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

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

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