Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

I’m about to be a part of something really cool.  Next month, I’m going to New York with Xander and Ben for a sort of tour 2.0-type thing.  We’re calling it Man (hat on).  There’s even a logo (and the likelihood of t-shirts).  No, I’m not a musician.  My misguided adolescent foray into the world of string instruments is likely as far as I’ll ever go, musically.  But it doesn’t matter.  Because–although there will be music involved (provided mainly by Ben, obviously), this is really a tour about freedom, and doing what you like, and creating things.

We’re playing with this idea of “sustainable creativity”, you see.  It’s about using communities and ideas to sustain yourself, so that you’re able to do what you love doing.  It’s simple, on paper: if you’re a writer, you find a way to write.  If you’re a musician, you find the support you need to play gigs and write songs.  If you’re someone without a clearly defined path, someone who just likes to play with ideas—it means finding a way to do that.

It sounds easy, but it isn’t.  Creative output takes a lot of time, energy, love, and support, not only from the creator, but also from his or her community.  The problem is that many of us are saddled with a lot of extra baggage.  We have bills to pay and debts to pay off.  We have social and professional obligations that rigidly divide our days. Very likely we’re burdened with a “real job”—which we may find intellectually dull and emotionally empty, but necessary nonetheless (I mostly babysit photocopiers and answer telephones grumpily, for instance).

And in an era where time is money, how do you justify spending a few hours every day on your craft?  How do you find a few hours every day?  It’s impossible to underestimate the negative power of financial constraints.  If you constantly spend your time thinking, I should be making money, not fucking around, you quickly become creatively impotent.

So suppose we make things easier for ourselves.  Suppose, to start, we surround ourselves with other, similarly minded, creatively charged people, and become a kind of micro-community based on the idea of mutual inspiration.  This removes a number of barriers, and in their places, provides us with a number of opportunities.  It gives us an automatic audience, a built-in sounding-board, a kind of creativity support group.  It allows for collaborative effort and means that even an ordinary trip to the pub can result in a great idea.  In a way, it combines the social aspect of our lives with the creative aspect, thus gaining us time as well as emotional backing.

Well, that’s good.  That’s a source of motivation and stimulation.  But we’re still stuck with that bland job, those pesky bills, all the worries that get us down.  Even if we have a micro-community of like-minded creatives, we’re still not going anywhere. Not yet.

The next thing to do, then, is to give up the rock star dream.  Forget, for a moment, that you want to be the next superstar of the rock n’ roll, or literary, or art, or whatever world.  And remember why you started singing, or writing, or drawing, or playing with ideas, in the first place.  Innovative solo bass player Steve Lawson writes prolifically, and very well, about this: “I no longer need to pretend to be a rock-star.  The mythology of rock ‘n’ roll is nowhere near as interesting as the reality of creativity.”  And, Steve adds, “The 80s dream of everyone becoming Stadium rock stars has faded, and more and more musicians are looking at fun ways to get to play music in a financially sustainable way.”  And what we’re trying to say is: not just musicians.  Anyone who wants to make anything should be listening to Steve on this point.

It sounds cheesy, but this is an idea about survival and satisfaction, not about making a profit, not about constantly striving, clawing your way up the celebrity hierarchy.  This is an idea about how you can do what you love doing—what you would be doing anyway–and earn enough from it to justify doing it as something more than a hobby.  To earn enough from it to recoup your costs, eat a meal or two.  Eventually, to earn enough from it to pay all those bills, to live comfortably, to buy a new pair of boots (or the male equivalent) when you need to.  But to start, it’s only about getting by.

Luckily, that built-in creative community—even if it’s just a group of two or three people—is the key.  Gone are the days when any artist can continue to cling to the alcoholic outcast myth and hope that her lonely genius will be discovered.  There’s just too much stuff out there for that to be a viable tactic.  There are literally thousands of other musicians writing songs and putting them up on the Internet.  Thousands of other filmmakers uploading clips to YouTube.  Thousands of other writers with blogs.  Thousands of other painters with thousands of canvases stacked up in their basement.  And every single one of them can publicize themselves, advertise themselves, with the click of a button.  Passivity and sheer luck may work for some; but the only way to guarantee a sustainable, creative life is to actively seek one out.

So you start with a tiny community.  A few friends.  Maybe you start at the pub, where ideas can flow unchecked by the ordinariness of daily life.  And you realize that actually, there’s a lot of overlooked potential in the world.  You buy some tickets to New York.  You decide that you’re going to prove this theory by living it.

So we are three people, with different skills and ambitions but a common goal of creating things and doing cool stuff, taking a week off work.  We’re going to pack up our guitars, our laptops, our brains, and head across the Atlantic, where we’re going to do what what love, and what we’re good at, and find a way to survive.  We’re going to stay cheaply (with friends, on couches).  We’re going to earn just enough to recoup our travel expenses, and hopefully have enough left over for a few beers at the end of the day.

There are, of course, one or two things that anybody sensible might want to ask.  Or maybe not.  Anyway, there are some things that I had to ask myself as I wrote this all down:

But isn’t hunger/poverty/whatever a good creative motivator?

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t (see my post on this here).  But this isn’t about “making it” as an artist, necessarily (though it certainly could be); it’s about literally surviving off your own work.  It’s not about becoming great whilst (or even as a result of) stealing bread and sleeping on the street, but about using whatever greatness you already possess to buy bread, pay your rent, and get by.  It’s simply meant to be proof that you can, if that’s what you want to do.

Okay.  But by making it as much about money as the creative output itself, aren’t you somehow tainting your work?  Aren’t you basically selling out, on a minute scale?

This is really where the word “sustainability” comes in.  This whole idea is fundamentally about sustaining yourself, as a creative-type, so that you can create more.  Ultimately it’s always about the creative output, and the act of creating, not about the money; the money is simply what allows that process of creation to occur unfettered.

This is all very theoretical.  What’s the end result?

The end result is whatever you want it to be.  In theory this is a limitless idea.  That’s the beauty of it.  In practice, it may have more limitations than I currently anticipate.  But we’re going to find out, and we’re going to let you know.  In the meantime, please check out the Man (hat on) site, and follow our progress, and be a participant in this crazy idea.


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A cloud of witnesses.  To whom?  To what?
To the small fire that never leaves the sky.
To the great fire that boils the daily pot.

To all the things we are not remembered by
Which we remember and bless. To all the things
That will not even notice when we die,

Yet lend the passing moment words and wings.

From “A Fanfare for the Makers” by Louis MacNeice


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I’ve been back at work for three hours.  I think that’s enough, really, don’t you?

It’s such a rude re-introduction to the real world.  Hulking black PCs, lists and lists of menial tasks.  I can’t see the surface of my desk for the piles of shit on it.  Mostly it feels like an interruption of happy routine.  I like being able to read at midday, work on my book after lunch, write a blog post whenever I feel like it (so I’m writing this now just to spite the working world).

The funny thing about a really good holiday is the depression that sets in after.  This morning I threatened to avoid it altogether by nearly sleeping through all my alarms.  Now I’m staring with some chagrin at the huge map of Oxford across from my desk, thinking I probably should have slept through all my alarms, and thinking also that I’m nostalgic for something which is barely over.  The freedom.  The blue skies.  The delicious meals.  The cider.

On a more positive note, I’ve returned from holiday feeling spiritually refreshed (please contain your derisive snorts), and oddly empowered.  I have this niggling sense that I am, after all, in control of my future, and if I don’t want that future to necessarily include being paid to stare at a wall and occasionally file things, I may actually be able to do something about it.  It’s a good start, anyway, and until we can all move to a commune off the East Devon coast and sustain ourselves on creative endeavors and home-grown vegetables, it gives me incentive to keep going.

The other nice thing about coming back from a vacation is the lingering effect of “tourist eyes”.  When you go away–even if it’s just a few hours south of your usual haunt–your vision (both literally and metaphorically) is temporarily altered, and there’s a precious period of a few days after your return when you haven’t quite readjusted and you’re still seeing things in a holiday-way.  So I’m enjoying wandering through Oxford.  I’d forgotten quite how much I take it for granted.  Xander and I even dipped into the Natural History Museum on Saturday–just because we could–and spent a blissful half hour feeling like 19th century explorers.  (There is something, we find, irrevocably Victorian about a Natural History Museum).  We just don’t get that in our natural state of being.  It takes a trip–a big one, a small one, a physical one, an emotional or mental one–to make us remember our surroundings.

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The Impossible Dream?

Over breakfast, I’ve been perusing Forbe’s list of the most influential women in media.  I keep thinking, wow, another news anchor.  Another morning show co-host.  Another…cooking channel sweetheart turned television goddess.  It isn’t a list of the most influential women in media, it’s a list of the most influential women on TV.

Here’s why: the list is generated based on money, fame, audience, and power.  Money?  When did media become about money?  Around the same time it became about the brigade of sleek blondes sharing banter with square-jawed, loose-tounged anchormen in front of a camera.  I have an antiquated sense of “media”.  That it’s about information, provoking thought (or at least, in its own, roundabout way, encouraging it), reaching out, using the world as a playground.  I still think Thomas Friedman was on to something when he wrote about journalists needing to become “information arbiters”, people who don’t create the news but gather it, digest it, and then present it.

Silly me.  Clearly what really matters is money and fame.  This is a culture of celebrity worship, after all.  So I salute all the writers, bloggers, and journalists who did make it onto the list, in spite of it all.  I’m particularly pleased to see Dooce on the list–a first-time entry, renowned for her sarcastic and unabashadly honest approach to blogging about family life.  She’s a neat 26 on the list, not bad for someone who’s literally built a life for herself, her husband, and her children based, when it comes down to it, on writing.  Part of me wants to be jealous of her, but most of me rejoices in the idea that this is, in spite of what it may look like (and indeed what Forbes may have us believe), not an impossible dream.

Dooce (aka Heather Armstrong) on the realities of her livelihood:

“There are days where I sit there and cry myself into a bundle in the corner because either I am blocked and can’t write or there is nothing to write about. I don’t ever get to take a break or go on vacation. If I don’t write for two days in a row, people write to ask if I’m dead.”

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DSC02688Yesterday the clouds spread like ink across the summer sky and then dried and disappeared, and I took a long, lazy run around Christ Church Meadow half-hoping to catch a glimpse of Alice’s Day, and when I came home I crawled back into bed and we had a nap with the window wide open to let in an almost-autumnal wind.

In the evening we watched the sun setting over the Oxfordshire countryside amidst the tea lights and elderflower champagne of a midsummer wedding.

It occurred to me sometime between then and now that even when I am not working, I am.  I’m always working.  Isn’t that frightening?  And a little exciting?

I’ve been reading and re-reading Louis MacNeice’s Selected Poems.  Here’s one for you on this sunny, windy, green July Sunday:


Maybe we knew each other better
When the night was young and unrepeated
And the moon stood still over Jericho.

So much for the past; in the present
There are moments caught between heart-beats
When maybe we know each other better.

But what is that clinking in the darkness?
Maybe we shall know each other better
When the tunnels meet beneath the mountain.

From Louis MacNeice. Selected Poems. London; Faber, 1988, p.158.

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A Lull

There’s been silence on the blog, and let me tell you,  silence on all other writing fronts.  It would be depressing if it wasn’t just another dip of many in the writing sine curve; in the last few weeks I’ve been alternately elated and obsessed with my own shortcomings.  During these darker periods everything I hear is a reflection of my own perverted image of myself as a writer; someone tells me I have a strong background in politics, for instance, and that it might be fun to utilize this, and I hear “you’re worthless!”.  Luckily I think I’ve reached, for the time being, a happy middle ground, and, with the help of a new haircut, a new study, and a new idea, I might be able to resume writing as usual.

The new haircut?  Probably incidental to the creative process, but every little helps.  Perhaps what was weighing me down was not my own lack of confidence after all, but split ends and an overgrown fringe.  The new study?  An attempt to force myself into a new routine.  It still overlooks the garden, but it’s upstairs.  Lack of proximity to the tea kettle worries me slightly, but then, it might be easier to block out the rest of the world from upstairs.  And the new idea–or, rather, the new take on the old idea?  I’m not telling, not yet, but it involves, in addition to the usual (Oxford, psychology of place, literary ghosts), Don Quixote, the modern novel, a sequel, the first world war, and a lot of work.  I think it’s gonna be good.

For reasons totally unrelated to the book, I’ve been reading some of P.G. Wodehouse’s letters recently, and I’m convinced that this is why I’m not as worried as usual over my recent spell of creative impotence.  Late in his life, Wodehouse, already an enormously successful and prolific author, still both enjoyed the process of writing, and struggled with it greatly.  In one letter he tells a friend he’s had to rewrite the beginning of a new novel many times, that he’s been working for months and that it’s only now coming together.  I feel like that about this one.

We’re having a heat wave.  It’s nice; it’s strange.  I walk around in a daze all day.  Any energy that hadn’t already been sapped by my worries over the book has now bled out into the sunlight, become more heat.  I take long naps on the couch when I’m not at work and listen to the songs from the ice-cream truck. Sometimes I think the whole city has gone mad; we’re under the influence of someone else’s circus-dream.


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Here is what I know (or what I have learned?): writing requires immense courage.

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