FORTY HOURS OF PAY

I recently met a professional scriptwriter, who told me that the secret was never to work for more than three hours per day on any writing project. I took it as sound advice, and I think he’s sort of right. He’s also very successful at what he does. (No, you will not hear the clanging of a dropped name here, dear readers!)

Of course, now I find myself clock watching about two hours in, thinking, ‘Well, I’m nearly done’. I think the secret is actually to stop when you want to stop, and whether that’s two hours or six and a half hours, you know when you’ve run out of steam.

Whilst this ‘rule’ can happily apply to any of our creative endeavours, imagine if we tried it in the day job! ‘I have applied myself with diligence to this data input for three hours now. My work here is done, I am off down the pub.’

Less a case of ‘Later, Losers!’ than one of ‘Hello, HR!’.

Much has been written lately of Sweden’s experiment with the six hour working day. The bad news for the workers is that it turns out to be too costly to continue the scheme, at least in the care sector.

The irony is that most of us spend a goodly portion of our eight hours making tea, chatting, or having a sneaky peak at Facebook, just to break up the monotony. Our wee brains need a break. In fact, I’m writing this long overdue post because I need a break from doing Powerpoint Slides for my upcoming show ( I mentioned it last time, remember?).What I need to do is plan in my breaks and return to my slides refreshed.

(I once saw my old boss book an entire family skiing holiday during work hours. Took him ages. Of course, if I’d be concentrating on my own tasks, I might not have witnessed the spectacle. But shirking bosses are for another post.)

What I suppose I’m leading up to is the question of how many hours is enough hours, or too many? Or not enough? When it comes to work, I mean.

I am a great believer in 40 hours meaning 40 hours. Not 45, 50 or 60. If your contract says 40 hours, then the expectation must be that your job can be done in that number of hours. Beware any prospective employer who tells you that ‘We’re not a 9-5 organisation’ or ‘You find people here at all times of the night’. That means that anything less than buying into that will be seen as shirking.

Personally, I like the idea of ‘flow’, where you lose yourself in the task so much that you don’t notice the passage of time. Somehow, I fear that ‘flow’ and data entry or cardboard box making might not be entirely compatible. I used to be a vicious opponent of the wearing of headphones whilst working but, now, I say, bring them on. Why not concentrate on Radio 4 Extra and its many classic comedies if they make the 40 hours seem shorter? And, if you’re writing, painting or tinkering with your car, you won’t need the headphones. You’ll know when the flowing has stopped.

Now, where are those slides??

 

 

 

 

 

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Why ‘Squatting Toad’ again?

When is it too late to wish people Happy New Year? Mid-Jan’s still fine, right? Yeah, I think so. Well, a Happy New Year to you.

Dare I ask how the resolutions are going? What do you mean, you didn’t make any? Even I made one or two..loose ones you understand, nothing that I couldn’t quietly file away under ‘abandoned’ unnoticed.Which rather defeats the purpose, wouldn’t you agree? I should be out and proud. Significantly, I made a vow to make this blog and the podcast funnier this year. Well, you’d notice if I didn’t do that! Ha ha, funny lady.

I’ve been thinking a lot, too, about work. Cue no laughter whatsoever, as who among us actually likes their job enough to read Squatting Toad rambling on about working life? We get enough of that five days a week, thank you very much. Don’t forget,though, the name comes from that wry, bitter Larkin Poem, Toads, so, having commandeered the name, I feel some level of obligation to address the topic.

Yes, why should we let this bloody toad squat on our lives? Well, according to a a recent global survey, fully 60% of us really would rather not. We feel disengaged, which I always think is just a fancy way of saying we hate our jobs. I also fear that this means that 40% of us are lying. I don’t know anybody who really loves their job. Contradict me in the comments section, please, if you do. I’d like to put you in a glass case with a label ‘Rare Specimen – Person who Loves their Job’, for the benefit of bemused and unbelieving museum visitors. Which museum I’ve no idea, for who could afford such an uncommon piece?

But, seriously, when I see a figure like that I get a little bit excited, having been through the wringer myself, to know that ‘it’s not just me’. It really isn’t. Obviously, I wouldn’t dream of going into detail…oh, all right…

Tick em off:

  • Four hour daily commutes.
  • Interminable meetings that go nowhere and achieve nothing.
  • Colleagues so determined to succeed that they routinely crap on the rest of us.
  • Two redundancies (‘sorry, it’s not you, you’re great. we’re just restructuring’).
  • Goalposts moved on promised bonuses at the last minute.
  • Too much time spent reporting on what I’m doing rather than actually doing it .(This they call ‘micromanagement’. I love it when there’s a handy name for some of this rubbish.)
  • And the big one…Psycho bosses from hell.

That will do for starters.

You will have more, or not. You may have reasons to be cheerful in the workplace. Let me know, one way or the other.

But what has all this to do with the Creative Life, Squatting Toad’s raison d’etre up to now? Well, you can’t separate them. Since we spend so much time at work, we need to feel it’s tapping into our creative instincts. Finally, the science is telling us this, although, of course, we still need the money. So, if we’re bored and/ or underused, it can affect our ability to create outside of work. And that’s not on, friends, just not on!!

Right now I am doing a lot of research into why work is getting us down and channelling it into a wee show I hope to take to the Edinburgh Fringe in Summer (watch this space).You can help, as I say, by letting me know about some of your worst or best work experiences. I’ll keep asking so, go on, you might as well.

Note how I just slipped my new project in there, right at the end! So modest. That may be why me and work struggle to get along. No place for the meek here. Meek =weak.

Goodness, what a gloomy start to the year’s writings!!

I’ll stop now, but Happy Working to you. And, if work isn’t working for you, keep reading the posts, when we’ll look at why and ask what we can do about it.

Bye for now.

Mel

X

The ‘Thing’ – at last!

I have a similar relationship with writing this blog as I have with exercise; I know they’re both jolly beneficial (to me, at least), but I can’t always manage to fit them. Given that my local gym, like the internet, is now open 24/7, my excuses for neglect become ever more feeble-sounding.

But here’s the thing – actually The Thing. I started on this creative journey of mine last year, and had no idea where it would lead. I remain fascinated by creativity and what sparks it in people, but, back then, I was a mere onlooker. Then I found The Thing, the creative avenue I knew I wanted to take, and so I have started on my first tentative steps. It’s less neglect, you see, than merely cracking on with the job in hand, without stopping to perhaps comment on progress.

So, it went something like this. Q:What do you really ache to do?  A: Stand up and talk at people….sorry, perform. Q: What do you have to talk about? A: Eh, hello, 20+ years in the crazy world of work, for one thing.Being ‘of a certain age’. Being generally baffled by life. Q: And how do you propose marrying these ? A: Stand-up, jokes and commentary on what I’ve learned. It might not be informative, but it will be entertaining.

This left a number of boxes to be ticked. The first was to get back on the comedy scene, older, but wiser. Now, that’s fun when you’re surrounded by 25 year olds. I’ve done two five minute spots in the last week, both to about four and a half people, but I have begun. I got my confidence back by attending a 10-week stand-up evening class, which ends soon with our ‘graduation gig’. After that, I’m going to keep motoring and get as many gigs under my belt as possible. Sure, nobody’s going to pay me at first, but the main thing is to start. Actually, the main thing is to not give up, like I did before. And a secondary main thing is to not keep beating myself up for giving up and regretting it. Regrets, like writing and exercise, take up a lot of one’s free time.

In the meantime, I have a plan for my longer form comedy show. Did I say it’s all about work? Anyone who’s ever had a job will know that there’s so much nonsense in so many workplaces that this practically writes itself.

Finally, why am I writing this today, and what can I pass on to you, fellow fans of creativity?

First, you can do it, whatever ‘it’ is. We all have something to say, or some meaning to impart. I want mine to be to make people laugh. Everybody’s got something.

Go for it, however old you are, wherever you are in life. Funny, as you get older, the fear of failure lessens, even if just a little. I wish I could tell my younger self that failure is an option, as it’s just a staging post on the way to something better. Oh, that sounds like a regret, so forget I wrote it. Wipe it from your collective memories, as I will from mine.

Take inspiration from everywhere you’ve ever been, everything you’ve ever done. It might not mean much now, but those collective experiences will one day give back an awful lot.

Right, now I’m off to think up a gag or two and I might even share one with you next time.

Happy creative week, everyone.

Mel X

 

 

 

New Podcast at last – ‘Daring to Write’

Yes, the summer is over, but you won’t find me complaining. As the nights draw in and it’s time to fire up the heating, it’s the perfect start to a new ‘term’of creativity. With that in mind, the Squatting Toad podcast is firmly back on the cultural and creative map.

In this inspiring episode, I meet author Angela Thirlwell, who give us some insight into her writing career and plenty of helpful advice for aspiring writers.

Listening to the episode again, I realise that I thanked Angela for her time, but not for her wisdom. I’ll correct that right now. Thank you, Angela, for wise words and inspiration.

Enjoy the episode and do take a look at Angela’s website here.

Soon available on iTunes, but for your delight and delectation on Podomatic, first of all, you can find it here.

And not forgetting our old friend, Soundcloud:

Happy listening and Happy Creating.

Mel

 

Making Virtual Music, but Really

I massively enjoyed tonight’s Last Night of the Proms. Some have accused it of jingoism  in the past with all that flag-waving, but, let’s be honest, it’s all about the music, of course it is. With fine tunes from Borodin, Donizetti and Rossini, to name but three, and tenor, Juan Diego Flores, dressed as Manco Capac, founder of the Inca civilisation, it’s hardly a rousing celebration of Britishness. Even Padington Bear, who made a surprise appearance, is from Peru.

Yet I do feel that this kind of life-affirming, ‘let’s-all-join-in-the-songs-even-if-we-don’t-know-the-words’ kind of event is something we Brits do so well. We’ve always loved a good party and a good sing song, and the Last Night is just one of the most public.  Even the the daily concerts that lead up to this grand finale have a warmth and informality about them that I can’t imagine being replicated elsewhere. Heavens, when a symphony is played, people applaud BETWEEN the movements! Simply not done under normal circumstances, dear boy.

The Proms are sponsored by the BBC which has done a brilliant job of drawing in the viewing and listening public. This year’s ‘Virtual Orchestra’ is a great initiative to encourage people, who may well have hidden the instruments they once loved at the back of the attic, to dust them off and play a tune. Any instrument will do, almost. Have a look a  the list.

Bravo to all of you who take part.It’s so easy to bundle our creative talents away at the back of the attic of our mind, and sometimes all we need is a little encouragement to rip back the dustsheets and get cracking again. We all mean to, when we have the time. One day, we say, we’ll get our metaphorical ladder out and have a good rummage and maybe take up playing, painting, writing again. When we have the time. Come on, if we wait for ‘enough’ time, it will never come. We need to make time and not be scared of that. Maybe just ten minutes to start with. And, this is the important bit -it doesn’t need to be great, or even good, what you do then create. We’ll have no truck with ‘I’m no good at this any more.’. Who said you weren’t, apart from you? Who made you Ruler of the Kingdom of Good?

But, seriously, I say this because I go through it too. I have to tell myself, ‘Just a little bit of writing, every day’. No judgements, no critiques. Just doing. I want to and because, to be my best self, I need to. Can’t say fairer than that.

Now, hand me my air banjo.

Happy creating to you all.

Mel

 

Back to the School o’ Life

It’s that time of year again; the August Bank Holiday that marks the passing of summer, the end of the holidays, and, for students old and young, almost time to go back to school. It’s some years since I was a student, but, even now, I can’t help mentally dividing my year into ‘term-time’ and ‘holidays’. I’m bitter, even now, that I can’t have two weeks off over Easter. And whatever became of half-term?

On the up side, I have always loved the coming of September, which marked me out as an oddity as a teenager, I can tell you. For me, though, it always signalled a new beginning, and a chance to do better than the last academic year (although the trajectory was rarely upwards).

Who doesn’t love a clean slate? Who doesn’t love some crisp, new white uniform shirts and some freshly sharpened pencils? The shirts are more colourful, and larger, now, but I still have new pencils ready and poised. And I’m going back to school. I have two short courses booked in for September, both on creative topics. I am genuinely excited, not in that meaningless ‘exciting new retail outlet opening soon’ kind of way, but really excited that I will learn something and  be able to apply it. Or maybe I won’t be able to, any more than I have applied trigonometry since I last studied maths, but, I like to think, I will be a better person for listening to someone else’s expertise. I reckon one small nugget of something that gets me thinking will be worth it. Someone, I can’t remember who, once said that the best thing we learn at school is the ability to think. That sounds like our old friend, creativity, to me. Surely that is the logical extension of this, when it becomes the ability to apply creative solutions. Crucially, it’s also the ability to keep refining them and not worry if they are ‘wrong’.  Keep doing. Keep learning.

So, as the sun literally sets on the last public holiday in the UK until Christmas Day (shocking, eh?), I wish you all new, creative beginnings. Iron your shirts, sharpen your pencils, and polish up your thinking skills. And watch out for new podcasts heading your way in this creative autumn, or spring, if you are in the Southern Hemisphere.

Have fun and be creative until the next time.

Mel X

 

Bless me someone…

  1.  I don’t have the right notebook.
  2. I don’t have the right pen.
  3. What am I doing, using paper and pen?
  4. I’m not in the right mood.
  5. The sun is not in alignment with Sagittarius.
  6. My desk needs dusting.
  7. Great film on BBC2.
  8. I have run out of lipgloss.
  9. My kitchen needs painting.
  10. I hate painting.
  11. Olympics.
  12. I am way too busy sharing my annoying first world problems with the blogosphere.
  13. It’s raining.
  14. It’s windy.
  15. The phone’s ringing.
  16. The phone hasn’t rung for days, I must check it’s working.
  17. It’s time to write my Christmas cards.
  18. I have to unfriend some people on Facebook.
  19. Just joking about that last one, I love you all!
  20. Is it on my To Do list?
  21. My postillion has been struck by lightning.

And these, oh gods of creativity, are but 21 of the reasons I was unable to create much of value this weekend. Tomorrow is Monday. Let the juices flow again.

And no excuses!

Hope you all ‘got stuff done’.

Mel X

Beyond the Comfort Zone.

Last week, my husband, you know him as Mr Toad, asked me to film his comedy gig. Well, even I can manage to hold my phone in the air for ten minutes, so request duly granted. There are a few wobbles, but nothing I’m ashamed of.

This week, Mr T asks if I might be in a position to edit said video into something shorter for his Facebook page. Heck. Not sure. Never edited video before. But I am willing to give it a try. A year ago, I couldn’t edit sound for a podcast, now look at me! Better yet, listen to me. Ok, I don’t always get it right, sometimes I get it good and properly wrong, sound-quality-wise, but I carry on. I have zero technical skills, usually, but I was, and remain, determined to push myself out of my comfort zone.

Creatively, and in life, I recommend it. Learning doesn’t stop when we leave school, and development doesn’t begin when our companies decide to splash some training budget on an Excel course. The English comic actor, Kenneth Williams,  was famous for learning one new word a day straight from the dictionary, with the result that he had a vast and varied vocabulary. If you ever heard him on Just a Minute, you’ll know that he used it. We need to keep learning and doing things we might not think we can, or we will stagnate and maybe die out as a race. Honest.

The Comfort Zone is called that because it is just like sitting on a heap of fluffy cushions, eating warm chocolate fudge cake whilst listening to The Lark Ascending. It’s comfortable and it’s safe. It’s amazing the number of things that make us feel anxious and unsafe: learning something new,  change at work, exams. I learnt only this week that our response to this kind of threat, fear of change or fear of failure, comes from the same part of our brain that tells us to be scared when we are in a life or death situation.

A bit over the top? After all, I’ve only had to learn how to press some buttons, but my brain doesn’t know that. At least not that bit of it. So, it’s important to push through. There is no such thing as failure. As Thomas Edison said: ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ Now, there was a man who had no time for comfort zones, and the fact that I’m writing this by the light of a bulb is testament to that.

So, let’s live a life beyond the Comfort Zone and try something new and a tiny bit scary. Ready? Now, editing software, you can run, but you can’t hide.

Mel.

Social Loafing and A Team of One

Teamwork is a wonderful thing, but technology allows us all to be teams of one these days. Over dinner and a glass of something (I believe it was water) the other night, a friend told me about her husband’s new album. Not for him expensive studios and mixing desks and wee CDs for sale, not that we have any record shops left (sigh!). No, he made it totally alone, playing the guitar in his living room, adding the other instruments on his computer and producing the whole thing to a point where he was able to market it online. Brilliant!

Would it have been a different album if he had made it with a team? You bet! Would it have been better? No, it would have been different. He hasn’t had to alter his vision and if we don’t like it, well, that’s up to us. He likes it, is proud of it, and that’s enough. Having listened to it, I can tell you I think it’s brilliant. No, I’m not biased. I’d like to tell you more, but I’m hoping to interview him for the podcast, when all will be revealed. (I know, another shameless teaser advert.)

I also follow a number of self-published authors on social media and I am always amazed at their commitment, not just to their writing, but to the time they put in to engaging with readers. Not to mention the hours spent on marketing and publicity.

Like my musician friend, I like to create alone, but I also like a good natter. In fact, you’d be hard-pushed to find somebody who loves a good natter more than I do. Plenty of my best ideas come to me in ‘lightbulb’ moments during conversations, moments I wouldn’t have had alone. But these aren’t forced moments, where each of us is compelled to come up with brilliant ideas as the clock ticks down, like an episode of ‘Countdown’. I fear the yawning chasm of an empty diary awaits, should I introduce brainstorming sessions into a girls’ night out.

For brainstorming is what that would be, and although it might seem like the new rock and roll, given the importance so many organisations give to it, it has serious limitations. In any group of people, organisational dynamics will tend to trump the generating of ideas. A shy person with a brilliant idea is likely to take a back seat to a more dominant person in the group, even if their idea isn’t as good or as innovative. There’s also less pressure on us if we work in a group. We don’t need to give 100% of ourselves, we can just be a constituent percentage of the whole. All that wasted percentage left over! I learnt a new term for this today, it’s called Social Loafing. I like to learn new things.

So, better then to work alone? And how does this affect us creatively?

Well, getting the best ideas doesn’t necessarily mean working in a freezing, friendless garret. Why not get your ideas down on paper, work on them and then test them out on the world? For our creative endeavours,it helps to have clarity of vision, before you get your feedback. I read recently that the great Philip Roth always tests out later drafts of new novels on a group of readers. Not his first draft, mind, maybe his third or fourth.

Of course, many brilliant things are created by teams of people, but I bet you’ll find, if you strip the thing right back, that the basic idea came from one person.

FACT: All the brainstorming in the world won’t give you an idea. It can help to develop one, or plant the seed of one but the idea comes from inside you, either as a result of something someone said, or a thought you had, or….well, who knows where ideas come from? You can’t buy them on eBay, that’s for sure.

In life, in work, in creative endeavours, our new ideas, whatever they are, move us forward. Be a team of one, and keep the ideas coming. Write them down, because, if you can’t use them today, there’s always tomorrow. Not all of them will work, but that’s ok. And when you have a pile of ideas, you can take your Team of One (yes, capitalising now) out for an awayday, or a posh lunch, or even a Christmas party. Because more than a good natter, we all like a party.

Keep the ideas coming, and happy creating until next time.

Mel X

 

 

Useful Work!

I was talking with a biographer recently and asked what method she followed when researching a subject. She didn’t have a set method, as it turned out, but said that, most often, one source pointed her to another and that to yet another, and so on. It was a relief to know that I wasn’t missing out on some rarefied methodology, as that’s pretty much what I have been doing of late. It’s exciting stuff, as you never know where it might lead. I’m writing a piece about the world of work, which, I hope, will be entertaining.

Just last week, my reading led me, of all places, to an essay of 1884 by socialist and designer, William Morris (yes, he of the lovely wallpaper). Entitled ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil‘, it might lack the entertainment value I’m going for, but it’s a fascinating, if demanding read.

I like to think we have moved on some way since late Victorian times in improving some of the injustices he rails against, though clearly not all. In fact, more than we would want to admit. I can also forgive his constant use of the word ‘men’ without a single mention of ‘women’, because a) it was 1884 and b) he bequeathed us the afore-mentioned lovely wallpaper. So, I read it as one might pluck the petals of a daisy; ‘I love this bit’, ‘I love this bit not’.

There’s a link to the whole piece at the end, but one sentence, in particular, struck a chord with me.

But a man (or woman, William!) at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body.’

So, here he is, talking about creativity, our favourite topic, and the thing, as I’ve said before, I believe separates us from the beasts and makes us who we are. Of course, he was a man of great creative genius himself. I worry, though, that he would find my Morris-branded hand cream (see photo) a shade too decadent and exactly the kind of frivolous product made to pander to the demands of the non-producing classes. But I’m giving away the ending there. You should read the essay for yourselves.

He talks of ‘the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill’. Daily? Heck, the only way we’re going to achieve daily creativity is if we find it in our work.

Bingo!

Here we are at Squatting Toad, devoting podcast time to delving into people’s extra-curricular creative activities, when our 9-5 needs to satisfy that part of us too. If it doesn’t, then we find ourselves, among other things, stressed, as mentioned in the last post. And, if we’re stressed, how can we create and feel that ‘hope of pleasure’? I don’t have the answer to that, by the way. It’s a huge topic and one that takes me down a different path.

Fulfilment in post-work creative activities? Box ticked.

Fulfilment in daily work context? Pen still hovering.

As I say, I am doing lots of research on this, and what I hope to achieve is some ‘Useful Work’ on this very topic. And don’t worry, it won’t be too serious. Heaven knows, I’ve laughed a lot already, because sometimes if you don’t, you’d cry. Or maybe it’s the pleasure.

Work? What is it good for? Damned if I know, but ‘hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill‘ will do for a start. Now we’ve just got to get there. There’ll be bumps on the way, to be sure. Join me, as I try to un-pick it all.

In the meantime, have a read of William Morris’s essay. Next time, I’ll maybe reveal one of my more up-to-date sources.

Happy creativity in the meantime.

Mel