Tag Archives: Judgement

Noting a Broken Pattern

Today (or yesterday, I suppose) I had a really useful meeting with Sandy Thomson, Artistic Director of Bell Rock (formerly Poorboy), in her role as a Cultural Enterprise advisor.

I had gone seeking advice regarding Tightlaced’s structure and legal status, as well as hoping to pick up some tips from an artist who successfully runs a theatre ensemble herself. She gave me lots of information and food for thought regarding company structure and how a co-operative model might work, and she referred me on to other Cultural Enterprise resources for anything she couldn’t help me with herself. (If you’re an artist who doesn’t already know about the Cultural Enterprise Office, READ THIS NOW. Then come back here and finish reading this.)

But just as important as her advice was her support. I don’t get many chances to talk to other artistic directors of methodology-led ensembles. Sandy and I spoke about the possibilities and pitfalls presented by ensemble work and she reminded me that considering my own needs and wants is not only allowed but actually essential.

We talked about the boom and bust patterns that seem so difficult to avoid in the leaders of groups who work this way, which led me to acknowledge a very important milestone that I had allowed to pass unnoticed – even by me.

I have not experienced physical burnout since April.

I know that probably sounds like nothing, but for me it’s major. For years I’ve run on 12-weekly cycles, working flat out for three months at a time and then collapsing with a monster cold/flu-type thing which seems to be the physical manifestation of my exhaustion. I’d take a day or two off if I could (by which I mean I’d keep working but I’d do it from home) then I’d drag myself back up to full speed as quickly as possible.

It was a ridiculously unhealthy attitude, don’t think I don’t know that. I once fractured my coccyx and destabilised a couple of joints and went straight from the ambulance to rehearsal with no time at all to rest. That’s one of the more extreme examples, but at the time I saw it as the obvious thing to do. I started behaving this way because I felt I had to, because there was never enough time to do everything I felt I should be doing, then I kept doing it because I was trapped in the pattern.

This time last year I figured out exactly how destructive my pattern was and made a promise that I would get better. I had just finished Romeo and Juliet and I was ill, yet again. I had been deteriorating for over a month, starting with the usual cold and culminating in a kidney infection. I’d like to say that was my last physical burnout, but despite my promises to myself there was one more to come. I completely overworked myself in March and had one last cold from hell to see me through April.

Since then, though, I’ve been doing well. Even though this has not been an easy year in terms of mental health, where physical health is concerned I’ve been a lot better at maintaining my equilibrium. Even if I’m knocked flat on my back by a cold tomorrow, the fact remains that I have come this far. I paced myself so that I didn’t succumb to Fringe Lurgy. I struggled mentally around the anniversary of my Mum’s death but stayed physically well. I was anticipating burnout after the double bill, but in spite of all the long days, late nights and endless energy being poured into the work, I was still standing afterwards.

As I said, this probably sounds like nothing, but do you know how long it’s been since I went more than twelve weeks without exhausting myself to the point of illness? The last time I can remember was 1995. Seventeen years ago. Something I hadn’t actually stopped and worked out until today. So it’s important to me – the footprint of the first tiny steps in the direction of a healthier approach to work and life.

Sandy talked to me about the importance of reward and recognition, and the fact that recognition is often of equal or greater importance than reward. It felt that was. Something in my mind feels lighter for realising this. Perhaps it’s just the feeling of letting up on myself after many years of berating myself for (ironically enough) being too hard on myself. (I’m sure that sentence could be better constructed and not contain the same word three times, but… welcome to nearly 2am.)

There’s more that came out of the session and I’ll write about that as I work through it. Some will be here, some on the Tightlaced blog. But for tonight, that was the big thing. Thank you Sandy. If nothing else had come out of the session, it would have been worth it for that alone.


Some thoughts on Artists Open Space

It’s taken me a while to get round to writing up my thoughts on the Open Space at Waverley Gate. What with directing and producing two shows concurrently, this is the first spare moment I’ve had to write things down! With any luck, I’ll get round to answering some of the emails I’ve received in the wake of it too…

It was a very intense day. On the one hand it was very exciting and inspiring to be around so many artists who all felt strongly about the need for change. On the other, there were a few frustrations – the focus was mostly on how we make it easier for artists to access the money available through Creative Scotland. I’m not denying that that’s important, but I don’t think that rethinking the application forms is sufficient. These problems with Creative Scotland are the result of ideological problems. For Creative Scotland to function well and be useful to artists rather than an obstacle to them, it must sort its collective head out.

When I look at the information currently available on the CS website and at their funding forms, I see language which reflects some troubling ideology. It’s very ‘businessy’. The Creative Scotland staff who attended the Open Space were at pains to point out that part of CS’ function is to act as an interlocutor between artists and government, making the case for our continued funding and role in society. Fair enough, but the issue is that if you don’t speak both languages you’re not much use as an interpreter. If artists are expected to learn the ‘businessy’ language (assuming it can be learned, because some of it looks like it really doesn’t mean anything), what’s the point of an intermediary? If that’s the role CS wants to fulfil, they need to speak OUR language. If they only speak the language of government, they can hardly be surprised if we regard them as an agent of government.

The thing is, solving this problem involves a lot of talk. I got a strong sense that several people at the meeting regard ‘talk’ and ‘action’ as mutually exclusive terms. They’re not. Sometimes talk is exactly the action that’s needed. And how do you carry out any kind of collective movement if you don’t plan it first? There’s no point in ‘taking action’ if all you’re doing is charging around blindly. First you have to figure out what to do, and that’s a lot easier if you have some idea why you’re doing it. Creative Scotland needs to figure that out. WE need to figure that out. I can see why it’s an unpopular view – it’s hard work, long-term work and it’s much less dramatic/fun than charging around blindly or yelling about how “someone should do something” and demanding resignations. Yet until we actually knuckle down and do that work, we will run into the same problems again and again and again.

Having said all of that, one of the principles of Open Space is that whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened. This meeting was the start of the process, and it was a bloody good start. I remember the organisers of Devoted & Disgruntled saying that they usually find that on the first day of their events everyone is more disgruntled, rediscovering their devotion on the second day. Considering how angry and frustrated the artistic community has been, it’s hardly surprising that there was a lot of attention going to surface issues. (I had originally hoped to make it a two day event for this very reason, but I could only get the Waverley Gate space for one day. I took what I could get.)

The other major frustration was numbers. 90 people signed up via Eventbrite. 35 of them turned up, plus another 10 – 12 who hadn’t registered. There are always no-shows, especially when you’re dealing with a lot of freelancers with busy schedules, but that was a ridiculous number. When the event showed up as sold out I had to turn people away.

On a personal level, it’s also a wee bit infuriating to see how much better attended the Glasgow meeting was today. I love Edinburgh, I really, really do, but when it comes to actually speaking up for ourselves and not being apathetic, Glasgow beats us hands-down every time. I hear so many people complaining that it’s hard to make a living as an artist in Edinburgh, it’s easier if you go to Glasgow – but do something to change things in Edinburgh and where are the people who complain? You want things to change, TURN UP and make it happen – or don’t be surprised when it doesn’t.

On the positive side, I think that between Artists’ Open Space and the Tramway World Cafe we have succeeded in making it clear to Creative Scotland and their board that this is not a problem that’s going to go away in a few months’ time. (Perhaps some of their board members will actually come along to future meetings. They really need to, just as members of the senior management team need to make sure they continue to be present. We need them to be a regularly-appearing feature of the arts world, otherwise we’re naturally going to perceive them as shut away in their ivory tower upstairs from Amazon.)

It was also really useful to bring artists together. There were plenty of cards being exchanged and I’ve had some lovely emails saying how much people got out of the day. There are now a few more artists who want to make change and know where to find each other. It’s small, but it’s important. We need to keep networking, keep talking, keep making little changes in attitude and action.

In terms of Creative Scotland making changes, probably the biggest point to come out of the day was a promise to rewrite the website with the help of various organisations such as the Literature Trust and Federation of Scottish Theatres. They’re planning to rewrite by next April and I doubt this gives them time to learn our language, but perhaps we can harness our collective power to work through our representative organisations and make our voices heard. If there is an organisation that represents your art form, contact them and check that they’re being consulted and that they’re looking after your discipline’s interests. We have a chance to make change here if we keep applying the pressure.

There was also talk about the need for artists in the decision-making process, on the Creative Scotland board and in consultation roles where they can share their expertise from an external perspective. It seemed that the need was acknowledged, so now we need to hear how that’s going to be achieved. I’m still gathering reports/notes from the meeting and posting them on the Artists’ Open Space site, but once they’re all in I’ll send the link and action points to Andrew Dixon and his team. There will definitely be a request for hi to outline their plans for increasing artist involvement.

So at the end of all this I’m still feeling optimistic, and I can’t wait to hear what has come out of the Glasgow meeting. I’m also feeling somewhat drained by the whole thing, but that could have something to do with the impending dress and tech rehearsals for the double bill… Plans are afoot for more Open Spaces to continue the work, but I won’t be doing anything about organising them until my shows are up and running next week.


Talking to Creative Scotland: Making Plans

This afternoon I had a meeting with Kenneth Fowler at Creative Scotland. It was a pleasant chat, refreshingly free of corporate-speak, and I should probably mention in the interests of clarity that he was the one who got in touch with me.

The most important thing first: I got the go-ahead for an Open Space at Waverley Gate. It won’t be organised or structured by Creative Scotland – it’ll be an open, artist-led conversation. The beauty of Open Space is that anyone can propose a discussion; it’s not a chaired meeting with an agenda, it’s a series of self-guided conversations around a central theme. How that theme will be worded I’m not yet sure, but I’ll be seeking guidance from some more experienced people as I figure it out.

Hopefully, this will be a starting point rather than a one-off event. I’d like to see this developing into a series of regular, roving meetings so that there’s a means of ongoing communication between artists/arts organisations in all parts of Scotland, following the Devoted & Disgruntled model. Collectively, we can feed back to Creative Scotland – and why stop there? There are plenty of organisations out there who exist to administer funding and develop artistic talent. There’s cultural policy to be created. It would surely be beneficial to everyone concerned (by which I mean everyone who cares about the arts whether as creator or consumer) for these things to be informed by continuous feedback from the arts industries themselves.

Of course, all we can do is have the conversations. Once we’ve passed the information on, it’s up to Creative Scotland and other arts organisations to decide what they do with it. Maybe they’ll use it wisely, maybe they won’t use it at all. If it’s the former, that’s great! We all win. If it’s the latter… well, we’ll have tried. We’ll have done as Andrew Dixon asked and brought the conversation to Creative Scotland, not just to the newspapers and Twitter – but much more importantly, we’ll have brought it to each other and we’ll all be better informed and have expanded our own networks in the process. We could do worse.

I’ve been accused over the past wee while of being too optimistic, insufficiently cynical, too willing to give Creative Scotland the benefit of the doubt. All of these things are fine with me. I find it far too easy to be cynical. Being optimistic is more of a challenge. But I’d really rather hope and work for the best than expect the worst. The arts funding situation in Scotland is far from perfect, but it’s the situation we’re in. If we don’t like it – and I haven’t met a single person, artist or administrator, who seems to like it – we need to change it. And by we, I mean artists, audiences, administrators, creators, consumers, everyone who cares about the arts for any reason whatsoever. An Open Space is not a panacea, but it’s a way to bring people from all of these areas (and probably others I haven’t thought of) together, and that seems like a decent place to start.

As soon as I’ve arranged a date to use Creative Scotland’s space, I’ll start spreading the word… Keep watching!


On Emerging

I haven’t yet seen Sylvia Dow’s A Beginning, A Middle and an End. My tickets are booked and I’m looking forward to seeing it when it reaches the Traverse.

My reasons are twofold. First, I have fond memories of Sylvia. I’ve no idea whether she would remember me, but back when I was 16 and still suffering from delusions of wanting to be a singer, she gave me my first major role in an amateur production of Viva Mexico. (Seriously. This is my version of a misspent youth.) So when I saw that she’d written a play I was keen to see it and to hope it’s going well for her. 

Second, even if I’d never met Sylvia I would be intrigued by the publicity surrounding her as a playwright having her first play produced at 73. This fact attracts a great deal of comment in the reviews I’ve seen, and it got me thinking about the culture of “emerging artists” and the expectation that “emerging” should be synonymous with “young”. Take this review from Mark Fisher, for example: Click! The final sentence really interests me, describing this play as “an auspicious, if tardy, debut”.

‘Tardy’ is a really interesting choice of word. Dictionary.com offers the definitions late; behind time; not on time; moving or acting slowly; slow; sluggish; delaying through reluctance. All of these have rather negative connotations – possibly not Mr Fisher’s intention, and I chose his review rather than any other because it happened to be the last one I read. What intrigues me is not the attitude of an individual reviewr but  how the word choice might indicate that we’ve internalised the idea that making one’s debut should happen during youth.

I don’t know Sylvia’s circumstances. I’ve no idea why her playwriting career is just beginning now. Maybe she was happily prioritising other things. Maybe she was languishing in a job she hated and working up the nerve to send out her script. Maybe she didn’t feel the need to express herself in this particular medium until recently. I don’t know.

I would only consider this to be a truly tardy debut if for some reason it should have happened earlier. If, for some reason, some administrative error or some failure to recognise her ability or some dastardly plot to keep her work from being programmed were at fault – if the work was there and ready to go but being held back by some outside agency when it should have been out there – then I might use the same phrase. But if someone makes a series of choices which lead to their beginning a playwriting career at 73, I’d rather use language that applauds them.

The question of what constitutes an emerging artist comes up again and again. Many schemes for emerging playwrights have upper age limits. The Traverse Young Writers group is for 18 – 25s, likewise the Royal Court. Old Vic New Voices only recently opened widened its age range so that you can now make it to the grand old age of 30 before you cease to be eligible.

When I look at publicity concerning new playwrights there’s frequently a mention of their age. Look at Ella Hickson, Lucy Prebble, Katori Hall, Mike Bartlett – just a few off the top of my head, all of whom were in their early to mid twenties when they experienced their first major successes. I remember when Enron came out, for example, much was made in the media of Lucy Prebble’s youth and precocity. It’s understandable that people look for human interest and I suppose age is a part of that, but I think there’s a real danger in the idea that producing work young is automatically a good thing. Some of the work produced by young playwrights is amazing. Some is not. There’s a lot more to it than age.

18 – 25 were turbulent years for me. I had my first major depressive episode at 18 and could barely put my socks on, let alone write. Just after I got back on my feet, my mother died. The following year, my father died and I was being watched for signs of pancreatic cancer. Eight months after that I was badly injured in a car accident. I had to spend two years living in my dead parents’ house because I had nowhere else to go while the estate was being wound up. By the time I was in a position to start rebuilding my life and training as a director, I was 24.

I’m now a few months away from my 30th birthday. Going by many people’s definition of ’emerging’, I’m either already past it or I’m about to be. Yet it took me until a couple of years ago to be able to write anything I felt I could submit, so in many ways I still feel like an emerging writer.

On the one hand, I’ve got a ton of valuable life experience. On the other hand, I’ve got all the angst that goes with it. That kind of life experience isn’t necessarily something that you can put to use straight away. For a long time I found that it was just to painful to write anything truthful. Even if the subject matter wasn’t directly related to my own experiences, I couldn’t put my characters through anything really difficult because I couldn’t bear to subject anyone to the same levels of pain that I had been through, even if they were fictional. Writing plays where nothing too bad happens to anyone doesn’t really get you that far, since conflict drives drama.

Or I would go to the other extreme and write deeply tortured work, trying to understand why I had to go through so much, trying to make sense of my grief. I still have the things I wrote then. At this moment I think it’s unlikely that I’ll ever share them, because some things are just too raw and too personal. There’s no way I could handle criticism on that stuff, especially not from anyone who hasn’t had similar experiences.  Perhaps I’ll change my mind someday, but I’m not convinced that that will ever be for public consumption.

The bits and pieces that I wrote during that time added up to nothing complete. My focus was too narrow – I would write scene after scene going over the same ideas, because my focus was on making sense of my experience rather than creating a narrative that could be understood from the outside. Working my way past that stage took time, so I didn’t have a completed play to my name until I was 28.

Sometimes that makes me feel ancient, slow, somehow less worthy than all these people who were produced playwrights before they turned 23. It makes me feel that if I had only worked harder, applied myself more, I could have done that too.

Realistically, I know I couldn’t. Being an only child dealing with the emotional and administrative nightmare of dying parents is… well, time-consuming, amongst other things. My dedication and application weren’t really the issue. At 21, my priority was making sure my dad’s final months were as painless as possible. My head was full of Power of Attorney and Do Not Resuscitate and morphine:sedative ratios. Shaping anything I wrote into something worth reading would have required energy I simply didn’t have. And as for being trapped in their house, surrounded by memories and devoid of other options… it’s creatively stifling, to say the least. If you can’t imagine why, think yourself lucky.

Anyway, all this is to say that for me, getting anywhere with my writing when I was under 25 was simply not on the cards. Even without my slightly melodramatic circumstances, it’s quite possible that for some people it simply takes a while to find their way onto that path. Priorities change. People change. Perhaps it would be healthy to respect and even celebrate that, rather than clinging to this slightly X-Factor-ish idea that people are “born” to do something and work towards it all their lives, never letting anything get in their way. Really, how many of us can honestly lay claim to that? Passion is no less true because you discover or acknowledge it later in life, and only a privileged few don’t encounter any major setbacks along the way.

I realise that in order for support for artists to exist there are always going to be categories and that most of the time these will be pretty arbitrary. It’s imperfect, but it’s part of life and all we can do is look for ways to keep improving things. That said, I think it’s worth keeping an eye on the tiny, subtle judgements and values that sneak their way into our thoughts, revealing themselves every so often in the words we use and the way we respond to things.

That’s a lot of words to say “Why can’t we just judge writers by their writing rather than their life stories?”, but I don’t write these posts just to throw questions out into the void. Nor do I write them thinking that I’ll reach an answer on the first attempt. I write this and leave it here, perhaps to be unpicked further after these current thoughts have percolated for a while. In the meantime, I’ll continue to look forward to seeing Sylvia’s show later this month.


Reviewing a review of reviews, both as reviewer and reviewed

First things first – I strongly recommend reading this post by the excellent Jenni Gould: http://rantingjen.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/arts-journalism-where-did-it-go-wrong/

Don’t want to click the link? Let me give you a precis: The Fringe is full of untrained reviewers churning out masses of reviews, and Ms Gould suggests that we should be holding ourselves to higher standards because “many of the companies involved have worked tirelessly for months and it’s true that maybe their shows are far from worthy of five stars. What they are worthy of is a proficient review whether good or bad”.

I agree. Completely. Whole-heartedly. I loved her article so much that it prompted me to write this long-promised post about my views on reviewing. So here goes…

We’ve already covered the fact that I’m an artist in other posts. Indeed, I never shut up about it. I write, direct, perform and do whatever else ignites my interest. I’ve been on the receiving end of my fair share of reviews, good and bad.

I also write reviews. Unlike Jenni, I’m not trained – we did the same degree but with different specialisms. However, while I’m not a trained journalist, I am a trained director and writer, and it’s that training that informs my reviews and makes me think that peer review should be a much more common part of artistic life.

Too often I hear people saying “oh, reviews are just an opinion”. This is often true, but it shouldn’t be. Reviews aren’t meant to be a simple knee-jerk reaction. If that’s all you’re capable of expressing, you have no business reviewing. Yes, we all have opinions on the things we see, but there’s a world of a difference between a show you dislike and a bad show. I’ve seen plenty of good, sound, well-constructed shows that I personally did not like. Perhaps I didn’t care for the subject matter or the writing wasn’t to my taste, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t well acted, skilfully directed, cleverly lit. I’ve also seen shows that were frankly sloppy in their construction, but where the infectious energy of the cast overcame technical weakness to create an enjoyable experience.

You might wonder “well, if you loved it/hated it, what do the reasons matter? Why are you overthinking everything?” Well, that’s because overthinking things is what I do and I love it. More importantly, simply accepting “I loved it” or “I hated it” is fine if you’re just seeing a show for your own enjoyment, but if you’re supposed to write something about it you’re going to need a bit more material than that, which brings us neatly to the question…

Who are you writing for? Personally, I try to write reviews that you can read as an audience member trying to decide where to spend your money, or as a company member looking for feedback that will help you to develop your practice. For the benefit of potential audience members I try to give a flavour of the show and some indication of what you can expect to see. I consider whether I would have been happy to pay my own money to see it and whether it resembles its advertising blurb and images. I give warnings where I can about poor sightlines or audibility, or whether you should stay out of the front row if you don’t like interaction.

I’ve had people question whether reviews should really be written with the performing companies in mind, but I am adamant that they should. It’s to everyone’s benefit for theatre companies to receive some technical assessment from an outside source. When you’ve created a show you’re far too close to it to have a clear view. The value of opinions from friends and family depends entirely on how truthful they’re willing to be, and there’s a strong chance that they’ll be people who lack the technical training to dissect your show in any detail. So who is left? Reviewers.

I really try hard to make sure my technical criticism is accurate and clear. No doubt there will have been people who read my reviews and feel that I’ve misunderstood their play entirely, at which point the best thing to do is read other reviews and see if you can detect other reviewers having similar misunderstandings or whether it’s just me. Perhaps there was a point you were trying to make with the thing I’ve criticised, but if everyone’s missing the point it needs to be clarified. If only one reviewer is, you probably don’t need to worry too much.

Of course, this level of detail is difficult to provide when you’re reviewing for some of the Fringe publications. I started out writing for ThreeWeeks, where you get 120 words. It’s a great exercise in precision and taught me how to write concisely. It can be very frustrating knowing that you can’t go into detail about your thoughts, but it’s a very useful discipline because you are forced to choose your points carefully.

Now I write for Edinburgh Spotlight, where I have 300 – 500 words to play with. More often than not, I come in closer to 300 because I’m in the habit of choosing what I believe to be the most important points and not overloading the review. It still feels luxuriously long, but I know that’s only because I learned to discipline my thoughts years ago so that I wouldn’t need 500 words to write a review that felt worthwhile to me.

I’ve been reading plenty of reviews this year, and I’m horrified by the lack of content in many of them. 120 words or more to say nothing of any value, just a kneejerk reaction followed by some waffling, usually designed to make the reviewer sound intelligent. (This never works, by the way – especially when you throw in a lot of fancy words that you don’t actually understand.) Yet we place such value on these reviews, even though they’re written in such a throwaway manner. So what can we do (apart from the obvious  Train Your Journos)?

Simple: Artists review each other. We’re supposed to be communicators, so let’s do it. One of the things I love about writing for Edinburgh Spotlight is that many of the reviewers are also artists in their own right. We know how tiny the theatre world is, so we all take pains to make sure our reviews are fair and balanced and constructive. If you want to give something a negative review you know it might (and probably will) come back to haunt you sooner or later, so you express views you can defend and explain rather than simply sticking the boot in. There’s a real temptation when reviewing to succumb to the lure of one’s own wit, to use a deliciously vicious phrase that might actually be a bit harsher than the piece deserves but you’re so taken with your own cleverness that it’s hard to resist. The more you have at stake – by which I mean, ‘the more likely you are to find yourself working with the subject of your barbed humour someday’ – the less likely you are to give in.

This is not to say that people who are not artists but solely critics are incapable of giving balanced views. There’s plenty of room for people reviewing solely from an audience point of view, although I would say that it’s doubly important for these people to have a certain amount of training in how to express their views, whether they’re writing for fringe review websites or the broadsheets.

It’s also an extremely useful discipline for artists to get used to thinking critically about each other’s work. We need to know how to give each other feedback and communicate with one another. I notice an alarming tendency to conflate ‘feedback’ and ‘criticism’ with ‘bashing’ – indeed, I quit a popular online theatre forum because I couldn’t stand to read one more post asserting that anything more critical than outright sycophancy is ‘bashing’ (yes, I appreciate the irony of leaving a discussion forum and then saying we should be able to communicate – let’s communicate elsewhere, all right?). Artists can’t work in a vacuum, and we can’t rely solely on print media where we’re being critiqued by professional critics rather than fellow artists who understand our discipline from the inside. Learning to trust is a good thing. Learning to speak truthfully yet not offensively is a good thing. Putting our art form before our egos is definitely a good thing.

Critical skills aren’t just for journalists – let’s ALL take Jenni Gould’s advice and up our game.


Openness

A friend who reads this blog recently asked me whether I’m concerned about the possible repercussions of writing as candidly as I do. (That might make my friend sound a bit judgemental – that’s not the case, I believe she was asking out of curiosity, not judgement, and she knows me well enough to know I’d take it that way.) The answer is ‘not really’.

Perhaps I should be, since this is a public blog on my personal site and I don’t make the slightest effort to conceal my identity. But to be honest, you won’t read anything here that I wouldn’t tell you in person, and if you asked about it I’d tell you on pretty short acquaintance. If I’m open about it in person, why not online?

There was a time when I worried about what people would think of me if they knew I had mental health problems. I would never actively conceal it, but I wasn’t as relaxed about it as I am now. For a while I stumbled through conversations making vague references to ‘illness’ and ‘being unwell’, trusting that people wouldn’t enquire further. They didn’t, but I found I wasn’t comfortable with keeping the waters muddy on purpose.

It’s difficult not to talk about it when you have these problems. I don’t mean that I spill the whole story to every passing stranger, but I’ve been dealing with it for over a decade and I’ve lost large chunks of time to the Crazy. There are gaps in my CV, my educational history and my life story due to non-functioning headspace, and if I’m getting to know someone it means that sooner or later they’ll start to notice that the chronology of my life doesn’t make much sense without context. My options are 1) redirect the conversation if it goes anywhere near the subject, 2) gloss over it by making the aforementioned vague references, or 3) tell the truth, with or without all the gory details.

I prefer the truth. I spent long enough being uncomfortable with all of this and fearing other people’s judgement. Keeping things vague only keeps people at arm’s length, and feeling that no-one knows or understands me feeds into the low moods during depressive episodes. Yes, it’s a leap of faith every time. No, I’m not always happy with the results. But on balance, it’s worth it. I can deal with the occasional bit of judgement in exchange for having other people open up in response to me.

As for whether this blog will ever hinder me professionally, I don’t know. Once again I find that I don’t really worry about it. I’m a self-employed artist and I choose to work with people who are likely to have experienced these things themselves or seen them at close quarters. The levels of judgement are reasonably low. Perhaps that wouldn’t be the case elsewhere in the industry, on the commercial side where the focus is more on business than art, but the choices I’ve made mean that I’m unlikely to find out first-hand.

More importantly, some of us have to take the chance. Talking openly about something that’s stigmatised will always put you at risk of being subject to that stigma. It’s not for everyone, but these days I’m feeling secure and supported enough to do it. I know how lucky I am to have that – there have been times in my life when I haven’t had that support and I know how much harder it makes things to be dealing with it alone. Every judgement, every bad day seems a hundred times worse. I haven’t forgotten that, and that’s why I feel the need to reach out from where I am now in the hope that it does some good. It helps me more to focus on that than to let myself go down the route of giving too much thought to what people I’ve never met or barely know think of me. If writing this costs me a job, I doubt it’s a job that would have lasted.


The Jump to Hyperfocus

I’ve been really pleased at the number of people who got in touch after my last post! This is what I mean about not feeling alone – there are plenty of us out there, and it’s a hell of a lot less lonely if we talk to each other. This isn’t specifically a mental health blog, but before we move on to other things I’d like to look at one aspect of the craziness in greater detail, since it plays an important part in my creative life and always has, even though I didn’t have a name for it until quite recently.

Adult ADD is one of my newer diagnoses, and I got it courtesy of a psychiatrist who worked with me last year before I moved back to Scotland. I went to her to address some self-destructive behaviours. During those sessions I had reason to show her a couple of my notebooks, and what she saw there prompted her to ask if I had any of my old school reports. I had. She read through them and asked me to do some tests. Based on my writing and my ridiculously high test scores, she concluded that I have Adult Attention Deficit Disorder.

Let’s get two things straight before we move on. First, there’s a lot of suspicion surrounding psychiatrists and I can understand why, but this particular shrink had nothing to gain from this diagnosis. She already knew I’d be leaving her practice shortly to go home, and there was no-one for her to hand me on to because believe me, for treatment of Adult ADD there is no-one. (Well, almost – there’s one specialist in the country and he’s busy enough not to need my custom.)

Second, there’s a lot of suspicion surrounding ADD itself, mostly because it has a very unhelpful name. Just to be perfectly clear, I don’t care whether you think ADD is real, made up, overdiagnosed or anything else. If you think it’s fake, that’s fine. I’m not asking you to consider whether you have it, or indeed to read further. Are we all happy with that? Good. 😉

Inevitably, you say Attention Deficit and the image that comes to mind is of schoolchildren running riot in classrooms, off their little faces on blue Smarties until they’re rounded up and Ritalin’d into doped obedience. I’m not like that and never have been. Even as a child I only ran around like a maniac very occasionally. I was much more likely to be the one sitting under a table with my nose in a book, which is not what people associate with ADD.

This is where misunderstandings about ADD kick in. It’s not that we can’t concentrate on anything. We can. It’s just that we struggle more than we should to concentrate on things that don’t grab our attention. Think of it as a sort of river of concentration – it flows, and when it encounters an obstacle (in the form of something tedious or too challenging) it changes course. Yes, obstacles can be worn away or the river can be dammed and rerouted to work round it, but those things require time/effort. When it’s not obstructed it can be pretty powerful and fast flowing.

So while I might have been a bookworm, I was an ADD bookworm. I loved reading, so I charged through books at an alarming rate and unintentionally taught myself speed reading. That’s hyperfocus. When I go on three day writing benders, I don’t do it as an act of will, I do it because I write a paragraph, hyperfocus kicks in and it’s just… done. Before I realise it. I go online to dig up a couple of parapsychological terms for a scene I’m writing and surface several hours later having read everything I can find on the Dyatlov Pass incident. I’m full of theories about the demise of a group of cross-country skiers and I’m already figuring out the budget for when I turn it into a piece of one on one theatre. I’m not a single word further forward with the play I was actually writing.

That’s the trouble with hyperfocus – it’s focus to the exclusion of all else. That’s the ‘deficit’ bit of Attention Deficit. It’s not that I can’t concentrate on anything, it’s just that when something grabs my attention I completely forget about everything else, and I mean everything. Up until a few years ago I would forget to eat. I’d get lost in whatever I was doing and not even realise I was hungry until I was on the point of fainting. I’m not quite that bad these days, but it’s taken me a while to get to this stage.

Hyperfocus can be extremely useful in creative terms, and I have to admit that when I’m in that state I absolutely fucking love it. Honestly, it’s a beautiful feeling. Even if I eventually discard or shelve the resulting work, the process is a blast. However, it always leaves me with a pile of undealt-with tasks – unopened mail, unanswered voice and emails, undone housework and missed appointments – and since I’ve just poured all my energy into hyperfocus, I lack the reserves to deal with all of this. That’s the dangerous bit, because the hyperfocus grows stronger and more frequent when I’m on the downward spiral into depression and the feelings of inability to cope with life that follow a period of hyperfocus can easily contribute to the low moods and catastrophic thinking symptomatic of depression.

I don’t know where I’d be without hyperfocus. Perhaps I would have developed the thing that other people call a work ethic, rather than requiring these episodes to be kickstarted by either inspiration or an imminent deadline. Perhaps not. Perhaps I’d be better at keeping on top of domestic and professional admin. I’m never likely to know, since the ADD is not going anywhere. Without access to specialist advice I’m unwilling to medicate for it, since I’d rather stick with the devil I know than mess around with my already untidy brain chemistry. (There is a theory that ADD can be the result of failing to absorb dopamine correctly, which would make sense since chemical absorption was never a strong point of mine. Still, no specialist, no dice.)

Before I embraced the Scenic Route I used to try to create routines and structures for myself. This meant calendar, diary, watch and To Do list. I’d force myself to stick to it for a while, and then hyperfocus would strike and I’d lose track of my careful schedule and end up feeling really miserable and useless. All those moments of being told that if I couldn’t perform tasks according to someone else’s schedule I’d never be anything other than a failure would replay in my head, triggering downward spirals and mental collapse. It wasn’t helpful.

Over the past year, since accepting the Scenic Route for what it is (by which I mean ‘a suitable path for me’, not necessarily ‘a path I’d recommend to anyone else’), I’ve loosened that schedule a lot. I don’t even check my diary on a daily basis now. My Google calendar is not synced to my phone. I don’t pack my days full any more, and I use my deadlines with care instead of setting them arbitrarily for everything. It’s a bit more relaxed, so my schedule can (up to a point) respond to my moods rather than my moods and mental state being ignored if they don’t happen to fit my schedule’s requirements. I’m not yet ready to pronounce this experiment a total success, because I’m still recovering from the era of heavy scheduling and there’s been so little sunlight that I’ve had many barely functional days recently, but I’m going to continue with it for now because I’m happy and because it’s my life to experiment with. I suspect that once the depressive fog lifts the new routine (or lack thereof) will let me be much happier and productive than hitherto. For now, who knows? I’ll post the results as I figure them out. In the meantime, it’s nearly 2am, marking the end of my usefulness for today. Bedtime, scheduled or not, and tomorrow I’ll see whether spilling all of this out into the void clears the way for writing any of the more creative stuff that’s currently cluttering the headspace. The next bout of hyperfocused non-stop writing is overdue.


Exploring the Headspace

In my last entry I began to talk about how I ended up on the scenic route. I focused mostly on my upbringing and dead parents, but there’s another major factor that helped to put me on the long and winding path. Time for another confessional post…

My name is Jen, I am an artist and I am crazy.

I don’t mean crazy in the sense of ‘I get a bit loud at parties’, although this also happens to be true if I’m in the right mood. I mean crazy as in ‘I have lifelong mental health problems that frequently impact on both my domestic and artistic lives’.

I know some people don’t think crazy is a suitable term to use for this stuff. I happen to like it. I love the sound of the word, I love its connotations of crackled glaze, and I love that it suggests the series of hyperfocused crazes that have possessed me throughout my life. So I’ll be sticking with crazy as my preferred term when discussing my own mental illness, and if you don’t like it, well… sorry.

My current collection of labels includes Major Depressive Disorder, Seasonal Affective Disorder, Adult ADD, Schizotypal Personality Disorder and mild OCD. Apparently there’s also a bit of PTSD in there following the double whammy bereavement and a couple of car accidents. I’m not entirely sure what I think of the labels, but they help to organise the mess a bit and in a way, they’re comforting. If a label exists for the set of feeling and behaviours I describe, that means it’s Not Just Me.

I like knowing I’m not the only one, and that’s why the arts play such an important role in my life. Contrary to popular belief, I have no desire to be a special snowflake. When I find another artist’s work that resonates with me, it reassures me that there are/have been plenty of other people who think and feel like me. It makes the strange things that go on in my head feel a bit more normal. However, because I still have to live with those strange things going on in my head, I’m still compelled to express the thoughts and feelings – so I create work of my own, and the cycle goes on.

While I feel that my craziness powers my attachment to the arts and provides fuel to sustain it, that’s only true at certain points in the cycle. When the craziness is under control I can work consistently and productively. When I’m on my way into or out of depression, I ricochet between obsessive, hyperfocused work and complete inability to do anything. Once the depression has taken hold I am too busy hiding under the table (sometimes figuratively, sometimes not), sleeping all day and trying to hold my life together and pretend everything’s fine to do much actual work. I might be teeming with ideas, but I lack the capacity/self-belief to do anything with them. I  have better things to do, like staring at blank documents and hyperventilating whenever the phone rings.

Over the decade since I was first diagnosed I’ve had to learn what triggers the crazy. Missing medication, homesickness, over-committing myself, parent-related anniversaries, being too sedentary, lack of light… I’m constantly keeping an eye on these things and finding ways to keep things under control. It can be a losing battle, and it definitely has been over the past year. On the one hand I’ve been happier and more in control of my life than ever before, but things have been stormy inside my head as I try to adjust to the idea of actually being happy and deal with the memories and survivor guilt. It seems strange to say that I’ve been least functional when I’ve been at my happiest, but it’s true – being happy and being stable, it turns out, are not the same thing. Having supportive people around me helps me to deal with the unstable times, but it doesn’t make them disappear.

Knowing that carving out a conventional directing career involves relentless work, massive over-commitment and long periods away from home, I’ve gradually come to terms with being on the scenic route. It’s the only place to be for someone like me, because the conventional path doesn’t really allow for fluctuating mental states. I need to multitask, because there are times when I need to write and write and write and there are times when I thrive on the focus of directing. These tend to be seasonal, and I know which times to avoid – feasible when you’re making your own work, but not so much when you’re doing something like the Regional Theatre Young Directors’ Scheme. If you know that the straight path is a fast road to self-destruction and it’s a journey you feel you have to make, the one remaining option is the scenic route.

So what changes have I made to accommodate the craziness? Well, I ended my stint in London and moved back to Edinburgh, for a start. I grew up here and although I sometimes feel the need to escape, I get ridiculously homesick when I’m not here. I chose to run the Affectable Acting sessions and create my own work rather than seeking out jobs with other companies and promising myself that I’d do things my own way once I was established enough. In committing myself to Affectable and Tightlaced, I created a structure for myself that’s loose enough to avoid making me feel penned in (which I always rebel against) but that provides a buffer against the highs and lows of a rejection-heavy industry. In building the network I found artists who understand and can share experiences. I make sure I have plenty of time for writing and plenty of time to spend with my husband and my cat, both of whom help me to stay balanced.

It’s a start. There’s still a lot for me to work on. 2012 has been really turbulent and I’ve spent much of this year in terror of my phone and email. Yes, I know that probably sounds weird, but seriously, this is the biggest disruption the mental health stuff causes in my life. I often write emails or enter phone numbers and then stare at the screen or the phone for ages, unable to hit send or call, paralysed by the utter conviction that something disastrous will happen if I do. If I miss a call, I do the same thing with voicemail. Once I’ve missed a call or failed to call/email someone when I think I should have done, it starts a cycle of avoidance that is really difficult to break. Every day that goes by makes it harder, because the damage feels worse and the repair feels less likely, so it seems that the sensible thing is just to let the communication go. Of course this is not the sensible thing. I know that. And I know that it should be very easy just to pick up the phone or hit send. But that’s why it’s called ‘mental illness’. It’s about doing things that don’t make sense from the outside. Believe me, it makes perfect sense when I’m in those moments. I’ve CBT’d this behaviour to death and haven’t cracked it yet, but the work goes on. Someday I’ll figure out how to get this one under control, and it’ll make my personal and professional lives much easier when I do. While I search for that solution, I’ll continue finding and implementing measures to lessen the impact of this behaviour on my life and my work.

I’ve thought long and hard about whether to write this post. I’ve never kept the craziness a secret, but nor am I usually quite this open about it. People often make judgements and some of them are quite unfair and inaccurate. But you know what? That’s fine. Make whatever judgements you like. If it stops you working with me, fine – but if mentally healthy colleagues are a priority and you’re working in theatre, good luck. I think sharing this kind of thing and remembering that it’s not the end of the world, just something that might require an adjustment of expectations and priorities, is a beneficial thing. I certainly hope it is. And if nothing else, it’s a little more background in the story of how I ended up on this particular path…