The Creative Vacuum

Originally posted on Artist Soapbox on 29 July 2019

Greetings, Soapboxers!

Last month’s dispatch had us marking a milestone, celebrating the months of build-up and work that lead to the culmination of big creative and personal endeavors. This month, well… This month I’m coming to you live from The Vacuum.

Who out there is familiar with the creative vacuum?
You’ve been rehearsing for weeks and the show finally opens and then…

You’ve written and recorded new songs, had the album release and then…

You’ve been working furiously in the studio getting ready for the gallery show and then…

The culminating event has happened, the frenetic pace you’ve been working under no longer needs to be maintained, you suddenly have [gasp!] free time and instead of feeling relaxed and content you feel kind of… flat. Empty. Hungover.

Welcome to The Vacuum.

The intensity of the pace, the adrenaline of live performance, the camaraderie of a team working toward a shared goal… all of that is in the past and now you’re in the produce section staring glassy-eyed at the bananas like it never even happened.

When I’m experiencing these bouts of produce section ennui, it’s helpful to remember that I have just poured an immense amount of my energy — and even my identity — into the project. There will necessarily be a period of time when my creative battery is in low power mode. Rather than berate my battery for its depletion, I can do what I do with my phone: Plug it in and give it some time to recharge (or even time to forget!).

I also find it helpful to do things that are completely unrelated to the big event that just finished. Rather than dive right into the next writing project, I am taking some time to focus on music. Rather than training for another race, I am enjoying some time at the pool and playing basketball with my friends. In time, I will feel the pull of writing and running again. For now, it’s beneficial to me to shift my focus. Recalling some runner words of wisdom: “Rest is not a break from your training; it is part of your training.” Being in a period of recovery and recalibration is a necessary part of the creative life cycle.

In my experience, the Vacuum shows up whether the event was a success or whether it bombed. After a good show, I wonder if I’ll ever have an experience like that again. After a bad show, I wonder if I’ll ever want to put myself through an experience like that again. Particularly if we feel disappointed by the product — maybe no one came to the play or bought the album — the Vacuum likes to fill our heads with stories about what that means about us and our creative potential. If you find yourself caught in one of these stories, remember that our impact can be incredibly hard to gauge. We could be planting seeds without knowing it. As the Velvet Underground legend goes, not many people bought their album, but everyone who did went on to form a band. Maybe only ten people came to your show, but perhaps those ten had an experience that inspired and encouraged them. Maybe your film didn’t receive a jury prize but you learned so many things that you will apply the next time you get behind the camera. Process, process, process.

How are you feeling out there, Soapboxers? Anyone else in the Vacuum? I’d love to hear how you deal with it. Please drop us a line at artistsoapbox@gmail.com. Asking for a friend…

‘Til next time,
MT

Processing A Milestone

Originally published on Artist Soapbox on 24 June 2019

Greetings, Soapboxers!

Writing to you today from the other end of the tunnel, as it were. I headed into 2019 with my sights set on June, when my latest play YEAR OF THE MONKEY would take its first breaths in New York. By the time you’re reading this, the show will have closed, and we’ll all be on to the next endeavor. As Tamara and Brook North recently recounted on Episode 077, now comes the necessary period of forgetting how much work went into this!

On this blog, we’ve talked about making a planshowing up for the work and taking the next obvious step. An artist friend recently shared her experience with deadlines. She said, “Being forced by accountability into finding time is a positive cycle because once I make time, I realize there was time to be made, and I am good at this and enjoy it. It’s worth the exhaustion.” For her, for me, and maybe for you, too, creating is necessary.

Sharing your creation, on the other hand, now that can be downright terrifying.

The Scriptnotes podcast recently shared some insights into what happens in writers’ brains when they receive notes. When our work is critiqued, we feel emotional pain. Emotional pain responses come from our limbic system — our “lizard” brain, the part of our system that controls the fight/flight/freeze response. Its primary concern is our survival and does not have the nuanced capabilities of our neocortex. The lizard brain perceives our creations as extensions of ourselves, and doesn’t see the difference between a critique and a threat. So, “This monologue isn’t working” becomes “YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE.”

When I’m in those situations, I’m emotionally diving under the nearest table or clawing a 20-foot hole from which I never want to emerge. Through the many drafts of the script, our crowdfunding effort and up through the production itself, I have had the pleasure of confronting my insecurities over and over again. And it was painful. Every time.

Why would a person do this to herself?

How did I, a sensitive-as-they-come  introvert (I’m a Cancerian for crying out loud), make it through this?

Necessity and trust.

Scary though it may be, I cannot opt-out of creativity and expect to be happy. Self-expression is my one of my biggest mental health resources as well as my antidote to repression. Also, I’m fortunate to have a collaborator (hell, a co-parent) that I trust completely. In her own words about the creative process, she says, “The first step is building genuine trust. It means we can do just about anything creatively because there’s a foundation of trust from which to play. If we’re not invested in each other, how the heck are we gonna do good work together?”

I trusted she had my back. I trusted that any feedback she offered was in service of making the show better. I trusted that I could disagree with her and it wouldn’t jeopardize our collaboration. I trusted her vision and experience. We both trusted that our community would support us. We both trusted that even in a new, unfamiliar city, we could find genuine, kind souls to help us bring this creation to life. Despite the exhaustion and the stress and the not-knowing, I trusted that this would be worth the time and effort.

And it has been. Though I’m sure we could both use a bit of that “forgetting” time that Tamara and Brook mentioned.

2019 has been off to the races creatively (and I’m actually flying to Minnesota tomorrow to run a marathon, I mean whateverrrrr). The second half of 2019 begins with an ASBX workshop at the Women’s Theatre Festival in Raleigh on Sunday July 14th. Tamara and I are facilitating a session on Functional Feedback — ways to make giving and receiving feedback less hide-under-the-table inducing and more constructive and inspiring for all involved. Please join us!

Thanks for joining me on this journey, Soapboxers. I’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line at artistsoapbox@gmail.com.

‘Til next time!
MT

Preparing for a Creative Residency

Originally published on Artist Soapbox on 8 April 2019

Greetings, Soapboxers!

Spring is springing in our neck of the woods. New growth and new opportunities are on the way and, in keeping with my January intention, I am leaning into the excitement and wonder of it all (with, let’s be real, a garnish of panic).

This spring I am participating in something brand-new to me: Creative Residencies. Wondering what the heck that is? Well, that makes two of us! Broadly speaking, a residency is an opportunity to trade in the day-to-day grind for a few days or weeks of focused, intentional time to work on your creative project. Often this involves going to a remote location.

I’m excited to share that I will be participating in residencies with Drop, Forge & Tool in Hudson, NY and the Turkey Land Cove Foundation in Edgartown, MA. Why apply for a residency? In my case, I’m developing my latest play via a long-distance collaboration. My NYC-based partner thought a residency could be a fantastic opportunity for us to be in the same place at the same time and dig into the project in a deep and meaningful way.

Personally, I thought it sounded way too good to be true and thus unlikely ever to happen. In this case I am perfectly happy to have been proven wrong. In retrospect, I’m actually grateful for my initial doubt because it allowed me to approach the applications with a nothing-to-lose, go-for-it mindset rather than letting my buddies perfectionism and comparison restrain me.

The application process involved, among other things, sharing our project and goals with the organizations. They want to know how applicants will use their time and what they will have to show for it once the residency is complete. This pushed me to think more broadly about the script and the production as a whole — what needs to happen to move it closer to reality and how can we leverage this uninterrupted time to make progress towards that?

In preparation for the residencies, my partner and I drafted a long list of goals. My mind is boggling a little bit thinking about this ambitious list. But I’m excited. Our goals are rather detailed, yes, but I feel we have left ourselves plenty of room to breathe and discover and stretch and create. Will we accomplish every item? Probably not. Will we discover things we hadn’t yet considered? Almost assuredly. In this moment, I am so grateful for the residencies’ gift of the truly precious commodity of time. I know we will make good use of it.

Residencies are available throughout the country, for all sorts of endeavors. Have you participated in a residency? We’d love to hear about it. Please drop us an email at artistsoapbox@gmail.com and share your experience.

Looking forward to reporting to you from the other side of this journey!

‘Til next time,
MT

Community Building

Originally published on Artist Soapbox on 25 February 2019

Greetings, Soapboxers!

Last night I experienced musical time-travel. Two bands that were hugely important to me as a young, aspiring rock ‘n roller, reunited after many years for a one-off show. The place was packed with old friends, most of us sporting quite a few more gray hairs than we had when we first met. I spent the night rockin’ out down front just like I did all those years ago, a visceral reminder of why I love music and why music will always be my home.

Upon further reflection, something else stands out. The power of our creative community and support from our peers.

When I was young, I didn’t know the first thing about being in a band. It blew my mind to learn that a friend owned an actual drum kit, let alone wanted to play music with me. Before long we were playing Buzzcocks covers in my living room and having a ball. Then we wrote a few of our own songs. The next step was playing out in public, a daunting proposition. How would we set that up? We didn’t know anybody. Or so we thought.

[For any youngsters reading this, keep in mind: Once upon a time, there were no smartphones and no social media of any kind. For god’s sake this was before MYSPACE.]

A coworker passed by my desk one day and noticed a photo of my bandmates. A surreptitious, we-can’t-talk-about-this-openly-at-work email soon followed: “Are you in a band? So am I!” Right away he suggested playing at The Cave and introduced us to the then-owner. Within a week, we had a show on the calendar. A Monday night. We were ecstatic.

That introduction, a simple act of generosity, opened a huge door for us. In the crowd that Monday night were members of one of the local garage rock mainstays at the time. And those guys knew everybody. They took us under their wing, setting up shows with us, introducing us to out-of-town bands, and generally making us feel welcome.

They didn’t owe us anything. They weren’t looking for anything. They, unlike us, had been around long enough to know that music was never going to pay the bills. Honestly, it probably wasn’t any more complicated than that they liked our music and our bands fit well together. But their support taught me a lot about creative community building and the importance of extending a hand where and when you can.

It also made me think about the reciprocal nature of support. If you expect only to receive support without giving support to others, you can bet your returns will diminish in short order. From attending an event to buying merch to texting a note of encouragement, there are so many ways to tell your creative peers, “I see you. Keep doing your thing.” Friends, please don’t underestimate the power of these gestures. Most of us are not making significant money doing this. Sometimes, as Juliana Finch shared on Episode 051, we’re even on the verge of hanging it up. In times like those, a real or virtual high-five can truly give us the extra oomph we need to keep going.

Watching those bands last night, after more than a decade, made me so grateful for the pathways — hell, the life — that opened up to me thanks to them. I’m aware, too, that sometimes now I’m the one in a position to offer support to folx just getting started. Helping each other is one of the things that makes our creative community so strong and I’m honored to pass the torch. I know how much it meant to me.

We want to hear from you, Soapboxers! Drop us a line and tell us about a person or group or venue that gave you an opportunity or had your back. Share this blog post and tag them with a note of thanks. Looking for other ideas to support artists? Check out ASBX’s Respect the Work infographic and podcast episode.

I see you. Keep doing your thing.

‘Til next time!
MT

 

Running Toward Creativity

Originally published on Artist Soapbox on 28 January 2019

Greetings, Soapboxers!

This morning I ran a 14-mile trail race at Little River Regional Park in Durham. Running is one of the primary ways I connect with my body and is a huge resource for me. Trail running, though, requires an entirely different set of tactics. Sure, running is the common denominator, but you use different shoes, different muscles, a different gait, and a different mindset as you’re constantly negotiating rocks and tree roots and mud. These obstacles are often cleverly hidden under a carpet of leaves and pine needles. There are switchbacks and river crossings. You might fall. You probably will fall. You will most certainly get dirty.

Which brings me here. To how I’m feeling about creativity at this point in 2019. I’m on the trail. And I’m loving it.

When I’m running I don’t compare. I run my own race. Simply showing up and finishing is a victory. If other people ran faster or slower, that’s irrelevant to me. I’m also not comparing present-moment me with any other version of me. Am I in better or worse shape than I was last year? Irrelevant. I’m here today and I’m doing this thing. This serves as a good reminder for my creativity when I notice other people putting their work out into the world. Art is not a competition. Other people’s success is not my failure. I can cheer them on — and I can cheer myself on — without comparison.

About halfway through today’s race, the crowd had thinned so much that I couldn’t see any runners in front of me or behind me. I’m not a seasoned trail runner, and at times the path was very difficult to discern. In those moments, a voice came into my head. It said, “Slow down. Take the next obvious step.” In my creative pursuits, I often feel out of my depth with no clear path forward. Then Anxious Brain shows up and wants to skip to the inevitable embarrassing disaster at the end (not inevitable, but Anxious Brain hasn’t learned that). Today though, I was in the middle of the literal woods with absolutely no idea where I was. But I didn’t panic. I wasn’t lost. There was a path. Faint as it may have been. All it took was a moment of shifting my awareness… and I was back at it. Taking the next obvious step and the step after that and on and on until the finish line. I’ll remember that when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the task in front of me. Break it down and just focus on the next step.

Those miles spent running by myself also made me think of the solitary nature of creativity. Whether it’s writing, doing research, practicing music, or learning lines, much of my creative work is done in solitude. Even though I am often by myself, I know I’m never alone. We’re fortunate to have such a supportive creative community here in the Triangle. If I need some encouragement, it’s always close at hand. Just like the person on the trail today who emanated seemingly from nowhere to play music on a plastic recorder as a way of supporting the runners. He gave me a boost when I needed one. Bonus points for being random and delightfully weird.

A few months ago, I shared my latest battle with my creative frenemy, perfectionism. At that time, my approach to writing felt like using tweezers to build a sandcastle when I thought I should be slopping around buckets of sand. At that time, that’s what I was working with and my only way forward was to accept it and keep showing up anyway.

Today, I drove home covered in actual mud with a smile on my face. This is the energy I want to carry into my creative pursuits this year. So many things are coming up that I look forward to sharing with you over the next few months. I can honestly say I have no idea how any of it will go, but I’m embracing that. I’m on the trail.

‘Til next time!

MT

Map Your Dreams

Originally posted on Artist Soapbox on 29 November 2018

Greetings, Soapboxers!

We’ve got a few more tricks up our sleeves before we close out this year, but I’d like to take a minute to look toward 2019 and what lies ahead.

What are your dreams for 2019?

One of the tools we use in our Creative Accountability Groups is a mind map. Mind maps are so useful for breaking down goals or projects that may otherwise seem intimidating into more manageable steps. Here’s a bonus: mind maps have other applications, as well.

Have you ever used a mind map to facilitate creative dreaming? Give it a try.

Grab a piece of paper. Write a few future dates (3 months / one year /5 years from now). Then let your imagination run wild. Ask yourself: What would you like to do by that time? Where would you like to be? How do you want your life to feel one year, five years, ten years from today?

Can you actually let yourself write down your dreams?

Will you give yourself permission to write down anything?

Does resistance show up? What does it say?

Keep in mind that you do not need to justify your list nor does your list need to be “realistic.” I put that in quotes to offer that even your most “who am I kidding / that is totally preposterous / when pigs fly” dream might, in fact, be more attainable than you think.

Want a real-life example?  Singer/songwriter Juliana Finch wrote down a list of aspirations for her music, one of which was to have a song featured on the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. That podcast showcases a different song, often by an independent artist, in each episode as its “weather report.” Juliana listed that goal on her mind map as one that might happen three years from now. I’m thrilled to share that her song “Impasse” will be the weather report on the December 1st episode. Her dream took less than a year to become reality.

Giving yourself permission to dream is the first step, and by doing that you plant a seed of creative potential. What if you watered it from time to time? What might grow?

If you would like to take your dreams and work  toward your creative goals in a supportive group atmosphere, please consider joining us for the first Creative Accountability Group of 2019! Follow this link for more information and to register.

Sweet dreams, Soapboxers!

‘Til next time,

MT

Reclaiming Creative Identity After a Loss

Originally published on Artist Soapbox on 25 October 2018

Greetings, Soapboxers!

I’m a nerd about dates. Birthdays, anniversaries. I generally love acknowledging these annual markers. A recent anniversary has me thinking about creative identity, loss and Ronnie James Dio. Well, if THAT didn’t grab you, maybe this will:

Five years ago this month, I experienced the distress of a home robbery. The most painful part for me was the loss of all my musical equipment. For the previous ten years, music was my primary creative outlet and social sphere. I played in various bands, wrote songs, designed ridiculous stage costumes and props and experienced the joy and exhilaration of playing loud, aggressive music with people I loved.

But, as anyone who has been in a band can attest, bands are also a giant pain in the ass — particularly when you’re young, loud, and snotty (as Dead Boys might say). To varying degrees at various times, you can find yourself swirling in an unhealthy mix of ego, substance (ab)use, and immaturity. As much as I loved playing music, I knew I needed a break from bands.

On the day my house was robbed, though, I felt like someone else made a choice for me. They chose to end my music career.

The person who took my gear had no idea what they had. Not only the rarity of a few of the guitars but the pieces of my identity contained within. The Ibanez I used to write my first songs. Learning my way around that Fender amp when I was so young and so green and so thrilled when I perfectly replicated the tone from “London Calling.” Working alone with the producer while my bandmates got lunch, hearing my Ric through a vintage head, opening myself up to experiment and play around with his suggestions.

Each guitar was imbued with these memories. And now they were gone. If I no longer had a guitar, could I still call myself a guitar player? I was so utterly heartbroken that for years the answer was “no.” I took the robbery as a sign: my musician days were behind me.

But nothing real can be threatened.

My first play, Yes To Nothing, borrowed heavily from my experiences in punk bands. Up until then, I thought of my music life and my theater life as existing in separate orbits. My heart stills swells with gratitude to think of all my musician friends who came out to support that play. I lost track of the number of times I heard, “Why aren’t you playing music right now?” or “We need to get you out playing again.”

At the time, the thought of being in a band again terrified me. It had been so long. I still had creative blocks around writing music. Previous bad experiences made me doubt I could find people with whom I would genuinely enjoy playing music.

Fast-forward. I found them. We’re a band. It’s all of the good stuff and basically none of the bad stuff. With their encouragement, I just bought my first guitar since the robbery. My first real reclamation of my identity as a musician.

Because, much like Cheryl Chamblee expressed in blog post 013, I am still a musician. Even if it has been a while. Even if I’m rusty. Even if I’m intimidated. I have been a musician all my life and that is never going to change. Beyond my artistic identity, music is fundamental and essential to my human identity.

I don’t think I realized how much old grief I was still carrying around from the robbery and the loss of my identity as a musician. Finding these fantastic bandmates and allowing myself to feel their support and camaraderie opened the emotional floodgates. Call me old fashioned, but for my money there’s nothing like a good ol’ uncontrollable sob fest in the car. The tears flowed, and I mean HARD, as I let go of old pains and embraced the freedom and ease and acceptance I felt with my new bandmates. [Though I was definitely crying my face off, I did note that the song on the radio was “Holy Diver” because, c’mon, that’s just hilarious.]

Soapboxers, I want to hear from you. Have your past identities or difficult experiences kept you from yourself? Have you been down too long in the midnight sea?  When did you realize you were ready to jump jump jump on the tiger?

OK, now that I think about it, hearing Dio in that moment was 100% apropos. Of course. Never doubt Dio.

‘Til next time,

MT

Ask WHY to Create Opportunities for Compassion

Originally posted on Artist Soapbox on 28 May 2018

Greetings, Soapboxers!

Please raise your hand if someone has ever told you, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Y’all. So many times. Over and over throughout my life. This phrase confounded me and angered me. I didn’t understand it. I passed it off as a cliché. An empty platitude from someone who jusssst didn’t getttt meeeee.

Last night marked the just-over-halfway point of the inaugural ASBX Creative Accountability Group, an endeavor that Tamara and I are facilitating for artists who want to move their creative work forward. This experience has been so inspiring, so humbling and, honestly, last night got real.

In that session, something new clicked for me around the way I approach my creativity and my ‘til-now unconscious choice to brandish the whip rather than the olive branch when I felt stuck or unproductive.

I asked the group to examine the roadblocks they experience through an exercise called “The 5 Whys.” This technique was originally formalized by Toyota, as a way to trace a problem through layers of abstraction to its real root cause. Typically, the root cause points to a process that is not working well. Hmmm, process you say? I wonder if artists can relate to that…

Here’s an example:

What is the pat answer you give for why you haven’t accomplished your creative goal? All together now: “I don’t have enough time.” Let’s inspect that a bit through 5 Whys, shall we? (Monocles optional).

“I don’t have enough time.”

Why?

“Because I am scheduled within an inch of my life.”

Why?

“Because people keep asking me to do things and I keep saying yes.”

Why?

“Because I have a really hard time saying no.”

Why?

“Because I’m afraid if I say no they’ll never ask me to do anything ever again.”

Why?

“Because I am insecure in my relationships.”

DUDE I KNOW RIGHT? It was so much easier when I thought I was simply managing a ridiculous calendar. Now I have to consider how I approach my relationships?  Well, shit. Let’s all crack open our chests and shine a flashlight in, shall we?

In terms of the Creative Accountability Group, this exercise has so much to offer us in terms of having compassion for ourselves and examining what is at the root of our creative resistance. Here’s another example from the group:

“I am not prioritizing writing.”

Why?

“Because I am not excited about it.”

Why?

“Because I’m afraid people will think it’s bad.”

Why?

“Because I got a bad review last time and it really hurt.”

Why (is this a problem)?

“Because now I feel like I can’t trust my own voice.”

In this example, I can see the pain at the center of the resistance. Putting our work into the world for public consumption is a vulnerable and brave act. It all but guarantees that some people will have criticisms and critiques. If that knocks the wind out of your sails for a bit, well, ok — you’re human. It’s understandable that you could feel stuck between the ego’s desire for a product and your heart’s need for the process of healing. Uncovering the resistance to the work via the 5 Whys allows us to name it, claim it, and deal with it….with compassion.

That’s when things shifted for me around the phrase “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Now I see the value in extending compassion inward and acknowledging the hurt or pain that has us in its grip. What we need in those moments is comfort and encouragement, not chastisement. If we take the time to care for ourselves, we’ll feel the pull of creativity before too long. It’s always there. It wants to flow through us. We can help it by making space for our feelings and clearing out debris where we can.

Is this hitting home for you? Considering joining Tamara and me for our next Creative Accountability Group, beginning July 31st. This 5-week session is open to everyone! If you’ve got a project you’d like to move forward, but could use some help and an encouraging support network, drop us a line! We’d love to see you there.

Many thanks to our gracious hosts, the NC Center for Resiliency.

‘Til next time,

MT