Updated: Apr 12, 2020
Thanks to all of you who responded so warmly and thoughtfully to my last letter. It's great to hear your reactions and thoughts.
As many of you probably noticed, this letter is arriving a bit later than two weeks after the previous one. While I was able to write my last letter from a place of deep rest and reflection, this one is coming amidst some big changes and stressors. About two months ago, the organization I work for (Velocity Dance Center) launched a massive fundraiser to stay afloat and open through 2020. They also had to cut back expenses, which has meant reduced hours and pay for everyone on staff. Right around the same time, my partner and I closed on our first house, and just last week moved to a small island here in the Puget Sound called Vashon. With the overlap of my biggest lifetime expenditure to date, a pay cut, and a beloved workplace hovering in financial uncertainty, it has been hard for me to think about much else besides money, my job, and my house. The band hasn't practiced in two months, Typical Spectra hasn't met for rehearsals, and as you may've noticed, this newsletter got held up too.
As I've weathered these various transitions and constraints, I've thought a lot about how creativity is woven into our lives, and the various reasons we drop the thread, intentionally or not. When does art buoy us through hard times, and when and why does it start to feel like a weight we can't afford to carry? Because my hours were reduced, the setback to my creative work wasn't because I didn't have the time. Coming into work only 4 days a week instead of 5 meant that time was actually readily available. And yet...everything paused.
I told myself that this was because I was simply too stressed out and overwhelmed. While my itinerary was not necessarily busier, my mind was. I was often woken up in the middle of the night thinking about work, bills or both. My body, too, felt too busy: even when sitting, over the past couple months I've felt more muscle aches, pains, twitches, spasms, knots, and cramps than I have felt in the prior 31 years combined.
I'm still not sure how one should respond to theses cues, and if I responded astutely. Were the hum in my brain and the cramp in my shoulder signals to rest? Or when the body and mind are spazzing out, is that all the more reason to get in the studio, to throw one's self into the work? Or yet another possibility: are those signs actually not signs at all, but just static that blurs deeper, more genuine signals from our inner life as to what our creativity needs? I'm still not sure. For better or worse, I chose to respond to all of these life changes by changing how I was working, rather than how much.I decided that while I didn't feel I had the mental/physical capacity to produce, I could at the very least persist. The goals shifted from achievements to activity. Quite simply, at the end of September, I committed to playing guitar and writing every day for at least 15 minutes each. As I scrambled after hours to send another fundraising letter for Velocity or stuff my belongings into suitcases and boxes, I always made the space for those 15 minutes. Sometimes, they turned into 45 or 90. Other times, I watched the clock as that second hand inched towards 14:59 before I rushed off to bed. But I made sure that no matter how tired or stressed I was, whether it was in the morning or at night, or in seven different little 2 minute chunks, that half hour happened.
Two months later, what I have to show for that time is mostly a collection of scraps and starts: beginnings of several songs, a draft of an essay. Two highlights I'm pretty excited about are I managed to learn one new Roches song, and had an essay published in the Evergrey, a daily newsletter that covers local events here in Seattle. I'm proud of these achievements, but I'm even prouder of things that are harder to share over a newsletter: I'm proud of the hushed thrill I feel when I get up at 6 before my partner, and sneak into my studio to write. I'm proud of the focus that takes over when I'm scrunched over my guitar, trying to get a lick just right, a focus so strong that I often glance at the clock to find it's past midnight. I'm proud of my calluses, and how my fingers are moving with less hesitation over the fret board. And most of all, I'm proud that when I've gone back to listen to or read over some of the scraps I've made, I find I don't hate them. I even like some of them.
As I said earlier, knowing when and how to push, and when and how to relent in one's creative work, is plain hard. At least it is for me. And no matter how long I continue to make things, I doubt I'll ever find a magic equation to tell me what to do. But after looking back at the way stress, fear, distraction, and other very real obligations took over my life over the past couple months, I think I have a bit more clarity on capacity, and how to read one's body/thoughts during objectively stressful periods. Specifically, I've zeroed in on two recurring,false narratives about my creative work that were especially influential over the past couple months. So that I (and maybe even you!) can avoid them in the future, I've gone into them a bit below:
1. "I can't / It's too heavy."
The feeling or thought of "I just can't" can feel very real, but I've come to realize no matter how stressed or tired I am, it simply isn't true. Whether I choose to, or should, is an entirely different matter.
A large part of my process around capacity and choice has come from my past six months of power lifting. One of the things I love about weight lifting is how individual it is while still being very social. Your only opponent is yourself, but you still have a small squad of cheerleaders/ lifting buddies with you, encouraging you, spotting you, and inspiring you. The more I've lifted, the more I've noticed that our mind often quits before our body does. I can see this most easily when I'm watching someone else's bench press attempt (it's so often easier to notice in someone else, isn't it?). Very often, when looking from the sidelines, I can see someone's arms keep moving up even as they say they can't. In spite of their body's perseverance, because they feel the weight is too heavy, they stop and let the bar fall. From the inside, they feel certain they cannot succeed. Maybe it's the first time they've tried to lift that much weight, and the physical sensation of pushing against more than they've ever pushed is scary, surprising, even painful and confusing. Or maybe it's the hundredth time they've made an attempt at that weight, and they already feel apprehensive/pessimistic about it. More often than not, we psych ourselves out on the same lift over and over again, usually the one where we've failed before, or have the least confidence. But despite our fear and pessimism, from the outside it is usually evident that we are in fact up for the challenge, and what needs more training is not our biceps but our heart and self-esteem.
The most powerful demonstration of this for me came while working on chin-ups. I HATED chin-ups when I began training back in June. I associated them with flailing around and failing in front of jeering peers year after year in gym class. But my coach (bless her) insisted every week I try to do one, in addition to the lifts we were working on. And every week, while I observed my other lifts gaining weight, I hung impotently from the bar, clenching everything in my body in an effort to go up. At the end of nearly our last session together, I got up to the bar not looking forward to the effort, and expecting to fail. But when I began to pull, I noticed I just kept moving up. It got harder, yes, but my body just kept rising, until my chin was over the bar. I was astonished and stoked beyond belief. Mere seconds before I had been whining to my coach about how tired I was, how I didn't think this was going to be the week. Maybe next week. But not this week. And then suddenly, next week was now.
Over the exact same couple of months I was working up towards my first chin-up, I was telling people week after week that I was too stressed to schedule another gig, too stressed to hold a rehearsal, too tired write a new song. I just "couldn't." Yet I did have enough energy for those 30 minutes a day. And I did muster the energy to get up at 5:20am every Tuesday to go to the gym and squat with 175 lbs on my back. So I clearly had a modicum of spare focus and energy that wasn't being consumed by my job.Instead of the stress rendering me incapable of certain work, I now see that in response to the stress I wanted to put my energy in different places. Weightlifting, learning Roches songs, and writing short articles don't feel as vulnerable for me as leading band practice or an experimental performance lab. So while I could've directed my energies to those projects, I made a choice to wait. While the stress felt too large and overwhelming for much else, I was constantly questioning my choices because of all the things that got put on hold, all of the things that weren't moving forward. This brings me to my next falsehood.
2) "Nothing is happening / I haven't done anything." One of the other lessons I've drawn from power lifting is that the narrative that "nothing is happening" is as wrong as it can be pervasive. Week after week I tried to do an unassisted chin-up, and week after week it felt just as hard and impossible as it did the week before. Until magically it didn't. Of course what I failed to notice over the months leading up to that glorious chin-up was that while I was so focused on my apparently inert chin-up progress, my dead lift and squat weights were steadily increasing, and I tackled three new lifts I had never tried before (thus building strength in other areas that would end up helping me for my chin-up). I didn't seethe kind of progress I wanted to see in the ways I expected to see it. I also didn't appreciate the progress I was making in other areas because they didn't feel as hard. I didn't have the horrible associations with humiliation with dead lift that I had with chin-ups. I didn't dread them, so conquering them didn't mean as much to me, and thus didn't hook my pride, my anxiety, or my attention.
This same misdirected focus guided my assessments of how I was doing in my creative work. Even while drafting this letter, I found myself writing that while I was proud of my consistency, I had "nothing" to show for it. "Oh, except for that essay published in the 'Evergrey,'" I'd remind myself. "And that Roches song. And that fiction piece you wrote in your November workshop. And those three sample articles you wrote and uploaded to your website for more freelance work." "But those are just first drafts!" I'd reply. Or, "but that song recording's not good enough to send out. I messed up the guitar too many times!" Or, "No no no, the song is too boring without the other vocal tracks. People will think I write boring songs!" This ongoing argument in my head over the worth and substance of what I had made over the past few months was so loud and cantankerous that I now see that it, and not my job, my bank account, or my move, was the real reason I waited two months to write this damn letter. None of those achievements, save the Evergrey essay, were the goals I had in mind accomplishing for the fall. None of them was *The Unassisted Chin-Up*, or the money shot. I was sitting in my studio looking at the long list of things I had wanted to do this fall (recording my EP, booking a Christmas gig for the Married Men, holding the first public workshop for Typical Spectra, applying for a grant), and I didn't appear to be any closer to them. "Nothing" was happening. It was only when I sat down to write this that I realized that "nothing" was not just a mischaracterization of what I'd been doing, it was a bold-faced lie.
This isn't to say that I was wrong to question my capacity to handle different projects. Reputable research has shown that stress, especially financial stress, significantly lowers our cognitive powers. And while I would never compare the stress I've been facing to those of people who live with chronic poverty, systemic racism, transphobia, or colonialism, I think I was right to question my capacity for work when work and home duties became more involved. Looking back, I see that I put on hold creative projects or tasks that would require a great deal of judgment and assertiveness. I paused the projects in which I was in charge, because I didn't think I'd do a very good job at evaluating, judging, or making decisions for a group. I also avoided activities that would ask a lot from deep, creative impulses: songwriting & performing, mainly. The research cited above focused on poverty's effects on peoples' IQs, but I also think that stress can drown out our ability to intuit, too. Somewhere deep deep down, when the shit really started to hit the fan in late September, I knew that this period of time was not going to be one in which I'd be thinking or feeling very clearly. I consider this confirmed by the two rather toxic thought-feelings that dominated my psyche during this time: if I was telling myself I couldn't when I could (and did), and that I had made nothing when I had made several things, I was right to pause endeavors that would have put those voices in charge.
Instead, I focused on tasks that were mostly organizational, editorial, and technical: practicing songs, scales, and exercises that were already written by someone else, writing assignments that were cut and dry with word-limits, prompts, and style guides. I tried as best I could to take myself out of it, and aim small. The 15 minute requirement was a great amount for me because it meant I didn't have to choose between a long bath and practice. Or cut short my eight episode binge of "The Killing" (don't tell me! I haven't finished yet!). Vegging was a large part of my routine over the past three months, and while I now no longer believe that I wasn't capable of more, I'm also pretty proud of the heavy rest I allowed myself when I wasn't at work. While at times it felt indulgent or irresponsible to all my creative goals, other reputable research has also shown how much happens when we're at rest. I was so keen on building on the momentum of the summer, and so upset by the changes at Velocity, it never occurred to me that my projects would benefit from a change in pace. But that half hour a day writing and playing has led to a lot of clarity about where I want my projects to go, and how they might lead to other ventures. The crisis in Velocity's funding structure led to a lot of insightful conversations about the role the arts plays in a city or society at large, and a much more immersive contact with Seattle's arts communities. I've had time to think about how I want to be a part of those communities, and what could be done together to make the arts more sustainable and thriving in growing cities. Those 30 minutes a day have also led to a greater facility with three of my instruments (words, guitar, and sounds), and a greater confidence that have made me braver and more adventurous in the studio, and less fussed when things don't go perfectly (i.e. most of the time).
I'll share some of the scraps and visions for those future ventures in the next newsletter, but in the meantime I wish all of my readers a restful and warm couple of weeks. Whatever holidays you do or don't celebrate, I think winter gives us a kind of backhanded gift with the colder temps: sending us indoors to layer on, fatten up, build a fire, and spend time around it huddled close with people we love.