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??

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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.

Latest podcast – and a poem to enjoy

Hello friends

It’s another lovely weekend, if a bit cold, so you might want to spend a bit of time indoors and you might be looking for some entertainment. I know of few people more entertaining than Performance Poet, Cynthia Hamilton. (Yes, Capital P’s.)

So here’s my latest podcast, with her and me chewing the fat. And at the end of this post, a lovely poem from Cynthia to cheer your day, or make you feel a bit queasy!

Enjoy the programme…and tell your friends.

http://imasquattingtoad.podomatic.com/swf/joe_multiplayer_v112.swf

Or here on Soundcloud.

https://soundcloud.com/user-301095364/squatting-toad-episode-12-cynthia-hamilton-performance-poet-and-good-egg

Let me know if you have trouble getting it to work and here goes with Cynthia’s poem. (Non-British people – spotted dick is a British dessert!)

Cannabalism: A Five Course Poem

Cannibals from far and wide
have tried to hide their fleshy wants
of spleen and kidneys on the side
and eyeballs for their vol-au-vents.

Here come the guests 
so nicely dressed
they help themselves to soup and rolls
with happiness they will digest the fingers 
in the finger bowl.

I see the maid has been and laid
the table for our carnivores
if only she were well-behaved
she made a lovely plat du jour.

“It’s nice to see variety 
I can’t decide what I like most!
the stir-fried Aborigine
or then again the jam on host.”

Another feast it seems has ceased
they’re quite replete and almost sick
dessert was shunned to say the least
a funny-looking spotted dick…

 

Subvert and Find Your Voice – Making Creativity Happen (part 2)

Hello again Creative Friends

Last time we got very brainy with our old Greek friend, Heraclitus. A week has passed now, so let’s come back to earth a little and talk about you.

Sometimes, when you call a good friend, you just say ‘Hi, it’s me!’. You don’t even need to say your name, because you are recognised by your voice, your unique voice. (Or by Caller ID, but let’s just pretend we’re back in the 1980s for today’s purpose. Ah the ’80s.)

When you speak you have a recognisable and unique voice. When you create you also have a unique voice. For most of us, that creative voice doesn’t come immediately, you have to work at it. For some of us, the light bulb moment takes longer than for others. For some of us, it can feel like all we produce is derivative or sub-standard. But we know we are our own harshest critics, so let’s examine that bit objectively.

Who decides what is sub-standard? Life isn’t school, where you can be given a ‘D’ because your teacher says your work isn’t good enough. Lord knows, nobody has greater admiration for teachers than I have, but they have a job to do, which is all too often focused on getting the kids exam-ready. That’s the System for you. Take away those strictures, now that you have passed your exams, and you can also subvert the System. Do you think that Marcel Duchamp would have passed his A-level art with a signed urinal? I mean, where’s the skill in that? And yes, that picture above, it’s art, not just random sanitary ware.

As for derivative, well, everybody copies. Only by taking inspiration from others, can we find our own voice. The trick is to keep at it and ask the Killer Question.

What’s the Killer Question?

‘What if?’

Yes, it’s that simple.

TODAY’S EXERCISE

  • Get a copy of your favourite painting or poem. ( This exercise also works well with jokes. Seriously. I am always serious about jokes.)
  • Now get your pencil(s) out and  copy it, but not completely. Change a colour, an object, a phrase, a word, all the time aiming for it to still make sense to you.
  • Keep asking yourself The Killer Question – ‘What If?’
  • What if I replaced green with blue? What if I used fewer words? Or more words?
  • Keep another blank sheet of paper to hand to note down your own, independent ideas as they come, so you can work on them later.

Derivative? No way! Just inspired.

Never stop asking ‘What If?’.

Out of the old, springs the new. It’s all about curiosity.

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.- Dorothy Parker

And out of that curiosity springs your own take on the world. Your Unique Creative Voice.

If your curiosity is aroused about Marcel Duchamp, you can read more about him here.

And watch out for my newest podcast, which will be available here very soon.

Until next time, Happy Creating.

Mel

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