable flood of words and emotions that couldn’t be contained within a one hour appointment. The ridiculousness of our appointment system came back to me many years later during couples’ therapy – the therapist turning to me and asking me if there was anything I’d like to say when there was only five minutes left on the clock. Um – maybe not. Maybe I’d rather not open myself up, reveal my vulnerabilities, express my pain only to be stopped mid-flow and told that time’s up.

My next bout of depression – my first actual diagnosed depression, three years later, I took to sleeping with a knife under my pillow in case I woke in the night and needed to kill myself. Simple. Matter of fact. Really not as melodramatic as it sounds. Somehow having the knife there made me feel a lot better. Perhaps deep down I knew I wasn’t going to use it – but I’d given myself an exit strategy in case it got too much to bear. My youth kept me alive, the remnants of my rational mind insisting that it wasn’t fair for me to have to kill myself when there was so much of life I hadn’t got to experience yet. I didn’t want to die – I wanted everyone else to go away and stop causing me problems, or to be airlifted onto an alien planet where I could be the sole occupant, just long enough to catch my breath and get my head straight. Stop the world, I want to get off.

What I find interesting, looking back, is that my depression was first blamed on the antibiotics I was taking for the bronchitis, and then assigned as some kind of character flaw. There was never any consideration that perhaps it was linked to circumstances. From that point on, I was “prone to depression,” a fact which was backed up every time I became depressed. When you’re marked down as “prone to depression,” there’s a slight whiff of the hysteric about you. It means that no one has to take you particularly seriously because you’re probably just a bit depressed. And every time you voice an opinion which might be slightly unpopular, it’s because you’re depressed – or at least a depressive – so nobody has to really think about what you’re saying.

What’s even more obvious is that at no point was I given the help that I needed. The only option was anti-depressants. The doctors that I saw didn’t mention counselling or therapy.  My then boyfriend, worried sick, took me to his doctor who lectured me about how life was stressful, everyone was stressed, he himself was incredibly busy and stressed and I should basically just pull my socks up and get on with it. No, not helpful either. No one around me knew how to cope with it, how to help. Depression kept coming back and I bought into the belief that it was because there was something inherently wrong with me as a person. I pretty much lost my twenties to depression, a combination of sleepwalking through life and hiding myself away.

In my mid-thirties, I crashed. Utterly and completely. I found myself on the kitchen floor wailing with grief while the children poked at me, bemused. It was like running into a brick wall of pain, a hurt so bad and so deep that only the presence of my children, asleep on the other side of the wall from my bed, kept me from killing myself. Even though the hurt was so profound as to make me believe I was no use to them, that they’d be genuinely better off without me, that I was inevitably going to fuck their lives up because I was such a mess – the bottom line was that I knew that this was depression because I’d been through it before, if never quite this bad. And so I knew that it would pass and I would get through it, even if it felt like this was insurmountable, like this was too much pain to bear. My heart goes out to people who hit depression for the first time and don’t have that understanding that this too will pass. That time around, I knew the reason lurking behind it. I knew the reason because I’d been writing something which made me reexamine the things that had happened when I was younger. The phrase lightbulb moment is perhaps overused, but it really was – with a sudden click I finally made the connection between my battered state of mind and the problems of the past. And that time, I demanded help. Luckily, my doctor was part of a very holistic surgery and I was swiftly given art therapy – not for long enough perhaps, but enough to kickstart the healing process.

In the rush to “normalise” depression, to make it socially acceptable and widely understood, the emphasis has been on brain chemistry – that depression is merely some kind of synaptic fuck-up which is easily fixed by taking the right drugs. I don’t think I agree. I know there will be people shouting at their laptop at this point – Actually I got depressed and there was no reason for it and it’s just about chemicals in the brain and I took anti-depressants and felt a lot better so shut the fuck up. I’m not talking about bipolar disorder and the depression which comes with that. But I do think that there is a reason behind depression. It might be a problem from the past which needs healing – and often something coming up in your present day life which subconsciously reminds you of that situation. It might be stress from work, or lack of it. It might be from the fact that we live ridiculously unnatural lives – getting up in the dark in Winter, sitting at desks under artificial lights, cramming into public transport, spending most of our time doing things that we don’t want to do so that somebody else can ultimately profit from it. It might be because our diets are shit and even fruit and veg are now lacking nutrients, vitamins and minerals in our depleted soils. It might be because you’re in the wrong job, wrong house, wrong relationship. It might be that you’re lonely, that you’re isolated – and that’s often a huge one when you’re at home with children all day. It might be that you’re not getting enough sleep, that you’re tired, that you really really need to take a break, have a holiday but there’s no time and no money…  there will generally be a reason though and it’s a reason which won’t be fixed by anti-depressants.

I don’t have a problem with anti-depressants, they can be very much needed. But on their own, they’re not the answer. If you take anti-depressants but don’t address the underlying problem, the depression will come back. This is why people with depression are being short-changed. It’s far easier and cheaper to give someone a prescription for Prozac than to have them attend counselling or therapy. And in fact, if you manage to get a counselling recommendation for your GP, there’s usually a waiting list of several months – something that’s untenable if you’re depressed now. It really didn’t help to be labelled as a depressive, a weak person basically, but it also didn’t help to just be given anti-depressants as if I had caught depression from sitting next to the wrong person on the train. There was a reason for it, and I spent a long time suffering because that reason wasn’t addressed. Being told that my suicidal thoughts were a result of mismatched chemicals in my brain was not the right answer. Depression is indeed an imbalance – but not one that’s limited to brain chemistry, it’s a life imbalance. Something is out of whack. Something needs fixing. The difficulty is when that something seems impossible to fix. There is something about depression that feels like a trap, it doesn’t seem possible to get out of it. Equally, it might not seem possible to get out of the circumstances that have caused it; particularly as depression makes you believe that you yourself are the cause. And so we patch ourselves up, take the drugs and do our best to carry on. The drugs will help in the short term, but not forever.

There is a long history of creatives with depression. It would seem that artists are more prone to it. Perhaps it’s because we’re more sensitive to the outside world, more responsive, more open. Perhaps we ask bigger questions of the world and our place in it. Perhaps it’s arrogant to make such claims. But at times it’s hard to understand how we manage to keep going as a society, when everything is so clearly fucked-up. Money, the environment, war, misogyny, slavery, addiction, hate crimes. Fourteen year old girls being raped and hung. Children dying from things which could have been wiped out a long time ago – typhoid, cholera, lack of clean water, starvation. Politicians re-writing the laws and trying to buy off local councils so that fracking can go ahead – and somehow not talking about the very big issue of how fracking will contribute to climate change, because there is money to be made from fossil fuels. It can feel like the only sane response to our society is that of depression. But depression leaves you powerless. It doesn’t create change. It doesn’t help. Which is why we need to find more intelligent ways of talking about it and better ways of dealing with it. Our world is desperately imbalanced, our lives are imbalanced and inevitably we face imbalance along with it. If you are depressed, know this; it will pass. Take it from someone who has sat there holding a knife to their wrist – it will pass, no matter how unbearable it feels right now. When you feel like you can’t go on, keep telling yourself this too will pass, this too will pass, this too will pass. Because it will.

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School’s out for Summer…

 

1I'm trying to workI don't care whose turn it is on the WiiNo I don't know where you put itGet your own damn dinnerJust shut the fuck up, basically(Normal service will be resumed shortly)

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Lammas

2014-06-21 22.09.28What has this blog been missing? Kitten pictures, evidently. I was trying to avoid being the crazy cat lady on Facebook, but instead I’ve been told off for my lack of kitten pics. Evidently my friends tend towards the crazy cat people type. Yes, I have kittens – quick lesson, when a friend asks your children if they want to come and see the kittens, you’re not getting out of there without agreeing to rehome a bundle of fur or two. So that’s two kittens, two chickens, two children. I’m not going to do a headcount of woodlice, slugs or spiders, but they’re numerous enough to cause significant damage should they ever decide to turn nasty.

Taking stock, in other words. Lammas – the celebration of the summer harvest. Gathering in, taking stock, celebrating. Sometimes it’s hard to find the time to do any of that – sometimes it’s hard to even put yourself into that frame of mind. In my world right now – the usual summer difficulties of trying to meet a deadline while simultaneously looking after the kids, the house getting systematically trashed by kids and kittens, the ongoing worries about money and career… it’s easy to start letting it get to you. In reality, I have a roof over my head and food on the table (also under the table, stashed under my son’s bed, mashed into floors and carpets etc), I live in a beautiful part of the world and we are healthy and happy. It’s worth remembering that. Having lived with severe depression before now, happiness is something I deeply appreciate.

Lammas, then. Take stock. Take a moment to appreciate what you’ve achieved with the year so far. Don’t beat yourself up for all the stuff you haven’t managed to do, that’s not what this is about. Give yourself time to celebrate; make a list of things you can feel proud about, things you’re grateful for, things you enjoy. What else would you like to add to that list before the end of the year? Taking stock in a positive mindset allows us to make room for future possibilities, to make plans from a position of confidence and optimism – a different place entirely from feeling insecure or like a failure because we haven’t managed to achieve x, y or z yet.

Sunday’s Full Moon is a Super Moon, the closest that the Moon gets to the Earth this year, although disappointingly it won’t be wearing a cape or mask. Full Moons are great excuses to gather with friends and a feast – this weekend there’s the full Moon, super Moon and Lammas to celebrate, so go for it. Creative Friday mission; invite someone round, or set out a feast for your housemates. Lammas is all about wheat and corn – bake bread, bake a cake, have tortillas or pancakes. Make it a bring and share if you can’t face cooking it all yourself. Put the laptop down, put the manuscript away and spend a day reconnecting with people, with place, with simple pleasures. Life feeds creativity and creativity fuels life. Live a little. And always leave a little bit of tea in the bottom of your mug for the kittens to drink. Life’s like that. Enjoy it.

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Millionaire Women Millionaire You

Okay, it’s a terrible title. I mean, really terrible. The it in question being the book Millionaire Women Millionaire You by Stephanie J Hale, another read in my quest to understand the business mindset. I squirmed a bit when I picked it up – I mean it’s not like I’m trying to be a millionaire, I just want to know how to make enough money to be able to afford a haircut at some point in the future. If you’ve ever met me, you’ll know how crucial that is. It’s hot out there, and I have hair like an Old English sheepdog.

The book was surprisingly readable though, consisting of interviews that Hale conducted with a number of highly successful female entrepeneurs. The style seemed pretty much verbatim, an informal conversation between them, which seemed preferable to a heavy-going analysis. I’m liberally sprinkling this post with quotes from the book. If like me, you’re wanting to change your approach to your finances, then I think it’s worth a read. It really seems like the mindset needs to come first, way before the actual plan. If you’ve not got the right mindset, the plan won’t work or you’ll sabotage yourself in some way.

…that first step has to be about changing the way you think, because people either have what I call a ‘prosperity consciousness’ or they have a ‘poverty consciousness’. (Sandy Forster)

If you’re still struggling to see the relevance, then swap a few words around – use writer instead of entrepeneur, writing instead of business and see where it takes you.

…my business developed entirely on making a difference in people’s lives and them telling other people. (Jennifer Hough)

…I know that when life presents me something, it’s time to say “yes.” So if I was to put my strategy of business success into a nutshell, it’s say “yes.” Say “yes” to what presents, until it’s a “yes” in another direction. (Jennifer Hough)

Certain themes keep popping up again and again in my business-mindset research. The need to have a mentor. The need for prosperity-consciousness rather than poverty-thinking. Gratitude. Charity. Resilience. Implementation. The need to surround yourself with like-minded people who are achieving success on their own terms and can spur you on. Building a team. Confronting your fears and working through them. The need to avoid negative influences, whether that’s people in your life or aspects of the media – even people who care about you can act as a negative influence as they try to get you to downscale your dreams so as not to be disappointed.

I so wanted my children to see that they can go out into the world and do whatever their heart desires. No matter what life throws at them, they have a choice and they can create their life the way they want it to be. (Sandy Forster)

But one thing that’s really important to be able to create the life of your dreams: you need to spend a lot of time in gratitude. That means you need to focus on those things in your life that you are grateful for now. (Sandy Forster)

Jennifer Hough, a nutritionist, talks about the inherent biological differences between men and women; women are designed to be more intuitive and sensitive in order to procreate and protect their children. Socially men are also encouraged more to compete, to play the game, while women are taught to be “ecological” in Hough’s words – in terms of building a social ecology and ensure that everyone gets along. One of the things I’ve been doing recently is talking to everyone I meet who defines themself as an artist and asking about money. Plenty of male artists also admit to having difficulties with asking for money and knowing how to put themselves out there. I’m wondering whether artists as a group tend to have more sensitivity, regardless of gender – it seems likely, we have to be empathetic and intuitive in order to respond to others, to be aware of our own feelings and translate that into creative output. So I figure that a lot of men reading this will be aware that it applies to their own thinking and outlook, not just to that of women.

Women tend to have a lot of problems asking for money. …Because we’re so used to doing so much for so many for nothing. …There’s a belief around money that “shouldn’t I be doing this out of the goodness of my heart?” (Jennifer Hough)

The way I see it, most of us really do live lives of quiet desperation, punctuated with the occasional moment of bliss. People are stuck in jobs that don’t inspire them, trapped by their wages and the need to pay the mortgage/rent/mobile phone contract. If you ask most people what they wanted to be when they were a kid, or how they thought their life would look, it’s probably not how they’ve ended up. There’s a  lot of disappointment out there, wrapped up in a shrug of Yeah, but that’s just how it is. A reality-check, in other words, and the belief that there really is no choice, that’s just how life goes and anybody thinking they can do it different is naive/stupid/wrong.

And yet, and yet…

There are people out there who really are living the life of their dreams. People who wake up excited about the day ahead and who retain a child-like passion and wonder about life. People who retain an optimistic outlook, who lift our spirits when we talk or listen to them, who inspire us. They don’t dwell on the negative, they don’t gossip, they don’t seem to pay too much attention to what other people might think. Generally they’re too busy just getting on with doing what they want to do – and yet they’re not selfish or greedy with it, they always seem to have time and compassion for others. And these people – they always seem to succeed in what they do.

In the United States I heard a statistic recently from the IRS that less than 6% of the country has an income of over six figures a year. When I first heard that statistic…I realized that I had to do the opposite of what most people were doing every day. That was enlightening because we look around ourselves and see the world operating a certain way, we see people in jobs operating a certain way, we see our family and friends operating a certain way. That was me turning around and completely swimming up-stream. I could only do it because I wanted to create an extraordinary life. (Ali Brown.)

I know which camp I’d rather be in. I know I’m often trapped in the mindset of You can’t make a living as a playwright or It’s really hard to make money from writing. And if that’s the way I think, then of course it’s going to be true for me. Yet some people manage to make money from their writing. Some people make very good money from their writing. Some people even manage to make a living from playwriting.

Faith is a huge component of being a successful entrepeneur because there are many times you do not see what’s on the other side of the door. You can feel it, you’re close to it, you can almost taste it. You can taste that success, but your fear is like a combination lock. If you don’t move through your fears of have the courage to step through from making some changes in your life – and some of them are scary – you won’t ever see what’s on the other side of that door. (Ali Brown.)

In the interests of full disclosure, I came close to giving up last week. Yet another rejection for a position I’d applied for, a development scheme which felt like it could have provided the final stepping stone that I needed in order to make that shift from emerging artist to just artist. Followed by a second rejection for a similar scheme, and my radio proposal being turned down, which kinda broke my heart because it would have been damn good.

The biggest block definitely is not trusting your instinct and not being able to trust what your heart is telling you. (Jennifer Hough)

Then, in the quiet moments at dawn when insights are most likely to happen, I realised that none of the rejections were actually about my writing. They were based on CVs, covering letters, applications, pitches and not my actual scripts. My plays, my stories – they’re good, and when I submit an actual script then I get damn good feedback. And maybe I need to beef up my application-writing skills, but I’m not quitting on the grounds of that. I’m determined to make this about my actual writing, to succeed or fail on that, and not on the grounds of a covering letter. It’s worth asking yourself that, when you face a rejection – was this about my writing? If it’s your writing that’s being rejected, then you maybe need to step back and work on it before submitting it elsewhere. But if if’s not about your writing then you’re still in the game. Don’t give up.

It’s really about making the decision to be successful, and many people haven’t done that. A lot of us don’t learn how to do this growing up. Actually the Latin root of the word “decide” means to cut off. You’re cutting off all other options. You’re saying to yourself, “This is it, I’m doing this. Come hell or high water, I’m going to be successful.” When you have that “whatever it takes” attitude, that is what takes people to a completely different level. (Ali Brown.)

Rubbish title or not, I found the book interesting. There’s plenty of talk about fear and mistakes as well as success, and an emphasis on determination. For something grabbed at random off the library shelf, it’s been a timely read. I’m going to leave you with this – it’s one of the most famous TED talks, but on the off-chance that you haven’t seen it then grab yourself a cuppa and sit and watch. Don’t try and do anything else, don’t tackle your email at the same time, just sit and watch. You won’t regret it.

…things are changing and the old way of doing things isn’t going to work any more. (Ali Brown.)

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Manifesto

I am not interested in making your dreams come true. Only you can do that. I’ll be over here working on mine.

I don’t read minds. Be clear about what’s wanted.

Integrity is vital. I won’t do bullshit. I’m not prepared to bullshit to get the job and I’m not going to write bullshit when I get the job. So I don’t want to work with anyone who’s going to bullshit me.

I don’t do mediocre. I’m not interested in turning out half-assed work that merely ticks someone’s boxes. If we’re going to work together then let’s make something fucking brilliant.

I will write from my guts, from my heart and from the depths of my soul. If words like soul scare you, then we’re probably not a good match.

Equality, fairness, kindness, honesty, respect. Vital.

No bullying, no intimidation, no nastiness, no exploitation. Seems self-explanatory. Kindness is a ruling principle, but it doesn’t make me a doormat.

No hierarchies. Everyone has a voice.

Equal exchange of energy. What any of us is putting in has to match up to what we’re getting out of it. Payment needs to be fair and realistic, and the process transparent.

Words have power. Let’s use them carefully.

I want to write about things I’m passionate about. I want my work to examine our lives, our relationships to each other and to the planet. I want to scrutinize our values, question our ethics and priorities. I want to write about the things I don’t comprehend, like why we’re allowing a few individuals to screw the rest of us, why we allow certain people/corporations to profit from destroying our habitat. I want to write about wildness, about passion, honesty, intimacy, desire, conflict. I want to create new possibilities for how we can relate to each other and our planet. I don’t want to regurgitate cliches and stereotypes or be pushed into writing about an issue because it’s trendy.

We need stories. We need better stories. Our way of life is unsustainable and based on exploitation. We need to start imagining alternatives. Good stories change us from the inside out.

Too many artists get sucked into the trap of the dark mirror, creating work that reflects and magnifies the brutalities and ugliness of our society. Such work is generally deemed aesthetically superior to work that strives to create beauty, just as news editors deem good news to be less newsworthy than bad news. Judgements about  aesthetic/artistic quality are merely opinions, not fact. More and more of us are becoming aware that creating work that doesn’t seek to rise above the brutal is in itself an act of brutality. Ugliness is generally far easier to achieve than beauty, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to rise above it. As artists we need to ask ourselves whether we’re part of the problem, or part of the solution. It doesn’t mean that we need to be preachy or Pollyanna-ish, just that we’re not falling into the trap of shock-value violence and degradation for the sake of it.

There should always be room for hope.

It is my hope that I can write stories that inspire, that move, that heal, that create new possibilities, that create questions, that highlight injustice. It is my hope that I can work with people who share my passion and beliefs. It’s my hope that I can do all this without getting up myself or turning into a pretentious wanker.

***
Creative Friday; what does your manifesto look like? Hit the comments, or post it on your site and leave a link. Let’s get thinking about what we want to make and how we want to go about making it.
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How much is an idea worth?

Maybe when you start out, your vision is unrealistic. You figure you’ll write these brilliant ideas of yours, the characters and stories that are bubbling up inside you. And you start out that way, writing that big ole Heart and Soul piece, the one that becomes your calling card script – good enough to get you some attention, but no one ever produces it.

The vision doesn’t stay that way for long.

If you start getting anywhere, you soon get to a point where you’re being asked to put ideas forward. There’s a commission at stake, a bunch of writers applying for it and they want a one-page outline/pitch. Or you meet a producer for a chat over coffee and are invited to send them some ideas, probably on how you’d tackle a particular theme. Perhaps you’ve got the opportunity to work as a dramaturg on a devised piece, and they want to know how you might approach their idea. And you soon learn that if you’re dealing with radio or TV producers, it’s best to have several ideas ready in your back pocket to whip out on demand.

Here’s the problem; nobody is paying you. You could spend your entire working life as a writer in this way and never make a penny.

I’m going to put forward a theory here; that most producers have no realisation of just how much work goes into an idea. It’s as if we writers have them already typed up and ready to go, freshly plucked from the Ideas Tree on a neatly formatted sheet of A4. Oh how I wish that was the case.

The problem is that there’s no real commitment from the producer to working with you. You’re one of a number of writers who’ve been invited to apply. You’ll do the work anyway, because it’s interesting or exciting, or there’s the hope of getting paid at the end of it. Trouble is, there’s no guarantee that it’ll lead anywhere.

Recently I’ve been approached by a producer, wanting a few ideas about the collapse of the NHS. While it’s something I might have a personal opinion on, it wasn’t on my current list of Things I’m Writing About. So it means downing tools on the projects I’m working on, and starting to research the NHS. And quickly getting frustrated that none of the articles I’m finding online are really speaking to the idea. To fulfill the brief, I need to come up with story ideas, characters, consider an approach to the subject.

To be honest, that’s a shitload of work. And I don’t mind work, I enjoy work, but it’s only really work if I’m getting paid for it. Otherwise, it’s a waste of my time. Of course, I might be able to do something with my idea later on, write it on spec and see what happens – but then, that’s what I was doing before I downed tools; writing something on spec. And when I keep having to down tools, then nothing gets finished, nothing’s ready to send off, and deadlines that I’d hoped to meet for competitions fall by the wayside.

That’s how my writing life has been looking of late – a series of interruptions, unexpected potential opportunities that I’ve thrown myself into because of the off-chance of getting paid. And every time, I’ve been shortlisted, but the job has gone to someone else. I don’t resent anyone else getting the job – for the most part, they’re friends of mine anyway – but I resent spending all that time and energy preparing ideas for other people when I would have been better off just doing my own thing.  Ach, it sounds like I’m whining. The truth is that my time, energy and finances are limited. I need to be careful of how I’m spending them. And there’s a weariness that comes with wasted ideas, with investing time in things that never come to fruition. The more you care about the potential projects, the harder the heartbreak. Until you get to a point where your brain doesn’t want to play ball any more. it’s not the same as writer’s block – it’s more like creative refusal. your creative mind doesn’t want to join in, not unless it’s got some assurances that it’s actually going to happen this time. Right now my creative mind very much wants to just get on with what it was doing, without potentially useless interruptions.

So for the first time ever, I’ve questioned the process. I spent two days (no, really) composing an email to ask the producer the difficult questions; exactly what were they after, what the fee was likely to be, and whether they were committed to working with me or was I competing for the opportunity? I know it’s a good opportunity, but I’m tired of throwing myself into the required R&D only to get nowhere. And while they’ve answered my questions, there was one omission – the question of their commitment to me. Is it too much to ask? It seems fair for writers to know what they’re up against in these cases, because how else can we make an informed decision? Because doing all that work, only to discover that I’m on a longlist of fifteen others, only 3 of whom will get commissioned for a final fee of £800 – that’s not so great. Knowing that there’s five of us, of whom 3 will be commissioned at full ITC rates – well, that’s looking a lot better. Informed decision.

Nobody wants to be seen as difficult, and we’re all so very eager to get the work. but I’m thinking that maybe we need to take a step back and start questioning the terms. Rates need to be stated upfront. Commitment needs to be stated upfront. The likely final outcome needs to be made clear. Because ideas don’t grow on trees, they require effort and time.

***

I wrote the a while back and chickened out from posting it in case the producer in question got wind of it and questioned my commitment, professionalism, enthusiasm etc etc. I am committed, professional and enthusiastic, but I’ve also got bills to pay and kids to feed. Then an open letter appeared in the Writers’ Guild newsletter and reminded me that it’s a critical issue that writers are facing. I’m going to reproduce it here, with the best of intentions as I think it’s worth saying. It seemed to be posted anonymously, but if anyone needs to be credited then please let me know. It’s about screenwriting rather than theatre, but much of it is transferable. However I’d add in the proviso, particularly for emerging writers, that we don’t dare to say no or ask for a development fee, as there are fifty other writers waiting in the wings to take our place. Worth remembering too that if people were willing to pay us for creating and developing ideas for them then the quality of those ideas would improve, as we’d be able to spend longer on them. When you’re working for free, you can’t work for long.

Free is not an option

A letter from one writer to another  

The recent Writers’ Guild Survey about the extent to which writers are being asked to give away their work for free, or work on others’ ideas for free, produced a howl of anger as a response. Though aimed at all writers – authors, poets and dramatists for the theatre – it was particularly tailored for those who work in film and TV. A whopping 87% of writers had been asked to work for free, with everyone experiencing an upturn.

It’s clear that there one culprit to blame. Us. We writers are simply colluding in our own downfall, by agreeing to work for free. The worse the story of abuse – endless treatments, being sacked from your own projects, promise of cash that never materialises – the more you wonder, why? The answer is simple. We’re all passionate about our work and understand there’s a lot of give and take in the industry (well we mostly give). Now, however, it’s time to stand together and say no. This is exploitation.

Let me clarify what “free” actually means. All writers accept that there’s a certain amount of spec work – you have to write a spec script to prove you’ve got the chops. That’s fine. When you pitch your idea, you have to put it on a page or two to sell it. But that should probably be it.

As one writer in the survey wrote:  “I’d distinguish between two kinds of pitches – the one I write to showcase my idea and the one they need to sell it. I expect to present my wares for no reward. The tipping point comes when they start giving me notes.” Another writer says: “Just a ‘one-pager’. Enough to get a feel for the idea. But of course what they want is an entire series condensed into a couple of pages and to do this you need to have worked out the entire series, how it works, how the characters interact etc. There’s a fundamental difference between a ‘pitch’ and a treatment. A lot of TV ideas can’t be pitched in the same way as high-concept movies can. It’s a lot of work to ‘create’ a TV series.”

Time and again, development producers seem to be set up with a salary and an assistant, but no budget to pay for anything. Can this really be true? When it comes to a Top 10 writer or a special book, the funding will suddenly be there. Surely, saying they don’t have any money, actually means they don’t have any money for you.

The survey asked writers to name and shame the biggest culprits and it turned out to be nearly every indie around. If we’re willing to fund a company’s development (and often these are huge indies turning over millions, never mind in-house BBC), then they’re only too happy to let us. How many times have we been in meetings with producers and commissioners to discuss our idea and we’re the only one around the table who isn’t being paid? What’s more, if a producer is in a commissioner meeting with several ideas, which one will they really push – the freebie or the one they’ve paid for?

If we don’t put a value on our work – why would anyone else? Aren’t we just devaluing our own market by flooding it with free ones?   Giving a producer a free option is a really bad idea, then you’ve really lost control of it and they have de factor ownership. Try asking the producer if you can send it out to other people during this period and see the response. They believe it’s theirs, with no money changing hands.   All we have is our ideas. They are our currency. Writing isn’t about typing, it’s about thinking. That’s what we’re paid for.

So what’s to be done?   Say no to unpaid work. If you have an agent, make sure they know this and that they ask producers when they approach you, if they have money to pay for development. The Guild is going to suggest that a tick box is included on BBC editorial specification forms, which asks if a producer has paid the writer for the work.

Join the Writers Guild – there is safety in numbers and who else is going to care about us?

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Writer in Residence

I’m going to tell you a secret; I’d like to be a Writer in Residence somewhere. Wouldn’t that be nice? Writer in Residence. I think I’d get a sign made, possibly even laminated. While we’re at it, could I have an identity pass on a lanyard and the security code for the door? These things are of great importance. Well they make me feel important, anyway.

As well as a secret, a truth; I’m struggling to write this. It’s gone 11pm and I should probably give up and go to bed. Everything that I’m putting down feels so searingly negative that I can’t face hitting publish. Having received two major knockbacks on the same day, things which would really have made a difference to my career, it’s hard to feel positive. And when I look around, I see so many writers in the same boat, clutching at straws, desperate to finally break through. Now even this paragraph feels too depressing; I should delete it and start over. I’m not going to though. Because this is where it gets real.

How do we keep going?

There are at least three questions inherent in that. One, how to stay motivated when it feels like nothing is coming our way and giving up feels like the only sensible option? Two, how do we manage financially to keep going when the money just isn’t there? Three, as a community of writers, how can we challenge the status quo – a government starving the arts, an Arts Council that is still disproportionately supporting the traditional large institutions and London rather than anything grass roots, regional or not based in a big old building, and theatres who have convinced themselves that new writing is too risky and doesn’t make money and are therefore not prepared to invest in it? These three things are of course linked – if we had a government prepared to invest in the arts, and an Arts Council that was a bit more radically minded, then theatres would be able to take more risks.

I’ve said it before, but I keep forgetting that theatre isn’t a democracy. The Artistic Director is In Charge and what he says (because he usually is a he) goes. If your local producing theatre has an artistic director who doesn’t want to invest in new writing or local artists, then what the hell can you do about it? You have absolutely no agency within the building. Even the people working in the building don’t necessarily have a say – they don’t get to choose what projects the theatre will support, other than a small amount of development on a limited budget. No one can say Actually let’s not invest that massive amount in doing yet another devised show based on a classic Victorian novel, let’s spend some of that on commissioning something entirely original for the studio thereby giving a chance to some of the local artists we’re interested in. Well, they can say it but they’ll probably find their job disappears shortly afterwards. Even theatres which have built up a reputation for a particular type of work, over decades, can find their remit thrown out of the window the moment a new artistic director comes on board. Should that be allowed? I mean – should that be allowed without first asking what the audience, the artists, the staff working in the building think about the plan?

There’s been a massive surge of Open Space meetings, mainly due to the popularity and influence of the Devoted and Disgruntled movement. I’m not entirely persuaded by Open Space, it can feel a bit like a popularity contest at times – but at least it’s entirely democratic. So as I’m musing, I’m wondering what theatre would look like if it were run along the same kind of lines as Open Space. Or what theatre would look like if it were run by the artists – you know, the people that theatre absolutely depends on, but somehow can’t afford to pay. Even though everyone else in the building is drawing a fucking salary.

I’m getting dangerously close to Bryony Kimmings’ territory and feeling like I should back off. The last thing anybody needs is another nobody can afford to make a living at this post, even though it’s depressingly true. Another pertinent post; Richard Aslan’s How long can we go on? The same song is being sung over and over – nobody can afford to do this any more. And if that’s true for established, award-winning artists like Kimmings, then anyone still trying to emerge is seriously fucked.

I don’t know if I even count as being an emerging writer yet, despite being told this week that I was “too experienced” for a prestigious development scheme. A scheme which required applicants to prove their commitment and ambition to theatre, so that really threw me. It felt like I was being punished for working too hard. And I’ve got to say, this is the closest I’ve ever come to giving up. What was the definition for insanity? Doing the same thing over and over while hoping for different results? Isn’t that what we’re all doing, basically? Like Gatsby with the green light, running ever faster, reaching even further… and yet ultimately getting nowhere.

Like a glass of water in the desert, this post by Kate O’Reilly drops into my inbox, a cool draught of inspiration.

we need to take risks creatively, trying the new, the unknown, with no guarantee (or safety net)

There really is no safety net now.

What are we going to do about it?

Can we demand that the decision-makers are more accountable, the processes more transparent? Can we tell the Arts Council that we’d like a little less money spent on the Royal Opera House and more on our grass roots artists? Can we tell artistic directors that we’d like them to spend less on the Main House and find more ways of investing in emerging artists? Can we tell the government to invest in the arts and maybe start taxing the rich who evidently aren’t in it as much as the rest of us are on this together-wise thing.

People have been trying to tell them. It doesn’t seem like they’re listening.

Can we keep going?

Why would we want to, under these conditions – other than because this is the thing that we love, the thing that drives and inspires us. It’s like an addiction and most of us couldn’t give it up if we tried.

I don’t know how we challenge the status quo, how we wring more investment from the government, the Arts Council, the literary departments and artistic directors. I don’t know how we manage financially, other than trying to juggle shelf-stacking, bar-tending and whatever else we can find to pay the bills while the money fails to come in otherwise. But how to not lose hope? How to keep going when all seems to be doom around us?

We have to somehow take the lack of safety net as the motivation to fly free. We have to be ridiculously stubborn and refuse to give in, because if we stop then the only people who get to be artists, who get to be writers and actors and directors and designers are those with trust funds and an Eton education. So make that bloody Writer in Residence sign – print it out and stick it up above your desk. Take it as a sign that you’re not giving up and take pride in it. You can be Writer in Residence of your own damn house if you want, and no one can do a thing about it. No funding application, no interview, no being told you’re too experienced, or not experienced enough. Just you, a dream and a whole lot of passion.

Keep going.

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Pitching*

Shall we do it? Shall we talk about pitching?

*Disclaimer: I have never knowingly pitched.

Which doesn’t mean to say that I’ve never pitched. It just means I haven’t done it knowingly. I’ve been in plenty of situations where a pitch might normally required, but I wasn’t sitting there thinking  Right then, get my pitching hat on. I’ve also done plenty of written pitches, some of which were even successful. I didn’t really think of those as pitches either. I seem to remember deciding early on that I was never going to pitch, never ever ever – partly on a political level because a good pitch didn’t necessarily mean a good script, and also because I just didn’t fancy having to do it. I’m not a salesperson, I’m a writer, and all that jazz. Pitching was some nasty Hollywood invention, designed to make producers’ lives easier while humiliating the fuck out of desperate writers. No thanks. Among theatre-writers, pitching is a bit of a dirty word and not something we want to encourage. Imagine having to pitch your play to a theatre. Ewww.

Except we do pitch. Obviously. We just don’t call it that. We tend to call it Having a chat about a few ideas. Or Just give me a brief outline. Or Have you got any thoughts about such-and-such? Or even Put forward a one-page proposal of your ideas, if you want to get formal about it. Yep – it’s pitching alright.

At workshops, I’ve met writers who are terrified at the thought of pitching. Just the word itself can reduce them to a sweaty panic, their bodies suddenly tense and hard, hands clenched. Forget about pitching, I’ll tell them. Just tell me the story. And relax.

You see, we put pitching outside ourselves. We reckon it’s a skill, a sales skill, something that you’re either born with or not, all bluster and confidence. Well yes, it’s a skill and it’s something you can work on and improve – but most writers don’t score very highly in the realms of bluster and confidence. In fact, we’d go as far as saying that writers that are good at those sorts of things aren’t real writers, they’re not true artists, they’re hacks. And we don’t want to be hacks, we don’t want to be one of those wankers who talks the talk but can’t walk it. So we push it even further from ourselves; it’s a skill we don’t have and don’t want, frankly, because we are artists, dammit.

And then we find ourselves having to pitch.

Ouch.

I recently read a post by Chela Davison, Fuck the Elevator Speech, aimed at people trying to promote their own business, but I reckon the principles still apply. It’s not necessarily about making sure you’ve got down the precise 30 words to sell your project, or that you’ve rehearsed the spiel enough times in your head. It’s about relationships and stories. Knowing who we are, what our strengths are, knowing what story we want to tell. Getting to know who the other person is, what they want, what you can give to them. A successful project depends on three things: the right idea, the right people, the right time. If one of those is out of alignment, it’s not going to work. That big idea you have? It’s not going to be right for everybody. That producer you just met? Turns out she’s already done a play about bats and the economy, who’d have thought? A good pitch is as much about listening as it is about talking. You have passions, so does the other person. Find out where they intersect. The idea that you went in with might not be the idea you come out with.

Get used to talking about your ideas. Practise while you’re stuck in traffic, or washing up. Not just the story, but the inspiration behind it. What’s driving you forward? What’s getting you excited or angry, what’s leaving you speechless? Create a manifesto before you create a pitch. Your story isn’t just about a girl who meets a boy who happens to be a werewolf. It’s about that feeling you get when you wake up suddenly at 4 am and the world feels so massive. It’s about seeing your son’s shoulder blade and the sheer disbelief that anything could be so perfect. It’s about seeing David Cameron on TV and wanting to shake him, wanting to punch him in the face because he doesn’t know what it’s like to be Ed, who just killed himself because he couldn’t deal with the stress of having no money any more. The magic phrase, as ever; What I really want to say is…

Personal connection to the work is good. Passion is excellent. Why does this story matter, and why should you be the one to tell it? You need belief to drive a pitch. Belief in yourself and belief in the story. It’s going to be a lot harder to pitch with conviction about something you don’t care about, something you’re taking on to pay the bills or because you think it’ll lead to something better in the long run. Rather than rehearsing a mediocre pitch of a lacklustre idea, go back and find the gold. Re-think the idea until it shines for you. Because you’re not a shyster. You’re not a confidence trickster. You’re not trying to scam anyone, get someone to buy into a shitty idea. You’ve got something you believe in.

There’s a new wave of female entrepeneurs creating products and services that they’re passionate about, a lot of which revolves around forms of personal coaching. They’ll talk about creating the right business, finding the right clients, getting their message out into the world, financial and spiritual abundance. Some of it is inspiring, some of it comes across as shiny bullshit, or at times a virtual pyramid sales scheme. It might not seem to have much relevance to writers, but I’ve managed to learn from a few of them. The basic message is this: if you have something to say that will make a difference to other people, then they will want to hear it. If you can demonstrate your ability to make a difference to their lives, they will be willing to pay for it. Your work will not be for everybody, and so you need to connect with the right people. As a writer, you’re also a business – I know that feels dirty, but go with it – if you want people to give you money for what you do, then you have to sell your work and yourself. Find your audience. Find your people. They’re waiting to hear from you.

Why do you want to write? If that’s some kind of self-satisfying ego-thing, then you and I are pretty much done at this point. But if it’s because you seem to have some kind of ability and your writing seems to speak to people in some way, then we’ve got a starting point. If you believe that there are stories which need to be told, important stories, if you believe that make people laugh or cry or feel alive, dammit, then we’re getting somewhere. If you believe that you can tell stories in a way that helps us all to understand what it means to be alive, that can teach us, inspire us and move us, stories that ask big questions while entertaining us at the same time – then why wouldn’t you want to share that with the world?

Pitching is merely the act of finding the right people to help get your ideas out into the world. It’s your job to make the actual writing as good as it could possibly be, and it’s your job to find ways of getting that writing out there. It doesn’t mean that you should cling too tightly to your ideas, either; not all of them will come to fruition. Right idea, right people, right time, remember? Otherwise you’re all going to be wasting a lot of time and energy, as well as the heartbreak of another completed script that doesn’t go anywhere. The reality is that it’s never going to be you and Sonia Friedman or Stephen Spielberg stuck between floors in a lift together, doing the elevator pitch. The reality is a lot more mundane: you’re gradually getting to know more people in the business, you’re gradually raising your game, you’re gradually getting a shot at bigger opportunities, you’re gradually getting better at pitching. Ultimately pitching is asking a question; is this the right story for the right people at the right time? It’s just telling that story, with belief and enthusiasm. You’re a writer. You’re a storyteller. Tell your story.

 

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