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