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Mitchell Cushman is on a Curious Voyage

Headshot of Toronto director and producer Mitchell Cushman

It’s another Hollywood cliché (I seem to be taking a lot of digs at Hollywood lately): the loner who wants to risk it all for his (sometimes her) goal, and no matter what anyone says, he (sometimes she) will punch through all that negativity and succeed. But is that what real creativity looks like?

“I do my best work in collaboration,” says risk-taking Toronto-based producer, director, and artistic director Mitchell Cushman.

Cushman is anything by the stereotypical loner who’ll risk it all. When speaking with him on the phone, he sounded…normal. You know, conversational, a little introspective, comfortable talking about work. And then there’s this thing called collaboration—a word usually saved for job descriptions—that he thrives on.

Working With Humans

For Cushman, collaboration is his path to dreaming big. Not big as in lots of money (though maybe he wants that), and not big as in a huge house (but maybe he wants that, too), but big as in big ideas.

Take, for example, his 2015 project Brantwood: 1920-2020. Done in collaboration (there’s that word again) with Julie Tepperman and Sheridan College’s Canadian Music Theatre Project, it’s a play that consists of approximately 15 hours of material.

No, this wasn’t Goethe’s Faust plays rebooted; it was a site-specific production that was staged in an old three-storey, 20,000-square-foot school building, with different scenes taking place in different rooms throughout the entire space. Audience members could roam about and peer in on any scene they wanted to. A bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but you could decide when the adventure continued.

Dreaming Large

“I’ve always been attracted to work that allows you to dream on a large canvas,” he says. So when Talk Is Free Theatre Artistic Producer Arkady Spivak needed someone to join him on a crazy project, he called Cushman.

Headshot of Talk Is Free Theatre Artistic Producer Arkady Spivak.

Talk Is Free Theatre Artistic Producer Arkady Spivak. Photo by Scott Cooper.

The crazy idea is called The Curious Voyage, costs between $1,950 and $3,600 plus flights and meals, and spans two continents. My first thought was, “Theatres have a hard time selling tickets for $35 a piece sometimes. Who’s going to pay this much for a theatre show?”

The Risk: “The Curious Voyage”

And that’s where the risk comes in. The Curious Voyage is a three-day experience that immerses the audience in a theatrical experience that starts in Barrie, Ontario, on day 1. On day 2, they’re shuttled to Pearson International Airport, where they’ll fly to London, England. On day 3, they’ll get to watch a Tony Award-winning musical, whose title is being kept a secret.

I told Cushman that I don’t know if I would jump on board for that kind of price. What if the musical was Kiss of the Spider Woman? That’s the last musical I’d want to spend over $4,000 on.

“I can tell you it’s not Kiss of the Spider Woman, if that’s scaring you off,” he said. Whether to advertise the musical or keep it a secret was debated, but keeping it zipped was the final decision.

Surprise!

“We’re offering them an unexpected experience where you should never know what’s going to happen next,” Cushman explains. “We felt that our potential to get underneath people’s skin with the project would be a lot stronger if they didn’t know what they were in for.”

Before you worry if you’re about to be slimed on stage in front of your fiancée or asked to eat cheese curds like a cat, the FAQ for the show confirms that, although audience members are meant to participate in the experience, no one will be asked to do anything potentially demeaning or embarrassing.

Details of a Big Project

Headshot of Curious Voyage Co-Director  and DopoLavoroTeatrale Artistic Director Daniele Bartolini.

Florence/Toronto Director Daniele Bartolini. Photo by Philip Zave.

Cushman’s job in this wild adventure is to direct The Musical That Must Not Be Named, in London. Director Daniele Bartolini will look after the Ontario elements of the production. There’s of course an entire production team involved, with Spivak heading it all. When I asked Cushman about the logistics of pulling off a project like this, he could only say, “A lot of equally enthusiastic, equally crazy people working on it together.”

Not even his musical in London will be “normal.” The little clue he did give me about the musical is that it’s one that normally requires a big theatre and will be staged in a very intimate setting. Audience count is limited to 36 per Curious Voyage (there are several trips).

Granted, most musicals I’ve seen need a big theatre, so that’s not much of a hint. In my mind, I’m thinking Les Mis in my living room perhaps, or Phantom in my office, minus the crashing chandelier. Would either musical be as powerful if you could see everyone’s wig lines? Hmm…

Is There an Audience for This?

Cushman finds it’s hard to make any kind of art, and that it can be harder to find the right people to come and see it. Add such a large ticket price, and your potential audience becomes incredibly small.

“But also, I find that if you’re offering people an experience that they feel like they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives, then you actually start getting people’s attention. The hardest thing in theatre is to be anonymous,” he says.

Audience Expectations May be Changing

I associate theatre with leaving the house, sitting in some large, cavernous room, and sitting back and enjoying the show. But Cushman thinks times have changed.

“There’s all sorts of research, especially for the Millennial generation, that people are spending less money on physical things and more money on experiences,” he says. He believes the time could not be better to offer immersive theatre, because it harnesses the power of the live performance.

Cushman + Big Ideas = Collaboration

But it takes a lot of work—and a lot of collaboration—to pull off ideas like these. His work with Tepperman on Brantwood took place over two years, beginning with three months in an apartment working out the concept. More collaborators entered the scene after those three months.

“It’s about surrounding yourself with the right artists who all have equal buy-in and all have different vantage points, so that every part of the piece is an integrated experience,” he explains.

Collaboration for Your Art

This blog is meant to help you explore your own creativity. In recent months, I’ve introduced you to several professional creators, talked about their work, and given you a glimpse into their creative world. How do you approach your art? Is it in the closet, where no one can see it? Do you talk to anyone about it? Ask anyone for help?

Mitchell Cushman can create big precisely because he collaborates so much. He has an extensive history of immersive and site-specific productions and some pretty big ideas. “So Spivak knew I wouldn’t be scared off by the scope of what he was looking to do.”

Don’t let your big ideas scare you off. Finding the right people to help move your creation along can give you the confidence you need to pull it off.

Details:

Talk Is Free Theatre presents: The Curious Voyage

October 23 to November 10, 2018

Performances begin every second day

$1,950 single / $3,600 double plus flights & meals

curiousvoyage.com

1. 705.792.1949 ext. 122

Tickets on sale only from May 8-June 27, 2018

Art is Exploration: Sasha Ivanochko’s Double Bill at The Citadel

Headshot of Montreal-based choreographer Sasha Ivanochko.

Last time, I talked about how art isn’t only about those Hollywood-movie moments of inspiration, that ideas can take time to develop. But why? What makes it so difficult to develop an idea? Montreal-based choreographer Sasha Ivanochko’s work can provide us with the answer.

Exploring Complex Ideas

It’s the exploration process. Art is exploration. Creativity, whether in art, at your job, or in your kid’s notebook doodles, is exploration. For Ivanochko, that meant spending several years developing two pieces, Mirror Staging the Seeing Place and Modern Woman in Search of Soul, showing at The Citadel in Toronto from June 6-9, 2018.

“These works are just what I’m thinking about,” she said in our phone interview.

So, what is she thinking about? Women and the stereotypes surrounding their bodies. It’s a complex, centuries-old theme that can’t be pulled apart and thrown onto a stage in a matter or hours or over a weekend. Mirror Staging took a solid two years to complete, Ivanochko told me, and she developed Modern Woman on and off over four years.

Experimenting With Exploration

Exploration #1: Mirror Staging the Seeing Place

In Mirror Staging the Seeing Place, independent dance artist Kristy Kennedy dances most of the performance facing a wall of mirrors in the dance studio. The audience, able to see themselves, of course, too, sees Kennedy’s body captured and reflected by the mirror.

Ivancohko described it as a dancer dancing, that there’s nothing theatrical about this piece. “It’s a dancer performing dance moves and also movement that a person would recognize as kind of typical behaviour of certain people,” she said.

Dancer in an angry position against a mirror. From Sasha Ivanochko's

From “Mirror Staging the Seeing Place.” Photo by Tyler Pengelly.

Exploration #2: Modern Woman in Search of Soul

The second piece performed that evening, by award-winning Toronto Dance Theatre member Alana Elmer, is Modern Woman in Search of Soul, “the angry sister” to Mirror Staging.

“It’s text-driven, and the dancer verbally solicits and kind of directs the audience to describe what the dancer is doing,” Ivanochko explained. This performance is the piece’s world première and will be live-streamed by renowned choreographer, filmmaker, and creative technologist Jacob Niedzwiecki.

As you can probably tell, these are both experimental pieces and Ivanochko is quick to point out that she’s working “with an outstanding team.” But notice that she doesn’t shy away from grand ideas like these. Even when she was turned down for funding for one of the pieces, she didn’t stop. Her application to the Quebec Arts Council was refused. “The feedback from one of the jury members at that point was that the topic was cliché. Which is appalling when you consider what’s going on now,” she said.

#metoo, Women, and Stereotypes

Both shows could not be shown at a better time. Although the #metoo movement carries sadness in it, it also carries triumph: women are speaking up about a subject that has long been pushed back to hushed corners of our society. Artists like Sasha Ivanochko are now bringing these topics to the fore.

But if you’re expecting the pieces to be loud statements about the ordeals of women, Ivanochko emphasizes they aren’t: “The dancers are really deeply embodying these ideas. So, it doesn’t come across as superficial. And, generally, with Mirror Staging, because it has been performed twice now for audiences, and we’ve done studio showings for Modern Woman, people are generally quite moved by the dancers as they allow these stereotypes to pass through their bodies.”

Pass through their bodies. I like that: it’s a way of describing that these stereotypes exist but it also acknowledges they don’t have to be permanent.

“These works aren’t for women, they aren’t for men,” she emphasizes. They are an exploration of her thoughts on the subject of stereotypes and women.

Exploring Takes Time and Patience

Which brings us back to where we started: exploration and Ivanochko’s thoughts.

Maybe you explore your personal life through writing in your journal. Or perhaps you explore different ideas in your graphic designs. Maybe your topic of exploration is relationships, and that’s why you love acting when time allows for it.

But at some point in time, you plateau, you feel as though your creativity has hit an impasse and fear won’t develop any further. That’s where I’d encourage you to explore even more.

If you’re struggling to find your creative voice, remember that professionals take years to develop theirs. Do not use that observation to knock you down, á la “I’ll never get this right.” (Was it Grover who’d smash his head into the piano in frustration?) Use it as encouragement: “I need to be patient with myself. I have a full-time job and family responsibilities, but I can do this. It’ll just take some time.”

When Ivanochko started out, she found she had too many things to say, and an early mentor told her she needed to focus. But with time, she learned to have patience and trust her instinct.

Mirror Staging and Modern Woman are the result of that trust. She ignored the feedback from one grant committee juror and continued to explore these ideas, simply because she felt compelled to.

If you’re stuck in front of your medium of choice, whether it be a piece of paper, a computer screen, a music or dance studio in your basement or elsewhere, and you’re stuck in a rut of ideas, give yourself time to explore. What do you think about the topic at the centre of your creation?

Inspiration Isn’t a Eureka Moment: Laurence Lemieux’s “Looking for Elvis”

Cast of Citadel + Compagnie's "Looking for Elvis"

One myth I want to take down with this interview is the romanticized image of inspiration. Yes, we all get eureka moments: I have plenty of them. However, in my case, they’re never actually good ideas. Instead, those moments of inspiration are actually doors to the real idea, but I get too caught up in those moments to make use of the gateway they are it. (Which hurts when you realize you need to delete half your novel because it’s full of eureka moments.)

Laurence Lemieux also puts to bed the myth that inspiration comes in a flash of lightning. She’s the artistic director of Citadel+Compagnie and the choreographer of Looking for Elvis, which plays at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance in Toronto from May 2-5 and May 9-12, 2018, alongside renowned Canadian choreographer James Kudelka’s work The Man in Black.

The idea for Looking for Elvis began back in 2012, when Lemieux travelled to Graceland as part of a road trip to Nashville with her daughter to celebrate a milestone birthday.

“It was not at all what I thought it would be,” Lemieux says about Graceland, Elvis’s home in Memphis. She was expecting a mansion. “And you get there and it’s a little home.” (I agree with her: I had the same experience when I visited in my teens.)

But visiting Graceland opened up her artist’s mind: “I could imagine living in that home, because even though it was the 70s, it was really cozy. And I was like, ‘Wow! Who is this guy?’ I wanted to know more about Elvis.”

It’s not that Lemieux didn’t know who he was—she has always been a fan but “not like a crazy fan,” she says. But who was the man behind the performer?

She believes all performers experience what Elvis must have experienced, though admittedly usually to a smaller extent.

“You do a great show, people clap, you take a bow, you feel like a million bucks, you take your make-up off, you go home, and, you know, you eat a sandwich. The glamour is really sometimes in the moment on stage and then your life is actually not that,” she says.

Even though the question was planted with this visit, Lemieux says she didn’t have the idea at that time to choreograph a show that would answer it. She did listen to more of his music, but not even then did she have the moment of inspiration. It took a commission from another local dance company before she realized she might be on to something. Later, when Kudelka was remounting The Man in Black, Lemieux felt the two pieces would complement each other nicely for a show.

Lemieux never saw Elvis in a negative light. He wasn’t “fat” or “tacky” in her mind. Instead, she believes Elvis had a talent, and everyone wanted to make money off him: “They want money, so they want him to perform. So the damage that does to the person himself, that’s what I wanted to look at,” Lemieux says. It’s a cycle that keeps repeating: Michael Jackson, Prince, and many more.

Cast of Citadel + Compagnie's "Looking for Elvis"

“Look for Elvis.” Photo by John Lauener

To Lemieux, if Elvis were an office worker, he would have probably been sent home for a few weeks to rest and recuperate. I’d have to agree with her on that: a sick employee could actually cost a company money, whereas sending them home for awhile and having their short-term disability insurance cover the bill would save money. With performers, it’s the opposite: A performer can really be “here today, gone tomorrow,” and if the performer doesn’t perform, then the entourage doesn’t get paid.

Each choreographer has their own way of working. Some know exactly what they want and direct the dancers accordingly, whereas others have ideas in their mind and work with the dancers to embody those ideas on stage. Lemieux’s style more closely matches the latter group. She directs the movement but has her dancers find their own personal journey through it. “But I tell them emotionally where it should be sitting,” she says. “I tell them who they are in that moment and what they should be thinking. So, I give them a lot of feedback on their character more than the actual steps. Sometimes I think I direct them more like I would an actor.”

Kudelka has been the resident choreographer at Citadel+Compagnie for ten years now. Former Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada, the New York Times has called him “ballet’s most original choreographer.” The Man in Black, though, is not what comes to mind when you think of ballet. A homage to Johnny Cash, the work’s backbone is four dancers in cowboy boots. In contrast to Looking for Elvis, which Lemieux describes as more emotional, The Man in Black is Kudelka’s response to the music as a score. (Kudelka was not available for an interview, so I couldn’t ask him how the idea for this piece came about.)

James Kudelka's "The Man in Black." Citadel + Compagnie

“The Man in Black.” Photo by John Lauener

The beauty of creativity is exploration: Lemieux describes one sequence in The Man in Black where Kudelka explores what cowboys would do if they had to dance. (Picturing Clint Eastwood trying to line dance makes me smile.) In Looking for Elvis, Lemieux choreographed a sequence where one dancer embodies Las Vegas Elvis, with all the bling, and she puts a microscope on what happens once he begins to falter: some of his friends turn their back on him, ignore him.

Inspiration doesn’t always come with a flash of lightning or a crescendo in orchestral music. It sometimes comes to us slowly, seeping via little windows into our minds until something pushes us to create a whole out of the pieces. If you find yourself frustrated with your own creative endeavours, see if you’re waiting for that eureka moment. Because if you are, you’ll be waiting for a long time. The world around you is already speaking to you, and those ideas are already in your head, waiting to be expressed. Lemieux works her ideas out on her dancers, and just like her, you can work your ideas out in your art form. That’s where you’ll find your creativity. And your inspiration.

Looking for Elvis and The Man in Black will be showing at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance in Toronto from May 2-5 and May 9-12, 2018. Tickets are available here. 

The Freelancing Fallacy: You Believe a Freelancing Career Means You’re Your Own Boss

Man jumping over some mountains, looks like he's jumping over the sun. The sky is orange.

Enraptured by the idea of running your own business so you’re your own boss? Sick and tired of answering to a tyrannical boss at work? Love the idea of getting up whenever you want to without having to apologize to your manager and team at work?

Please, please listen to me when I say this: When you run your own business, you have lots of bosses. They’re your clients, vendors, and, yes, even the government.

So don’t quit your day job to start your own business just because you can’t stand the manager you have right now.

Freelancing is Like School

One of the best things our education system teaches us is how to adjust what we produce to meet the needs of the person in power. In school, college, and university, that’s your teacher, instructor, professor. At work, it’s your boss, and likely even your boss’s boss, your boss’s boss’s boss, and so on.

You had to look at the course requirements, you likely listened for hints from other students on how to succeed in a teacher’s class, and you may even have visited rating sites to find tips for profs you were stuck with.

School was the perfect training ground for running your own business. Some clients will be happy with almost anything you produce, and some will have exacting standards you need to meet. If you want to find success, you’ll have to learn to adjust to each client’s preferences.

Running by Your Own Rules

There are also consequences if you ignore your clients’ wishes and requirements. Yes, you can set your hours without asking anyone for permission. That’s true. But if a good client calls you up and says they have $1,000 worth of work for you to do the week of your vacation, what will your answer be?

There are ways to mitigate such situations, and I thankfully haven’t lost any business yet because of family time away from home. But I have taken on last-minute work that needed weekend time to get done, because otherwise I would’ve lost out on $700.

Choosing Your Clients

The plus side to needing a variety of clients is choice: you can choose whom you want to work with. For some, that is the ultimate freedom. If a potential client is already very demanding on the phone before you’ve even agreed to a contract, you can politely decline, saying you’re busy. Or you can refer them to someone who may be willing to work with them. (Just because you don’t jive with that person doesn’t mean someone else will have that same feeling.)

If your client roster is full of people you enjoy working with, then almost every assignment is fun and fulfilling. Unlike in an employment situation, where you have the same boss, no matter your feelings about them, you have some leeway with your clients.

 

Employment Laws

I love freelancing, and I don’t want to turn you off running your own business if that’s what you really want to do. But if you’re doing it to escape the nightmare boss you’re working for right now, you may be better off just getting another job.

Running your own business can cause a lot of financial insecurity, and you have no employment laws to protect you. Client not paying on time? Can’t call the labour board. Client shouting at you over the phone? Can’t talk to their boss about harassment. Did someone choose not to work with you because of your sexual orientation? I’m certain you won’t have much of an argument at the human rights tribunal.

If you need to force a client to do something, it’s up to you to get a lawyer involved. And it’s up to you to pay for it.

Do This Self-Test

If you’re planning to freelance, write up your business plan. In it, include your ideal type(s) of client AND where you think you could find them. Then gear your marketing plan towards that. Estimate time and cost, and add 15% (because it’ll often take longer and cost more than you think).

You still run the risk of finding less-than-ideal clients, but once you sit down and think this through, it should help clarify if running your own business is really what you want.

Why?

Because you will hopefully find out how hard marketing is and think twice before you strike out on your own. Freelancing is extremely fulfilling, but some aspects of it are extremely hard, and finding the right clients can be one of those aspects. But don’t go into freelancing because you get to be your own boss.

Because you don’t.

Getting Back on Top of Your Goals

Black mug with the words "eternal optimist" in gold.

It’s Not too Late

The first quarter of 2018 is almost over. So, I’m going to ask that ominous question, the one that sounds like the monster that’s been hiding in your closet all these years, whose presence you keep denying to yourself.

How are your New Years’ goals coming along?

Ouch. Did that hurt? Did you feel an arrow fly into your stomach? Or maybe into your head as you suddenly remembered you even had New Years’ goals?

I’m certain you’re not alone, and I’ve got news for you: it’s not too late to start the pursuit again.

Review the Last 3 Months

This might be painful, but quarterly reviews clarify for you what’s going on. What’s really going on. They break the safety bubble you live in, because you’re faced with the good, the bad, the ugly, and the very ugly when you review your progress of the past three months. But keep this in mind: In my experience, the more honest I am with myself and my progress, the easier pursuing my goals becomes. Why? Because I fear less.

When you review your last few months, ask yourself these questions:

Am I where I want to be?

If so, what did I do that got me there? (And continue doing it.)

If not, what did I do that didn’t work? (And find a new way of doing it.)

Get Support to Reach Your Goals

If you’re on track with your goals, you probably don’t want to mess with things. But if you’re off track, then it may be time to get help.

Here’s what happened to me last year: For the first time during my annual review, I calculated how much the time I’d spent on marketing efforts, multiplied it by the hourly rate of what I’d earned for the year, and used the total as a measure of how much money I’d “spent” on marketing last year. I then reviewed how much new business I’d won over the year. The final figures weren’t pretty. In fact, they were pretty devastating. So, I contacted a marketing consultant to do an audit on my efforts and set me on the right path.

But that’s what I’m talking about. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, haven’t reached your word goal, or still have the same number of customers as last year, get help! Either join a group, see your doctor, find a good therapist or coach…Whatever your means allow, now’s the time to get a little assistance.

Do You Need to Re-Align?

The beauty with checking in on your goals every quarter like this is that it gives you a chance to re-align them with where you are now. Remember, you created your New Years’ goals in a certain frame of mind, at a certain time in your life, under a certain set of circumstances. If your situation has changed, you may need to adjust how you achieve your goals.

That’s okay!

What if you planned to write 1,000 words a week but the serious diagnosis of a loved one rammed you off course? It doesn’t mean you can’t write at all.

What if you wanted to quit smoking but in the meantime lost your job, leaving you with more stress than your non-smoking self can handle? That  doesn’t mean you can’t regain your footing. You adjust. (And, of course, get help so you can make it through.) Remember, every little bit helps, so don’t discount small, regular steps towards your goals. Not everything has to be achieved by leaps and bounds.

Don’t be Afraid

Looking at progress is a powerful motivator to help you move forward. It’ll help you figure out what’s gone wrong and hopefully inspire you to plan your next steps to get back on track.

They say every journey begins with a step. Take that next step now to get back on the path you dreamed for yourself this year.

Returning to Grad School After 13 Years: What I’ve Learned So Far

Black and white drawing of a mother and her baby, and a book floating in the air and shining.

Considering grad school? I did. For over 10 years, actually, after I’d completed a Masters and two years of a PhD. Now I have a husband, two kids, a freelancing business, and my sanity. So I added a part-time PhD to the mix. You know, just to liven things up a bit.

Many things improve with age, and grad school is one of them. What strengthens my story a little is that I returned to the same department and program I had left over 10 years ago. Even my prof this semester is one I had back then. So the changes I’ve experienced at least can’t be attributed to a change in subject matter or school.

The Importance of Purpose

In my 20s…

I was too scared to step out into the real world. Teaching at the university level looked like fun, so I figured I might as well do it, since I had no idea what else to do with my life. (By now, I had become a professional student, though I didn’t realize it at the time.)

In my 40s…

My goals are crystal clear: to improve my German, my translation skills, and add literary translation to my freelancing business. Now, every book I read, every paper I write, every project I do is fuelled by this reason.

A Willingness to Learn

In my 20s…

This goes back to my Masters. My prof in my research methods course strongly advised us to take off one day a week. It was the only way to handle the workload, he said.

And you know what went through my head? He’s a prof. What does he know?

I also followed instructions literally. If our assignment for that week was to read a range of pages, I read them. And then I stopped. I’d love to blame the absence of the Internet to explain why I didn’t spend time looking up supplementary reading sources, but alas, I cannot: we had the Internet back then, too. The honest answer is that I just couldn’t be bothered to put in more effort than was necessary.

(I think I was actually angry that so much work was regularly assigned in grad school. And I was the one who’d chosen to be there…)

In my 40s…

Some of what we read is really difficult. My writer self can now see that it’s a case of bad writing and can try and decipher it. But more important than that, if I don’t understand something, I look up supplemental information, sometimes spending up to two hours if needed. (If I still don’t get it, I stop there. Yes, I’m in grad school, and independent learning is the cornerstone of that level of education. But I’m also here to be taught.)

As with any grad class, we have major assignments to complete: for this course, it’s a group project on a not-so-well-known author, and a 15-20-page paper. I’m no longer scared of spending time going down a few rabbit holes to find information that may or may not be useful. Why? Because I’m here to learn, and those rabbit holes often leave some interesting crumbs behind for later investigation and exploration. Moreover, I know from past experience that spending time reading and exploring is actually a lot of fun, and once I have the exact topic I’m looking for, researching, writing, and editing flow much easier.

Planning is My Friend

In my 20s…

I had no plan for anything I did in grad school. I just knew that I had to keep working so I could be ready for class the following week. I invariably left essays until the last minute, too. I just dove in, because, hey, who wants to waste time planning when you can just get the stuff done?

The result was a lot of stress because, without clear plans, work never ended.

In my 40s…

I plan each upcoming week over Friday and Saturday evening. It takes me an hour, sometimes two, and I’ll expand the plan into the following weeks if needed. The bonus: I often have Sundays free, despite all my commitments. However, if I need to work on a  Sunday, I make sure my time is carefully planned so I only do what’s necessary to stay on schedule.

These plans aren’t carved in stone, and the moment a kid gets sick, or a client suddenly needs more work down now, I have to shift my plans around. But because they’re already set, it’s easy to see what I have to give up and, more importantly, decide if that activity or plan is worth giving up for the new one that’s taking its place.

The Meaning of Boundaries

In my 20s…

Boundaries affect many areas of your life, including schedule, social, and work.

Without a clear schedule to my entire day (teaching and seminars excluded), work just bled and bled and bled. I couldn’t shut off. I was starting to analyze people’s speech patterns during casual conversation, because I hadn’t told my mind to stop working. It’s hard to enjoy a conversation when you’ve got theories running through your head to help you analyze it.

At first, I chalked it up to excitement at having discovered an area of study I loved. However, this excitement built and built and turned into full immersion: I studied and socialized within the department, and even dated within it. (And if I wasn’t dating within it, I was dating another PhD student within the faculty.) My studies, friendships, and relationships all deeply affected on another: Class was more exciting sitting next to my boyfriend, my friendships were more exciting because we could lament about not enjoying class all the time, and my relationship acted as a crutch to help me get through some of the tougher areas of class.

My studies had become my life, and if one thing went wrong, my whole world fell apart. Trust me. It’s not fun.

In my 40s…

The bus won’t drop my kids off when it’s convenient for me, and I can’t cook supper when I feel like it. So, when I calculate the time I have left over after my familial duties are taken care of, suddenly my available time for my studies becomes that much more valuable.

And guess what? I get a lot done in that time, more than I did in my 20s.

(Now, before you criticize me and ask how I know this, let me answer that for you: Once in a while, I fall back into old habits, for example, checking how many more pages I have left to read after every single page I read, or letting my mind wander far too many times. It makes a difference.)

How Did All This Change?

What happened, I believe, is that I spent about 15 years in the working world, where you risk getting fired if you don’t perform up to par. And unlike in the academic world, work keeps piling up and you’re left to your own devices to learn how to deal with it.

As a writer, that means meeting deadlines. A family member had an operation at the end of last month, and I had a short assignment due two days later. I handed it in before the operation. There was no way I was going to ask for an extension: that would embarrass me far too much now, because I see my prof as my boss.

I’m not saying that grad school is easy. The material we have to read can get really heady and often leaves me wanting to scream at the researcher for writing in such dense language. But I have processes to help me deal with the workload, and the maturity to once in awhile shrug my shoulders and go to class not fully prepared. In addition, I know roughly how long assignments will take, so I start working backwards to see when I need to start a project.

But it all comes down to what I just said: I know what I’m looking for, I’m open to learning, I take time to plan, and I live in a world of boundaries and commitments.

So, yes, returning to grad school can be done with work and familial commitments. But in my experience, you need discipline, project management skills, and a dose of humility: there will be times when you just can’t do it all.

And that’s okay.

Mixing Work and Kids = Inspiring Your Creativity

A colourful box of crayons in the foreground, a young child in a colourful shirt is colouring in the background. Kids and work can be done.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a hard time balancing work and kids. Next week, we celebrate Family Day in Ontario, and I realized I’ve book the day full of work duties! But the upcoming holiday has also reminded me that your family can feed your creativity and reinvigorate your brain for work.

If you’re more on the cerebral side of the spectrum, like I am, you may find communicating with kids a little hard, because you have difficulty breaking down your thought process to their level. Heck, you may even find what they do boring, because it doesn’t challenge you intellectually. I’ve been there, I’m still there, and I’m still trying to work on it.

(Granted, as hard as I try to find interest in my kids’ hobbies, I can’t develop any amount of enthusiasm for watching YouTubers play video games.)

Over the years, though, I’ve pushed myself to spend creative time with my kids, not just chore and parenting-related time, and not only does this push my brain in different directions, but it brings me closer to my children, and I find they even listen better.

See if any of these ideas work for you.

Creative Activities for Parents and Kids

Mad Libs: You buy these as pads, usually somewhere in a bookstore. They’re short texts with blanks, and you have to fill them in. The blanks are usually described as a noun, verb, adjective, or something similar. Not only will they help your kids recognize some parts of speech, you’ll likely both find yourselves in stitches as you read back the zany story you’ve both created.

Lego: This I find hard, because I’m stuck with some old inhibitions (I can’t create anything out of Lego except basic houses), and because I need to concentrate on the very foreign world the kids have created. But nothing makes my kids happier than showing off their Lego creations, and the brain drain I experience when playing with them improves my concentration.

Sewing: If you own a sewing machine,  just letting the kids (carefully!) run some fabric through it can be fun. I used to let my older son control the foot pedal when he was four or five. But certainly use your parenting judgment here. A sewing machine does have a needle, and kids’ hands are very small.

Sports: You don’t necessarily have to play a game that already exists. My husband loves making up games with our kids, and they have a blast at it. They’ve even created their own boardgames that the two play together in the evening. I’ll admit, this is less suitable for me, because I like consistency, but then again, maybe it could force me to use my brain differently.

TV: Yes, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest you watch TV with your kids. Not only does this help you, the parent, see what they’re actually watching, but it will, again, force your brain to focus on something different. If watching YouTubers playing video games is all your kids watch, then try a movie on the weekend, with some popcorn.

Painting: Yup, show your children that they’ve probably already bested you in the arena of art. And if you are talented in art, show them one or two tips that’ll make them better. (Of course, if your kids are old enough, maybe actually painting a room might be more engaging for all of you.)

Colouring: Those adult colouring books are more than suitable for kids over the age of five. My older kid (in the junior grades) will occasionally sit in the same room with me as we both colour for ten or fifteen minutes in separate books.

Writing: My youngest loves this. He’s in the primary grades, so he still finds spelling and printing arduous. He absolutely loves to dictate a story to me as I type it out in Scrivener. I set the timer for 10 or 15 minutes (my forearms can’t handle anything longer), and he’ll easily produce 300-600 words.

Dancing: Kids don’t care how you move. If your kids is active, turn on the tunes and get dancin’!

So, those are just a few ideas of how to build in some creativity time that will help you in your profession but also connect you with your children. Do you do any of these activities already? Or other ones?

Even Groups That Don’t Cost a Dime Cost You Time

A wooden hand holding up the think branch of a tree leaning to the right.

Make the Most of Your Group Membership

Unfortunately, when I started writing, I didn’t have the equivalent of my 20 years of dancing training to teach me how to do it. I’d taken an online course, contacted a magazine I had a vague connection with, and pitched an idea. They took it! AND they paid me for my work! But I wasted A LOT of time on those assignments, because I didn’t belong to an appropriate group:

  • I spent an hour interviewing people instead of 15 minutes.
  • I wasted hours trying to find a “creative angle,” not accepting that standard formats exist for a reason.
  • I spent so long trying to figure out HOW to write that I’m certain 20 hours passed before I finished a 1,000-word article.

You could argue I was learning how to “make it,” “putting in my sweat and tears,” as it were. And some of that is true. But, as my grade 11 teacher said, pushing harder on a pen cap to take it off the pen may be working harder, but it isn’t working smarter.

No matter the goal, a journey is par for the course. But if you’re going to go on that journey, take the highway, not the country road.

How Groups Help

Look at the goals you’re trying to achieve, then take three minutes to watch this video that illustrates, using jelly beans, how many days in your life you have to achieve them.

Now ask yourself this question:

Why on earth would you waste time re-inventing the wheel and trying to achieve your goals on your own?

7 Suggestions to Get the Most Benefit From Your Group

I’ve been a member of a group for non-fiction writers for, I think, seven years now. So it’s my turn to pay it forward and share with you advice that will help you get the most out of your group.

  1. Show up. Even if the meeting topics don’t sound interesting, show up. You may be reading the writing of someone who makes even a visit from Elton John sound like you’re going to watch the fireplace channel the entire time. You joined the group for the people, but you won’t meet them if you don’t show up.
  2. Bring questions. This will help you stay focused during your meeting. If you don’t get a chance to ask them, see if they can be emailed to members. After all, you’ve joined this group to get something out of it: Don’t sit on the sidelines and wait to be asked if you have any questions.
  3. Volunteer, if you can. This is how you meet more members in larger organizations, e.g., national ones, and how you get to better know some of the members in your local group.
  4. Know your members. That way, if you have questions you’d rather not ask publicly, you can ask them privately. If your group is large, focus on getting to know a few, and then branch out.
  5. Give your opinion if asked. If someone asks your opinion, assume they actually want it. You can show respect and be honest at the same time, and, speaking as the leader of my group, I want to know what my members think so I can improve their experience. In other words, don’t be afraid to speak up.
  6. Take home one action item after every meeting. And commit to completing it (or at least starting it) before the next meeting. This cadence will help you assess your investment (even if it’s only time): the membership is either helping you or wasting your time and possibly your money, but you won’t know what it’s doing if you don’t put what you’re learning into practice.
  7. Be prepared to say something about yourself. Most groups start off with some informal chit chat before everyone gets down to business. Having something to share in those situations will help others get to know you.

Take advantage of your membership, even if you have to push yourself at the start. You joined for a reason, and you won’t see any benefits if you don’t jump in.

In other words, don’t wait for the group to do something for you. Take an active role and get something out of it yourself.

Get the Best out of Your Goals: Join a Group

A group of people placing their hands in the centre of the circle.

Joining the right group can help you achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself this year. Not only can group members help you stay accountable to your plan, but being around others with similar goals can really affect your ability to stick to your own plan. I belong to a professional writing association in Canada, and it has kept me going over the years. But how do you know you’ve found a good group?

Speaking from Experience

I’m a writer and therefore belong to a profession that has an unusual trait: it invented a term for when you run out of ideas: writer’s block. I forget who said this, but it seems writers are the only ones who’ve done this. Have you heard of doctor’s block? Sales rep’s block? Politician’s block? Writers can easily spend an entire evening talking about how they have no ideas.

But I pay $250 a year to belong to a group of professional writers. You can bet I don’t want to spend my evening talking about not having ideas! Nor do I wish to spend an entire meeting lamenting about industry changes, bad clients, or the like. With my group, even if several members have had a depressing month, there’s always someone there to say, “Yeah, but did you know there’s a way to deal with that?”

Groups That Raise You UpTeam-building fist pumps over a table.

The catch is that you want to surround yourself with people who are moving forward. Even if these people fall three steps back, they find enough energy to take one step forward. If they then fall back five, they still get up and take one forward. You get the picture, right?

No matter what group you join to help you with your New Years’ resolutions, it’s the you-can-get-past-this attitude you’re looking for. The last thing you want is for everyone around the room to nod their heads in understanding and then start sharing similar stories. By the end of the evening, you’re all depressed. What good does that do?

So now you may be asking, “But I’ve had a rough time since the last meeting. Am I not allowed to talk about that?”

Of course you are! Whatever your goal, you’re going to hit roadblocks. It’s inevitable. And those roadblocks will at best frustrate you and at worst make you debate if your goals are worth striving for. How do you overcome these ugly monsters? You differentiate between venting and commiserating.

Venting releases the pressure that a roadblock has built up, and there’s nothing more freeing than talking with others who know exactly what you’re going through. Commiserating, on the other hand, means everyone joins in and laments with you, and nothing is accomplished.

How a Group Can Help You

In the end, you’re going to have to make a decision, and hopefully you’ve found a group that sees things the same way, because this decision really boils down to three choices:

  1. Keep stewing about the issue, wasting valuable creative energy.
  2. Let the situation go, if possible. (E.g., if you’re having a hard time paying taxes, you can’t let that go. But if some stranger said something rude to you today, you can imagine turning it into fuel for a fire and using it to warm yourself up.)
  3. Decide to change something in the situation (which often means changing something about yourself) and take your first step towards that change.

Ask your group for various options, and then commit to your next action, even if it’s that you’re going to think things through and report back to the next meeting.

Finding a Good Fit

If you’ve already joined a group that can help you with your goals, and if that group meets your expectations, then you’re doing awesome! If you’re not sure about joining a group, though, here are a few tips:

  • Check out the group’s online presence and see if it feels like a supportive, knowledgeable group to join.
  • Ask the group’s organizer if you can participate in a meeting. Then you can see how the members support each other.
  • If you don’t want everyone staring at you, ask if you can meet in person with one or two members.

There are ways to get a feel for the group before committing to it, and these suggestions are especially helpful if the group costs something to join.

Joining the right group can be just the thing to propel you forward faster than you planned. Don’t sit back and deliberate if you should join: do some research, then send out those emails and ask for more information. Do it now before the month is over.

Time to Focus

You’ll find that one of the hardest things to accept with leading a more creative life is that you will need to focus. Despite what many self-help gurus say, you can’t have it all. (I’m not against self-help gurus, but you do need to read what they say with a grain of salt sometimes.)

I’ve been working my way through David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and it’s given me the full picture of everything I’m trying to accomplish in life. It’s quite daunting, actually. The first exercise he has you do (and I’ve blogged about this before) is to write down absolutely everything that “has your attention.” I like how he uses that phrasing, because it gets you out of the mindset of a formal to-do list and into the mindset of brainstorming all the things you’ve got swimming around in your head.

What this all means for me, then, is that I’m changing the purpose of my blog. I’ll be starting grad studies soon to further my education in German, so the time I spend writing here each week will shift over to preparing for my studies. (If you’re here because you’re looking for a copywriter, I’m still taking on clients.) As such, I’ll use the blog for announcements, book reviews as they come along, and special interviews and important topics, but I’ll no longer be blogging weekly, at least not for now. If there’s one thing that reading David Allen’s book has made clear to me, it’s that I need time to focus.

Enjoy the few days left of summer!