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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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