In my efforts to make my life more creative, I’ve picked up a couple of books that I hope will help my get my thoughts in order. The first, bought on a whim after seeing it mentioned on a Buzzfeed list, is Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
In my rush to buy it, I didn’t realise she was also the writer of Eat, Pray, Love – I haven’t read it, so maybe I’m missing out on a life-changing experience, but had I realised that, I might never have bought it.
The book is a thoroughly enjoyable read – lots of great little anecdotes to illustrate her points, and it never drags. Despite only reading for short, interrupted periods on my commute, I flew through it in about a week. But – and this probably says more about me than anything – I found it a bit too positive. It’s written from the point of view of someone who has figured it all out. Who’s spent her life doing the thing she loves most. She’s not smug, and I’m all for the idea of a higher power – the ‘Big Magic’ of the title – but I found the optimism and the implication of the universe playing a major part all a bit removed from my reality.
But I agree with so much that she says, and the section on fear really did resonate with me. Below is just the first few lines of a multi-page list of reasons we are afraid to live a more creative life, and I have thought every last one of them.
But I struggled to share a viewpoint with and buy into the ideology of someone who writes from such a different position to me. She sold me a lot of her ideas – they’re not difficult concepts and concisely chosen – but didn’t really get me on side. Maybe I’m asking too much of a book, but I didn’t put it down feeling like I was any better equipped to overcome my anxieties and make practical changes to how I live in order to feel more creatively fulfilled.
But saying that, I’ve quoted various points from the book to a number of people over the last week. It is worth a look – and it’s a low time and effort commitment as it’s short and really quite a fun read. Maybe with time to reflect and absorb, I’ll stop focusing on little niggles and the message will be what stays with me. And then maybe it’ll help me produce some magic of my own.
I danced several times a week from the age of 3 until I was about 20. After that I could still be found tapping at the occasional jam session or with the jazz band at Dartington each summer, but after time it kind of ground to a halt. But even now, many years later, I still regularly realise ways in which dancing has made my life better. I’m going to try to find a way to get back into dancing – I’m currently trying to find a class or two I can fit into my schedule – but in the meantime, here are a few things it taught me.
- The human body is amazing. It can make the most beautiful shapes. And ugly ones. It can move in a million ways. And once you’ve danced and done some of these things yourself, you’ll untap a whole level of appreciation of the theatre as you’ll realise quite how impressive it is when a pro does it.
- Muscle memory is incredible. Even now, when certain tracks play, I can remember choreography I learned 12 or 15 years ago – if Usher’s Yeah plays in a club, you can bet I’ll be tapping along. And it applies to flexibility too. If I don’t workout for a week or two, it will hurt more, but I’ve never lost the ability to touch my toes or do the splits.
- I like pain. The kind you get the day after a really tough workout. It’s your reminder that you did something good for yourself and your body – your gold star or smiley face sticker. Sure it hurts, and I might moan about it, but it’s also kind of delicious.
- You can’t out-exercise a bad diet. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. At the peak of my training I was doing about 10 hours of classes a week – quite a lot given that was part time on top of regular school hours – and I played tennis a couple of times a week too. But I didn’t really start to shape up until I started eating better.
- Good posture makes everything look better. I have a pretty weak lower back (thanks boobs) and a tendency to round my shoulders and try to “hide” (thanks brain) but when I notice I’m doing it, in my head I go right back into my dance class and can still see my teacher, Sheridan, prodding bits of me til I straighten up and stand correctly, and instantly I look about 3 inches taller and 7 pounds lighter.
- Discipline, discipline, discipline. Hard work isn’t the only key to success. Sometimes it takes a huge dose of good luck and fortunate timing. But disciplined and considered study and practice will certainly tip the odds in your favour. I was not made for ballet – certainly too tall and broad to ever consider doing it professionally – but with a load of hard work I still passed all my exams with merit or distinction.
- You need to give yourself a break. From studying, from your career, from other people. Dedicating some time to doing something you love – whether it’s dancing, painting or knitting – will make you better at whatever it is you do. And fully engage with it. Don’t do it while you watch telly or listen to someone offload about their terrible day. Revel in it.
- Sometimes, just doing it is a victory. Not every performance or every workout or every painting will be your best work. Sometimes there’s no good reason for it – it just sucks. On those days, just get through it. You might learn something, you might not, but at least you’ve completed it rather than given up.
- Never stop working on your technique. Whether it’s spending hours at the barre or practicing scales, get to know your instrument, and keep checking in with it so you know if it’s changing. You need to know what it can do before you can start to push it.
- If you love anything enough, you can make time for it. There were always girls in my classes that disappeared for weeks during school exams, or skipped a lesson to go on a date, but I never missed a class unless I was really ill. I’d cram all my homework in as soon as I got home so I could get to class. I’d stay up super late after a class, or get up at 4am to cram for an exam. I passed up part-time jobs that would require me to miss class, as I’d rather be poor. My priorities changed over time and I stopped dancing, so maybe, like the leading man in a terrible romantic comedy, I didn’t realise how much I loved it, or was scared to open myself up to the possibility of that kind of relationship. But now I’m realising the error of my ways, and this resolve to write, make music and dance again, is my big gesture to win it back.
I should add the most enormous shout out to my teachers here. Bette Clark and her daughter Sheridan Nicol taught me several times a week for about 18 years between them, and there were some fab ballet classes with Raymond and musical theatre with Joanne. I’ll be forever grateful for them giving me not only the joy of the performing arts, but also the life lessons that came along with it.
It’s a week since I got back from New York, and I’ve been mulling over my visit almost constantly. So this post is literally just a list of stuff I’ve been thinking about.
- It’s really nice to be selfish sometimes. For me, that meant leaving my husband at home and going away with friends, doing whatever I fancied, whenever I fancied. I won’t do it lots, but once in a while it’s a real treat.
- I bloody love my husband. A week without him was wonderful, but I also couldn’t wait to get back to him.
- Everyone experiences things differently – and everyone’s correct. There are a multiple, possibly infinite, interpretations of Punchdrunk shows, and every one is valid if they mean something to someone. To paraphrase Dumbledore, just because it’s happening inside your head doesn’t mean it’s not real.
- I should take more steps into the unknown. I’m an introvert, prone to bouts of crippling anxiety. This is where Punchdrunk has, without exaggeration, changed my life. It’s not easy for me to do some things without company – either as emotional support, or as witnesses so I don’t chicken out and break my word. But with only the mask for protection, I’ve been experiencing the theatre in a way that that would once have made me really uncomfortable, and not just surviving but loving it. It’s led me to take more chances, and it’s been transformative.
- I need more creativity in my life. Dedicating a week to chasing characters around the McKittrick, trying to understand them and appreciate the artistry of what I was seeing made me realise that I don’t do enough things like this. As someone who used to sing, dance, play instruments, write, draw and read amongst other things, I need to start prioritising these so I can feel like me again.
- Always thank people if you get the chance – door staff, bar staff, performers, your friends, your family, your colleagues. Anyone in life who does something that makes you smile. It’s nice to be nice.
- I really quite like writing. It doesn’t matter if no one reads it, the process itself is enjoyable. I’m not sure what I’ll write about next – suggestions on postcard! Will need to write about something while I save up to go to Shanghai…
- Don’t feel guilty about doing things that make you happy. I spent the weeks and months leading up to the trip feeling rather sheepish and making apologetic, self-deprecating jokes about the amount of money I was spending on it. People who don’t know me well didn’t understand why I was going that far and spending that much money to see a show I’d already seen several times several more times. But it was worth every penny. If it makes you happy, and doesn’t hurt anyone else, crack on.
- I can wear a green sequinned minidress, fairy wings and green lipstick and look awesome doing it.