“I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”
— Noel Coward
“I love criticism just so long as it’s unqualified praise.”
— Noel Coward
“Good morning, bipolar. Are you going to behave yourself today?”
Creation is usually a lonely business, best done when no one is around to bug you while you’re working. By it’s very nature it’s easy to go into isolation when you’re in full creative flight.
This isn’t such a good thing if you are prone to any of a variety of mental illnesses floating around. Depression, bipolar, all that stuff seems to grip a person by the throat when he’s by himself and the doors are locked.
I recently read a short piece by Julie Fast, a writer/coach who knows a little something about bipolar disorder. She lives it, she fights every day to even get to where she can function, and she’s in-your-face honest about it. She knows what she can and can’t do with her illness, and she works within her limitations. One of her books, Get It Done When You’re Depressed, occupies a place of honor on my desktop bookshelf by the dictionary, thesaurus, Writer’s Market, and Stephen King’s On Writing. Its pages are well-thumbed, high-lighted, annotated and coffee-stained.
What is it about these creatives?
A thing about artists and mental illness: I’m not sure why the two seem to go together. Maybe the same gene produces both. Maybe artists are just naturally more sensitive to problems of the brain and spirit. Maybe it’s a byproduct of living a life that’s just out of the mainstream. And maybe artists, writers, musicians and entrepreneurs are just more self-absorbed than the average person. This is all conjecture, and I’m not qualified to do more than voice my opinion. All I know is that I wake up every morning and say: “Good morning, bipolar. Are you going to behave yourself today?”
Julie knows she can’t function worth a flip when she’s isolated. So she does much of her writing in public. Drops in at a coffee shop or library, even in a noisy karaoke club, and does her work. “I outline in noise and write in quiet,” she recently said in her blog in response to a reader who wrote about self-isolation. “I’m writing this in Starbucks.”
I know this goes against the grain. We artists like to do at least the first stages of our work in privacy. It’s what Stephen King calls writing with the door closed, and writing with the door open. First drafts are done solo. Later, you’re feeling more social and will welcome comments, ideas, suggestions.
Most creatives are funny about working in public. I never like to show anyone my works in progress. Most people may not even know I have works in progress ’cause I’m sure not going to tell them. But I have to kick that door open sometime, if for no other reason than my own sanity. Yeah, that could be important.
My own practice
A couple of years ago I started writing for a few Web sites, and put out a lot of work. Most of it was hack work; nothing I’d want to show in a portfolio and all of it was under another name. But I made the mistake of doing the whole thing at home. I had a broadband Internet connection, I had a coffee maker in my office and a bowl of snacks nearby. I could work long stretches, only getting up to visit the bathroom or raid the fridge.
A funny thing happened.
I started another one of those nifty death spirals. Eat only when I think about it, which wasn’t often. Take a shower whenever … well, whenever I can’t stand myself any more. Shave when I itch and not before. My friends helped me shortstop this spiral, though. A couple of times a week I’d go out and hike about six miles with a buddy. I’d get text messages — Eric, is everything OK? You’re not living in your head again, are you?
That’s the kind of friend everyone needs, artist or not. But especially if you are.
Today, my practice is a little different. I got rid of the broadband connection. If I need the Internet so bad at home, I can always go online using my Android phone. But I do my closed-door writing in the morning. That’s when I generate blog posts, work on some articles, brainstorm things out, and pick away at this novel I’m playing with. All done standing up; that helps me focus. And unlike the stereotyped freelancer who works in striped pajamas and bunny slippers, I’m fully dressed for work. Even the shoes.
But at the most my closed-door session runs three hours. That’s all the isolation I can handle. After that it’s road time. Get on the bike. Ride to the college library or Starbucks. Do my online stuff. The library is more private because I work in one of the carrells, so I can get a lot done but it’s still isolating. Starbucks is better because I’m out among ’em, I can make phone calls from where I sit, and I like their dark roast. It tastes like someone dropped a cigar butt in the pot, but that’s just the way I like my coffee.
But you get the idea. I’m out there, in public, hammering away at the keyboard, slugging down strong coffee, saying hello to people, seeing something of the world.
Counter-productive? In some ways, yes. But I’ll take that trade-off, and I’m learning to do my work under less than ideal conditions — which they all are.
Late add: Here’s another story on the subject, through Mediabistro. I’m actually surprised I shared it now; the temptation was to sit on it and use it as fodder for more posts. I might still do so, but I’m into sharing today.
I don’t know if it’s because I’ve asked for it and have been given these opportunities or I’m just recognizing them more, but I’ve been working with some real professionals lately.
I’d already mentioned Terry, who brings an unusual amount of care in his work, but I spent last weekend on the road, filling in for someone with a touring band. Great fun, but educational because I was working with yet another pro.
Jeff’s kind of a funny character. He likes to control his environment whenever possible, and this sometimes rubs folks the wrong way. But in the music scene, where talent rules and you don’t think of the hard work that goes along with it, you probably need at least some of that attitude. He’s really opened my eyes to a few things.
Preparation, conditioning and other grim stuff
Jeff is strong on preparation, on knowing the material backward and forward. This means regular rehearsals, to learn new stuff and to tighten the old stuff. But he recognizes there’s a fluidness to his art — to any art — which leaves a lot open to the moment. There’s a lot of improvisation to music, but when you’re prepared and know the material, you’re more able to meet those unusual challenges.
He’s also big on conditioning and bringing your best self to the job. He won’t drink during a gig, and his idea of a pre-performance meal is something light. While the band mates (myself included) had a big Philly cheese steak before Saturday’s gig, he had a salad. Makes sense; don’t need to be burping up green peppers and onions while you’re trying to sing. And the energy you burn up trying to digest a big meal comes out of that same store you need to perform. I usually don’t eat much before playing, but my willpower clearly took a hike and I was paying for it by the third set.
Because of the conditioning thing, he worries about his heavyset bass player. That extra poundage can’t be good for his health.
I’m older than Jeff and have probably played nearly as long, but for me music has always been a sideline. I’ve always had other things going on — writing, a day job, things like that. I’ve always considered myself a semiprofessional musician, playing for money but never for a living. I’ve done road trips but this was my first real tour, so I deferred to Jeff here (it was also his gig;definitely a factor). While my attitude is a lot more professional than many of the folks I’ve worked with, this was a rare opportunity. So I sat and learned. And watched. And listened.
Bringing the voice of experience, Jeff is generous with what he’d learned. We’ve had a few conversations about life on the road, and about how he runs his band like a business. Seriously. Call it Jeff’s Band, Inc. and you get the idea. A piece of the band’s take goes into a fund that covers for food on the road, lodging, gas and emergencies. From the rest he pays his musicians and himself. He even issues tax paperwork for his band members, though not me because I was just filling in. But you get the idea.
While all this sounds like a control freak on a rampage, one must understand the validity to all of this. Music is a rough business, especially when you’re on the road a lot. It’s easy to fall into the sex/drugs/rock-and-roll mindset and forget the reason you’re on tour is to do your work in front of fresh audiences. It’s easy to stop somewhere, grab a burger and snarf it down while driving to the next stop without worrying about your arteries. What with the driving and playing, it’s easy to run without sufficient rest and that’ll cut into your performance.
It’s so easy to slack off when the going’s good, but a pro doesn’t allow that to happen. And with young bandmates — the bassist and drummer are in their 20s — someone has to be the adult here.
The drummer is 23, outrageously talented, and he’d ridden the roller coaster since he was a teenager. Had his up and down times, success on the music circuit and squandering much of it on all those temptations from the road. But by working with Jeff he’s learning professionalism, and has built his own set of personal boundaries. He still has much to learn, but he’s wise beyond his years.
It’s a whole lot more involved than just building a song list, using gigs as practice time, and hoping you can pull off an inspired performance with minimal preparation and practice. A pro works hard on the front end, then goes out to have some fun.
Work or play? Yes …
The late Willie Stargell once said the umpire does not call out “work ball” before baseball games. It’s “play ball.” That’s one of the cornerstones of his wonderful attitude that helped his Pittsburgh Pirates to some totally unexpected championships in the 1970s and 1980s. But there’s still an enormous amount of preparation involved, from feeding and exercising the body to runnning infield drills and batting practice so that the most elemental moves — swinging a bat, fielding a pop fly — become second nature.
It doesn’t matter what your art is. If you’re a writer, these certainly apply. Same if you paint, if you play music, if you’re an athlete, even if you’re building the Next Great Thing or marketing that same Next Great Thing.
Creating is fun, but it’s a business. Just like a day job you show up for work every day, don’t leave until you’re done, and do your work. Weenies and wusses and drama queens need not apply. No histrionics, no trashed hotel rooms, no drug arrests. Just bring your game face and your lunch pail and be prepared for anything that comes up. Then go out and have some fun.
That’s professionalism, and I’m extremely blessed to see it at such close range. Maybe some of that stuff will rub off on me when I sit down to do my work.
Creative people sometimes get a bum rap.
We’re different. We don’t play well with others. We get crazy when shoved into cubicles or parked at an assembly line.
It doesn’t help a lot that many creatives perpetuate that bum rap. We may be more self-absorbed than the average person. We lead more dramatic lives. We may fall into substance abuse, lousy relationships or random dysfunction more than others. Which may or may not be so — brain chemistry may have a little something to do about all that — but using this “creative” angle as an excuse for bad behavior just doesn’t cut it.
Steven Pressfield, who wrote the excellent book “The War Of Art” offers the idea that we’re all creative in some manner. And maybe he’s right, but he does extend the “creative” description to include those with a business idea, wants to run a marathon, or even the person who wishes to improve himself somehow. It’s not just crazy artists.
Now that I think about it, Pressfield is probably right. I have a friend named Terry, who has a side business in tree care. He only has time to handle one client per week (full time jobs will do that), and I’ve been assisting him lately. He’s got great equipment and is an insanely hard worker, but it amazes me to watch how he approaches a tree. He attacks it like he’s playing chess. He knows how to fell a 40-foot pine in someone’s front yard without damaging house, utility wires or passers-by. He’ll assess his work as he goes, decide how he’s going to tie off the branches so he could lower them with ropes, and he knows when to bring out his bucket truck or just strap on his cleats and climb that sucker. He thinks that tree down.
I’m an intelligent and creative guy myself, not afraid of a little hard work, but I find it tough to keep up with him. Myself being so (pun alert!) green at this tree-care business, I find it humbling to work with him.
Terry’s a real salt-of-the-earth guy, and he’d probably be embarrased to tears if I called him an artist. But he is; no question about it.
Pressfield believes many of society’s ills can be chased down to a mass of people knuckling under to the “resistance” that stands in the way of living one’s vision.
“How many of us become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succombed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive cell phone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is calling us to do?” Pressfield asks.
All of us know some incredibly talented person who put his or her genius in cold storage because it was time to be “responsible,” right?
I’m thinking about Bob, a tenor sax player I knew several years ago. He played as a kid but put his instrument away when he allegedly grew up and married his first wife. That marriage didn’t last, but his second wife was probably the best thing to ever happen to him. She encouraged him to blow the dust balls out of his sax and go hit some jam sessions. When I met Bob he’d only been playing again for few weeks and was quite rusty. Didn’t take long for Bob to catch up with the rest of us musically, and he discovered what it was like to be alive again.
I don’t know if creative folks just see their vision a little clearer or we’re just more interested in making these visions become real.
A little background here: I’m a writer and musician. But at some point I thought I should try being responsible, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But I spent several years not writing, not making music. And I was miserable. My brain chemistry, always a dicey subject, always seems to go haywire when I’m not doing these artistic things or if I’m using them for the wrong reasons. I’m professional at both these pursuits.
A professional, by the way, does his thing for money and for love. If he’s just doing it for money or for recognition or for praise, he’s no professional. He’s a mercenary.
A real professional does these things because he has to. Because this is what he does. Even if he’s just a weekend warrior and has a fulltime cubicle job, he’s a professional if he still drags out his saxophone or word processor or canvases at a set time every day and goes to work.
And that’s when the cool things happen. Like creative things.