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

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