Musings on creativity from Yorkshire's Gangliest Diabetic Buddhist Theatre Director

Month: September, 2012

Week Eleven: Recovering a Sense of Autonomy

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.

Inspiring Things in My Room: 9 Serenity

‘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.

Inspiring Things in My Room: 8 The Ultimate Object of Devotion

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.

Week Ten: Recovering a Sense of Self-Protection

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 ( 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.)