Week Eight: Recovering a Sense of Stength

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. . .

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