Oh look – here’s me on BCB radio, talking about making theatre, SGI Buddhism, and saying ‘Urm’ a staggering amount. I’m at 11’20”.
[I’m putting this up nearly two and a half years later. I wrote it at the time, but for some reason never posted it. So, finally – here you go!]
Faith? Well that seems appropriate.
Late again. Well, it’s been 24weeks rather than 12 but I’ve finally finished.
And what a final few weeks. I’m still digesting it all.
We had a very wonderful Buddhist course at a castle/Anglican nunnery (who knew those existed?) in Whitby. I wish I hadn’t read the chapter where Dracula arrives at Whitby, in a storm as a great savage dog, as the place was a little bit creepy; there was a lot of weather and there genuinely was a great big barky dog.
There were also lots of wonderful Buddhists from all over the North East and some very inspiring experiences of people’s faith in action. I broke my normal habit of staying tee-total on courses and discovered that lots of chanting followed by booze makes for quite a spinny-head.
A theme of the course was Joy. In Buddhism we talk about conditional and unconditional happiness, that it’s fine to enjoy pleasures coming from our environment, and even to use the desire for them to fuel our spiritual development, but the journey teaches us that there is a real, deep, and enduring happiness which can be found within, regardless of our circumstances. This joy comes through faith; faith in our own limitless potential, and our ability to overcome any obstacle. By changing our inner life we can change any circumstance, so why view any event as bad? It’s just another opportunity to grow.
There are some echoes with this weeks’ chapter:
‘Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, ‘Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before.’ It is the inner commitment to be true to ourselves and follow our dreams that triggers the support of the universe.’
I followed that by meeting up with a guy I know who’s from Bradford. We went out for beers and he brought me up to speed on the city’s political and cultural situation, along with, vitally, where to get the best curry. We then had one of those glorious free-wheeling conversations migrating from socialism to Sufism, where we discovered great similarities between our different beliefs, and the sense of working for a common cause. Plus, did I mention there was beer?
I closed the Artist’s Way with a very intense five days. The first five were spent studying with Philippe Gaulier, the legendary clown master. This is “clown” as in a rigorous form of performance involving stepping out in front of an audience prepared to be totally open and vulnerable, playful and responsive, with no preconceived ideas of what you might do. There might be red noses and clown shoes, but there might not. There certainly isn’t an exploding car or a cannon that shoots you into a vat of custard. And clowning in this way is tough; you have to be imaginative and playful but also simple, honest, and open. It is a tightrope (if you’ll forgive me using a circus metaphor while trying to make it clear this isn’t the sort of clowning you find in a circus); lean too much on the side of trying too hard and forcing things to happen and you become fake and fall off. But lean in the direction of doing nothing at all and you will bore your audience and so, also, fall off. And once you’re off in front of an audience it’s almost impossible to climb back on again.
This particular course was a week on Buffon, a technique/approach/style (I still don’t know how to refer to it) which Gaulier developed with Jaques Lecoq, before evolving it in his own, distinctive way. He is short, pot bellied, with a gnomish grey beard, red glasses, multi-coloured waistcoat and beret. He has a very thick accent and a love of puns. ‘You need to wake up of tea. Way-cup of tea. You see? In France this is very funny joke.’ He lives in his Buffon character in such a way that he can give very harsh feedback playfully; ‘You are boring. Boring like a primary school teacher. Whose husband has died.’
The format was simple; we would play some games (with much humiliation of the losers, often, due to recent surgery on my foot, me), learn some skills, but mostly we would be up in front of the maestro, either being rewarded (with chuckles) or mocked for being boring. Be too boring too long and we’re off the stage.
He made me think a lot about gurus in theatre. I had taken a very strict anti-guru position in my work till now. As soon as we foster the idea that there is one person who is the fount of all knowledge it leads to a huge imbalance of power, and with any imbalance in power comes the potential for abuse. And I have seen in many rehearsals (and in even more actor-training lessons) the desire to create this unequal relationship on both sides: actors who want to believe that their director/teacher is omniscient, because it frees them from the burden of choice, and pleasing the leader becomes a satisfyingly clear goal, uncluttered with complexities of, say, ‘improving as an actor,’ or ‘giving the best possible performance.’ This does not apply to all actors by any means, but there are some for whom it becomes almost masochistic. Similarly, there are certainly directors and teachers who seek out those roles, not for the creative fulfillment it brings, or the joy of supporting someone else to be better, but for the adulation and power that come with it.
[Note from Future Tom – Phelim McDermott of Improbable wrote this beautiful letter to all such directors, exploring the impact it has on the whole industry.]
On the other hand, a certain amount of trust and humility are necessary to learn any new skill from someone who has mastered it.
I could feel similar forces at work in the room; I’ve known many people who have gone to France to study with Gaulier for a year or more, pretty much every day, clowning for him with him acting as the sole arbiter of what is good or not. In the room this week there were those who got it, who could walk the tightrope perfectly – obviously they were praised. There were those who kept falling off and kept climbing back up as the week went on, still not getting the subtlety Gaulier is looking for, and so trying too hard, and so falling back off. Their desperation increased to painful lengths by the Friday. And there were others, myself included, who got on the rope for long enough to know what it felt like to be balancing to hover between forced and empty, alive and alert and vulnerable. But we didn’t know how to stay there, and eventually fell.
By the Wednesday I had come to see and appreciate the magical quality Gaulier is looking for; it is mesmerizing and joyous, and terrifying to watch, a great quality for any performer to be able to access. His approach definitely worked for some people, hindered others. By the end of the week I’d realized I’d stopped volunteering to go in front of the maestro. Why was that? I knew what he was looking for, I knew I could do it, at least for ten seconds at a time, before falling. Looking back, I just think I didn’t want to please him enough. Although, I do think he would approve of this Julia quote: ‘Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise. . . As creative channels, we need to trust the darkness. We need to learn to gently mull instead of churning away like a little engine on a straight-ahead path.’
The Artist’s Way, for all I’ve stretched it out, has been really central to my experience of the last few months. When I started, both my internal creativity and the external opportunities seemed to realize that creativity seemed very far away. Now I feel possibilities bubble up, within and without. It has certainly been a major turning point in my life. But, even though the course has ended, there’s not a neat finish to this story; I’ve changed direction but I’m still on the journey. If I had to summarise the one big change, it is that now I feel like the journey itself could be a source of joy and creativity.
‘Life is meant to be an artist date. That’s why we were created.’
[And so, two and a half years later – how did life turn out? I was right back then, the Artist’s Way did mark a huge turning point. But that should probably wait till another blog . . . ]
Nearly there, and of course, blog is late again! It’s been a hectic couple of weeks. I’ve done Sheffield, Bradford, Wakefield, York, Liverpool, Stockton. I have spent a lot of time on trains (all of that time put to good effect; got some work and a lot of creative play done) but not enough time in bed.
The main thing I did in this Artist’s Way week was direct, and, to my surprise, perform in a multi-voice poem about, and performed by residents of Skye Edge. Skye Edge is a slightly run down estate perched on top of a hill which falls away to amazing views of Sheffield. As one participant put it when you stand on the Edge ‘it’s like windsurfing in the sky.’ The locals were interviewed and then their words were turned into beautifully evocative poetry by Sally Goldsmith. I blogged the whole process, including my creative vulnerability, on the Freedom Studios website, so I’ll keep it brief this time and refer you to these:
As I say in the last one, the response from audience and participants was fantastic and it made we wonder about the value of that work, sat along side more high profile work I’ve done with professionals. Julia had wise words to say about the value we place on our creativity:
‘The market may be rotten even when the work is great. I cannot control these factors. Being true to the inner artist often results in work that sells – but not always. I have to free myself from determining my value and the value of my work by my work’s market value. . .
I must learn that as an artist my credibility lies with me, God, and my work. In other words, if I have a poem to write, I need to write that poem – whether it will sell or not.’
As I say, I have been crazy busy doing fantastic things, but none the less, crazy busy. Within that it’s been vitally important to take snatches of time for me, ensuring I was visiting the creative well before I dried up. The particular well I went for was running and wandering.
‘Most blocked creatives are cerebral beings. We think of all the things we want to do but can’t. Early in recovery, we next think of all the things we want to do but don’t. In order to effect a real recovery, one that lasts, we need to move out of the head and into a body of work. To do this, we must first of all move into the body.’
I’ve managed three runs (the last back to my top speed of 5km in 30 mins, stat fans!) and several wanders. One wander took me past York gallery, which I haven’t been in since I was a child. And I experienced the gallery like a child, wandering and allowing certain things to catch my attention, others to slide past, not forcing anything. There was a video on a loop. A man had swum in the sea from Scarborogh, with a camera (presumably water-proof) strapped to his head. As the dark sea rolled beneath me, it was like I was there, and I got that feeling of awe I get whenever I look at the vastness of the sea. It was great.
I had an hour free before catching the train back from Liverpool (on which I am writing this post) and I took myself for a wander, obeying the instinct to drift rather than sitting down in a cafe and start writing funding applications. I noticed this.
I didn’t have time to see the exhibition but I like to think that it was referring to what my dad calls ‘Wanderment’, the desire to stroll, directionless, exploring, rather than advertising a particular exhibit.
And now, we enter the final stretch. On to week 12.
‘There’s no place I can’t be
Since I found Serenity.
You can’t take the sky from me.’
So let’s take it as read that Firefly is 588 minutes of the best television ever made. (Sceptical? Go watch it. I’ll wait.) Also, it’s just had its tenth birthday.
Serenity represents a number of things. First up, is Freedom; it allows the characters to live a life in constant transit; all journey, no destination. A useful image for someone who’s trying to live in the moment and be less hung up on ‘getting there.’
Second, it represents Resistance. Named after the last, ill-fated battle of those who opposed the Alliance, it represents the ability to stand up and speak out against the devilish nature of authority.
Third and final, it represents family. In the story a disparate group of people come together to form a surprisingly functional family. In interviews I am often asked to say which director I would most like to emulate. The truth I would most like to be Joss Whedon; watch the Making Of: you can see the sense of playfulness and the sense of belonging Joss enabled his cast to experience. The feeling of playfulness enables the actors to go further, take risks, experiment. The safety is creatively useful for artists engaged in the incredibly difficult and pressurised process of collaborating on a piece of art. And that playfulness and camaraderie, the sense of being on a journey together, infuses the work on screen. So that once you’ve sailed on Serenity you feel like part of that family forever.
I’m writing this on my way back from watching a friend of mine receive her Gohonzon. Receiving Gohonzon is to my form of Buddhism as Confirmation is to Christians. You might have been chanting for a while (I’ve know people receive after three months and others after seven years; I took just under two), it’s an act of commitment (not a binding legal one) akin to getting married. It’s like getting married to your highest wisdom and potential and making a promise to work together, through good times and the inevitable bad ones, no matter what.
Gohonzon receiving ceremonies really are like weddings in that I tend to well up during them and afterwards there is sometimes cake. I’ve been lobbying for Pimms as well but that hasn’t caught on yet.
Anyway, that’s the receiving ceremony. But what is it you are actually receiving? A scroll, written in classical Chinese, modeled on the original one made by Nichiren Daishonin, the monk who spread the practice of chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.
He lived a remarkable life. At the time (12th C Japan) the country was divided into parishes and if you were a peasant you were forced to support the temple of that parish, regardless of what form of Buddhism the temple may belong to. Imagine you were Church of England and you got a letter from the government one day saying that due to your post-code you were required to become a Jehovah’s Witness. Like that. Additionally, these temples and their different sects of Buddhism encouraged the locals to donate to support the monks there, on the promise that, if the peasants kept their heads down in this life, they would be rewarded with Enlightenment in one of their future lives (or if you were of low social status you might come back rich. Or if you were a woman you might be fortunate enough to come back as man.) There was no sense that people could achieve enlightenment in their current life or that there was any point in changing the world they lived in, or that people are equally wonderful regardless of social rank or gender.
The Daishonin stood up against all that and taught people that they already had all the wisdom in the Universe in their lives and that by having faith in their own potential and that of others, they could reveal it. And the key to developing that faith was chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Obviously, this rattled a few cages. It rattled the cages of everyone who had something to gain by persuading people not to fight for a better world now, but to put up with their poverty and injustice. It annoyed everyone who was kept very comfortably and in positions of great power, by the donations and worship they received. It vexed everyone whose political position depended on the support of powerful Temples and Priests.
Unsurprisingly this pissed off loads of powerful people and as a result they heaped persecutions on the Daishonin, including repeatedly trying to kill him, and finally they exiled him, despite already frail health, to a freezing inhospitable island, full of other exiles, most of whom were ardently opposed to his beliefs. It was practically a death sentence.
Remarkably, his faith kept him alive through these various persecutions, sometimes miraculously. Finally, living in a barely-standing shack in the middle of a field where the locals left their dead to be eaten by birds and worms, starving and ill, he remained unbeaten in spirit. And he knew that this was because he was revealing the great potential inherent in his life, tapping that energy we all have access to.
Up until then many sects prayed to statues of Buddha. The original intention may have been to reflect that they too could manifest the qualities of the Buddha, but over time that got lost and it became, ‘Oh please help me Buddha, because you are way more amazing than I could ever be, and I am rubbish and incapable without your help.’ Which is exactly the opposite of what the Buddha would have wanted.
So the Daishonin, in his freezing shack, wondered what object could people pray to; what would be the ‘ultimate object of devotion’, which, when chanted at, would connect people in to their own immense power, rather than seeking salvation from some external force. So he made the Gohonzon; he wrote Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, representing all the amazing power of the Universe, down the middle, and around it he wrote the names of Gods and Demons representing all the different aspects of life, positive and negative. The Gohonzon was a diagram, showing the truth of our lives; that, amidst the varied realities of our lives, the heart of our being, is this amazing capacity of wisdom, courage and compassion.
In that sense the Gohonzon is a mirror which shows us back our highest potential. Crucially, it is not in itself magic, or able to sort out our problems for us. The Daishonin warned ‘Never search for the Gohonzon outside yourself.’
The respect we show the Gohonzon, then, is the respect we show to our own highest potential. So we keep it in special box, we don’t take photos of it, we make offerings of fruit, incense, water and greenery (I’m using cacti because my greenery kept becoming brownery), we keep the area dusted, etc. We are offering those things to ourselves; they are metaphors which have meaning because we imbue them with meaning. On those days when I can’t believe in my own potential, when I want to curl up and for the world to leave me alone, the act of caring for and respecting the object which represents my higher self enables me to reveal the self-respect which I would otherwise struggle to muster.
And then when you chant, with the Gohonzon reflecting back the truth of your life, then you can start, sometimes painfully, to see the things you can change, the ways you can grow.
So, this would be most inspiring object and I’m very grateful to my younger self for deciding to make that commitment. It’s been an eventful marriage so far, which has required a great deal of work, but one I’m very glad I entered into.
I started this week with a Buddhist course for the young men of Northern England. These things are always powerful, but for me this one was especially so, as I had been given the responsibility for running the thing. It was humbling watching so many young men from all over the planet, from so many social and ethnic backgrounds, coming together to encourage each other to believe in the limitless potential of all people. We arrived, it seemed to me, struggling with our environment (car break-downs, bosses hitting people with a deadline while they are trying to leave the office, ill relatives, or literally not having enough money to afford the fare), or with ourselves (why am I bothering? I should have planned for that, I’ve failed already, everyone is practising stronger than me. . .) Some didn’t make it at all, some did but then left, but those who stayed the course slowly, in some cases with great difficulty, worked through all of it, together.
It’s in the middle of such courses, as I am mentally juggling three dozen problems, that I learn something about myself. Normally, that I am more capable than I give myself credit for. Often, that I place an impossibly high bar for myself.
The discoveries on this particular course will continue to reverberate for weeks and months to come.
This week Julia talks about the blocks we throw up in front of our creativity.
‘We begin to sense our real potential and the wide range of possibilities open to us. That scares us. So we all reach for blocks to slow our growth. . .
Blocking is essentially an issue of faith. Rather than trust our intuition, our talent, our skill, our desire, we fear where our creator is taking us with this creativity. . . Blocked we know who and what we are: unhappy people. Unblocked, we may be something much more threatening – happy. For most of us, happy is terrifying, unfamiliar, out of control, too risky!’
Which sounds very like the Buddhist course, and our collective struggle to believe in the immense power and wisdom contained in all our lives.
Julia goes on to outline some of the things we can use to block this creative energy; work, love, sex, drugs, alcohol, food. All of these things can be positives (apart from, you know, drugs, cus drugs are bad –ed.) but we can turn all of them into self-destructive blocks.
She then focuses in detail on the first of these blocks: workaholism.
‘If people are too busy to write morning pages, or too busy to take an artist’s date, they are probably too busy to hear the voice of authentic creative urges.’
I have taken recently to being very strict about my hours, partially in response to previous employers who thought that paying a living wage equalled owning your entire waking life. I long ago learnt, the very hard way, that I do my best creative work when I’m rested, fed, and have clean clothes to wear. But also it takes more than that. There are many studies about the need for quiet reflective space, about the way in which problems, creative or otherwise, can get resolved when the conscious mind is given space to think of other things. When I’m working on a text now, I study it over and over before the rehearsal period starts. But once rehearsals begin, I leave my copy in the rehearsal room each day. I work better with the actors in the room when I don’t allow myself to work outside it.
Both of my current employers are very supportive of my attempts to keep work limited to work-time. I now keep time-sheets not to protect me from them, but to protect me from myself. But if I factor in the other commitments I sign myself up for, then, yes, I struggle to fit in the pages, the writing, the reflecting. I’m at some sort of rehearsal, meeting, show every night this week, and for many weeks before and after.
I may need to work on not working.
Of course, those directors who careers have far-out stripped mine, give the impression of never sleeping for their constant, driven, work. But that would be a comparison, wouldn’t it?
‘You pick up a magazine – or even your alumni news – and somebody, somebody you know, has gone further, faster, toward your dream. Instead of saying, ‘That proves it can be done, ‘ your fear will say, ‘He or she will succeed instead of me. . .
As artists, we cannot afford to think about who is getting ahead of us and how they don’t deserve it. The desire to be better than can choke off the simple desire to be.’
I had several breakthroughs this week. One was in updating my professional website (www.tomwrightdirector.com). I haven’t done this properly for three years. In that time I have done some of the work of which I am most proud, the most courageous, exhilarating, detailed, work. But because I made that work with young people in a Midlands town I had a hard time celebrating it. My website is really just that, the place where I honour the work so far with a paragraph and a few photos for each project. Working on the website brings up so many of those feelings for me. But I broke through that this week and, bar some tech glitches that I need to iron out, it’s up to date. A new beginning.
I also allowed myself a couple of artist’s dates. One was a silent walk led by sound artist Phil Harding around Bradford. A small group of us follow behind him, in silence, leaving enough distance between us so that we can’t hear the footsteps of the person in front. No phones, no recording equipment, just our ears and the people and environs of Bradford. Delegating all thought of trying to get somewhere, just contentedly following, my range of hearing opened up. The quality of sound deadened as we walked past wooden fencing, echoed as we went under a bridge, stilled and grew on the end of a railway platform, surrounded by trees. People’s voices were the best. My favourite, ‘What the fuck are they doing, walking in a lines like zombies?’
I also went for a stroll (with another bonus – the company camera!) along Ravenscar, between Scarborough and Whitby.
En route, by chance, I passed Cober Hill, where I spent two very significant holidays as a teenager with Youth Theatre Yorkshire. We would build characters on the first day and then stay in role for most of the next two days. The first year I was crotchety oligarch on a distant planet, facing a worker’s rebellion. The next I was a Tiger Priest who united the tribes of his forest against loggers. Born leader you see.
And here’s a closing thought to carry me on to the penultimate week:
‘The need to win – now! – is a need to win approval from others. As an antidote, we must learn to approve of ourselves. Showing up for the work is the win that matters.’
P.S. My back is doing much better now as Artist’s Way is now out on Kindle, thus saving a lot of lugging a large book around in an already over-filled bag! (Does mean there are no page number references this week, though.)
So, where to start? Obviously, I’ve always wanted to be a Jedi. Who wouldn’t? Obviously not in the prequel (where suddenly they are not allowed to experience any emotions [bad Anarkin – don’t love your mum] and can’t even get jiggy) but in the original trilogy where they have great power and insight. And glowing swords.
I found this one lying in the mud one day while out for a run. I looked around to see if there were any wailing and bereft children nearby. As there weren’t, I pulled it out of the ground. I’d love to say I did this using The Force, but instead I had to bend over and pick it up, which when you’re my size is quite a significant investment of energy. But I did it, because this wasn’t just any lightsaber. This is a green lightsaber.
Luke starts off his quest into Jedidom with his dad’s sabre; which glows blue. But then he goes on his journey of self-mastery, in which he has to grapple with and overcome his own anger and fear. He learns that ‘there is no try, only do,’ and that there is a field which surrounds and pervades all living beings (stop me if the Buddhistness is too obvious). Anyway, having learnt all this brilliant stuff, he takes the final step. He makes his own saber. And then as he is being really tested by the Emperor, he snaps and uses it to attack his father. The Emperor goads him on. And then Luke wins and changes not just the course of his life, but that of the whole galaxy.
And he wins not by using the sword, but by turning it off.
Yes, the green one is the one he puts away. And that’s the sort of weapon I like to have lying around; the one which achieves its purpose by being resisted at all costs, something which teaches us to always search for the other way. Because as long as we allow violence to be a potential solution to anything, we will never give 100% to exhausting the other options. Maybe there are some situations which can only be resolved through violence. Maybe there is such a thing as a justified war, a righteous fight. But for me, if it ever comes down to it, I hope that I would die fighting with my heart, not weapons, to find another way.
And this lightsaber reminds me of that.
Plus it lights up.
It’s funny this whole ‘ask and you shall receive’ thing. I asked for a creatively stimulating and socially worthwhile job which would fit around my existing commitments. I also asked for some time and space to write. And, more prosaically, a better laptop to work on, since my old one is over-heating and cutting out at inopportune moments.
I am writing this on the commute back from Bradford, spending the day planning a project designed to celebrate older people as valuable and creative members of society. The commute is an hour straight, no changing, on comfortable trains. I am working on my work laptop, a couple of models later than my own, half a kilo lighter and substantially more reliable.
We had a consultant in today so the two other core staff members and I could talk through our aims and expectations for the next year’s work. Just the act of briefly describing our life journey to get us to this point was more emotional than I’d anticipated, as was realising just how perfect the role is for me, how much it will support my artistic development and how much it ties in with my own personal ethos.
We were asked to make a poster showing where the session had left us. I couldn’t find words so I made a picture.
Having laboriously climbed out of the murk and suffering behind me, with the support of many people, I come to the cliff edge. Putting my pack down, I spread my wings. I thought I’d been looking for some stability. But actually safety doesn’t necessarily feed art. So now I have to jump in order to continue the journey. And, of course, there are people to make that journey with me too.
This all ties in nicely (doesn’t it always?) with this week’s themes.
My greatest fear is that I am too lazy/undisciplined/undedicated to be a truly great artist. The first play I ever wrote was about a ballet dancer at the end of his career reflecting on whether the dedication had been worth it and trying to decide whether to take on a protégée and encourage them to make the same sacrifices. I was already grappling with the idea that dedication and obsessive focus equal success and that laziness and distraction equal failure. (Interesting to return to that idea of dedication and its cost as 15 year olds are cleaning up in the Olympics.)
‘We have wanted to create and we have been unable to create and we have called that inability laziness. This is not merely inaccurate. It is cruel. Accuracy and compassion serve us far better.
Blocked artists are not lazy. They are blocked.
Being blocked and being lazy are two different things. The blocked artist typically expends a great deal of energy – just not visibly. The blocked artist spends energy on self-hatred, on regret on grief, and on jealousy. The blocked artist spends energy on self-doubt. . .
The need to be a great artist makes it hard to be an artist.
The need to produce a great work of art makes it hard to produce any art at all. . .
Do not call procrastination laziness. Call it fear. . .
Use love for your artist to cure its fear.’ p.152
Right here is the heart of the trap I’ve lived my post-adolescent life. To be perfect requires total dedication. If there is any lapse in this perfection, then I must be a failure, mustn’t I? And at that point, is there any reason to get out of bed?
‘In the short run, discipline may work, but it will work only for a while. . . The part of us that creates best is not a driven, disciplined automaton. . . Over an extended period of time, being an artist requires enthusiasm more than discipline. Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us.’ p.153.
Oh, can you imagine? Wanting, yearning to work without that self-battle? Bliss.
Those of you who are following this blog will be aware of the extent to which procrastination has been swamping me, based on the massive hiatus from Week 8’s blog to Week 9. I could blame the fact that my work-load has essentially doubled, but actually there has been time. But those moments when I could have worked on this, or gone on artist date, or done an exercise from the book, or nurtured my inner artist in some way, I have twittered away my time. The worst thing being that, rather than really enjoying whatever displacement activity I’ve been engaging in, it has been an exhausting guilt-filled self-battle. As Julia says, my non-productive time isn’t lazy, it’s exhausting.
In the case of the Artist Way; what is it I’m really afraid of? Finishing something I’ve been starting and never finishing for well over a decade? What if I get to the end of this process and it’s thrown up a load of personal issues but failed to resolve any of them? What if I’m left with all these unresolved questions but without the context and tools of this course; the thing which makes the painful self-discoveries easier is the sense that it’s part of a process which will eventually resolve. So, yes, I’m scared of finishing, of what comes next.
Of course I know that this 12 week course can’t resolve everything; life is a constant process of self-discovery and change, and with support of my friends, family, colleagues and my Buddhist practice, I will definitely continue to grow. But I hope that this course can create a momentum of change, especially as this week (or rather the month I’ve spent on it) has seen me banging up against a lot of blocks.
I’ve written before about the magical feeling I used to have when writing short stories for exams; the sense of words flowing. I’ve been working on a short(ish) story for a few weeks now. I wrote it by asking a random title generator on the interwebs to do its thing. I then wrote for one hour solid, with a timer. Unlike those times decades ago when the whole thing flowed out with a beginning, a middle and an end, I got the odd image, false starts, changes of direction, but by the end of the hour, while I didn’t have all the words, I did have both a story and the sensations I wanted it to evoke. Ever since then, I’ve been giving the odd 30 mins here and there to it, as opportunity and procrastination will allow. And it’s agony. It feels like I’m pulling each sentence out of myself with pliers with my critic providing constant running commentary from the side.
I’m reading a novel (The Night Circus) with a sense of wonder at the sheer number of words; how much effort must it take to birth a 300 page baby? My five pages are making me want an epidural.
‘Remember that art is a process. The process is supposed to be fun. For our purposes, ‘the journey is always the only arrival’ may be interpreted to mean that our creative work is actually our creativity itself at play in the field of time. At the heart of this play is the mystery of joy.’ p.154
Oh to rediscover that play. Three weeks to go.
So, I’m back. Phew that took a while. What’s happened in the intervening weeks? Well, obviously, I have fallen behind with the Artist’s Way. I directed an evening of six ‘lost’ Ayckbourn plays, found nestling within the Alan Ayckbourn Archive. For anyone who thinks they know AA’s work, this had way more Dracula, Cluedo, sawing ladies in half and pyrotechnics than you might expect and much fewer frustrated middle class couples (one, to be precise.)
It’s been over six months since I directed a piece, nearly the longest hiatus since I directed my first show aged 18. It was really great being in that process again. I found the logistics involved hugely stressful (until my boss pointed out that as director I didn’t have to do all of those things and appointed someone infinitely more capable to do them for me – to him for the guidance and her for doing it all – many thanks!) But the actual process, slowly moving rough sketch to full and detailed final show, was a delight. The student cast were wonderful, if pathologically incapable of diary-management, the scripts are brilliantly put together, the creative team excelled, and it was one of those lovely moments of sitting in the audience, knowing that all around you people are experiencing the emotions which you hoped that they would. In this case, the main sign of success was that they were laughing. It felt really good to sit amongst a guffawing audience knowing I’d contributed to getting that reaction. A colleague, on leaving the theatre remarked that it had been a long time since he had seen something which had the sole goal of making him laugh. A regular diet of it would become sickening but the occasional evening of collective laughing has to be good for the soul.
Plus I started my new job at Freedom Studios in Bradford, which has an amazing office; it looks like an expensive hair salon (embossed black-velvety wallpaper, Bansky-esque mural and glass tables). They have done some remarkable projects and they (or, rather, now – we) are planning some even more remarkable ones, both in artistic vision but also the desire for the shows to make a real difference to the communities experiencing them. More news to come.
So those two things together have kept me very busy, and, unsurprisingly brought up some stuff. Literally, in the case of the other day. Although that may have been food poisoning.
Having such a clear fresh start with the new job, sent me thinking back over the past, and how I got here. I realised I still have a lots of baggage around past creative collaborations which went septic. As ever, Julia is right in sync:
‘As mental-health experts are quick to point out, in order to move through loss and beyond it, we must acknowledge it and share it. Because artistic losses are seldom openly acknowledged or mourned, they become artistic scar tissue that blocks artistic growth. . . We must remember that our artist is a child and that what we can handle intellectually far outstrips what we can handle emotionally.’ P 129.
So how do we help our artist-child handle all this stuff?
‘The trick is to metabolize pain as energy. The key to doing that is to know, to trust, and to act as if a silver lining exists if you are only willing to look at the work differently or to walk through a different door, one that you may have balked at.’135
We are back to trusting the Universe again. Feels like it’s two steps forward and one step back for me on that currently. But when I look at the amazing opportunities emerging I just need to keep stepping forward.
I used to invest a huge amount of time imagining a different Tom who had made different choices. He was amazing (he had really good teeth) and excelled at all the things I struggled with. Eventually the disparity between Super-Tom and me became so acute that dwelling on his successes was a self-harming compulsion, like having a sore tooth (which, of course, He would never have had) and being compelled to poke it all the time. Finally I forced myself to imagine, in glorious Technicolor, Super-Tom falling under a bus.
This week, while out for a run, I rediscovered Super-Tom and started adding new bits to his biography, new ways that his life had gone differently from mine. By the end of the run I felt terrible and I was shocked to have fallen back into that old pattern. I started chanting as soon as I got back and imagined Super-Tom being electrocuted by a falling power-line. That seems to have sorted it for now.
The point about Super-Tom is that he is impossibly perfect. When I have a bad day, anything less than that perfection equals failure. And the enormity of the gulf between Him and me acts to scare me off from even trying to move towards improving.
‘Blocked creatives like to think they are looking at changing their whole life in one fell swoop. This form of grandiosity is very often its own undoing. By setting the jumps too high and making the price tag too great, the recovering artist sets defeat in motion. . . .
Rather than take a scary baby step towards our dreams, we rush to the edge of the cliff and then stand there, quaking, saying, ‘I can’t leap. I can’t. I can’t. . . .’
No one is asking you to leap. That’s just drama, and, for the purposes of creative recovery, drama belongs on the page or on the canvas or in the clay or in the acting class or in the act of creativity, however small.’ P. 142
And of course, the consequence of that perfectionism is procrastination. Which, let’s be honest, is why this post is so late.
The solution to this is committing to the process, whatever the process may be, rather than the product. It could be the process of Artistic Recovery, of therapy, of chanting and changing yourself (your ‘human revolution’), or of sitting down to paint a picture, or of working on a show. One of my strengths as I director, I feel, is that I am able to trust the process; that I am the person in the room who is okay with the fact that in week one the rehearsal doesn’t look like the finished show, who doesn’t need to know where everyone is standing on the stage straight away, who is happy to explore different ways of playing a scene rather than rushing straight for the perfect answer. In that sense, I don’t really do anything a lay person would recognise as ‘directing’ until the final week. The rest of the time my function is to inspire others to be okay with uncertainty, and to trust to the process to lead us to our destination. In that sense I could do with ‘directing’ my life less and seeing it more as those early weeks, and get better at not rushing to get to the ending.
‘We like to focus on having learned a skill or having made an artwork. This attention to final form ignores the fact that creativity lies not in the done but in doing.
‘I am writing a screenplay’ is infinitely more interesting to the soul than ‘I have written a screenplay,’ which pleases the ego’. . .
‘Focused on process, our creative life retains a sense of adventure. Focused on product, the same creative life can feel foolish or barren.’ P. 139
There’s a similar Buddhist concept (after eight weeks – is that a surprise, dear reader?); focusing on the causes not the effects. We set a determination to achieve a certain goal by a certain date and then we chant to achieve that goal, with the spirit to change whatever in ourselves needs to change to get us there, and then we take action. The trick, at the end of each day, is not to ask ourselves, ‘Did I get there?’ because then we feel a failure every time we haven’t fully achieved a goal. Rather, we ask ‘Did I make causes today to get there?’ and with that in mind every day can be a success. ‘Did I apply for that job? Did I make that phone call? Did I read that play? Well then I am doing all I can, and the Universe will do the rest.’ That’s what Faith is in my world. Difficult to do, but still simple; set a goal, take baby steps, and don’t beat yourself up in the meantime.
‘The grace to be a beginner is always the best prayer for an artist. The beginner’s humility and openness lead to exploration. Exploration leads to accomplishment. All of it begins at the beginning, with the first small and scary step.’ P. 140
Or, as my mentor puts it:
‘The Daishonin cites the Contemplation on the Mind-Ground Sutra, which states: “If you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present” (WND-1, 279). Those who take action based on a firm determination have already created the cause for victory, no matter what their present situation may be.’ Daisaku Ikeda, NL 8551CY
As for today? I’ve made the cause by writing this, so now I’m off to bed.
P.S. Remember how I promised I’d post some fiction? Guess what, I procrastinated. Half written. . .
Still struggling to catch up with myself on the Artist’s Way (nearly finished week 8!) But have just directed a stonking gurt show, so probably I’m allowed. Have an inspiring, or possibly cautionary, object instead.
His Dark Materials holds a special place in my heart. Actually, to be honest, quite a painful one, but significant.
Before I met my Buddhist practice, I used the I Ching a lot. For those of you who haven’t come across it, it’s an ancient Chinese form of divination. You ask it what will happen if you take a particular action then you toss some coins, or fiddle with special yarrow sticks (my preferred method ‘cos I was hard core) and it tells you the result of that action by coming up with a pictogram that refers to lines of text in the big book. You can have thousands of different combinations.
The first night I ever used it I got a spooky feeling in the accuracy of its answers, like someone was watching me over my shoulder. Proper goose bumpy.
I can’t remember those early answers, but I do remember getting addicted. I fell into the trap of thinking that there was one perfect way of doing everything (my misinterpretation of the Tao, or Way) and that if I could just get myself into this magical groove, everything would be wonderful forever. As a result I checked it all the time, before going out to a party, before starting a project. The first result of which I have a clear memory was something along the lines of ‘The foolish boy asks too many questions,’ which shut me up for a bit, though not forever.
And yes, looking back, plenty of the messages were too vague to be applied to my life; others could just have been wishful thinking on my part. I can’t say for a fact that anything supernatural was taking place. What follows might be destiny taking its course. Or a tragedy of my own superstitious making.
Because, after a few years of this, I found myself living with my first real girlfriend. Things had been going great, magically in fact, in a way I had almost begun to doubt would ever happen for me. But after a joyful two years the first cracks were showing. Then suddenly I met someone and found myself head over heels. This new young woman was giving me very little encouragement but the fact I was infatuated made me question my current relationship.
So, of course, I asked the I Ching about it, hoping it would encourage me to stay put and ignore the infatuation. ‘The situation bodes disaster, but there is nothing to do but wait’ came the blunt reply. ‘The Leg of the Bed is Split’ was the image, implying that one had to keep pulling at that split, ‘until it reaches even those very close to himself. One has a shaky foundation in one’s personal life.’
I couldn’t believe it. So I asked again (generally a rude thing to do, whether it be to a wise person or a bunch of sticks.) How could I leave her? ‘Tears in floods, sighing & lamenting but bitter regret serves us in good stead. Good fortune will come from this grief.’
I wrote all this down in my I Ching journal.
That night my girlfriend came home. We had dinner. I watched TV for a bit and she went through to read in the bedroom. She came back in to the lounge in tears. She had read the journal.
That night we both sat in different rooms; I was on the couch (which seemed fair enough.) And we both wept. I finally went through and cried in her arms for a bit. I couldn’t find a way to explain that I wasn’t crying because of what we were losing in that moment. I was crying for what we had already lost, for what had ebbed away in the months leading up to that moment, for that which the I Ching had reflected, spiritually or randomly, back at me, but which I had been unwilling to face.
I went away to stay with my folks for a week. While I was there I started to read the Northern Lights Trilogy. When I came back I was on to the final book. And she, along with all of her stuff, was gone. And I sat on what had been our bed, and I read the last book, that deals with two lovers doomed to be separated, that talks of forging our own path, which features the I Ching heavily. And in the world of the heroic, self-determining heroine, Lyra, the I Ching takes the form of an Aleithiometer, the teller of truth.
Some months later I asked the I Ching (because of course, not even this turn of events could fully break my addiction), what should I do to address the deep sense of absence in my life? I had started chanting by this point, but was unconvinced and shopping around, trying anything that would help. ‘Seeing the Truth: The ablution has been made, but not yet the offering.’ Meaning that the ritual was being observed but not yet the full deep commitment one makes in joining a group of believers. I decided to give it a punt.
Well, you know the rest.
I haven’t used the I Ching since. There are times, more often a crisis of the heart rather than work trouble, where I itch to throw the stalks again (I sold them years ago but there are some very detailed simulations on line.) But what it now represents to me is the act of looking for an answer outside myself, asking some external force to tell me what to do. And actually what I need to develop, in my chanting, in my art, is my ability to listen to my self. For as the founder of my form of Buddhism says, ‘Never seek the Gohonzon (the embodiment of the infinite potential inherent in life) outside yourself.’
And, as ever, I’ll keep you posted on how that’s going.