Monday, 31 December 2012

The Prosperous Heart

Greetings reader, and a Happy Hogmanay.

It has been quite a while since my last blog post here. A helluva lot has happened in the months since then, with theatre and writing projects through to poetry and installations, bringing me right up to this weekend when I completed my final check in on The Prosperous Heart (which is my main reason for posting, and I will talk about in a bit of detail later on—please bear with me if I go for a ramble before I get there, or skip straight to that heading if the rest doesn't interest you!). What with the twelve week programme coming to an end and it being the end of the year, I figured the time was right to round up on what was a year of progress, excitement, campaigning, drama, change… and most importantly, creativity.

My last post was back in May when I was in the throes of Walking in this World; having followed The Artist's Way the year before, my creative cluster buddy Debbie had encouraged me on to Julia Cameron's next twelve step course for artists, and we were joined in our cluster by Mandi over in Melbourne. We were making great progress in May, having just completed up to Week 8 and 9; I was mid-run at the Citizens Theatre working as an actor/musician in the ensemble of King Lear; I was coming to the end of my mentoring period at the Playwrights’ Studio Scotland; I had been campaigning and petitioning tirelessly for weeks against changes to Public Entertainment Licences here in Scotland; I was balancing my creative work with a day job where I'd moved to reduced working hours to fit everything in. It was all very productive, and to quote that last post from May, I was “happy. Exhausted, yes; but happy!”

I reckon that comment was tempting fate—admitting to being happy, feeling like I had it all made. Two days after writing it, I had a routine health check through my health care provider at work. Three days later, I was meeting a consultant to discuss results and have scans, and a week after that found myself on the operating table having the first of two surgical procedures to remove tumours. It was a terrifying experience, but if I'm honest it happened so quickly I barely had time to process it until later in the summer when I was home alone recovering. This may sound ridiculous, but I was more fraught about having to cancel my plans to appear at the Edinburgh Fringe and missing out on writing opportunities than I was upset about being ill. I'll be under observation for a while with the possibility of more surgery in the future, but for now at least I'm getting on with things and following more or less the same old routine I always have, save for a few dietary and lifestyle changes (and those are certainly for the best).

It's liberating to have it out in the open and talk about it. My gut instinct at the time was to keep it to myself and suffer in silence. And the longer you keep something bottled up, the harder it is to share. My parents knew, as did a handful of close friends and my ever-supportive creative cluster, but I didn't feel comfortable sharing it beyond that immediate circle. I have no doubt that friends and acquaintances would have been supportive, but it felt too personal and intimate to be broadcasting health updates when we didn't know which way things would go; the very thought of it was exhausting. Instead, I decided to drop off the radar for a while. I cancelled work and most of my commitments, took a break from social media and friends, and spent a few months convalescing and recovering from the last operation. I'm generally well now, but still feel a little awkward when people comment on how much weight I've lost or ask if I'm eating properly; I had mindfully slimmed down and gotten fit in 2011, and I think some people assume that I've taken the old diet a bit too far now. I usually nod politely, tell them not to worry about me and assure them that I eat sensibly. That is the truth, after all.

This is far from being a self-piteous post, however. Given it consumed a large chunk of my year it feels right to acknowledge it here, and I feel comfortable doing so now that there's a bit of distance behind me.

That aside, I am now approaching the best shape I ever have been (if we ignore the excesses of Christmas and New Year, that is). 2012 proved to be a great year for me in so many ways—a real turning point for me as an artist. I believe I was handed a rare opportunity: confronted with the prospect of having my goals snatched away from me, I had no choice but to pursue them with a ferocity and veracity I had always aspired to but never found myself capable of. I've been much more productive in the latter half of the year, procrastinated less, and become much more focused on what is important to me. In the past few months alone, some of my comedy sketches have been picked up for publication, I won an award for my poem On Times Austere, wrote a first draft novel as part of NaNoWriMo in November, and was recently announced as one of the Traverse Fifty, a group of new playwrights who will be on attachment in 2013 to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations. I started singing again, appearing twice at the Royal Concert Hall to audiences of over 2000 people, and twice toured rural venues playing to audiences as small as 30. I now have two exhibitions of work lined up for 2013, a poetry installation in Portugal, more concerts and supper engagements booked, a new sketch show in development, will be tutoring creative writing, have plans to tour a new one man show, and am also developing a new play which I hope will be commissioned in 2013/14. And if it isn't, it will feel good to be writing and finishing work ready to pull out should opportunity knock.

I had a much needed kick up the ass this summer, and feel like I'm finally making progress as a result.

The Prosperous Heart

Now that I've offloaded the highs and lows of 2012, I can relay my experience of following The Prosperous Heart. While I hadn't quite completed Walking in this World when I took ill (something I plan to remedy in the new year), my interest was piqued when Debbie contacted Mandi and I to find out if we fancied reforming our cluster to tackle Julia Cameron's latest artistic journey. This one, Debbie told us, was aimed at finding abundance, sorting out finances and working out where our creative resistance (if any) was coming from. It was synchronicity, as these were exactly the things I'd found preying on my mind during my convalescence, so when we kicked off in September I felt ready for the challenges ahead.

Initially, I found some resistance to my morning pages. If you have followed The Artist's Way, you will be familiar with these—three long hand pages of stream of conscious writing written first thing in the morning—and just as they did with Walking in this World, they reappear here and are a key tool in Prosperous Heart. Part of my resistance was to the change in routine; I was struggling with my sleeping pattern and it it took me a while to settle. In the past the morning pages had been a sort of literary abandon for me; this time I found that writing in an unbound fashion was tapping in to part of my psyche that was simply churning up things I hadn't been dealing with. I kept working at it until eventually I cracked it, and am now writing well over a thousand words every day in under half an hour, and haven't missed a session in over two months. I expect that they will now form part of my daily routine for life, as they help me to raid my subconscious for both issues and ideas; some of the best creative work I've produced recently has come from tiny gems gleaned through this process.

Last month, I used the exercise with the group of pupils I've been tutoring in creative writing for their Advanced Higher English, and it was fascinating reading what came out of their heads when writing rapid response with only the simplest of prompts. One pupil wrote a piece of fiction so loaded with subtext that he hadn't realised it appeared to reflect something very different when relayed back, making me question what had been playing on his mind when writing. It helped me to see my own pages in a whole new light. I hadn't fully appreciated till then that amidst the nonsense and chaos and scribbles were nuggets of potential for development as well as wee solutions to my daily gripes. I have since gone back and circled things in my past entries and started using them as action points.

Prosperous Heart continues the practice of walking, which I have managed to keep up every day. I practise mindfulness, and try to differentiate between what I call commute walking and leisure walking—by that I mean I don't just walk backwards and forwards to bus stops, and try to incorporate a walk in the park or trip round town each day for a minimum of 20-30 minutes. I treat it as a moving meditation, an opportunity to clear my head—or sometimes do the exact opposite and do a lot of thinking. Julia also introduces the idea of a daily time out, a short period of meditation or mindful practice. This is something I found a bit more difficult to stick to and had to adapt until I was comfortable with it. For a short while I tried observing a tea ritual in a mindful manner as suggested by Leo Babauta in his Zen Habits blog, and has mostly worked for me. I'm now also making an effort to simply sit at peace for five minutes each night and take time to just breathe in that wee gap between powering everything down and climbing in to bed.

The biggest ongoing challenge this time round comes in the form of Counting and Abstinence. Counting is, quite simply, writing down every single penny that comes in to your life and every single penny that goes out, from your salary or sale of work to finding the odd penny on the street, and from your groceries and bills to those sneaky lattes and dining out. Once you can fully account for your spending habits, you can start to work out if your finances truly support your core values and beliefs. “I can't do X because I can't afford to” or “I'll do Y one day when I have enough money” have been the mantras of many a wannabe maker and creative type in history, whether their craft be acting, writing, dance or whatever. The idea behind counting is to open ourselves up to the possibility that we can shuffle our finances and better use them to serve our needs, making those artistic goals more of a priority than that takeaway pizza, or sidestepping an expensive brand when a more cost effective solution might be available. Abstinence takes this further, concreting the idea that we should not debt; no spending on credit cards or taking out loans, working towards financial freedom and independence, living within our means and learning to be happy with what we have. Please be assured I'm probably stating the concept far too simply here, and I urge you not to be cynical about it; it is an idea that develops over weeks of practice without lecturing or judgement, and when it starts to bed in, you will find gratitude and abundance in all walks of your life while loosening your dependence on money as a means to an end; I know I did!

Over the course of the twelve weeks I successfully paid off the last of my credit cards in full, and have maintained a zero balance at the end of every month since. This is a major achievement for me. I carried a lot of debt on my card a few years ago after breaking up with my ex and struggling to make ends meet for a while, so to finally see the last of it cleared has been extremely liberating. It has taken away the stress I felt having to work flat out to repay borrowing, and has opened me up to the possibility of working creatively without being under immediate financial pressure. Having that burden lifted has contributed to the huge increase in my productivity levels.

It doesn't, however, mean that I don't need money or will work for nothing. Prosperous Heart has helped me to assess and value my talents, and I better recognise how to use my time and skills. I learned to say ‘No’ this year, and have turned down several opportunities that I didn't believe would serve me well. Previously, I would in all likelihood have said ‘Yes’ to many things out of a sense of duty or loyalty to the past. My biggest fear was always that I'd somehow let people down, that it might result in fall outs or upsets; in fact, I've found the exact opposite happens, with most folk happy to hear that I'm saying no because I'm concentrating on my own work. They hope I will find success.

In terms of structure, I found Prosperous Heart quite different to the previous books. Both The Artist's Way and Walking in this World introduce tasks to be completed between readings as you work your way through each week's chapter, with a weekly check in at the end to track and share your progress with your creative cluster (assuming you have succeeded in forming one). Prosperous Heart however offers a chapter of continuous reading followed by a collection of activities at the end of each week, which I tended to complete and then share with my cluster buddies in one sitting. I found the activities took slightly longer than the tasks of the previous books, and sometimes involved deeper thinking and a lot of soul searching.

I should note at this point, having a creative cluster is a great motivator, and I couldn't have asked for better creative partners than Debbie and Mandi. I highly recommend that you try to find at least one other person to work with through any of the books you might end up following; they are your accountability buddy, will champion you through periods of change, and more than anything will provide reassurance and understanding should you start to panic. It's good to know that others experience the exact same creative blocks and life struggles as you, and that you're not facing them on your own. Don't be put off if there's no one in your immediate circle of friends or colleagues you can think of to take the journey with you—I am Glasgow-based, Debbie is in London and Mandi is in Melbourne. We email, we Skype, we talk regularly—distance really is no barrier. It's more important that you have a cluster there each week when it's time to check in rather than no cluster at all, so scour forums or social networks if necessary to find yourself a buddy.

On the whole, I feel I've reached the end of both Prosperous Heart and 2012 with a sense of great personal achievement. I doubt my creative endeavours will be regarded as high art, but alas, I didn't set about them with any plan other than to satisfy my own sense of curiosity and adventure. I count myself fortunate to have produced work this year that I'm pleased with, and remarkably lucky to have had the opportunity to share as much of it with others as I have. For every good piece of work, there's probably three or four bad pieces (call it practice!) that will never see the light of day, but I'm happy with that too. It feels great to be productive whether the work is good or not—it's a huge ‘Up Yours!’ to procrastination. I'm ending the year in better health, better physical and financial shape, and with a fresh optimism for 2013.

Wishing you a very Happy and Healthy New Year.