Musings on Mark Kermode

I’ve not felt like writing so much in that last few weeks, I’m not entirely sure what that’s about, but I’ve been doing making type things so maybe I only have so much creative energy. But I have just started reading ‘The Good, the bad, and the multiplex’, by Mark Kermode. It’s a book that has been out for some time. It’s been lurking in my kindle library for some time. I’m not about to do a book review. I have yet to make it past Chapter 2, so have little substance to base any review on. But I am enjoying it so far, and wanted to share a musing prompted by the book.

It’s a little ranty for my tastes. I like to see a skilfully executed rant, and in his film review work he is known for some excellent rant work. But in his description of what sounded like an excruciatingly irritating visit to a multiplex cinema, I feel he may have reached peak rant. That said, the book by very elegantly explaining the role and the importance of the skill the projectionist in the art of cinema, and I liked this beginning very much.

The projectionist, he explains, is a vital part of the art work, not some who presses play on the DVD player. He then goes on to explain how the profession is slowly being wiped out across the UK by the introduction of digital technologies coupled by the arrogance of large multiplex cinema managers. Cinemas are slowly bleeding their projectionists. If you have ever had the experience of sitting in a cinema where half of the picture is slipping off the screen, or freezes half way through the movie never to start again, this is probably the explanation. You have been denied the proper care and attention of a projectionist.

He goes to to begin talking about how the desire to make money has taken over from the desire to make good art in much of commercial cinema. For me this brings together a few themes that have been floating around the news lately. One is the increasing likelihood that robots and machines will replace more and more humans in jobs, and the second is the idea that the thing that is human about artistic work is somehow unimportant, and should be subservient to the thing that makes money (any thing that makes money). As humans we are fundamentally wired to be social, and to connect with other people and understand them. At a basic biological level, we like there to be other humans about, doing things and helping each other. As a species, much of what we are about concerns this. This helping, this tending to each other’s needs is an evolutionary, competitive advantage – we tend to die if we have to do it all on our own. That there is no longer a projectionist taking care of each screen in the cinema may save the cinema money, but it costs them in skill and expertise. With the projectionist disappears it costs the cinema that very human ability to care for and respect the audience.

If going to the cinema begins to feel less special than snuggling up with a buddy on the sofa with a pizza and Netflix, why go to the cinema at all? You only pay (a rather large chunk of cash) to go to the cinema because it is meant to be a special experience. The stripping out of the things that feel human may make things seem more efficient, but it may also make audiences forget why they should show up and pay up in the first place.

 

Putting things down, picking things up, starting again

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Over the last few weeks I’ve been making a slow return to working on two projects that I started last year. At the beginning of last year I took a course in documentary film making and I took two courses in play writing. I’ve been interested in the process of documentary filmmaking for quite a while. A lot of my formal training has been in research methods and in the social sciences, and have some frustrations with the way that academic work gets communicated (or doesn’t) to the wider world. At the time this seemed like a good thing to understand a bit better, and a good fit with my existing skill set. I took the play writing course because I was stuck with a novel I was working with and thought it would be helpful to look at it from a different approach. But then I got hooked and decided I had to write a play, obviously. And I did, sort of.

But there were problems. The film school that I enrolled with decided to change the dates of their course without really giving me much notice and I ended up trying to do both things at the same time, and have a full time job too. It worked for a while, but then I went through some crappy nonsense in my private life, and started a new job, and it didn’t really work anymore. Up until the beginning of September I’d not really worked on either project for 12 months and was not feeling great about that as I really wanted to finish something well enough to send it ‘somewhere’. I also have a film maker in my family, my dad, who kept gently reminding me that I should, ‘Work on my film’. And he’s right, I should be working on my film, because I got lucky with a really good story and could do something really interesting with it.

It took me a bit of time to work out what the blocks were on continuing with both projects, but I think I have a list now.

  1. Space – I was living with a friend of mine at the time and didn’t really have a huge amount of space. I’m kind of messy, and didn’t want to leave my mess all over his flat, so I ended up with a kind of squashed psychological space to work in.
  2. Teaching style – on the doc film course at least I felt a little as though I didn’t gel with the tutor. I think she’s great film maker, and loved talking to her about films. But she’s very much from the observational documentary style school. I wanted to work with other artistic things, like animation and set up pieces of film. I think I felt at the time that I wasn’t really able to make ‘my’ film so I did’t make a film at all.
  3. Time and Timing – the timing was bad, I was sad and exhausted. I was still getting used to living in London having moved from Cardiff, which is a much smaller, calmer city and one that I knew very well. I did’t have time to feed my creative self and that meant I couldn’t really put the work in that was needed.
  4. The fraud police – would anything I produced actually be as good as I thought they could be?

Above are some images I finished off yesterday that will part of an animation for the documentary. I’ve been writing new scenes for the play. So what’s happened? What has changed? I can think of two things that have really worked in ‘unblocking’. The first is that I cut out a load of things that I was doing, including socialising with some people that kind of drained me a bit, and carved out that time for doing creative stuff. Small, achievable projects first, at which step by step led me back to the ‘big’ ones. I’ve also come to realise that part of my creative process involves giving projects long ‘down’ periods as this enables me to come back to them with a new perspective. So not working on either project for a year doesn’t feel un-natural with hindsight.

Second, and I think this is the big one. I moved in with the boyfriend. We got a place together that gives me more space, and that helps. But I think the real key here is him. He’s constantly and consistently supportive, and frequently cooks the dinner so I can get on with something else. He’s such a tidy organised person, and yet he tolerates my creative mess everywhere, and he does it all with humour. He’s always happy to listen to my ideas, and talk to me about that, while never once said ‘you should do this’. I think that’s enabled me to regain some creative confidence. I had been told in the past that picking the right partner was really important, and I had been a bit dismissive of that, because at the time I was single and thought I could do it all myself. Turns out that advice was pretty good advice, after all.

You are here by Jenny Lawson

So being ill can have an up side sometimes. I’ve been unwell with some awful head cold [wo]man flu and haven’t been able to do much work. I’ve been mostly sleeping, drinking honey and lemon, and watching telly, with a little web surfing on the side. The web surfing turned out to be a little too exciting for my ill brain and I’ve had to wait a few days before I was able to form a coherent thought about this.

I came across Jenny Lawson’s memoir Furiously Happy, at least a year ago through one of those Amazon ‘and you may also like’ recommendations.  I loved it, having been bought up in the country with my own bunch of eccentrics, and from there I went on to read Let’s pretend this never happened, which I also loved. These books are very funny, and great books for anyone who has ever wanted to hide under a table at a public event (or regularly finds themselves taking a ‘time out’ in the office loo). Earlier in the week I wasn’t very well and couldn’t do much more than sit in bed and surf the internet. I spent some of that time diving into the Bloggess website and it was the first time I was able to have a really good read about her colouring book You are Here.

I really think this post is worth looking at for anyone who uses arty creative things as part of their efforts to manage mental health. Jenny Lawson writes vividly about her own arts practice (I have no idea if she would call it that, but her drawings are works of art) continually using drawing and doodling as a way of channeling negative or distressing thoughts or emotions. She is releasing a colouring book based on these drawings, alongside some short stories that work with the drawings, and what a beautiful thing it is (at least it looks that way from the pictures – the physical book won’t be available for a few months). Just go and look at the sweeping curves and swirling lines of some of these drawings. I really love how these drawings are intricate, and delicate, effective in evoking fairytale and myth. Somehow exciting and soothing to look at at the same time. I’ve ordered my copy, and I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying getting creative with this set of drawings. Or just owning them. Anyway, go and look. Now.

A bit more on ‘On not being able to paint’

I’ve been digging into Marion Milner’s book ‘On not being able to paint’ and have been really enjoying this. The book describes Milner’s efforts in trying to learn how to paint, and she takes a psychoanalytic perspective on this. I’m no expert in psychoanalysis and have definitely had to re-read a few bits and pieces to get a better appreciation of their meaning. Even so I have been enjoying the book as an interesting and thoughtful meditation on the creative process and what that can mean for the creative individual. This week I’ve been particularly struck by this quote:

“It now looked as if some of the spiritual dangers to be faced in this matter of coming to see as the painter sees were concerned with the transfiguration of the external world; in fact with a process of giving to it something that came from within oneself, either in an over whelming of a reviving flood. Also this process could be felt as a plunge – a plunge that one could sometimes do deliberately, but which also sometimes just happened, as when one falls in love.”

Last week I struggled to even begin to describe the quality of the light that was created through the stained glass windows of La Sagrada Familia. I think also I was  in complete awe of the sheer scale of that creative effort. I think in part this came from knowing the personal, internal effort that would have been involved in committing the vision of something on that scale to paper, and to see it built, and the vulnerability that would require. This is possibly why this quote has spoken to me this week.

On finishing things, or, I made a thing, eep!

When I started writing blog posts about the connection between creativity and mental wellbeing I initially thought that I would write one, let it loose, see how it flew. Then I had an idea for another one, but I thought I would run out of steam on this thought stream pretty quickly, but then had another idea, and then another. So far each little thought seems to lead to another little thought, that is just enough of an idea to write a blog post about. Go figure.img_0101

Most of the things I blog about in this ‘series’ are just my ideas about theories that I know of and that I find useful in making sense of myself, and of my experiences. If working as a researcher in psychology and medicine and mental health for the last 12 years has taught me anything it is this: there are many splendid varieties of ‘human’. What works for one person will not work for the next, or will work but in combination with a third thing. For many people it is possible to manage their wellbeing through a healthy diet, a decent amount of exercise and a little enjoyable down time. It doesn’t seem to be quite enough for me, there needs to be something….else.

One of my blocks over the last few years has been in finishing things. I don’t know if this is a typical ‘scanner problem’ but I am pretty good at getting dug into a project, and then, about half way through there seems to be another project that I need to start, so I do. And then another. And another. The banner picture on my blog at the moment is a blanket I made for my sister. It took a whopping 7 years to finish that baby off. 7 years. And I was so proud of it that I took pictures of it before I handed it over to use on the banner of this blog. So in contrast to that, this little guy in the picture above only took around six months. And look, he lights up…

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Many of my ongoing projects are quite ambitious, there is a play, a film and a novel, and now a book about art and wellbeing. I’ve struggled to get close to finishing any of these things and this was beginning to cause lots of creative angst. One of the strategies I’ve come across in the mental health world, and in the online world of inspirational businesses, is the idea of goal setting. Of particular use to me has been setting smaller goals, by which I mean developing much smaller projects that are I could potentially finish in a few weeks (it still takes a few months but never mind). I’m finding that in actually finishing some things I feel much more motivated to return to those more ambitious, difficult projects, and I feel better for it. It’s helping, that the play is actually looking in good shape to send somewhere soon.

 

Quick review: Body of work by Pamela Slim

I’ve not blogged this week as I’ve not really been at my best, and have been doing the ‘one thing at a time’ thing this week. I’m not going to do a long piece now should be back tomorrow with something a bit more interesting. I have, however, been enjoying the book Body of Work by Pamela Slim. She’s written a book about what work could mean in what is now a rapidly changing situation. The style of working that involves a job at the same place, in the same career path, for the majority of your career is becoming less common and indeed less possible to sustain. Many more people, through choice or necessity, are developing ‘portfolio careers’ with multiple strands, gigs and projects. I think this can leave some of us feeling a bit disoriented, and unsure exactly how to shape that kind of way of working in a way that may make the most of our varied talents.

I really liked Pamela Slims approach to thinking about this. In the book she makes the argument that over a lifetime we should look to create a Body of Work – so a collection of different projects and occupations that form a substantial contribution to society. I think what I particularly liked about this is how she writes about finding your own narrative. The book has a series of mini projects and exercised throughout the book that are designed to allow you to gain a sense of what your own narrative may be and how to tell that story about your body of work. I think in the past for me this has been a difficulty, I have worked in academic research in a number of areas, and tried to nurture my creative interests outside of that, and everything felt a bit bitty (I’ve recently found out there is a name for people like us, ‘Scanners’). Pamela Slim suggests that everyone should have a ‘Side Hustle’, which is very sensible, but some of us have more ideas for side hustles than time to really work them. I think the idea of working out what you narrative is can really help with that, as it can allow you a framework to work out which projects are worth prioritising, and which ones can wait a little. I am now working much more specifically to attempt to create more space for the creative interests and skill development. I think this book is another step in helping scanners or multipotentialites make sense not only of who we are but also who we can find a way of working that fits more naturally with our way of being. So in sum, I liked it.

Making and mental health: Arts as a transformative practice

img_0076-1I have been musing over the last few weeks in what has turned into a little blog series about how having an arts practice can be a positive thing for mental health. It certainly works on some level for me. Over the last few years I keep coming back to the idea art as a transformative practice in the projects I have started (and often not really finished – I have the multipotentialite problem of too many projects and not enough time). One of the characters in a novel and then in a play I have been (am still) working on was directly concerned with this idea, and I’ve often spoken informally to artists of have had similar thoughts about it.

The act of Making is one of transformation. We take all manner of things, objects, paper, paint and glue and in combining those things through various techniques we transform them into something new and possibly unique. For many artists one of those ingredients is feeling. The act of using good feeling or bad and channelling that into a project to transform into something else is an profoundly creative act. The idea that emotions can feed creative work has been around for a long time, as has the stereotype of the ‘troubled artist’, so I am doubtful that this is a new idea to many reading this. I think it is this ability of an arts practice to allow the expression of feeling that can make it particularly positive. It can be a way of expressing, and gaining clarity, on what is going on for a person without requiring them to directly verbalise it. Potentially for many, expressing themselves through visual means, or through music, makes far greater sense that attempting this through what can be the very limiting medium of words.

I’m not suggesting that all art is about this process, for many art can also be a restful or pleasing diversion. But frequently the art that speaks to me most speaks to me on this level. A really useful way of thinking about this for me came through reading Amanda Palmer’s Book ‘The Art of Asking’ (I really enjoyed this one, more on this another time). There are a lot of useful ideas in here, but the one that grabbed my interest in particular was the idea of the artist as ‘Sin Eater’. Traditionally the Sin Eater was a person who may live at the margins of a community. Their role was to take on the sins of a person who had recently died so that person would be able to pass on to heaven. In Welsh communities the Sin Eater may visit with a family and break bread and drink ale over the body of a loved one to ‘eat’ their sins. In ‘The Art of Asking’ Amanda Palmer speaks about the artist as the sin eater, as a figure who is able to take on the sadness, anger or distress of others and transform that into something beautiful, into art. I found this description particularly useful to think about, and in understanding the function art can play in helping us understand ourselves.

Business bites: bank accounts

I’ve gained a load of new followers this week. Hello! So lovely to see you over here. For the who are new (which is the majority) one of the threads running through this blog is a exploration of how easy it is to start up an online creative business from scratch, and from a very small initial financial outlay. I had been experiencing quite a lot of anxiety at work and was looking for ways to reduce my hours and put at least some of my working efforts into my own creative projects.

As someone who has always worked for someone else, I have no previous experience in business, so am learning as I go along what is possible, what is difficult, what is confusing. I’m taking a social sciences approach to the research, reading books and talking to people. This week I’ve been getting myself snarled up in the finances side of things. At the moment I’m not making any money, so I’m not too worried about the confusions here, but there is a lot of confusion. I’ve been reading this book ‘Refreshing simple finance for Business’ by Emily Coltman,which is very helpful, and I have learned the following;

Running a tiny business on my own which brings in at the moment very little money (nothing at all) means I can set myself up as a sole trader. This means I don’t have register as a limited company at companies house, or get an accountant. It does mean I have to register my self for tax purposes after the end of the tax year in which I started the Magpie, and will need to do a self assessment, pay tax on my income, and probably some extra national insurance. So far, so clear.

However, this book, along with others, advises that while you can probably use your own bank account, it’s better to have a separate one to keep you business transactions separate from your personal ones which will make the end of year accounting much easier. This is where I hit problems. Most basic current accounts don’t let you use them for ‘business purposes’. So I looked at ‘Start up’ business accounts, and there are several that will allow you to bank with them for free for the first 18-24 months while you are getting up and running. However to apply for one of those you need to give an estimate of your anticipated annual turn over (um…) and have a business plan (should probably have thought about one of these) and you need some tax reference numbers that I don’t understand (possibly don’t have yet). So I’m going to need to go to a bank and talk to someone about what I need to do. I will let you know how I get on.

Pleasure in working my craft

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I’ve been blogging over the last week or two about how making has been helpful to me when it comes to mental health and managing anxiety. When I first began to contemplate this subject on this blog I drew the link between mindfulness and making, and wrote about how I manage to reach my most mindful state when, well making. I’ve been thinking a bit more about this and while I think in principle this definitely holds, there are ways in which my arts practice diverges significantly from the practice of mindfulness.

In a course I recently completed on mindfulness we were taught to experience things without ascribing value to it, or to become attached to it. The mind has a tendency to attach to things that are pleasurable and to try to prolong that sensation while trying to avoid sensations that are uncomfortable or distressing. One of the ideas behind mindfulness is that the pursuit of pleasure and the attempts to avoid pain are one of the root causes of anxiety, addiction and mental distress. Mindfulness teaches us to sit in the present moment with either pleasure or pain and to acknowledge that it is temporary. The good and the bad both will soon pass. So saying you enjoyed something or found pleasure in something is giving it a value, and from what I understand, not really what mindfulness is about.

While I would say that the moments in which I am making things are probably some of the moments where I am most present, I would also say I derive a deep pleasure from some of the making activities. A lot of the work I’ve been developing involves silhouettes, and I am particularly attached to the use of strong curved lines. I find drawing or cutting a really satisfying curved line to be particularly enjoyable. To be a sensual experience. I am happy, possibly driven, to repeat that experience over and over. When I was studying for my PhD a few years ago now I came across the concept of ‘flow’, which is described as a psychological state in which a person is fully engaged in an activity, is deriving pleasure from that activity and feels energised by it. I think for many people doing art work may provide that state, and this is a positive, healthy state to be in.

I think that it may not be the norm to talk this way about craft. I’ve seen people, particularly (but definitely not exclusively) women, being belittled for their enjoyment of their creative work, as if what they do is trivial. I think I’m lucky. I come from a family of artists and it is totally normal to speak this way about doing something creative. My mum and dad can get pretty caught up in describing a painter’s use of light, a particularly well set up shot in a film or a good solid line. We take creative work seriously and being surrounded by that environment as I grew up was a helpful thing I think. It taught me that putting effort and thought into creative work, whatever that creative work may be, is not trivial.