Camera shy?

medium_11324553916Anyone who has ever pointed a camera at me will know this; I am officially camera shy. Unofficially, it runs a lot deeper than that. At its worst, it’s pretty much a phobia. I know I’m not alone with this; bumping into an old friend at a party, I discovered that she had it even worse than I did. And of course, for everyone else she became the game of the evening, people trying to ambush her with cameras to snap her unawares. It might sound like extreme vanity, but it boils down to the opposite – feeling hideously self-conscious, having internalised the message somewhere along the line that you’ve been judged on your looks and have been found wanting. For my friend this was a one-off, cruel remark about her chin when she was still at school. Similarly, I faced teasing about my appearance at school (being the only kid in hand-me-downs at a school full of rich kids didn’t help) and later such delights as being told “God, you’re ugly” across a crowded bar by a drunk punter trying to score points in front of his friends.

This isn’t the same as day-to-day body image. How we feel about ourselves and the way we look can shift on a day t0 day, even hour to hour basis. While I was never going to be mistaken for a supermodel at any point, I scrub up relatively okay. If I’m making an effort, I can look in the mirror and feel relatively pleased with what I see. In a world which seems to have come down on the side of poker-straight blonde hair, I’m an insanely curly brunette. While I could spend an hour a day messing around with hair straighteners, I figure that a) there’s other things I’d rather do with the time, b) the more people who revolt against the fashion diktats the better and c) actually, I kinda like being curly. My curls are part of me. Curls aren’t just a hairstyle, they’re an attitude. Unruly curls are one thing in real life though, quite another in a photograph.

Photographs capture what should be a moment and make it eternal. Generally, that’s for the good; the unposed, candid wedding snap taken by a friend that captures the way you looked at each other. The infamous kiss outside a Paris restaurant, a moment etched into black and white forever. But it can also mean the moment that your eyes were halfway closed, the moment your mouth was hanging open, the moment you let your shoulders slump, your belly hang out, the unfortunate angle that your nose was caught at, that weird way your chin is sticking out… If you weren’t feeling completely secure about the way you looked to start off with, there’s  nothing like a dreadful photograph to truly cement that negativity.

It seems as if photographs shouldn’t matter to writers; this is supposedly the one profession which you can undertake from the privacy of your own room. Tea-stained PJs are almost a prerequisite in this line of work. Why would pictures come into it? But there’s the small matter of the request by my agent to have a picture for the website, there’s the blog convention that there should be a picture of you somewhere on your site. There’s the professional gathering in which participants are requested to pose for a picture, or worse, endure a photographer snapping away all day “just for some pictures for the website.” At some point in your career, you will be asked for publicity pictures of some description. If you’re like me, it’s unlikely that you’ll have a back catalogue to choose from. If you’re like me, you’ll have just the one photo that has to do everything from professional publicity to online dating profile. Even I can see that that’s probably not a good thing.

I’m allegedly in recovery. I took Vivienne McMaster’s self-portraiture e-course You Are Your Own Muse (see also Be Your Own Beloved ) a couple of years ago. It helped. For anyone struggling with hating having their photo taken, I’d definitely recommend it (next session starts 1st Nov.) It got me from a state of panic at the thought of a photograph, to experimenting with self-portraits, even at times allowing someone else to point the camera at me. Her website contains tips on getting better pictures of yourself and a lot about body image and accepting yourself. But still, I don’t exactly enjoy being photographed and I find it difficult to get results which I can live with, never mind pictures that I love. So I signed up to her current course, How to Rock a Selfie Photo Shoot, which has the aim of equipping participants to take their own shots, whether for professional purposes, or for dating profiles. Or for any other reason that you’d want to rock a Selfie photo shoot for, I guess.

In all honesty, I’m finding it hard to get started. Pictures are emerging on the Flickr group – women of all ages, shapes and sizes, some confident and luminous, some shy and hesitant, some playful and quirky. So far all I’ve managed is one shot of my hand, writing in my journal on the train. The light has been dreadful, the weather has been dreadful, my hair has been dreadful… Or, I’m not wearing make up, or there are too many people around, or I don’t have time. There’s a lot of excuses. I think the truth is that I have to be feeling pretty confident before I can face doing it, and recently I’ve been tired and stressed. Each time you press the shutter there’s the hope that this time you’ll get it right, this will be the picture which captures the real you, how you see yourself – perhaps even how you’d like to see yourself. And generally, the result is a disappointment. My only tip is that to get one decent photo, you have to take lots. Lots and lots and lots. And give yourself permission to immediately delete any that you don’t like. Thank god for digital cameras, is all I can say.

I’m away for the weekend with a bunch of wild women down in the depths of Cornwall. I’m so in need of this break right now, I’m salivating while I type. Usually I return from these retreats inspired, energised and radiant. So I’ll be taking my camera and hoping for a let-up in the rain. And I’m challenging myself; by the end of the course I want to have taken a picture to share on my blog. If you’re a fellow photo-phobe, make yourself known and maybe we can do this together. I’m guessing that this is more of a woman thing than a man thing, but who knows?

photo credit: DaveLawler via photopin cc

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Make life worth living

sub-standardCredits : © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

“I think of the millions of people going out to work, wiping the ice off a windscreen on a winter’s morning… raising their children as best they can, working as hard as they can.”    (David Cameron.)

London, doing the Science Museum once again only this time Child is freaking out because the shop no longer stocks the toy they wanted. I’m dragged from floor to floor in search of the other, imaginary shop that might just have it in stock. We’re not looking at the exhibits but racing around to see whether or not the imaginary shop exists. It doesn’t, and I’m bracing myself for the next freakout. We’ve already had the freakout on the Tube as it was too crowded – at 1.30pm it wasn’t crowded as such, but several men ran past us and got the last few seats, leaving me with Child clinging to the central pole screaming help me, help me. No one helped, and I had to ask the other passengers if someone could please give us a seat. The only person who offered was another mother, who stood with me while our children sat. I found it a little hard to believe that the two men who practically knocked us over in their rush for seats would just sit there, ignoring a direct plea for help. They sounded Russian or similar. Perhaps they do things different there. But then, we were being ignored by the entire carriage, not just the potential Russians. For me this came after the freakout about Child being woken up, the freakout at the screens in the train’s entertainment carriage not working, the mini-freak in Sainsburys because it was too difficult to choose between sushi and sandwich, and the emotionally gruelling clinic appointment we’d just attended. In other words, I was a bit done in.

I’m going to keep looking until I find it

, Child announced.

Fine, I replied. I’ll be on the second floor, looking at the photos. Part of coping is knowing when you’ve reached your limits. Looking at the Lovelock/Gaia exhibition, I consciously tried to bring my shoulders back down from my ears, to let go of all the stress and enjoy a bit of child-free browsing. It’s very easy to keep the stress with you, even when the stress stimulus is no longer present.  Attitude is all.

Then I found what I was looking for, the Make Life Worth Living exhibition in the Museum’s Media Space gallery.

Make Life Worth Living presents a collection of powerful and moving works by documentary photographer Nick Hedges, commissioned in 1968 by the housing and homelessness charity Shelter.

These hard-hitting photographs, exposing the poor housing conditions and abject poverty being endured by people across Britain, form one of the most important documentary photography projects of the 20th century.

Exhibited for the first time, following a 40 year restriction to protect the anonymity of the subjects, one hundred black and white photographs will be displayed alongside edited texts from Hedges’ detailed written notes of his travels and encounters.

The collection of black and white photographs were taken between 1968 and 1972. I was born a year later. Perhaps that’s why the exhibition floored me, thinking There but for the grace of God… After all, many of the ingredients were the same; Liverpool, council flat, single mother. But whereas Mum and I shared a bedroom, these pictures showed entire families crammed into one room in a shared house unfit for habitation, damp, dirty, cooking on an open fire, no bathroom (save perhaps a bathroom shared with perhaps 50 others, broken and filthy) and often no utilities except a cold water tap. This was Third World Britain, existing alongside the baby boomers, the swinging sixties, the psychedelic seventies. The poverty of the subjects was total, almost unimaginable in today’s society, the hardship unrelenting. Yet Hedges catches the humanity, the teenage girl applying make up in a mirror next to a broken bathroom window, the boys playing deliriously, the social club where pensioners gathered to dance.

The brief descriptions that Hedges had added to some of the pictures were as powerful for me as the photographs themselves. The Glasgow woman hauling a pram up two flights of stairs, reminiscent of the descriptions my mother gave of having to do the same to reach our flat. The family that didn’t even have a mattress, the children trying to sleep on cushions over the bedsprings. And Mrs T, arms around a small child sucking at a bottle on her knee. It was Mrs T’s story that broke me open.

IMG_20141008_153431831I’m not sure which bit of this hits me the hardest. The guy going to prison for trying to buy a coat for one of the children. The utilities being turned off on the family because profit is always more important than people. The thought of having to cook for that many kids over a fire in the living room. The sleeping pills. Jesus. I could throw in something crass like I don’t know how she did it. Truth is, it’s like handling freakout after freakout in confined public spaces; she did it because she had no choice. And she did it day after day after day.

Along with relief that my personal history turned out different, I was well aware that the situation hasn’t truly gone away. That for many, extreme poverty is a daily reality – here in the UK as well as elsewhere. Shelter‘s  statistics show that there are at least 9 million people renting accommodation in Britain. One third of private rented homes fail to meet the Decent Homes Standard. Over 50,000 households are homeless. 28,900 homes were repossessed in 2013. More than 2000 people a year will sleep rough. There are more than 1.8 million households in England on waiting lists for social housing, an increase of 81% since 1997. More than 85,000 complaints about rogue landlords in 2012. According to Barnados, more than 3.5 million children are living in poverty in the UK, almost a third of all children, with 1.6 million living in severe poverty. And 63% of children living in poverty in the UK are in a family where somebody works. You can find out an approximation of where your household fits here.

The Government has a statutory requirement, enshrined in the Child Poverty Act 2010 , to end child poverty by 2020. However, it is predicated that by 2020/21  another 1 million children will be pushed into poverty as a result of the Coalition Government’s policies. (Barnados)

I enjoyed Tom Hodgkinson of The Idler‘s takedown of Cameron’s speech.

He says that the Tories are a trade union. A trade union for whom? For slaves, that’s who. “This party is the union for hardworking parents… the mother who works all the hours that God sends to give her children the best start.”

But the Tories are not a trade union. Trade unions sprang out of a resistance to 16 hour days in the Victorian factories and have traditionally attempted to limit the length of the working day.

And hang on. Do we really want mothers – or fathers, for that matter – to work all the hours God gives? Dave, that’s considered to be a bad thing, not a good one.

– See more at: http://idler.co.uk/article/no-fun-in-camerons-calvinist-dream/#sthash.8LD5B9Kd.dpuf

Christ, Cameron is offering us a shitty vision. Up in the dark, chipping the ice from our windscreens* to get to the job where we work all the hours God sends (or the first of the three jobs we’re holding down to make ends meet) in order to pay for our overpriced houses, our skyhigh rents – and for what? For the right of our children to do the same? Or is he hinting that if we work hard enough, we too can afford to send our children to Eton to be just like him? Well, the boys anyway. Fuck knows what happens to the girls. The reality is that “average” jobs aren’t paying enough, particularly if childcare costs are factored into the equation. The reality is that hard work doesn’t equate to riches. Care assistants work hard. Nurses work hard. None of them are rich. The reality is that the “hard working parents” he’s talking about are mostly working to make someone else rich. The system works to maintain the people who are at the top. Surely we know that by now?

*If you’re not stood shivering waiting for your bus or train, coughing up extortionate fares for the shareholders now that public transport isn’t actually public any more.

After the Science Museum we went to Harrods. Child marvelled at the scaled-down Aston Martin in the Toy Kingdom for £39,000. I marvelled at the child’s fancy dress outfit retailing at £319. And the games system going for a neat £125,000. Granted, they probably don’t sell too many of those. But they wouldn’t be giving it floor space if they didn’t think they could shift one. Child is a petrol head. Our route through Knightsbridge was punctuated by “Oh! A Lamborghini. Oh! A Ferrari. Oh! A Maserati.” We got a bit blasé about our fancy cars.

IMG_20141008_173638547

Some people, a minority, evidently have too much money. Some people, the majority, are getting by. The rest don’t have enough. Hard work has nothing to do with it. Do we believe that voting is going to change this? Who are we voting for? The people already at the top, it mostly turns out. And if you take a peek at the proposed TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, it’s a clear indication that things can only get worse.

Make life worth living.

Why have we been putting up with this for so long? Because we don’t dare dream of anything else? Whenever protestors come along, say the Occupy Movement, they’re ridiculed for not offering any real alternatives to the system that currently stands. I don’t believe we’ve ever seen a true Communist state, just various forms of dictatorships masquerading as socialism, but as with Animal Farm, some have always been more equal than others. But I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that the Conservatives hate artists and undermine any forms of creativity in schools as not being serious enough. You’re going to have to get serious and work hard just to get by in this world, Child. God forbid that you’re different. God forbid any of us have a real vision. God forbid we start thinking up alternatives. Only the status quo will do, which is why the Royal Opera, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Ballet are so well-funded, while the rest of us compete for crumbs.

Create anyway. Write anyway. Do it anyway. Think of Mrs T, the stories that never get told, the stories that are still out there, hidden under the shock-doc propaganda of Benefits Street et al. The true, heartbreaking stories of people broken by never quite having enough. Enough money. Enough food. Enough warmth. Enough love. I keep saying the same phrase, but it still holds true; we need better stories. So much of what passes as drama is derivative, tame, cliched. So much of it is a mere distraction from the stuff that really matters. Write the unsaid. Write the forgotten. Write the unfairness. Write the life lived in quiet desperation. Write the truth. Write the things that need saying and keep on writing them. Write better stories. Write them with honesty, with humour, with humanity.

Inspire a fucking revolution.

Make life worth living.

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What do you do when you’re waiting?

medium_2894029101image Pedro Veneroso via Flickr creative commons

The writing life; a mix of the bizarre, the mundane and the absolutely thrilling. You scout around for opportunities, submit work, write more stuff, scout for more opportunities, remember the deadline you’d forgotten about… and so it goes. Most of the time, the opportunities coming your way are so-so. Kinda okay, might be nice, could live without it. Thinking about it, it’s a lot like dating. How did it go? someone will ask, and you crinkle your nose up and nod vaguely. Okay. No big surprises. Might see him again, might not.

Then, unexpectedly, The Big One steps in. The guy that lights you up and leaves your heart racing. Or, getting back to the point, the opportunity that you will basically just die over if you don’t get it. The One that seems tailor made for you. The One that you Want. And boy, do you want it bad.

You do what you have to do. Wax your legs, exfoliate to within an inch of your life, buy the fancy foundation… sorry, I’m really going to have to stop talking about dating at some point. No, you put together your submission, application, script, whatever it is they’re asking for. You sweat blood and tears over it. You ask your writing friends for feedback, while secretly hoping that they won’t suddenly decide to submit to this one too. You send it off, possibly after completing your own private good luck ritual and wishing on all the stars in the sky.

And then you wait.

And it feels as if someone has caught the end of your intestines on a stick and is slowly dragging them out of your body, carefully spooling them onto a reel at the other end. It. Is. Torture. Or as a friend of mine, caught mid-wait, put it;

Didn’t expect to hear right at the beginning of this week but as Wednesday turned to Thursday I tried to resist the urge to check my emails every five seconds until it started to turn into a total disembowelling anxiety and, unable to fucking concentrate on anything else, I finally cracked and emailed them.
They’re not making the decision until next week at some unspecified point. Cue another week of tenterhooks, feeling sick and manic email checking.
I’m trying so hard to not think about it and but it is some sort of low frequency torture. Aaaaaaaaaaaaggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!
It’s really hard to settle into anything when you’re playing the waiting game. When there’s something that you really really want, when it feels like success is right there, a fingertip’s grasp away. So close. There’s other stuff you should be doing, but the waiting is all you can think about. Did they reply yet? Is the list up yet? Lemme just refresh my browser… You feel like some kind of freaky obsessive stalker, constantly checking up on their website, their twitter feed, your email, your phone. Disclaimer – I really am talking about writing at this point. Not dating. Even I’m not that bad. Although I did once force myself to wash my car in order to stop myself from checking yet again to see if the man in question had emailed me back. Which is probably also a good tactic for anyone else playing the waiting game. It also means you get a nice clean car. For The Win, people.
I recognised the symptoms in my friend’s email, mainly because I’m so used to them myself. Psychologically, you’re pretty much curled up into a ball on the floor, clutching at your hair, yelling pleeeease. Just tell me. I can’t take this any more. Normally, you don’t tell anyone what agony you’re in over it, because you know you’re going to sound like a total freakbag. A loser. A psycho, pretty much. Or in dating terms, a bunny boiler (and while we’re at it, just what exactly is the male equivalent of bunny boiler? Coz I’ve met a few and it would be nice to have a convenient label…) Nobody else gets this wrapped up in waiting, surely? Other writers are normal people with full and interesting lives to lead. Other writers are sane. It’s just you that has these major obsessive loser issues.
Well, no. We all do it at some point. So it seemed only fair to reply…
Yeah, I know exactly how it is. It gets so bloody obsessive you think you’re losing your mind and you’re embarrassed to admit it to anyone. And it’s really hard to settle into doing anything else because there’s so much nervous energy bounding around inside you. Previously I’ve lost entire weeks that way. It only hurts because it’s so fucking important to you. Maybe try and do something physical, go for a walk or a run, get out of the house, see an art exhibition or take yourself to the cinema. Throw yourself at your partner and demand long bouts of wild, frantic sex, preferably kinky. If you can’t write, you may as well do something useful or enjoyable. Clean the flat. Better still, clean my house. Don’t get a haircut at this point, or a tattoo, you’ll regret it. Or try writing something with the nervous energy, write a short film about someone waiting for an important email and make it painfully funny.
If something is on your mind, then it’s on your mind. You can try and journal it out of yourself for a bit, write down all your hopes and fears around the issue. I really want to land this because… I’m scared I won’t get it because… It might help, if only to diminish some of the tension and anxiety you’re carrying over it.
The worst thing you can do is to sit at your laptop trying to write, because let’s face it, you’re not going to. You’re going to get distracted and start e-stalking them again for any mention of the opportunity. Or compulsively check your emails every 30 seconds. Best to shut the laptop and go for a walk. Get yourself out. Fill your creative well. Have fun. If it’s putting you off your work then admit it to yourself and do something else instead. Preferably something physical and hands-on like gardening, cleaning, baking, sport (I believe that some people find sport popular, but then I also believe in fairies.) Making stuff, knitting, sketching. Sex. Beer. Going out into the real world. Give yourself permission to take a day or so off and get your head straight.
If you’ve got a pressing deadline while you wait – well, surely that’s going to take your mind off things anyway? No? Set aside an allotted time for freaking out about it – journal it, get the thoughts out of your head and onto paper, get outside, get physical and when your freakout time is up, take yourself out of the house to get on with your work, preferably somewhere with no Wifi. Leave your phone at home if you need to. But pretending that it doesn’t matter to you, pretending that you’re not feeling this way isn’t going to help. Admit it and move on. It can be worth trying to write something out of this obsessive, swirling energy you’ve got, sending yourself up basically. Sometimes good work emerges out of your own ridiculous emotions; the short story about The Man Who Would Not Phone, for example. Sorry, dating again. Good story though. Revenge is a dish best served in Courier New, so it seems. So if you’re like a dog with a bone, write it out of you. But go longhand on this one. Stay away from the computer. You can’t be trusted, you obsessional fool.

photo credit: pfv. via photopin cc

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Vulnerability

Something arrived in my inbox this week, one of those weekly newsletters from a website I must have signed up to in my ongoing quest for free stuff and never quite got round to unsubscribing from. Normally they go straight into my junkmail box and don’t get read, but this time it caught my eye, riffing on the theme of vulnerability. So let’s do it.

How comfortable are any of us with vulnerability? It’s not exactly a safe place for any of us to inhabit, I’m guessing, otherwise we wouldn’t feel so angsty and -you know- vulnerable about it. Confidence and strength go down a lot better, along with other classic emotions such as joy and that feeling that you get when you look at pictures of fluffy kittens on Facebook. Vulnerability though? It’s a bit of a doozy. It tends to give out a tight feeling of anxiety in the belly, tension, irritability, nausea and general ickiness. Overall a feeling of not being safe. That’s not something which it feels good to maintain.

Perhaps it’s a gender thing, perhaps women are better at being vulnerable than men are. Or vice versa. Men have a bravery that enables them to jump out of planes, go into battle, have raw-chilli eating contests and that kind of thing (and of course there are women who dig that kind of vibe too, but I ain’t one of them) but emotionally? Forgeddabout it. Vulnerability clearly isn’t something that most men are into. And as for women – well, pretty much from the time we can stand independently, we’re being warned against making ourselves vulnerable, putting ourselves into vulnerable situations. Don’t get raped, in other words. Vulnerability feels physically unsafe for a lot of women, even more so if they’ve been in a situation of rape or abuse. It boils down to this; most people are not comfortable about being vulnerable. Yeah, kinda obvious really.

Where are you at with vulnerability? What’s making you feel vulnerable at the moment? Are you okay with that vulnerability? Is it something you can work with? Is it something you can transform? Is your vulnerability moving you forward or holding you back?

Okay. I’ll go first.

Money is making me feel vulnerable. I’ve not been this financially insecure since I was a student. Back then moving back in with my parents if it all went tits up was still an option, so I didn’t have to worry too much. I currently qualify for income support, but even that is insecure and might disappear come January, and that’s without George Osborne announcing his proposed two year freeze on benefits. And if I could punch his smug, hyper-priviliged face smack on the nose, I totally would, thanks for asking. He and Dave have never known what it’s like to be vulnerable, to be hovering over the breadline, to have massive amounts of anxiety every time money needs to be spent, to lose your shit because one of the kids has lost their brand new coat at school at the same time as bringing home a letter about a trip abroad which they’d like to go on. Fortunately I don’t have debts – I’m aware that for many people the day to day financial reality is an unbearable pressure. It’s not easy to create under the kind of stress that money brings, especially in a society where the official line is to devalue creativity and culture – or at least to only value them according to their financial reward. In terms of my own creative practice, last year I saw 60 productions/readings. This year; 3. I can’t justify the expense of a ticket and travel costs, never mind a babysitter. All in all, my vulnerability with money seems to be holding me back. And yet, it’s also driving me to consider new possibilities and the realisation that I’m going to have to be much bolder if I’m to make any kind of sustainable wage at this.

The approach of Winter is also making me feel vulnerable. This house is not an easy one to manage in Winter. I’m going to have to man up, big time, at the time of year I find hard enough as it is. Haul myself out of bed in the dark and freezing cold, to light fires, empty ashcans and bring in the coal. Chop logs and scavenge for kindling. My neighbour and I were joking about it the other week, our great grandmothers would be tearing their hair out at our choice to live like Victorians when we could be in cosy new-builds. Why, why are you doing this to yourselves? Well, you’ve got to laugh, but deep down I’m scared. It’s fear on a real, physical level, a primal thing to do with seeing my kids crying because they’re freezing while I can’t get the house warm. Hopefully by the time Spring arrives I’ll have developed a can-do attitude and fire-building skills that would put Ray Mears to shame. Again, it feels like something that is holding me back, and there are going to be plenty of mornings where I want to just pull the duvet over my head and hibernate, but I’m aware that there’s a chance to grow stronger, if I push myself.

Dating is making me incredibly vulnerable. Even writing about it is vulnerable. To be honest, I’m probably going to delete this entire paragraph at some point. To date is to risk rejection and hurt. It would be nice to have an area of my life which didn’t feel quite so vulnerable, frankly; money, home, love. Vulnerability in one area is perhaps best tempered with security elsewhere. But if you’re not willing to be open and vulnerable, you’re left with closed and cynical, which isn’t how I want to live my life. I had this very conversation on a date recently, both of us agreeing we’d choose openness over cynicism. The man in question; intelligent, funny and damn sexy to boot. And he plays the ukelele. What’s not to like? But he hasn’t called. Or texted. Or messaged. Or emailed. Damn, there’s just so many ways to be ignored nowadays. Ouch. There’s vulnerable for you. It’s like being fifteen again. Evidently I’m not the only one feeling vulnerable around the whole issue; so many dating profiles read along the lines of I just want someone who isn’t a cheater, a liar or a player. Mmm, that chip on your shoulder is looking mighty attractive, what’s your number? So while I’m sometimes tempted to retire to the bat cave and drink Lidl’s Baileys until George Clooney is single again, I’m going to keep on putting myself out there. Holding me back? Hell no. Although maybe I should limit the number of times I check my messages, at least until I’ve achieved some kind of daily word count.

By this point you might well be asking Yes, but what the hell has any of this got to do with writing, theatre or creativity in general? Well, every act of creativity is an act of vulnerability, which is why we’re here discussing it. If you want to write, if you want to create, you’re going to have to learn to be comfortable with being vulnerable. Every time you write, you’re making yourself vulnerable. Every time you show someone else what you’ve written, doubly so. Every time you send a script off, you risk rejection and the sinking realisation that they just ain’t going to call. While I’m sitting here writing this, that knot of anxiety is growing in my belly, because one of these days somebody is going to announce Mitchell, you don’t half talk bollocks, probably on Twitter and I’ll want to crawl away and cry. Also the man with the ukelele might read it and just laugh at me. I’m carrying on regardless because I’m more interested in exploring bravery and openness than I am in being wussy. What this blog is teaching me is that when someone steps up and risks being vulnerable, risks making a complete and utter muppet of themselves, other people generally breathe a sigh of relief and say You too? Thank fuck. I thought it was just me feeling that way. Which is a good enough reason for going ahead, particularly if we’re creating something that’s turning out to be a wee bit hard.

If you can recognise vulnerability in daily life, recognise its symptoms and your responses to it then you can start to recognise it in your creative practice too. Rather than allowing fear and vulnerability to become emotional blocks which stop you from creating, you can acknowledge the areas in which opening up and being vulnerable can bring greater depth, greater truth to your work. If you can admit your vulnerabilities, you can start to think about sharing them, and allowing other people to breathe a huge Me Too! sigh of relief. It’s all too easy to run from vulnerability, to mask it with food, with drink or your drug of choice. To refuse to go deep because it might get messy or painful. Because you might feel a bit stupid. To be vulnerable is to be human, is to be honest and open and to connect. Allow a bit of vulnerability to creep into your practice without freezing up in fear, and see where it leads you. And if you meet a man toting a ukelele and a cheeky glint in his eyes, send him my way will you?

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The troll dilemma

Internet-Troll-281x300(image via http://bitsocialmedia.com/2013/07/23/slaying-the-troll/#_)

So Facebook. I know I should know better, and by that I don’t mean Twitter. But it goes something like this; a friend posts something pro-women, pro-feminist on their timeline, for example a link to the recent UN speech that Emma Watson gave. In the comments you read the following, from a man you don’t know;

I wasn’t saying that emma has a chip on her shoulder !! – I have come across talented women already in a position of authority based of being fantastic at what they do and them feeling the need to compete in what they already perceive as a ‘mans world’ – they just come across as battle axes and ruin their credibility……

Sigh. So we’re talking about women’s rights, chauvinism etc and the bloke can’t see that the term “battle axes” is a little bit chauvinistic? Perhaps he thinks it’s deserved, because those talented women he was talking about (and well done him for -you know- noticing their talent and all ) should know to be content with their lot in their positions of authority and not feel the need to take on the boys, as it were. To be honest, I’m not even sure what he means by them feeling the need to compete in what they already perceive as a “mans world” but then that’s probably because I’m a woman and my brain is smaller than his. What exactly are we disputing? Isn’t it a man’s world? Um… do women have equal pay yet? Do we have equal numbers of women and men as board members of our major corporations? Equal numbers of male and female MPs or in the House of Lords? Does this mean I don’t have to teach my daughter to not walk home alone at night, not get in a taxi by herself, never to leave her drink unattended? Nope? Okay then. Is it that women, talented and authoritative or not merely perceive that this is a man’s world, or do the facts maybe lean towards the fact that actually, it pretty much still is? How about world – I mean are we actually talking about a global viewpoint here rather than a UK one, because if so then we’d have to start talking about whether Afghanistan is a man’s world, or Libya, or Somalia, or perhaps Nigeria where there’s still no trace of the girls who were abducted for believing that they had the same rights as boys when it came to getting an education. Or perhaps that’s because those countries don’t understand democracy, so let’s look to America and women’s reproductive rights on t’other side of the pond. Best not, eh? But then, I’ve obviously got a chip on my shoulder, with me being a woman and all. Or maybe it’s just women being competitive that irks him, because that’s not something that Alpha Males do, not at all.

It’s relatively easy to get into a successful, high-powered job without being at all ambitious or competitive, obvs. Especially when you have breasts – I mean, hell, don’t most places have positive discrimination quotas nowadays? You probably just have to flash your bra strap to get one of those jobs, particularly if you’re that proverbial black disabled lesbian that everyone is so fond of mentioning at this point. Oh, no, sorry – she burned hers, I forgot. Once you’re in that high-powered job, you will of course gain the immediate respect and loyalty of everyone in your team and all of your superiors, particularly the men, and never have to worry about being stabbed in the back, or being questioned about your judgement, ability, decision-making, commitment or even personal style. So no, I can’t understand why those talented women would feel any need to compete either. Oh, sorry, it’s because they’re battle axes, I forgot again. Silly me. Or, no, they’re just coming across as battle axes because of their evidently poor behavioural choices. They should know to be more ladylike. Wanker.

I should know better, but I had to reply.

um… I’m sure you’re lovely, but isn’t the whole point that men never get called “battle axes?”

See, a friend of mine is one of these talented women who has a position of authority in a rather well known media corporation. And I’ve listened to her stories about the sheer level of chauvinism that she’s subjected to on a daily basis. She even wanted to start up a blog about it, to provide other women in the media with an outlet and support over the issue, but was warned by a lawyer that she would inevitably lose her job over it. “I swear misogyny is definitely on the rise,” she said last night. “It used to be reserved for junior staff, but now it’s aimed at women in power.” We tackled the whole sexism in the workplace thing a while back as a society, or at least we thought we did. It took a while, but the message gradually got out that it wasn’t really acceptable to grope junior members of staff – well, you wouldn’t grope a senior for fear of being fired – nor to make pervy comments at or about the female employees, and that it was probably better not to have topless calendars on display in the office. I’m not even saying that all that stuff has gone away, you only need to take a peek at everydaysexism.com to work that one out, but the official party message is that hey guys, this is sexism, don’t do it or I’ll complain to HR.

What my friend was talking about is more subtle. There’s unsubtle stuff too, like male bosses taking credit for her ideas, or the conference at which her male counterparts were invited to speak and she wasn’t, but what we’re discussing here are incidents such as a male colleague giving his professional opinion of a female superior “What I mostly think of her is that she’s fat.” My friend was too shocked to reply, but the answer she wished she had made was “And how is that relevant?” Because, you see, he would never have said the same thing about a man. If he was giving his opinion about another man, it would have been about the guy’s professional choices, his programming decisions, his ability to determine his arsehole from his elbow, but never about his waistline. When women step up to bat, the balls suddenly become personal.

Of course, he replied…

Katherine they get called a whole lot worse than that. And what You thought you would do is ignore my entire sentiment which was balanced and credible and jump on the battle axe comment. Most likely because it’s the truth. Perhaps your feeling a touch emotional right now so I’ll say no more. I’m also sure you’re lovely

Obviously I love it when a man I’ve never met tells me what I was thinking. Nothing riles me more than the phrase “You thought you blah blah whatever…” but I’m glad to see that he bothered to capitalise it, because yes, I am indeed a total goddess and it’s about time the world recognised it. So, the dilemma. I think he’s wrong, in very many ways, but then he should know that already given that he can apparently read my thoughts. He’s also done the typical trolling thing of jumping in with a personal attack and an attack which can only be levelled at a woman, namely that I’m “feeling a touch emotional.” It’s funny how when women try to redress chauvinism it’s always because we’re emotional. Or have a chip on our shoulder. Or don’t have a sense of humour. Or are fat. Or ugly. Actually, it’s not funny at all. Admittedly, it’s hard for me to know because my ovaries rule out my having any understanding of comedy so I wouldn’t know whether he’s making a joke or not. I mean if it’s a joke, it must be really funny because he’s a man and men are always funny, even when they’re making jokes about rape, domestic violence or child abuse. Especially when they’re making jokes about rape, domestic violence or child abuse or that are just plain sexist, because they’re being ironic, you know, don’t you get it? But the emotional charge is only ever fired at women because men never get emotional at all ever, as they don’t have periods and stuff like that. Perhaps Facebook should create some emoticons to show which stage of the menstrual cycle a woman is at, just so men know whether we can be taken seriously or not. In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably let you know that I was ovulating at the time. I was well happy. And stupidly horny. Emotional though? No, not really.

His sentiment was neither balanced nor credible. And if I’m jumping in on the battle axe comment, it wasn’t because I was emotional but because he couldn’t even see that his use of language was in fact sexist. And the claim that men get called worse names than women? Jesus, don’t get me started. Shall we leave it at this – now that we apparently/officially understand that racist slurs are unacceptable (cue this is everyday racism in case anyone actually believes that’s true) the very worst thing you can call someone is cunt. Now, I actually have one of those. I’m really rather fond of mine and can’t understand why people use the same word to discuss Tory politicians. But maybe we could let go of the idea that men get called worse things than women – the very worst thing that a man can be called is a cunt, which means you’re saying he is basically female genitalia and therefore completely socially unacceptable and should probably die. Which isn’t a misogynistic sentiment at all, apparently. Except it very much is.

I wasn’t being sarcastic when I said the guy involved was probably lovely – he probably is. He definitely thinks he’s a good person. He would likely deny any claim that he was sexist, he thinks women are great, he’s probably married to one, some of his best friends are women etc etc. It wasn’t his intention to be trollish or sexist, except that’s exactly what he was and he can’t even see it. Therefore the dilemma – if, as a woman, you decide to point out that he’s being trollish and sexist, you’re merely inviting a tidal wave of personal abuse to come crashing your way. That’s always the way of these things; if you reach for a feminist argument, you’ll be slapped down with a personal insult rather than a sensible debate. There is after all no male equivalent for the word feminazi. Nor battle axe, while we’re at it. And hell, as trollish exchanges go, this was pathetically mild – yet it still got to me, as it was intended to do. But if as a woman you don’t point it out, the trollish, sexist views remain unchallenged – they win, in fact and thrive and spread and become normalised. It would be nice to think that some of the men out there might step in at some point, start challenging the casual chauvinism of their peers as it flares up – interesting also to see whether the reply would be a personal insult, or a more considered debate – but I’ve yet to see that happening on my Facebook timeline. Or in real life, come to think of it.

As Emma Watson said in her speech;

“I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men.”

That’s all it comes down to. Respect. Respect when it comes to the language that is used about women, and about men, about human beings. The words we use have power and are indicative of our mindset. Chauvinism is creeping back in, if it ever went away. The fact that women are still having to politely request the same rights and respect as men is a bit of a massive giveaway that we don’t actually have them yet. Troll-fighting is draining and demoralising and often massively upsetting. I’ve got better things to do with my time, and more positive things I’d like to spend my energy on. I didn’t reply to him. It felt like I’d be wasting my time and putting myself in a position where I’d be getting further attacked, which I could do without.  I tried to pretend that my silence was merely about maintaining my dignity. But that meant that he won and the sexism, which he possibly wasn’t even aware that he had, lived to see another day. And I feel like a coward for it.

Posted in activism, Real life | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Bristol Bright Night

DSCF6676 DSCF6645 DSCF6656 DSCF6663 DSCF6664 DSCF6671 DSCF6747 DSCF6702 DSCF6704 DSCF6706 DSCF6716 DSCF6728 DSCF6738 DSCF6741 DSCF6771 DSCF6747 DSCF6754Friday saw glorious sunshine and the performances of the street theatre pieces I’ve been working on for Bristol Bright Night, part of the European-wide Researchers Night scheme. The basic brief was to interview several researchers at the University of Bristol about their work and then somehow transform their ideas into street theatre. One of those jobs in which the person hiring you throws in the notion that course, we’ve no idea if this is actually going to work or not… There were a few moments of banging my head against the wall to come up with ideas, but overall it’s been a fun project and I’ve learned a lot from it, including the equation underpinning the Fibonacci sequence. The team putting it together did a great job, and kudos goes to director Jack Munns for getting everything on its feet, and the enthusiastic team of actors for managing to keep going for over six hours in the blazing heat, and having to contend with hot air balloons and helicopters flying overhead. Yes, that’s my kids peeking out, delighted with the chance to be racing fish for the controversial mixed amateur event. And one of the key lessons I’ll be taking away is that if said kids are in rehearsal and get to hear the answer, they will blurt it out on the day unless you remember to bribe them beforehand. Thanks to Emma and the team for putting it all together, and the fantastic cooperation of the researchers who were willing to put themselves forward for something so experimental.

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Are you writing hard enough?

kurtThere’s a lot of crap out there. A lot of crap. So much of what we consume is all about the gloss, the style, the packaging, whether that’s eyeshadow, a packet of crisps or whatever is passing as entertainment nowadays. Nowadays – there’s a word that always makes you sound old. Even the guy who stomped on my heart last weekend (nope, still not over that) had at one point offered to redesign my blog, saying that it looked like it was about crochet or something. Yeah, I know I need to redesign it, but the days are short, the tasks are many and having to teach myself web design on top of it all feels like a bridge too far at the moment. Anyway, what’s wrong with crochet? Okay, I’m working on it, but there are chickens to feed and logs to chop and you know what? Personally, I’m more interested in the content than the style. And judging from the occasional comments or tweets that I get about it, that’s why you’re reading this too – the actual words on the screen are the important thing, not the shiny whistles and bells surrounding it. Not that I have any whistles or bells, obviously. I’m working on it, like I said.

The crap though. The sheer amount of fluff and shite and trivia and downright lies all around us, threatening to bury us under a massive pile of gossip magazines, reality TV shows and salacious journalism. The weight of plagiarism and recycling of ideas online, the godawful lack of originality. The horrors of people furiously pedalling to stay on trend, to be cool at all costs, or hot, or whatever temperature is in nowadays – ultimately it all gets a bit lukewarm anyway. Put it this way; if I have to read or sit through any more plays about trendy young things in London with their occasional drug-taking and binge-drinking and surprise dead babies and gouged-out eyeballs, then I am liable to go ahead and similarly remove the eyeballs of everybody involved with “New Writing” until they learn a valuable lesson and start programming something else. For the sake of karma I should point out that while I do indeed threaten to poke out eyes on a regular basis, I’ve never actually done it to anyone, although the last time I tried to cut my daughter’s hair it was a bit of a close thing with the scissors. I now pay for her to go to a hairdresser,  like a normal person would.

Let’s rise above cliche, shall we?

So much of what’s surrounding us is purely surface, so it’s not surprising that it infects our writing. We complain that writing is hard when we sit down to write yet another re-draft, or can’t quite get a scene right or know we haven’t really nailed a character. Writing feels hard when you read something by the latest zeitgeister and realise with a heavy heart that only scripts which look like this will be getting put on for the next year or so. Harder still when the play that everyone is talking about is on the same topic that you put forward a few years back, but which never got picked up because you were an unknown and not cool enough for the big boys to pick you for their team. How much easier it is to imitate than innovate. A play-reading group that I belong to recently discussed a piece that had won one of the big competitions. The writing was bitingly cool and acerbic. When you scratched the surface though, there was nothing beneath it. It was purely surface. What’s the writer actually saying? was the question we were all left with. It’s a question I seem to ask a lot, along with When do I get paid? and Who used all the loo roll?

We could all brag about how hard we’re writing, how soon we get to the laptop in the morning, how late at night it is before we give up and go to sleep. How many schemes and submission windows we’ve applied to. How many projects we’re working on, and for how little financial reward. That’s not what I’m talking about though. How hard are you really writing?

I don’t tend to understand things until I’ve written about them. It’s my way of making sense of the world. Finding myself dating again in an age of Match.com, Tinder, heck – even mobile phones and email weren’t around the last time I was at it – it really is a different world and one which isn’t entirely making sense as I try to navigate it. So with the whole heart-stomping incident, my natural reaction was to sit down and write about it, initially as a series of rants in my journal, which for legal reasons it’s probably best not to quote here, other than the bit about CONGRATULATIONS! YOU’VE JUST CONVINCED ME TO BUY THE NEXT BRYAN ADAMS ALBUM, YOU MUPPET, AND I DON’T EVEN LIKE BRYAN ADAMS (…testing… no, still not calm.) Then it spilled into a short story. Fact blending into fiction, but without Bryan Adams making an appearance this time, which is no doubt a relief for everyone. Except his many fans of course, although I doubt they’ll ever read this so I think we’re safe. Other rock stars are available. I am of course procrastinating about getting to the point, which is this; while no doubt my intention in writing the story was purely to give him a three inch willy and premature ejaculation because this is the one area in my life in which I get to play God, my pride as a writer will always take over and want to do a good job. The desire is always to want to create something worthwhile, not merely make sense or gain some kind of twisted revenge. Which means examining my own motives and flaws just as strongly as I was questioning his. Not being afraid to put myself into it warts and all alongside him. And having the guts to really push it, to take it beyond the boundaries of what was comfortable to write about and into territory which felt dangerous, exposing, wrong, even. That is where writing becomes hard. One paragraph in particular I hurtled into like an express train before slamming on the brakes and yelling Noooooo. This is just too hard!

This is where writing becomes hard, my friends. The point at which you have to stare down the bit that comes next, not knowing whether you’ve got the guts to go ahead with it. How much easier to take the cool option, the trendy dialogue, the witty joke – anything that will win approval, get people on your side, get them to like you, if we’re going to be honest. Because that thing which you need to put down on the page, that thing that means you’re going to pretend you have writer’s block and get up and make a cup of tea instead, that thing that means that people might just see through you, might get a glimpse of your secret longings and shameful desires and general petty crapness, that thing which you absolutely know you must put down but the thought of people reading it – the thought of him reading it – terrifies the shit out of you – that’s what makes writing hard. But if you’re not willing to put yourself through it and wrestle those words out of yourself and put down the god’s honest truth then you’re only writing the surface and you’re a fucking coward and you know it. Hard words, I know. But then that’s why writing is hard. So I ask you again;

Are you writing hard enough?

Posted in Creative, Real life, Stories, theatre, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sometimes you just have to say fuck this.

tonight

Sometimes I’m not sure how much to share here. Which parts of my life should be kept back, like boxes hidden in the attic, which bits can be given out freely without fear of future regret. Honesty is at the core of what I do, stamped through me like a stick of rock, which definitely puts me at risk of oversharing. There’s two risks with oversharing – one, that you give away something excruciatingly personal, which you’ll later be horrified at other people knowing. Two, that nobody will give a shit about whatever it is you overshared and will wander off and read elsewhere instead. In general I try to keep thematically to writing, creativity, theatre, with the occasional splash of life dolloped on top. Yet sometimes life takes over to the extent that it’s hard to pull back my mind to focus on what I “should” be writing about.

The last couple of days have felt a bit like body-blows. I feel my energy pulled down by them, and my inner emoticon has gone all Sad Face. Nothing horrendous, there’s people dealing with far worse and it’s not like I live in Syria. So first things first; perspective. Okay. But there was the tantrumming autistic kid on Thursday night when I was supposed to be taking him to a Curriculum Evening at the new school. And the sit at the back and pretend to listen position that I was intending to adopt for the evening turned into a having to sit in small groups and play ice-breakers and learning games situation with ultra-competitive yummy-mummy dominated couples. Shaking from the screaming insults that had been hurled my way earlier on, I wasn’t up to it. Ten minutes in and I had to duck out before my rising sense of panic became a full blown panic attack. It turned out to be the best decision I could have made – his form tutor followed me out, made me a cup of tea in the staff room and we had a chat about how he’s settling in instead. Back home, the Ex was babysitting our youngest, and then lingering through a phone call with his mother while waiting to ask me about the evening – and I realised I didn’t want to tell him, I wanted to be on my own, curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine in hand, ready to put the day to bed. Which made me sad, because not so long ago I would have told him anything and everything.

The next day – a letter from my agent informing me that the contract we’d been sent for work already done wasn’t going to be acceptable. She just wanted to check in about how I felt about waiving my right to be identified as the author of my work, handing over copyright forever, and giving up my copyright of any future work stemming from the same ideas. Let me think a minute… HELL NO. Definitely not at that price, and probably not at any price. And while the contract didn’t originate from the team that I was dealing with, it threw a big spanner in the works that might jeopardise the entire project and cause a lot of bad feeling. So again – it made me sad, once the fury had worn off. Sad that someone would be so greedy and disrespectful about the work I had been doing. I tried to convince myself that it stemmed from a lack of understanding about the amount of original work I had put into the project, and a desire to protect the intellectual property of others – but it entirely disregarded my own rights to have my intellectual property respected.  Coming at the end of the day, while I was trying to cook dinner for the kids and get them off to cub camp, and all of it in front of the Ex again, it just wasn’t welcome.

Then, there was the dating. And this would be the bit where I’m worried about over-sharing. The man who I had been interested in and who swore he was interested right back but who hadn’t exactly been on form when it came to stuff like texting and calling. The man who I was trying to give enough space to and be patient with because I knew he was working on a big creative project. The man who it turned out had put himself back up on the dating website without telling me, while not having the manners or guts to reply to me in the meantime. That kinda turned out to be the final straw in the anger/sadness/why the hell do people behave so badly stakes, particularly when I discovered he’d done it on the very same night that I was having my evening from hell. Umm… so when you’re stressed I offer to come round and cook for you, but when I’m stressed you put yourself back up on Soulmates? But, like I ranted on Facebook – if a man lies about his age and lies about his height then there’s probably not much point in expecting him to be trustworthy about anything else. And not much point in being surprised when he turns out to be a liar, despite him banging on in his profile about honesty and truth being the cornerstone of relationships. That rankles, actually. Reading sentences like “I never lie for my own benefit” while knowing that he has in fact knocked 10 years off his age in the desperate hope of dating younger women. HOW IS THAT NOT LYING FOR YOUR OWN BENEFIT, YOU FUCK-WITTED TOE-RAG? Sorry. Evidently I’m not as calm about the situation as I thought I was. I will take a deep breath and carry on.

I tend to choose naivety over cynicism as a way of being in the world, although I accept that it might be to my detriment when it comes to internet dating. But – and here’s where we start linking the themes together – I choose to be honest and open and to look for the best in people. Think of me as Pollyanna, I guess, but with considerably more sex and vodka. So it gets to me when people behave dishonestly or unkindly, because it makes it look like the cynics are winning, and the song that they’re singing is shrill and discordant and sounds a lot like There is no place in our world for you… And that is a world I don’t want to see, that is the world of fracking and slavery and torture and destroying the environment and fundamentalism and endless rivers of blood and tears. The world of unkindness. Sometimes it feels like I want my own planet, basically. Then I realise that this planet is all we’ve got and it’s down to all of us to make the best of it. And down to us to not let the fuckwits win. Which is why I’m sticking to kindness as a general policy, despite the considerable evidence to the contrary.

Interlude #1 – an opportunity posted up by a theatre company for a new writing scheme.It goes something like this;

  • Interested candidates must travel to us for a workshop at their own expense. Unpaid.
  • You will get to pick a theme from three choices, come up with an idea for a play and write 2-3 contrasting scenes within the three week deadline. Unpaid.
  • You will then be sent feedback, and rewrite your sample scenes accordingly within a one week deadline. Unpaid.
  • This second draft will be workshopped by a director and actors. You will be required to attend at your own expense. Unpaid.
  • You then have a further week to come up with your third and final draft of your sample scenes. Unpaid.

The net result of this is that you will then be placed on a shortlist for immediate commission at above industry rates. It doesn’t mention how long the shortlist will be, what the odds are of you landing a commission are. I’d hate to single out the theatre company or have them feel that I’m pointing the finger merely at them – it’s not as if the above situation is unusual. Just that in my I’m feeling a little bit sad about the world right now state, I started reading it with interest and ended up reading it with sheer WTF? indignation. I’m thinking of sending them three pints of my own blood rather than a script, it amounts to the same thing in the end. Or maybe I should just invite them to travel down to my place at their own expense and chop logs for me, unpaid, for the next month or so. Seems fair.

Interlude #2. I’ve had this song rattling round my head while all this has been going on. And when a song gets stuck in your head, it’s often because it has a message for you. Like for me when I woke up with a line from Tom Traubert’s Blues the other day “and the girls down by the striptease shows…” which was a not so subtle reminder from my subconscious that I needed to get my arse in gear and meet the deadline for a proposal about a play set in a strip joint. So I’ve been belting this one out, much to the bemusement of my cats, while wondering why. Yes, I feel sorry for my neighbours. And my cats. But the words are included in the above clip. Try it.

Back to business; I know this seems overlong, overshared and ridiculously rambly, but we’re getting to the crux of it. Bear with me. We’re now going to tie all the ends together into a flamboyant bow. The net result of all of the above; it’s left me feeling tired and sad. It squeezes the spirit out of me. Not good. Realising that I needed to get out of the hall, listening to myself enough to allow that, and being given a cup of tea by a kindly teacher = good. There’s good that can be wrought from all of it though. Even the man – inspiring in the fact that he’s lived his entire life as a creative and made his own way in the world – yet more so because he pushed me to a point where I’ve snapped and proclaimed No More. I deserve better. A point where I’ve thought hell, this is a compromise too far. Feeling cheated by a man, feeling cheated by a company I’m working for, thinking fuck this at reading something that borders on creative vampirism being offered as an opportunity. It points to a) an obvious need to strengthen my personal boundaries and b) a realisation that I’ve spent the last couple of years jumping through other people’s hoops and I’m tired of it. I’ve been bending over backwards chasing commissions and entering competitions and it’s not actually got me anywhere, I’d have been better off writing my own work, on spec. I’ve taken paid writing work that has left me frustrated and depleted. And as the snow girl has it; It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through, No rights no wrongs no rules for me, I’m free…

I’m getting outta the hall, in other words. I’m proposing an experiment. To spend the next year ignoring the hoop-jumping, the competitions, the commissions and opportunities that also turn out to be competitions. I will only be applying if it’s a scheme which gives me the funding to create my own work rather than having to dance to someone else’s tune. I want to forget about what I should be doing and concentrate on what I want to be doing; namely my own thing. It feels a lot like choosing the road less taken – but the well-lit highway is in fact a road to nowhere, I’m discovering. And that dark lane leading into the forest of who knows where – that’s the one that’s calling my name. It’s scary and it should maybe be counter-intuitive except that my intuition is telling me that I can’t actually be any worse for choosing it, not financially at least. So fuck this it is – I haven’t a clue where I’m heading but right now I couldn’t be happier about it. And I’m going on a date with someone else this week, so that’s looking promising too. If you want to join me, you’re welcome. Not on the date, you numpty. But if you want a place in the Fuck This! revolution, I’ll be cheering you on.

Posted in Creative, Kids, Real life, theatre, Writing | Comments Off

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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