Bloody Work!

According to my strapline, Squatting Toad provides inspiration and podcasts for people who create in their spare time. And it does. But what if you don’t have spare time? What if your work is so stressful, you’re too worn out at the end of the day even to watch rubbish telly, let alone create anything? As far too many of us know, this happens.

In my last podcast, my interviewee Angharad, made reference to having to put her love of amateur theatre to one side when she had a stressful job. Of all the things we talked about, this haunted me the most. It was just a single comment, almost an aside, but I keep coming back to it in my head. It is why, after all, I started Squatting Toad. I had a stressful job until recently (happily I don’t now and neither does Angharad) and felt bereft as I watched people around me pursue hobbies and make things and do things, whilst I was Googling ‘funny cat videos’ and eating cake.

Now, ‘stress’, when it comes to work, can mean different things. Maybe you work in the kind of profession where any hint of weakness or inadequacy can mean a fast track to car park with a cardboard box full of your desk knick knacks.( Actually, I doubt many City bankers are reading this, but let’s suppose.) Maybe your work is so boring and repetitive and that very lack of stimulation is causing anxiety. Chronic boredom can close down your brain to new and fun ideas, as well as leaving plenty of space for full-on guilt about earning money for, well, nothing.

Mostly, let’s be frank, what causes work stress is other people. Bullying and/ or incompetent bosses head the list. Lord knows, I’ve been there and it hurts. I mean, really hurts to the point where you start to believe you have even no right to enjoy the very things outside of the working day that make life a bit more tolerable. The ‘Sunday Dread’ you feel before the start of each working work kicks in earlier and earlier to the point where Saturday’s breakfast is a depression-riddled write-off. Oh, yes.

I find now that I don’t suffer from the dread, anxiety and misery and I can look back on these times a tad more dispassionately, what is welling up now is anger. I’m angry that I still know people going to work, living the misery, and just about keeping their heads above water. And it needs to stop. Now!

Much has been written about how organisations can improve and make their workers happier and more engaged. Not a lot of what’s written, at least nothing I’ve read yet (and I’m reading a lot about this), tackles the most basic of human needs. By that I mean, respect and kindness. Why does your horrible boss think it’s remiss of him to show these basic courtesies that we are all entitled to? In most cases, it’s because he’s afraid of looking weak. And yes, sorry, I do mostly mean ‘him’, not ‘her’. This need to be ‘in charge’ and be ‘the boss of you’ and make you unhappy in the process conjures up the schoolyard of old and the bullies who nicked your sweets and made you cry. In no other field of adult life, except work, is such behaviour tolerated on such a huge scale.

Nobody, but nobody, neither the CEO or the receptionist, has the right to tote their own emotional baggage into the workplace and use it to corrode the well-being of others.

So, what can we do? Well, I, for one, am going to write about it. It’s a small contribution, but this needs to be out in the open. Why? Because we all need to feel respected and valuable for one thing, and because I want my experience to count for something. Write what you know, they say. I know that work isn’t working like it should, because I’ve lived it. It’s not just me. If you are happy in your job, living without stress, just ask around. You’ll soon see it’s not just me.

All these years in the workplace, all this reading and research I’m doing. It’s opening up something fascinating and, I hope, redemptive, for me and others.

Come on, if we’re not happy, how can we create? And that brings me full circle to what Squatting Toad is here for.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey. Watch out for posts and podcasts on this very topic, always with an eye to creativity, but also a meditation on work, which takes up so much of our lives and our energy.

In the meantime, do have a listen to my last podcast, if you haven’t already. Why not take up amateur theatre, if you need an outlet? Or listen to previous episodes about all kinds of creative endeavours from music to crafting.

PODCASTS HERE.

Enjoy.

Mel X

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New podcast – North London Dramaphilia

Welcome, friends, to my latest podcast. Angharad Ellis Jones of the Crouch End Players and I discuss the joys, and the ups and downs, of the amateur/ community theatre world. It’s such fun, but not as much fun as inventing news words, as we were convinced we had. Turns out that ‘dramaphile’ already exists, but, according to some definitions, is more likely to mean someone who enjoys a bit of a crisis (cf: drama queen) than someone who spends their Wednesday nights in a church hall rehearsing Oscar Wilde. No matter, I am sticking with it, hence the title.

It’s been a while since my last broadcast, so I’ll try to keep the gap smaller next time. In the meantime, enjoy this one and maybe think about treading the boards come autumn.

 

And it’s also here on Podomatic. It’ll pull through to my iTunes channel soon.

Happy listening.

Mel

 

Perfection is the Enemy

Or to be more accurate, perfectionism is our foe. If you’ve been listening to the podcast, you’ll know that I have some misgivings about Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, but when it comes to creative perfectionism she is bang on the button. She described it as just a fancy name for  a fear of failure. How right she is. As long we have a work that’s ‘in progress’ , something that we are getting into a state of just right-ness, we can never say we’ve failed. How can we fail, if we don’t get something out there into the world at large? And so we carry on, honing and perfecting until the moment has gone, until sometimes we just don’t love what we’re working on any more. Then we kill off the project, give it a half-decent burial, courtesy of the shredder, and declare it as having been unworthy of us all the time. Who are we kidding?

Am I reading your thoughts right now? Well, it’s not any kind of mystical jiggery-pokery on my part, it’s just that I’ve been through exactly that process many times myself. In fact if there’s anything I’m an expert in, it’s in giving up, because I just can’t get a writing project finished to the high standard I expect of myself. Who am I kidding?

I haven’t posted a blog for over a week, because I was worrying that any chosen topic might not be quite the right one,and I wouldn’t have enough to say, or at least enough that was devastatingly insightful and witty. So I just didn’t write – at all. And in not writing, I think I have actually misunderstood this whole blogging thing. Some people post every day and I am flipping sure they’re not tearing themselves to pieces over wit and insight. They just say what they want to say and I applaud them. And, yes, some of them are very witty and insightful indeed.

So, my notes to self for this week are as follows:

  1. Don’t get it perfect, get it done.
  2. Find time to post more often. There’s always something to say, even if it won’t get me a Nobel Prize.
  3. Stop kidding yourself…about everything.
  4. Well, that’s enough for one week.

Who knows, you may even hear from me before the week is out. Let’s all keep writing.

Happy creating.

Your non-prize winning friend, Mel

 

 

Why We Need Art

I hope you enjoyed my last podcast with Barbara de Biasi giving us insight into the power of music. Among other things, there’s solid evidence that it can help delay dementia symptoms. Power indeed.

It’s no secret that I love my old movies. I often play one in the background as I potter about the house. One of the last legends of that long lost era, Olivia de Havilland, celebrated her 100th birthday last week. A few years ago, she narrated a documentary called ‘I Remember Better When I Paint’. As the title suggests, painting has been found to have hugely beneficial effects on patients with Alzheimer’s, helping them to reconnect with the world, and communicate more fully. It’s a very moving film, and documents, in part, the journey of the painter Hilda Gorenstein, known as Hilgos, whose own Alzheimer’s symptoms were improved immeasurably by a re-connection with the art she so loved.

As the head of one of the organisations that takes care of the patients says: ‘Creative arts bypass the limitations and go straight to the strengths.’

That’s a very powerful sentence, and has applications for all of us. We all can, and should, take strength from our creativity. The benefits are too great to ignore.

There are a couple of clips from ‘I Remember Better When I Paint’ on YouTube and you can find out more about the Hilgos Foundation, which is dedicated to using the creative arts to benefit Alzheimer’s sufferers, here.

Do we NEED art? Do we NEED creativity? By heck, we do, make no mistake.

Happy Creating

Mel

PS: Olivia is well and living in Paris

Viva La Musica – The Podcast

Hello friends

Following on from my last post, here it is, the latest podcast. It’s an inspirational interview with Barbara de Biasi, head of London’s Fireworks Music School.

If, like me, you’ve ever regretted not learning an instrument, and are wondering if it’s too late, you’ll want to hear this. Seems its not too late, and there are huge health benefits too. Here it is on Soundcloud. Scroll down too, for more useful links, including the Fireworks Music School. Give ’em a call.

 

And here it is on Podomatic:  http://imasquattingtoad.podomatic.com/entry/2016-06-30T10_32_47-07_00

Here’s Barbara’s website:    http://www.barbaradebiasi.com/

And the music school:http://www.fireworksmusicschool.com/

Read about research into the positive effects of music:  http://www.anitacollinsmusic.com/neuroandmused/

Well, that’s enough to be getting on with for now. Enjoy the podcast and keep creating.

Mel

X

Viva La Musica!

I’m writing a TV ad for my latest podcast. The episode will be ready on Wednesday, so I’d better get to it pretty damned quick. The ad will feature me in  a starched, white apron, flashing my starched, white teeth and holding a packet of NEW Squatting Toad, ‘The podcast that adds a pinch of creativity and removes the stain of hate.Try it now. Guaranteed or your money back.’

Well, you’ll all be getting your money back. And I’ll be giving it back because I lied to you. A proper bare-faced lie, like the ones we’ve heard here in the UK this week, the ones that tell you that foreigners are dragging our country down, taking everything and giving nothing in return.

Can you tell I’m angry? Too right, I’m angry. What were we thinking, voting to leave the EU, and on so-called evidence that foreign migrants are diminishing the nation? AND on the very day I interview one of the most inspiring people I have ever met, who lives here in London and just happens to be Italian.

OK, so now this is an ad for my upcoming episode and you’ll want to hear it, because you will agree that Barbara de Biasi’s contribution to our cultural life is immense. She’s a composer and a music teacher and a passionate believer in the power of music. Here’s an article on just one of her recent projects.

http://www.standard.co.uk/news/education/this-is-how-to-get-free-piano-lessons-at-st-pancras-station-a3250766.html

Yes, the lessons were free!

We know creativity is crucial and, as I mentioned last time, what sets us apart from the animals. Barbara has travelled many miles from her home to find a place that has offered her the opportunity both to learn and to give back. She deserves better than the threat of having to leave or having to jump through administrative hoops to be able to stay.

Advert, rant, information – what a lot just one post can give you. Stay tuned for my interview with Barbara, and share it far and wide, if you agree that we need to keep our world, our hearts and our minds open. Then we can really show we are above hate and destruction.

Viva La Musica (as Barbara might say)!

Mel

 

Creativity is Crucial. Promise Me You Will Not Stop.

We live in serious times. The last few weeks have proven just how serious, just how tragic. So, isn’t it just frivolous of me to spend my time encouraging music and poetry, painting and crafts, not to mention indulging in them myself? Categorically, I say no.

They say that it is our ability to love that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. I believe that to that we must add our creativity, and our ability to live creatively. For only by giving vent to that creative impulse and creating something of beauty can we really understand love and loving. I’m not talking about romantic love, or even love for our friends, but a kind of loving compassion, what is called by some religions agape.

Here in the UK, the EU referendum campaign has been characterised by hateful and divisive rhetoric, not to mention ignorance and misunderstanding. In the midst of all of this, a young politician is murdered. I am not trying to make a direct connection between Jo Cox’s death and the EU campaign, but it came at a time when already so much hatred and rancour were swirling around the country, swept along by misinformation and, frankly, racism.

I know it’s too simple to say that those who are filled with hate for others and anger at their own lot in life would find their epiphany in drawing a still life, or writing, or even reading, a poem. This is not a reason to give up on the Creative Life or think it a mere frippery, a middle class indulgence. Music, more than anything else, has the power to unite people and give a sense of purpose. We may have moved on from families having an evening sing song around the piano, but a love of music can still bond people together into tribes, mostly for good. Think about the last time you heard live music in a packed venue and how powerful that shared experience was.

So, let’s create, and create some more, and never stop. Our creativity is powerful, and that’s why it’s often frightening. Our creative output is something to be shared and, if only one person sees something beautiful in the finished article, then that tiny bright light might extinguish a little hatred. That’s something worth pursuing.

Until next time, I wish you happy and meaningful creating.

Much love.

Mel

 

New Podcast (hurrah). Top Books for Creative People

Hello Friends

We all need some inspiration from time to time, either somebody to give us a motivating kick in the proverbial, or just  time out to read some wise words in a good book.

Well, embarrassment of riches time, because in today’s podcast, I bring you wise words from three good books. I’ve chosen these books because I found them inspiring, not because I was looking for some books to review. I hope you’ll invest in at least one of them (or find them in your library), and I hope you’ll agree.

Don’t worry if you don’t agree, just tell me which books have moved you and I can maybe feature them in a later episode.

Here goes on Soundcloud:

I will post iTunes and Podomatic links soonest.

Have a great, creative weekend.

Mel

The Power of Persistence, or ‘Stay on the F***ing Bus’

The picture you see above is of Helsinki Railway Station, a Jugendstil masterpiece built by Eliel Saarinen in 1919. I present it to you for three reasons, the first two being that it is a stunning building, one of the world’s finest stations, and that I took the photograph. That’s not showing off, it just means I don’t have to pay anyone for the rights. The third reason is that it’s the closest thing I have to an image of Helsinki Bus Station, which is where I want to take you today. We only need to cross the road  and we are there, in a somewhat more prosaic setting than the one available to rail travellers, but that’s life, and that’s bus travel.

In 2004, Finnish photographer, Arno Minkkinen, himself clearly no stranger to a bus ride out of the capital, put forward his theory on what makes for a fulfilling creative life and career. It’s called Helsinki Bus Station Theory and illustrates the importance of persistence in pursuit of one’s own voice and of creative success. It goes like this:

There are around twenty four platforms at Helsinki Bus Station and all buses leave the city by the same route for at least the first kilometre. There are intermediate bus stops on the main road out and each bus stops at these too. Taking his own profession as his example, Minkkinen thinks of each of these stops as the first years in the career of a photographer. After,say, three stops,when you have built up three years’ worth of work, you hop off the bus and present that work to a gallerist (insert publisher/ producer etc. as appropriate). That gatekeeper knocks you right back by telling you your work is just the same as that of someone else who’s come along the same bus route before. Gutted, you jump a cab straight back to the bus station, because life is short, and you get on another bus. Three years/stops later, you hop off again, with a new body of work to show and the same thing happens. It turns out it’s just too similar to somebody else’s work and they don’t want it. Another tearful cab ride back to town to start the whole process again. And it keeps happening, always being compared to someone else and being rejected.

What’s the solution, how do we break the cycle?  Minkkinen is very clear here. ‘Stay on the bus. Stay on the f***ing bus.’ After a kilometre, the buses diverge, taking different routes out of the city. So, stick with the journey you’re on and you’ll find your own unique way, your own path.

Persist and thrive.

As I’ve talked about before, we all start out imitating or inspired by someone else. That’s OK. We need to do that. ‘Derivative’ is a much-derided concept, but, to me, it means we started with an idea used by someone else and then changed it a bit. Maybe not much, but that little bit is what makes it ours, and we can keep changing and refining, and at some point put forward our own ideas.

Remember the ‘What If?’ question I mentioned before? (See blogpost from May 3rd) If you stay on the bus, you give yourself time to ask that, as the road winds on before you. The twists and turns as the bus moves deeper into the suburbs or the Finnish countryside, well, they can shape our ‘What If?’ questions.

Arno Minkkinen also went through this process himself, finding his work compared to other contemporary photographers who had gone before, so he knows whereof he speaks. Personally, I think his work is beautiful and unlike anything I have ever seen. You can visit his website here  to see some of his astonishing photos of the human body integrated with nature.

So, dear friends, if you are nervous about getting on the bus, it is understandable. To decide to create a single work or a body of work is to risk rejection and accusations of non-originality. But, get on the bus, then stay on the bus. Remember, just because one person finds a reason that the work is wrong for them, doesn’t mean it’s actually wrong, or that it couldn’t be made better.

Go on, take the ride. But do stop to admire the lovely railway station first.

Happy creating.

Mel

PS: You can read Arno Mikkinen’s speech in which he first put forward the theory here.