Image: two feet in front of a police tape that reads "SORRY". Taken by the author at Michael Dean's exhibition "Having You On" at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.
Today I bought a notebook: a normal occurrence for a writer, but it was a bit more than that. In a couple of weeks I'm headed to Belgium to do two performances over two days, after which I'm taking my first holiday in several months and my first ever holiday with my partner (we've been together over 2 years!). The notebook was to take on the trip so that together, as we travel, we could make a scrapbook of poems, drawings and writing to bring back. This is obviously a lovely way to document our first proper holiday - we're two writers who also love to draw and make things. However, I am conscious I also did this as a security blanket to keep my fears of non-productive time off at bay. If I come out of the holiday with a wee book, with poems I can put online or perform at a later date, I'll feel a lot more better about myself as an artist - and a person.
During my quest to read more this year, I read Maria Semple's Where'd You Go Bernadette? I highly recommend it, it's a fascinating study of character: from image-obsessed mothers, to a portrait of the inquisitive stage of childhood to the titular Bernadette - an architect who feels more and more depressed and anxious because she is unable to create. A line that rang clear off the page was:
"People like you must create. If you don't create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society."
I've been thinking about this a lot about that line ever since - it's lined my thoughts about my time on and my time off, as well as the way I see other artists I work with. I work three days a week for a charity as a project manager. Around this, for the last few months, I have also worked 1-2 days a week on being a writer. This time includes: performing, going to other events, meeting with other writers/poets/promoters, submitting my work for publications, the necessary admin behind each commission (e.g. emailing, organising travel, filming), working with other artists... oh yeah, and some actual writing now and then.
Freelance work has no end or start time or set days off a year, only a set number of hours a month. To me - "time off" is hard to define as I work for home. Very roughly, it's the time you have where you're don't have to be somewhere or doing something (not including the errands you do, like laundry or food-shopping, to keep yourself alive!). Therefore, when I'm writing with the goal of submission or taking photos for an Instagram post or meeting with a friend to create a video - even though I'm not paid for that directly, it's still work.
My down-time is... varied. Since I started at university, my down-time has nearly always been made up of something that could be called more work. Whether this is organising an event, polishing up my Facebook or website or managing my emails. I saw a post online that said "Do what you love for a living and you'll never get any time off". It's feeling all too familiar.
And don't get me wrong! I am so so lucky and happy to be "working" as an artist, and occasionally get paid for what I do. It's fantastic.
But I also want to recognise that on a "day off" if I don't make something I start bouncing off the walls very quickly, and that probably isn't healthy. Somehow, I can turn anything I see into a way to judge myself. I can become a grumpy, restless menace to society unless I find some "project" to do that helps me feel satisfied. Currently, I manage this by setting something up that I can do that isn't necessarily just more writing work.
Whether it's making a loaf of bread, a film, or a poem, my brain is always on, but more than that - my brain is always creating more work than it really has to. It has to be the best, most innovative loaf of bread or poem or film.
And that sounds great! And creative! And productive! And sometimes it is. And sometimes, it's very much not. It's not just about wanting to make things, or my brain constantly seeking out some greater inspiration - it's feeling guilty if I'm not constantly switched on or if I make something that I judge isn't good enough. My Facebook is jam-packed with other artists getting really fantastic opportunities - which they very rightfully deserve! - but it means social media becomes more of a mental measuring stick where I'm constantly worried that I'm not doing quite enough because X, Y and Z are published/performing at that cool gig/winning an award which I'm not.
Many of my friends seem like their in the same boat. From keeping their phone firmly in their hand to check their bookings on a night out, to scrolling through their social media during a meet-up. It's not rudeness at all - it's keeping the worries at bay and ensuring you do that hard work that we're told it takes to get ahead in the arts.
We live in a world where you're very much measured by your "output". This makes working as a writer really, really tricky - as for many the end goal isn't always getting physically published, and even if it is, there's so much that goes into that that isn't always visible. I can spend a full day sorting out administration, filling out paperwork, booking travel, invoicing and feel totally cut off from my art. Or worse; like I've not achieved anything, because I don't have a physical book out in the world, or something I can capture to put online to prove - yes! Look at me! I'm an artist, I did something recognisable!
We also live in a world where working in the arts is seen as not "real" work. Mainly because most people only ever really interact with or see famous artists and see them get paid for (seemingly) not a lot of work. They don't realise the years of tiny gigs, self-promotion, networking and administration it took to get to that point: the total knock-backs and long evenings questioning if you're doing the right thing. This is all totally fair - we love an overnight success story - the ins and outs of her counting receipts are less interesting.
This attitude, however, means that when I talk about needing a holiday or an evening off, or I don't reply to an email as quickly as I "should" have, the response is very often one of confusion - because I'm doing what I want to do, and what I want to do is "just" writing poems - how can I want or even need a break?
You can see why I feel mixed up about non-productive time: both internally and within the culture we're living in. And speaking honestly, I do feel slightly worried about this holiday. I feel both scared asserting or asking for time off - and even sticking to it. I know that less than 2 hours in, I'll already be checking my emails (the thought of not checking my emails for more than 3 hours scares the pants off me, for fear of offending someone or not snapping up an opportunity). I know that if I do start a little bit of work, it normally all snowballs until it's the end of day 2 and I'm doing a bunch of admin.
Yet I think being switched off or even bored (though I doubt I'll be bored with all of Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp to explore) is a really crucial part of creating. It's when you store up your energy, get input from what's going on in the world, and make the memories that inspire you. So I'm going to set myself a task: I'm going to try and delete the social media apps on my phone, set up out of office replies, only check emails once a day and only respond to them if I absolutely have to. I'll let you know how I get on. And I encourage you to do the same.