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.
This August, I'll be one of the players at "Adventurer's Wanted: Rebellion", a live D&D show on August 3rd, 5th, 17th and 24th. Ahead of that, I thought I'd write a reflective piece on what D&D has done for me.
The first time I heard of D&D was probably the same way as most people: when I saw it being mercilessly mocked as a game for very boring sexless men on TV shows like The Big Bang Theory or IT Crowd. The first of which is liberally peppered with dorky misogyny across the spectrum, all the way from "ball and chain" to "your mum" jokes - just watch the clip (if you can you're stronger than I am). When I first saw people playing D&D it was a group of my male friends who seemed to spend five hours hitting things with swords and sticks (there was probably more there to it, but I would normally fall asleep halfway through, I've always found the storytelling aspect of D&D to be pretty soporific). The common denominator here was men. And so I counted myself out from the get - also because I wasn't really a fan of fantasy, save Game of Thrones which I mainly loved for Sansa Stark, and I didn't see much Sansa Starks about in this game.
When I tried to first get involved, I had a lot of performance anxiety - which was ironic as a poet whose career has centred around performance. I felt awkward doing the voices, or trying to commit to weird character choices. I was constantly worried I was doing things wrong. I got a bit better over time and at the end of 2017, I was asked to join an non-male D&D group.
My character was part Minerva McGonagall, part Lin Beifong but mostly your traditional Church of Scotland Presbyterian woman. She was stuck in a world filled with magic, tricks, drag musicians and all she wanted to do was go home. The most exciting thing for her was her cat, which she named "Grey" after her favourite colour. I would turn up with my glittery unicorn dice box and play someone who's favourite food was plain porridge. We couldn't be more different.
The D&D group itself was made up of our D.M. plus four other players - only two of whom I knew previously. On my way to the first game I was kicking myself the whole walk for signing up to something so preformative and charismatic in front of strangers. In reality, it turned out to be one of the best decisions I've made in years. The first couple games consisted of us all turning up, and playing pretty much straight away after everyone arrived. Now, we have a designated hour before each game to catch up. We have a group chat which we use to play Frisbee in the Meadows, talk about our day at work or complain about men. The group has been a way for the six of us to talk about our problems in a group separated from our normal friendship groups or lives. We went through final exams, break-ups, house moves, job stresses and annoying flatmates together. We checked up on each other constantly.
But it wasn't just outside the game - it was also part of it. Our characters looked after each other and reminded each other of important notes. I began to feel that some of us used our characters as a way to process things we were dealing with in life (and hey, maybe some of us were just setting fires or punching owl bears, but I think that's therapeutic too). I was playing Gertrude - someone who hates fun and extravagance. My D.M. said something very wise - that everyone's characters is little pieces of them that they exaggerate. I think of this dwarf I've created as mimicking the part of me that stubbornly wants to be logical, get my head down and push through work.
I have other characters in other campaigns too - a silent gnome, who I think reflects the lonely, reflective and introverted part of me; a Marry Berry-esque dragonborn, who mirrors my naivete and desire to look after people before myself; and a teenager from the 80s who probably reflects my young desire to be cool and have roller blades.
I think that any kind of performing, storytelling or just talking for an extended period of time necessarily leads us to talk about ourselves and reflect upon who we are. When you add in the extra layers of D&D: that the characters are self-created and the game a collaborative effort, I think it becomes even more reflective. When this was added into a supportive environment of non-male people, who are socialised into communicating through problems, a little game of D&D ended up helping me think more about who I am and deal with the problems I was facing (namely: moving house, changing jobs, and starting new medication). This Friday marks the last game of this campaign - one of our members is moving away, some are changing jobs and others are entering more commitments at work. Some of us will still play together, but with new characters and a different story line. I feel emotional leaving this little world behind, but also like it has taught me so much.
So I owe a thank you. Not only to the people who got me into this fun and silly game, but also to the non-male group of friends - whom helped me process and talk through things. And lastly, thanks to a grumpy stubborn dwarf who seems to know me better than I do.