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Frog
Praying it doesn’t start raining

So …. I guess I am stuck on the ‘Long and Winding Road’ theme because of where I’m at in my own career. It’s all very Saturnian – hard work, endurance, building, learning, tearing down the old, working on the new and MOST OF ALL, staying enthused. But I’m keeping hanging on – hoping I’m not clinging to a cloud!

[book excerpt]
HANG ON TO YOUR LOVE

“People talk about following your bliss,” says Simon Robinson. “But sometimes when you do that and you have to ‘play the game’ – pandering to shop buyers who don’t want to buy anything that hasn’t already been in a magazine – you end up hating the thing you once loved. It becomes such brutal, grinding work that you don’t want to think about it anymore.” I know what he means. I got to a stage in my music where I was so focused on turning it into something that would make me a decent living that I forgot why I was doing it in the first place — for love; for its own sake; because I just loved doing it in the moment.

“There should always be a sense of moving ahead and growing all the time,” says Michael Becker, former musician and producer turned photographer. “But you absolutely positively can’t be focused on the end result.” Interestingly, since Michael started focusing on photography and, consequently relaxed about his music, his music career has been quietly taking off again – most notably with the song ‘In the Deep’, which he co-wrote and produced (and played all the instruments on) with actress-singer Bird York, which plays out the Oscar-winning movie Crash.

But photography is now his first love and he has faith in it turning out well – to the extent that he was willing to mortgage his house at the beginning. “I’m not sure I knew where I was going but I knew I was going somewhere,” he says. And having researched his chosen career thoroughly , he was prepared for it to take a long time. “It was something I read over and over again on the websites I looked at. It takes time.”
[end of book excerpt]

So here are my tips to keeping it fresh along the way:

1. Be flexible. You really don’t know what you might be doing in ten years. Be willing to go in a totally new direction. Michael Becker, for example, is flourishing as BOTH a musician AND a photographer nowadays.

2. Keep going. Duh! Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. You will get somewhere. Even if it’s somewhere you didn’t expect to get.

3. Having said that, it is probably good to have in mind a destination. Personally I love walking, but I have to be going somewhere, preferably to do something like shop or visit a friend or whatever. The thought of aimless walking with no destination doesn’t inspire me to even put my shoes on!

4. Which isn’t to say that you can’t make detours. Detours are good. Follow your bliss, as they say.

5. Keep learning. I am now studying theory and piano and I can’t wait for my next lesson!

6. Do the “artist date” that Julia Cameron talks about in her fab book, The Artist’s Way. I went to a Giacometti retrospective at MOMA a few years ago and I couldn’t wait to get back home and start composing. Perhaps if I’d been a sculptor I might have come home and thrown away my tools! Then again, Mikhail Barysnikov said, “No dancer can watch Fred Astaire and not know that we all should have been in another business.” But it didn’t stop him, did it! Be inspired by it all!

7. Banish all thoughts of “overnight success”. In fact, if you look deeper into all the overnight successes you will find that they were preceded by years of hard work. In fact, banish all thoughts of “success” and focus on doing whatever you’re doing because you love it. As Gene Hackman, one of my heroes, once said: “I was trained to be an actor, not a star!”

8. Don’t fret about your self doubts. If you didn’t have self doubt, where would be the inspiration to keep improving? Or so my very wise friend, singer Mansur Scott always says to me.

9. Treat failures and setbacks as lessons and soldier on. As novelist Veronica Henry says: “Some days I am all over the place, convinced that I have the hardest job in the world …. and how on earth can I be expected to dredge up inspiration from nowhere. After a few days of wallowing I have to give myself a stern talking to and tell myself to get on with it in a professional and objective manner!”

10. Be willing to throw out everything you have done up to now and start afresh. As Veronica says: “Sometimes you have to do the worst thing and throw everything out. That is seriously hard but entirely necessary. And after the initial pain, a huge relief, as you no longer have to do battle with something that’s not working. That’s when you can move on. In the meantime … the blackness. And the euphoria. Thank God for the euphoria.”

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“Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow that talent to the dark place where it leads.” Erica Jong

3e46a-frida_kahlo
Frida – much prettier than SHE thought.

So today I want to talk about how HARD is this thing we do — this creative pursuit. This thing, incidentally, that we both don’t have to do and have to do at the same time. As Frida Kahlo once said: “I am working, but even that, I don’t know how or why.” Here is a picture of Frida who, by the way, was (sorry to be a typical mum, but …) much prettier than she saw herself

[book excerpt] “There’s a reason so many great artists commit suicide. It isn’t only that they are ‘sensitive souls’ — although that doesn’t help. … No matter how brilliant you are, you are going to lose confidence, you are going to face rejection. As many people will want to pull you down as lift you up. It takes supreme faith — in your ability, in the universe, in God, in whatever it takes — to keep you going.”  [end of book excerpt]

Which brings me to the hardest thing of all … the feeling that we are crap and why on earth are we bothering to visit upon ourselves, let alone others, our crapness.

I, at various times, run the gamut of emotions from “in the moment” (which, in my opinion and more on which later, is the thing to aspire to) to utter crap. After recording one of my (now) favorite CDs I left a message on my boyfriend’s voicemail, sobbing about not only how CRAP I was (note those capital letters), but how “ugly” too — you know, just for good measure. He, having just emailed me (I hadn’t read my email yet) about how great I’d sounded and how excited he was to hear the finished thing, was absolutely bewildered. And my dear friend Sue, responded to my emergency call by tearing over, superheroine-black cloak-like coat flying behind her, pen and notebook in hand, to listen to “the horror” and, perhaps, whiz around the world backwards a few times to reverse time so I could do it again properly.
superman_2
Sue-perman turning back time
“Oh thank God you’re here,” I said, when she arrived, plonking her on the sofa with a cup of tea and the CD controller, while I busied myself in the bathroom, generally removing fistfuls of hair, scratching at my face and howling, kind of like Jane Eyre’s Mrs Rochester in the attic — but without the laughing or the matches.
So … drawing a discreet veil over the utter self absorbed bollocksness (er … speaking of self-flagellatory) of my initial reaction (I mean, like there aren’t people in the world with real problems, for crying out loud), I’d like to address the “problem” of being so down on yourself that you don’t even take up opportunities that are offered to you, let alone pursue any — either because you are so sure of your own crapness, or because you self-sabotage.
84dd7-tessaasachildof5or6I spent my entire childhood feeling like a gangly orangutang next to my platinum blond brother with the adorable smile (don’t get me started on my wonky teeth!) … Here is a gratuitous picture of me in my gangly orangutan days just to give you some perspective. Given that I feel like I was born feeling inadequate, it sometimes strikes me as just plain weird that I have chosen to pursue not one but two careers one after another (journalism, then music) that depend on outside approval for their success. Actually, maybe that makes profound psychological sense, after all. But, whatever, being dependent on outside approval for success can make for a bit of a roller coaster existence, with fabulous periods of elation (a standing ovation from 1500 people in Moscow … that was fan-TAS-tic!) followed by just as long, or longer, periods of despair, for no reason whatsoever.
I have come to the conclusion that the necessary dredging up of the innermost depths of your being that goes with the territory of being creative hurts. Especially when it brings forth emotions that you didn’t even know were buried deep down in there. For me, increasingly, being a singer is less and less about getting approval and more and more about making a connection.
It’s not about delivering a perfect performance. Mark Murphy said to me once that audiences aren’t there with their arms and legs crossed (I paraphrase, but this is the gist) thinking, “Show me!” They are there to have a good time. And they aren’t there to hear how long we can hold a note, or how many million notes we can fit in to a phrase — unless that is an expression of who we are. Because our job, whether writing, singing, painting, playing, is to give them that good time. And to connect/express/be understood/understand/teach/learn from the innermost depth of who we are.

The idea is to be “in the moment” to the extent that it ceases to be about ego and You. In fact, You (as little Billy Elliot puts it in the movie when they ask him why he loves to dance) miraculously and absolutely “disappear.” I saw that movie before I became a performer and that remark slipped right by me. When I revisited it recently, hearing it again felt like pocketing all the snooker balls in one go with one hit. Because that is exactly what happens when you are “on”. You no longer exist as a separate entity. You are just part of one big “it” — whatever “it” is.

We are a work in progress. Not perfect, finished short stories/poems/songs/paintings. It’s more ongoing and “human” than that. Some gigs are amazing. Some are … well, some are not. Sometimes a sound system can let you down. Or you are distracted. Or under-rehearsed or you are in self-hating Orangutang mode where no matter that you have adorable little legs with knee socks and cute, badly cut bangs (Mum!), you are going to use that icecream cone to hide those wonky (or perhaps at this age, missing) teeth.

Which brings me to perfectionism – which is both our best friend and our deadliest enemy. Perfectionism is what inspires us to keep growing as artists. But letting perfectionism take over is always counter productive. You are there for the people in the gallery, not just for yourself. If you are giving them pleasure and they are loving it, that’s perfect enough. I know an amazing, amazing musician who whenever he got compliments from the crowd used to bat them away if he didn’t feel he had played well — forgetting that most of us aren’t looking for perfection, let alone that most people aren’t even hearing the mistakes.

We have to learn to receive that Love, for want of a better word. The correct answer when someone says they love you isn’t “No, you don’t!” Or “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m crap!” Or “What are you? Deaf and blind?” The correct answer is “Thank you!”
So here are my ten things to do when you are down on yourself:
1. Practice. Not to be perfect but to be better able to express yourself unbound by technique issues
2. When a self-flagellating thought enters your head just say “Stop!” and focus your attention on something in the moment. Last night I noticed that my sorrel or cabbage or whatever it was I was cooking was the most amazing green with dark red veins. Almost too beautiful to eat!
3. Don’t beat yourself up about feeling bad/envious/crap/hopeless/unworthy/fill in your own unhelpful emotion (and please don’t put on your music when you’re feeling like that!)
4. Rent a cathartic video. I love Billy Elliot. I cry. I laugh. I look like Alice Cooper by the time it’s finished, but I feel absolutely spent
Me after watching Billy Elliot
Me after watching Billy Elliot
5. Remind yourself that sometimes you might be down on where you are now because you are about to move to the next level
6. Rest/have a hot bath/massage/morning in bed
7. Call a kind friend. Not one of those “other” kind. You know exactly who they are – and the urge to call that other kind is simply more self flagellation!
8. Take a break. Go for a walk (actually exercise is great if you can face it — just don’t use your inability to go to the gym as an excuse to hate yourself even more!)
9. Do something self-esteem raising (er … how about going to the gym? If you want. Be self-kind)
10. Take yourself on what Julia Cameron, in her essential The Artist’s Way, calls an “artist date” — e.g., to a museum/show/gig. Not reading a book but going actually out somewhere and getting dressed up as if you are going on a date.
But most of all, get over yourself! Yes, darling, I’m talking to you! Okay … and me.

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Today I have a question to answer, which  MP left today on Day 1 of the blog.

Question: “I have started on my 5 year plan, resolved to leave “realistic” out of it, and come up with something inspiring and fantastic. A few days into this assignment, however, and I am finding that I am having trouble dreaming and visualizing. Have I become resolved to settling? I don’t think so, because I am not comfortable here, either. Tips, pointers, encouragement??? Any insight would be most appreciated.”

Answer: [book excerpt]

By now we’ve all heard that hackneyed Goethe quote: “Whatever you think you can do or believe you can, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power in it.” If only it were that simple. But it’s not. Because, although starting is important (duh!), at no point are you more vulnerable to stopping dead in your tracks than at the beginning. As Martha Graham once said: “The ordeal of isolation, the ordeal of loneliness, the ordeal of doubt, the ordeal of vulnerability which it takes to compose in any medium is hard to face.” 

It’s no wonder so many of us give up before we even begin.

Have you heard of Charlotte Bronte’s novel Emma? No? Ah.That will be because when she showed the first few pages to her new husband (she married late, thank goodness) he said: “Hmm. Not up to your usual standard, dearest….” And she never wrote another word, of that, or any other novel, ever again.

So, MP, are you being your own “Mr Bronte”? Is the problem with your dreaming and visualizing coming from your inability to really believe in the outcome. Are you being too hard on yourself, thinking who the hell do you think you are? Are you stumbling over visualizing all the steps it will take to get there?

For any or all of the above, my advice is to go one small step at a time. “You don’t have to take the whole staircase,” to quote Dr. Martin Luther King. “Just take the first step.”

For example, keep visualizing yourself collecting your Oscar or Grammy or Whitbread or Nobel or other relevant prize. But then visualize only the NEXT step towards it. Not all the steps.

When I started singing, all I had to do was trundle along to the next open mic. The idea of having a CD, let alone three CDs as I do now, was miles away in my mind. It was a dream, perhaps, but absolutely not something I considered a real possibility. The same with being a journalist. When I got my first job as an editorial assistant, actually writing for magazines was a dream but, again, not something I really thought would happen. But I faithfully took the first step by applying for (and beating out a hundred others to get) a job as a lowly editorial assistant at Parents magazine.

Did I think I would one day be writing for The Times or Elle or Vogue — which is what I ended up doing? Absolutely. er… Not. And when I got my first commission, when the Parents editor just announced at a meeting one day that I was going to be doing a piece for the next issue on introducing children to the opera and ballet and other adult leisure pursuits, I was shocked. And terrified.

So I called my writer friend, Sarah Litvinoff, author of The Confidence Plan: Essential Steps to a New You, who at the time I barely knew, and asked if I could read her my first paragraph over the phone.  “Of course!” she said. When I’d finished she said: “Oh, it’s wonderful. I can’t WAIT to hear the next paragraph!” Eventually, paragraph by paragraph (all read to Sarah over the phone), I finished it.

Actually, even while I was writing this book, I struggled with the idea of writing an entire book, until my editor at Random House told me to think of each chapter as its own long article. That made it much more manageable.

So my advice to MP at this stage is:

  1. Keep visualizing the “end”, in a very light way, without thinking at all about allthe steps it will take to get there.
  2. Think about ONLY the very nextstep — going to the next open mic, applying for magazine jobs, writing the next paragraph….
  3. Enlist the cheer-leading skills of a friend who believes in you and (very importantly) the possibilities for you.
  4. For crying out loud, don’t ask “Mr Bronte” what he thinks — even if he’s you.

Let me know if that helps.