I'm in my final two weeks of graduate school. That means, by this time mid-April, I can clean my room.
Recently I learned to term "avalanche season," when a friend and colleague received that as a single line response, having asked a semi-famous writer for content in our school's magazine, Mission at Tenth. We both found that to be a perfect answer for when things get to be too much.
I'm feeling avalanche season now. This is the time my brain tells me I have to do all the things all the time, which leaves me wanting to do none of the things (all the time). Except sleep. And wash dishes. And play with a kitten named Elliot(t).
To combat this reaction, I have to go step by step. Even though my schedule and deadlines tell me now is the worst time to pace myself, I know now is the time I need to be most steady in my actions. Otherwise, I'll get sick, overwhelmed, or otherwise trapped under a snow bank moving at impossible speeds.
Once I'm stuck under that oppressive, cold weight, not only will I get nothing done, but mentally I'll fall to the bottom of a well. Then it will take me three times as long to recover and get back to the sane place where I am now, three times longer than taking each task one at a time, breathing with kindness as I go. By then, school is over, I've missed crucial assignments, and I'll have another semester to go instead of two weeks.
As I've heard from some great minds, if you don't have time to meditate ten minutes a day, you should do so for an hour instead. I'm trying to apply that to pacing myself, especially this week and next. I can't answer all the emails. I can't go above and beyond in every job. I can't clean my room. Not right now.
I can finish this major section of my academic life, and well. I will.
Then, the other things.
My biggest goal of the next two weeks is to get through with my head screwed on tight and straight, with few leaks. To do that, I'm making sure every day I know my biggest priority. With a ton of assignments and projects on the line, both work, school and art related, it can be hard to pick that, but I'll make the choice. And the other to-dos I'll work away at best I can, picking at each grain of ice with a shovel, bit by bit climbing closer to air.
For the last two years, I've been a Creative Inquiry, Interdisciplinary Arts MFA student at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco. Yes it's a mouthful. Yes I've learned a lot--about my arts practice, about what artmaking means to me, about how I want my art to converse with the world, and about how to engage in dialogue with people practicing other disciplines--inside and outside of the arts, and from diverse backgrounds.
The MFA Program at CIIS is low-residency. I live in Boise, Idaho and travel to school six weekends out of each semester. I work in theater and as a teaching artist in Boise while writing and studying for this intensive full-time program. This confuses a lot of people in both places, me in a haze right there with them most times. Others mostly get confused about me in space, while I get confused about me in time, as I try to be active in two cities while sort-of being absent in each, making and studying like a hermetic monk much of the time.
A lot of what I've learned at CIIS is about how to learn, make and teach art while living in one place and traveling out to other places, as much as all the wonderful and immense course content of each class. As I'm nearing my final cohort weekend, I've started reflecting a lot more on this experience. Here are a few things that came up when I asked myself what I've learned and discovered. While this list is nowhere near comprehensive, it's a start.
Starts are important.
Panic does not accelerate productivity.
Slowing down in my process helps me see with greater attention and focus.
There is creative power in waiting, and in not-doing.
Wandering opens up as many ideas as spaciousness.
Taking a long time on a project helps me go big with it.
I can still pump out material and experiment with several improvised pieces a day.
I'm on the path to creating a lifelong process that works well for me.
The process is about the long haul.
How I sustain, how I balance out the creative, the professional and the personal.
I have a lot to learn when it comes to balancing the personal with the creative & professional.
But I'm getting better.
We handle grief in many ways.
The ways I handle grief over time changes.
Grief is sometimes creative and sometimes not.
Opening up, taking down walls and allowing for vulnerability makes way for connection.
It's uncomfortable to be vulnerable.
The discomfort zone is where learning happens, where the magic happens.
I am already whole.
Pursuing a creative life in this country is a political act, as much as the personal is political.
Community engagement is more humanizing than politically focused work.
Socially engaged art has a chance to make real change for real people.
The biggest change art can make is in the person making it.
Great art has roots and reach.
I can only sit so long without upsetting my body and brain for the rest of the day.
I need to move, find new positions for myself and pursue stillness in order to work holistically.
If I am truly making art to live better, I have to regularly check in with the way I make art.
I am a true maniac.
It makes me glow to hear my department chair call me a maniac.
I have a large body of work and that surprises people.
I feel confused when people tell me I'm working all the time. I think they work just as much.
I know how to make massive quantity, how to write a lot and create a ton.
That muchness is an exquisite practice under my belt.
My new task is learning to understand that I can do less, and in that way do better.
I have a mountain of experience under me.
When I don't recognize what I know, I stand tip-toe on that peak, ready to fall to the bottom.
I inspire people.
It makes me look down tongue-tied when I hear my positive effects on people.
I know what I'm doing.
It's hard to admit that I know what I'm doing.
I am privileged in many ways. I am marginalized in very few, at most.
I can walk into a room recognizing the ways I'm privileged to help lift up the marginalized.
Instead of listening for contention or to interrupt, I can listen for understanding.
I can notice myself in a room and assess whether I need to step forward or back.
Reflecting is as important as planning and as acting.
At the root of everyone's work are a few core questions.
When questions drive the work, the work creates more questions.
I can investigate further to make those questions better all the time.
Finding out what drives me is asking what enrages, inspires, makes me curious, brings me joy...
I can really tap into those answers through the work to make purposeful art.
Generating material is the first and smallest part.
Then comes reworking, the redrafting, the feedback, the queering, the slowing, the rewiring...
That final five percent it takes to finish a work really does take 95% of the time
Or something like that.
All the things that play with the work take the longest time and are the most rewarding.
Art that taps into shared perversity compels me more than asking psychological motivations.
Asking "where am I?" each moment can bring deeper awareness and presence.
Noting where I am is an easy way to slip back into a conscious mindframe.
When the spinning option is available, a conscious mindframe is better.
Finding one focus at every given moment leads to groundedness.
I'm more street-smart and compassionate than I was before.
Traveling 12-20 times a year--even when it's mostly weekends--can take physical toll.
Traveling while schooling and working and creating is a lot to think about.
Then when personal life goes under big changes...whew.
School, teaching, art and aging has me grayer than I've ever been.
So far, I enjoy feeling older and grayer. It may help people take me seriously.
Me taking me seriously will help the most.
Self care and love is key to holistic artmaking, or as Maya Angelou said:
“I don't trust people who don't love themselves and tell me, 'I love you.' ... There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.”
I think it'll take me five years to let my last two years of education sink in.
That's probably an under-estimate.
I have a lot more reflecting to do.
What is your working rhythm?
When do you do your best creative work? When do you hit a wall?
Where do you get your motivation? Inspiration? Hesitation?
Who do you model your work practice after?
Why do you stop when you do?
How do you begin? How do you keep going? How do you renew?
I've been thinking a lot about these questions lately, mostly because my internal rhythm and energy seems to be in a changing state. I don't think this is wrong or unfortunate, but am trying to notice the difference and run with it. Or walk. Stroll.
I need a strolling pace lately, in order to sustain. Instead of driving hard at every choice and task and job--even though that may be the only way to get it all done--I've been attempting more steadiness and taking more breaks. Because otherwise, I could drop. And I can't afford that right now, not until late May.
So, I still write every day, but maybe I don't fill as many pages as usual.
And maybe it takes a little longer than a month to fill a notebook.
I still get assignments in on time, but maybe they're not early.
And maybe every email isn't perfect.
And some emails don't get sent.
And I slow my teaching pace.
And this post isn't perfect.
And it's okay.
Because I need to continue with this play, these classes, these workshops and planning, this homework and communication and production and fundraising, and if I worry about every single detail or try to push to the end of my last breath every day, I'll only make it harder on myself and harder for others to be around me. So instead, build a bridge to the next day. Leave a little in my reservoir so to continue on both feet.
I know momentum will build again. My eyes will open and my body will want to climb and conquer. I can relocate my relentless wellspring. But right now, I have to trust this stage in the process by waiting, and walking away, and making small steps in between breaks.
I need to listen to my body rhythm now and make friends with it. I could swim upstream, but for the moment, I need to go with the river.
This is my working rhythm now. What's yours? Photo Christian Joudrey
One of my favorite parts about working on my MFA Project Play How to Hide Your Monster is the chance to create with four women who are as invested in the way we're working together as we are on the play. Director Jaime Nebeker's attentiveness to the cast, her consistent checking into the emotional temperature of the room and our collective awareness of our need to take care of ourselves during this challenging play is rewarding in several ways. It's making the play better, our connection stronger as a company and the duration of our energy more likely to last.
The more we as theater makers are in tune with who we are and where we are each moment -- physically, emotionally, mentally -- and how we're relating to each other in the room as whole people, not just coworkers/collaborators/colleagues, the better* the work will be, the more invested we'll all be, and the more we can continue along on this very difficult road pursuing a life in the arts. Thank you, Jaime, Jennifer, Jodeen and Sasha, for helping create a generous and mindful culture in the rehearsal space for this play. It's wonderful to make magic with you phenomenal women.
Better = more balanced and sustainable, as well as productive.
Two Years Ago,
I used to write at any time throughout the day. Sometimes I do that now, but I tend to get wiped out by afternoon.
Practice is a trick. Tricking myself to stay in tune, aware and noticing. I do it more when I’m not at my notebook. Able to look around and be where I am. Noticing the pipes and fixtures at Happy Fish.
The high tables, bench and stool style. Elegant lighting like upside-down roulette tables or wedding cakes hanging from the ceiling.
Catie says she writes in this raw way to get emotion out. I guess that’s part of it for me, but more so it’s practice in noticing. Seeing. Trusting mind, voice, body, and everything that comes with it. That includes emotion but doesn’t stop there.
Process notes on a work in progress. This page serves to invite you into the way I work, with intermittent posts to show you the hows and whys on the whats I make.