Every day I’ll be posting some small thought about art, creative processes, and community.
Longer posts, often written in collaboration with other artists, can be found here.
- On What You Know
To add to yesterday’s post on being in the middle of the process: when I’m confused about what’s going on or can’t quite see the full picture, I try to focus on what I do know: This character wants to break up with his boyfriend but doesn’t know how. The next scene likely won’t happen in chronological order — how do I ensure it makes sense?
There’s something to be said about the universal coming from those kinds of specifics. If we take the time to look at the details and how they fit together, then we’re digging closer to a kernel of a much larger truth. Honesty in theatre is key if we want our audiences to see themselves reflected in the world we’re creating. That sort of connection happens when we look closely at the functions of small moments.
The small moments we’re left with in our confusion about the piece as a whole can ultimately lead to larger revelations. This character doesn’t know how to break up with his boyfriend because he’s scared, because he doesn’t want to hurt him, because it’s too similar to something in his past… Aha! That something in his past is his driving force, and that results in this event later on, blah blah blah.
It can be a useful exercise, when bogged down by your confusion with your own work, to focus on what you do know. There’s a beautiful truth in there somewhere that may help you unfold the rest.
- In the Middle
I often discover, part way through a creative process, that I have no idea what I’m doing.
The only current example would be this play I’m re-writing. I can’t seem to focus on it all that well, but when I do end up writing a page or two of dialogue, I have absolutely no sense of how it will all fit together.
It’s hard to know what something looks like when we’re in the middle of it. A clear image of the full concept only becomes clear on either end. I’m trying not to beat myself up for not understanding the entire forest yet as I focus on specific trees.
- Sit with It
Our imaginations can be overwhelmed by too much stimuli.
I’m the type who gets easily distracted by shiny objects. Having my phone near me while writing is a huge no-no. And doom scrolling is a real thing, where I thoughtlessly read through hundreds of posts and come out the other end hours later.
We have to get good at being bored. It’s not “OK what’s the next best thing to be inspired by?” It’s “What have I not yet considered about this object or concept in front of me?”
Focusing on the bare minimum for a decent amount of time strengthens the imagination and problem-solving muscles. Allowing ourselves to simply jump to the next stimulus without sitting with the first trains our brain to think whatever problem we’re trying to solve can simply be subsumed by another.
It’s OK to only be working on one thing for the time being. It’s easy to look around and see the whole world multitasking, but that’s been proven to be ineffective. Chew on your current meal for awhile.
- Being Likeable
For both my work and my personality, I often find it freeing to remind myself that some people just won’t like it. No matter what we do, we’re bound to rub up against some form of pushback or distaste.
If we’re always trying to satisfy the needs of everyone encountering our work then we are being distracted from the work itself. Pursuing that impossible goal will weaken the impact.
I’m trying to get back into a groove with editing my play Honey Dew Me. Overthinking the many possible reactions to these rewrites is making me stuck. Soon I’ll just have to chug back my coffee, release myself from caring about it being likeable, and get to work.
- Happiness Is?
Be wary of what others claim should make you happy.
I’m re-reading Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness: a book on how happiness enters feminist and queer-centred discussions. Happiness is often used by oppressors to say “this is what you should be doing to feel good about yourself.” The “sentimentalization of heterosexuality as ‘domestic bliss’,” for example, suggests that folks can’t be happy unless they’re in a stable, straight relationship. Not true. Obviously.
A common understanding of happiness has always been elusive. No one can pin down exactly what causes it for all people. You can create your own definition, and figure out what make you happy specifically.
It’s good to be conscious of when happiness is “used to redescribe social norms as social goods” so that you don’t end up striving for something that’s outside of your own way of being.
It’s all about what makes you happy, not what others say should make you happy.
- From Where We Are
I’d like to be working in Paris or Berlin, surrounding myself with avant-garde artists, delving into deep discussions about theatre theory, building a career centred in the intersection of queerness and storytelling, engaging audiences in innovative ways and helping artists from around the world.
But I am currently in New Brunswick, Canada.
And I love it. There may not be much opportunity to make theatre things, especially now, but I can still find inspiration in the cordiality of the people and the beauty of the scenery. You know. It’s a nice place.
Creativity can happen from anywhere. Now more than ever (a cliché nowadays), we have to remind ourselves that no matter where we are, we can do meaningful work. Whether it’s creating an innovative Zoom play with friends or writing a short story on a napkin, we can make the most out of where we are.
- Letting Go
I’ve more or less written about this before, but the more I reflect on it, the more I realize the importance of simply letting things be. When I’m caught in a maelstrom of emotion that distracts me from my creative priorities, I convince myself that I have to try to resolve the issue. It’s fixable with just a bit of emotional work, unpacking, and conversation. But sometimes it’s simply going to be what it’s going to be.
There can be immense freedom in choosing to rise above it.
Of course I’m all for seeing things to their end and seeking justice for those who’ve been wronged. But getting to a mental state of recognizing you are more than the issue, that the stress doesn’t define you, can open up a world with so much more positivity and possibility. And being creative is often about living in that world: glimpsing into better futures, even if for the time being they’re imaginary. It’s taking the crap that comes our way and reinventing it to help move us into new terrain.
Sometimes we can let the crappy stuff weigh us down too much and forget that we’re actually supposed to be using it to propel ourselves forward. If we can’t, if we find the crappy stuff too heavy and a hindrance to our progress, then perhaps we can free ourselves from it instead of the other way around. Perhaps the resulting lightness allows us to float well away from it.
And maybe we can take a glimpse back at the crap every now and then, just to see if its complexity makes sense from the new angle.
- Confronting Discomfort
It’s much easier to avoid a difficult conversation than it is to have one. But too often we miss out on a discomfort that will ultimately heal us.
Challenging confrontations of messy situations are an inevitable part of any collaborative process. Conflicts arise. Tensions mount. Clear communication, especially in the face of misunderstanding or disappointment, is necessary. Stifling conversation is a sign of fear: fear of losing control or veering into new territory. Opening yourself to it is a sign of strength.
We have to be able to identify times of conflict and communicate honestly and directly as we go through them. It’s the only way to the heart of the work and the joy within the process.
- Shifting Gears
So… we may not be gathering in the same way for a while. Us theatre folks are kind of wondering when things might get back to what they were. I’m seeing a decent amount of worry and it’s understandable. Artists face a severe lack of funding and stability as it is… adding a pandemic on top of that doesn’t help.
But to be creative is to be inventive. There’s a new problem, and we can look outside the darkened, seat-filled box to solve it. Storytelling and community building exist in other forms. To deny that is to perpetuate the concern and refrain from addressing it.
When we face challenges like these we have to be willing to shift gears and keep looking at them from multiple angles. How can we continue gathering and sharing stories despite buildings having to close or limit entry? There are answers. We may just have to invent some.
- Focus On What You Know
We can easily let our minds get carried away. We confabulate and fill in the blanks with completely fabricated information. When we are uncertain we become desperate for certainty, entertaining absurd notions in an attempt to make sense of the chaos.
Creative minds can often get anxious. Sometimes it’s comforting to focus solely on the things we know to be true.
Whether it’s a difficult story you’re working on or a shitty life event, write down a list of the facts. Not what you believe to be true, but what you know 100% to be true. I find identifying the actual gaps of knowledge is an excellent first step in figuring out the rest. Or, at the very least, you recognize the reality of the situation before imposing your own creative assumptions.
- The Social Media Suck
I tend to “overthink” a lot of things, which makes social media a very hellish place for me. I like to try to avoid it but I find it nearly impossible, especially if I want to stay current on what’s happening with friends and whatnot.
One thing about social media that presents a major creative block for me is what I perceive to be a pressure to prove ourselves. I grind my teeth any time I see something that is clearly an effort to increase clout. There are likely a number of assumptions on my end when I think this way, of course, but I do believe the common pressure on artists to “network” and show our connections with more established and celebrated people is very draining.
We shouldn’t need to play the game of phoney friendships and performative “ladder climbing”. The work we do should have merit and be recognized as valuable on its own. Trying to get to know important people and have them promote our work can be disingenuous and incredibly inaccessible for many of us, yet there is still an understanding of that being “part of the gig”.
There’s benefit to building connections, of course, and often artists obtain a dedicated following simply because of their amazing work, but social media is so often full of desperation.
I think it’s good to remind ourselves that we don’t need the approval of others to make a creative impact, but on the flip side, if we do have a decent following, it’s important to support other artists on our platforms. I just feel that this process could use a bit more transparency and humility, thereby facilitating access to such platforms. For example, artists with a large following can recognize that privilege, do some heavy lifting, and open more doors for others.
Emerging artists spending so much time trying to get their work in front of more people could then focus more on the strength of their work than the strength of their schmoozing.
- Willingness to Be Wrong
I’ve worked with artists who are polite and do all the “right things” when it comes to communication and collaboration (smiling, nodding, repeating notes back to show they were listening) but who still put me on edge. It’s like there’s something lurking beneath the surface that’s going to bite any second. Every suggestion feels judged, and there’s that clear sense they’re complaining to others outside of the room. It creates a really challenging environment that is not conducive to any thorough exploration of the work.
I’ve been this person, of course, and I believe a large part of it is due to an insatiable desire to be “right”. It’s the conviction that I can use my own power of deduction to boil all the complications down to a clear solution.
Then there are the amazing collaborators who feel so welcoming, who inspire people to try harder, and who effortlessly encourage everyone around them to be their authentic selves. They’re a breath of fresh air. We can all be both of those people, but I think the redeeming quality, the approach that makes the difference, is a willingness to be wrong.
I wonder, actually, if curiosity is the answer to most creative impasses.
Any process of creation worth pursuing will inevitably have its ups and downs. But if everyone remains genuinely curious, and always curious to know more about the perspectives that are confusing them, then we construct an environment with a strong base of trust. We trust people more when they ask questions.
Check in with yourself when working with others: “Am I being curious? Am I questioning my own assumptions? What can others teach me? How can I learn?”
Can’t start anything without it. As I’m sure many coffee drinkers know, it has a lot to do with the comfort and routine as much as it does the caffeine. It’s a beautiful ritual.
Despite the turbulence we’re experiencing, we can find small habits that keep us grounded. The creative process can be draining. I find even getting myself into the mindset needed to start thinking about playwriting takes a long time. Knowing I’ll have that dependable cup of warmth helps.
Did you have your coffee this morning?
- Focus on the Horizon
“Keep walking, and don’t look at the ground. Focus on the horizon. Listen for new sounds. Be aware of the birds.”
On one of our first rehearsals, a director I worked with took us on a hike through the forest. The play was about birds, so observing them for research made sense, but the thing that stuck out for me was “focus on the horizon.” This was something she would say often through the rehearsal process, ensuring our eyes were alert and welcoming, creating an open line of communication between our emotions and the audience’s.
A walk through the woods can go a long way. Becoming aware of the world around you, taking in the newness, and focusing on the horizon: all are exercises that can improve your performance as an actor, and as a creative in general.
Focus on the horizon and observe the new.
- Utopia Conduit
What a title for today’s post!
Here’s where my brain’s at:
I think we need to check in ourselves to see if we’re remaining open to the reality we want. It’s easy to get caught in a spiral of negative thinking and assumptions, especially at a time like this. As creatives, folks whose job it is to imagine different worlds and present other possibilities, we can remind ourselves that our imaginations are our greatest resource.
And imaginations wield real power. In fact, they can help us forge utopias.
Instead of spinning in circles and remaining stuck in the reality I wish to avoid, I’m trying to imagine and then embody the reality I want. For example, there’s some lingering pain from a hard time I’m still holding onto… I know that it will dissipate eventually, but why not let it fade away now? What if I present in such a way that mirrors the reality I require, rather than the one suffocating me?
It was a good thing I included four boxes of Kleenex in my grocery order one Sunday, because when I finally sat down after cleaning my apartment and getting ready for the week ahead, I started watching Inside Out. Of course I ended up going through a lot of them.
The gist of the movie, I think, is that sadness is a vital emotion in human life. We need it in order to seek and find comfort, and to understand the full power of joy. When the personified Sadness and Joy started working together as a team, in the typical cutesy Pixar sort of way, I broke down.
In an attempt at reconciling, Someone Who Hurt Me and I were talking about why everything unfolded the way it did. “You’re sort of a… a firecracker, Luke, and I didn’t know how to handle it.” My understanding of what they were getting at was that I can come across as defensive and easily hurt, so there’s a perceived need to step on eggshells.
But all the shaming and minimizing and deflecting that subsequently came from SWHM and others, under this guise of being cautious, seemed to be in response to something much deeper than me being a “firecracker”.
What I’ve come to unpack and what I’ve experienced in other areas of my life is others’ inability to acknowledge and embrace my insecurities and sadness. I can be fiercely optimistic, opinionated, and vulnerable (AKA fiery, I suppose), but in those moments there is often an unspoken fear or loneliness. And I’m not placing any value on those qualities, it’s just a fact of life that we can be both things at once. We’re always much more than the one dimension that may be more visible.
I think we can too quickly sidestep the importance and nuance of sadness by labelling confidence so clearly.
Pain is often what makes me the confident person I am… and that confidence shouldn’t be shamed. Nothing should be shamed, in fact. Perhaps I could feel guilty for certain behaviours, and thus learn from them, but to label me as a “firecracker” in general and not specify what’s perceived as problematic is to say that my confidence itself is a problem. It’s not. And I think what can help prevent this generalization is the recognition that we can all feel afraid and small inside… That our quest for belonging is what fuels a lot of what we do.
- The Great Gaps
Normalize having gaps in your knowledge.
One of my many bad habits is to say things like “Yep, I know that” to pretty well any kind of criticism. When people point to areas in my work that’s confusing and needs clarification I tend to try to make it seem like I’m already handling it. I’m sure my insecurity is very transparent.
This is a reminder to myself (and to you, reader, I guess) that we don’t have to have all the answers. It’s OK to acknowledge the gaps in our knowledge and in our work. We can take the advice to heart or completely disregard it, that’s fine. But it’s easier to open ourselves to improvement when we admit that we couldn’t possibly see every potential gap.
- Narrative Narrative
The stories we tell about ourselves and other people can be repeated so often, and questioned so little, that they take on the appearance of normal.
Storytelling is a powerful force, as it can carve new perspectives in our minds and nudge us away from the limited realities we’ve created for ourselves. Empathy and all that.
As artists I believe we have to be particularly weary of our personal repeated narratives. What sort of sentiments do we keep rattling in the back of our heads? Are we staying open to new ways of seeing our typically unquestioned opinions?
It’s hard to get out of a tightly spun web of narrative. But good storytelling often requires it. As does, you know… life.
- The Art of Flailing
We don’t have to have something to say in order to create. While I’m a big proponent of theatre having meaning of some kind, I personally don’t sit down to write a play and think “I have this really important message to bestow upon the world!” I sit down to write and end up flailing around for a while.
Creating a new work will more often than not involve a lot of flailing: digressions and distractions that can ultimately be trimmed away. Meaning will likely come eventually, but for me, approaching a topic with the intention to infuse a predetermined meaning presents yet another obstacle. I’m always trying to evaluate each decision I make instead of embracing the decisions and seeing where they lead.
It’s OK to not know where the thing is taking you. Give yourself permission to flail.
- Compatibility vs. Worthiness
“There are other people who have problems with you.”
“I didn’t even want to talk about this because I knew you’d just deny it and not hold yourself accountable.”
Ooof. Words can hurt.
These are statements that have been in my head and may not leave for a long time. I wish I could find it again, but there was a great Instagram post about how relationships with people are about compatibility, not worthiness. Some people just aren’t compatible. But that doesn’t mean either person is not worthy of love and respect.
Artists often put their full selves out into the world. It’s a vulnerable thing to confront the limitations of the world’s language and create a brand new lexicon; to build a different reality. And when we come across moments of shaming it can be pretty damaging.
But in this process of forging different paths and carving out space for my authentic, expressive self, it’s good to remember that compatibility does not equal worthiness. We all have worth. We just won’t jibe well with everyone. And trying to get every person on the same journey we’re taking is a waste of time.
- Morphing Imagination
I’ve been angry with myself lately because I’m spending a lot of my time and energy on one specific life problem. It often feels like my creativity is sucked out of me and I can’t concentrate on anything else. My mind is filled with questions, reflections, and concerns. I try distracting myself with what would usually make me happier: constructing plot structures, developing characters… But this mental block continues to plague me.
And dealing with it is itself an exercise for my imagination.
Let’s let go of our limited understandings of imagination. If we are in the process of finding creative solutions to our own problems, then we are imagining new and better worlds. It’s fine if you’re not spending time on writing a book, or a song, or coming up with your next big project. We can’t be irritated when we’re spending time on ourselves. And that process of self-care is itself a solid use of creative energy.
Being hard on ourselves for not being “productive” distracts us from the truth: finding creative solutions to our personal problems is still using our imaginations.
- Experience vs Story
I’m more interested in the experience an audience member has attending a play than I am in crafting the perfect story. Story is important in the writing process, sure, but the liveness of theatre calls for a game to be played: an encounter with strangers that unfolds like a mystery. Audiences are presented with dots they have to connect themselves, and the connecting is a major part of the enjoyment.
Any storytelling kind of art I consume is particularly compelling when it offers a solid structure for play. What are the rules? What should I expect? What should I not expect? Where are all the dots, and what are the many possible shapes I can make when I connect them?
- Strong Decisions and an Open Heart
From where I’m standing, the best theatre is that which includes risk. We have to make big decisions that could result in major failure. Honestly, most theatre I see fails in some way or another, but the biggest failure is keeping things safe out of fear.
Be vulnerable and make strong choices that could make everything flop.
And surround yourself with people who will take that leap with you.
When a team is on the same page and equally invested in a risk, it shows. A generosity of spirit is necessary in the creative process, as is an unquenchable curiosity. Some may be on a trajectory that seems out of left field, but an openmindedness to the idea and positive assumptions about their intent are paramount. As long as there is safety and consideration of everyone’s well-being, a risky idea is always worth exploring. But the attitudes of everyone involved need to be such that the channel of communication remains open and a positive spirit guides the process.
- Stream of Consciousness
Writing every day without planning ahead is like a good dose of caffeine. It kickstarts the brain and makes you less cautious to begin the work. But it’s often garbage.
Allot a chunk of your day to stream-of-consciousness creation. Write down whatever comes to mind. Sing whatever melody is in your head. It will mostly be crap. But you will start thinking in a more interesting direction and find seeds of something larger. It may be bad but it’s something.
First the messy thoughts, then the crafting.
- Inevitable Dislike
I’m editing a play with the intention of mounting it again in the (hopefully not-too-distant) future. Every time I step away from it it takes me a long time to get back. When I lack focus like this I try to pinpoint the specific obstacles.
For this one, as for many projects, I’m caught up in what I believe people might say about it. Instead of being invested in the experience that I hope my audience will have, I’m distracted by the potential haters.
What gives me comfort during thought spirals like this is the thought that people will dislike everything.
Not everyone will appreciate the work I put out there. I see playwriting as the construction of an experience (rather than simply the telling of a story), and I can choose to focus on the soundness of that construction rather than the potential negative perceptions. I can’t control what people will make of it, but I can control it.
There’s a life lesson there too, probably. People will dislike what you put out into the world. But there will also be many people who fall in love with the person and life you are constructing.
- Centring Kindness
We can choose to centre kindness in our lives and decentre all of the unnecessary garbage. We can stop allowing (some of) the negativity to be the major driving force.
Kindness can become the focus instead: to others and to ourselves.
But I often remind myself that kindness is not niceness. To be nice is to be gentle and approachable, striving to make everyone comfortable. To be kind is to be honest and confident. It’s about standing up for your beliefs and assisting others with a ferocious and loving spirit.
If we‘re decluttering and decentring the ugly stuff, then let’s get rid of niceness. It’s boring. It can be manipulative and gas-lighting.
The nice friends I have in my life don’t serve me. Sorry. But… not sorry. They scare me, actually. If I want to surround myself with people who will inspire and push me to be my best, then I need kindness, not niceness.
If I’m being nice to myself then I’m skimming the surface of what I really need to work on. If I’m being kind I’m digging deeper.
I need to make kindness a priority.
- What’s Funny?
I find clarity in comedy.
When we land on laughter, we land on unity. Laughter in an audience tells me that whatever just happened on stage happened at some point in each of our lives. That sense of connection says “Don’t worry, that awkward/scary thing happens to all of us. It’s not as mysterious as you might think.”
Comedy can neutralize. It can shift perspectives. It can be political, and make us confront realities we’re often too frightened to face.
I don’t think comedy is taken seriously enough.
- Writing with Distractions and Fighting Boredom
Distractions are inevitable.
I find I have to teach myself how to carry on writing even when there are people around me talking, or when a friend calls (haha that doesn’t happen), or when some device I have is just oh-so-tempting. The work needs to happen even when I would rather be numbing my brain with something else.
If I learned anything during my years of studying it’s that deep focus takes practice. Often I have to create a more productive environment for myself by stowing my phone somewhere where it’s not going to light up at me and turning everything on silent, but when those options aren’t available for whatever reason (like visiting somewhere else, when people will continue coming in and out of the door), I have to keep my head down. Distractions will come up, and instead of allowing them to take up more time than they need, I have to interact with them (…pleasantly) and then carry on working on whatever it was I was working on whenever I get the time to return to it.
And another thing I have to keep reminding myself: Not everyone will “get it”. I’m much more energized about a creative project when other people around me are similarly invested, but the process is often lonely. Embracing the solitude of particular environments is a good step toward accepting the inherent boredom that sometimes comes up when hard at work on something.
If you can get through the boredom there is always a reward. Sparks of inspiration and exciting new ideas come when we work through things long enough.
- What Do You Want?
I’m trying to listen to myself more closely these days.
What is it that I actually want? How do I wish to serve others?
Creativity always begins with curiosity, and it seems to me that curiosity is rooted in a necessary belief that there’s something bigger. Not only “out there”, but also “in here”.
I’m not talking a god, but a recognition that we are all part of an ecosystem. That there isn’t a “me as human” and “world out there”: that we are each part of a bigger world. And our services as artists can benefit that larger ecosystem.
This line of thought is especially useful in times of pain. “Yes, I am hurting, but I am fundamentally expansive.” A lot of people poke fun at the expression “I contain multitudes,” but it really is true. We forget that we are not wired to think in one direction or live a life that follows one path. Our individual potentials are vast.
Taking a moment each day to reflect on where we are now and where we are heading is a helpful strategy for grounding ourselves checking in on our plans. It is equally useful to remind ourselves that there are many different directions we could take.
What direction are you taking right now? What truths about yourself are you figuring out, and what are you listening for in order to continue that ongoing discovery?
- Slippery Time
Worrying about time passing too quickly does no one any favours.
Work on that great thing and yes, set yourself deadlines, but understand that greatness takes time. Set your own pace and don’t compare it to the pace of others.
(These are often just reminders to myself, by the way… Don’t think I’m successfully embodying these bits of advice.)