On Decisions

September 16, 2014

About a month ago, right when I was trying to solidify what life post-Walker would look like, I got an email offering me a new creative project. At first I felt flattered and really excited, and it seemed like a no-brainer to sign on: they want me; it might be fun! But, the more I looked into it, the more I started to feel a ball of anxiety gnawing at my stomach. My old fall-back habit is to say YES to everything, just in case I might be missing out on THE OPPORTUNITY, which worked really well for me in my 20's when I had endless amounts of energy (and more time, too). But these days I have less tolerance for my quick 'yes' responses, which often lead to a ridiculously full schedule, total overwhelm, and my own best work being pushed to the back burner. As I began to realize that this project was not at all the right fit for me, I first felt strangely guilty (who am I to say 'no'?) and then...really amazing. Somehow, by saying a decided 'no' to this one thing, I felt crystal clear about a lot of other things. The lack of shoulder shrugging and "I guess so" cleared space for the things I felt really damn strongly about, and released a hold on any ambiguity that might have been taking up space around my future plans.

Decisions and Violence:
In her book A Director Prepares, theater director Anne Bogart speaks against ambiguity in a way that I love:

"Committing to a choice feels violent. It is the sensation of leaping off a high diving-board... Decisions give birth to limitations which in turn ask for a creative use of the imagination...Ideas come and go but what is important is the commitment to a choice and to its clarity and communicativeness. It's not about the right idea or even the right decision, rather it is about the quality of decisiveness."

I especially like that last bit: the quality of decisiveness over making the right decision. YES.

Bogart's reference to violence feels rather appropriate, because I can't think of a time that a decision has felt 100% warm and fuzzy: saying YES to one thing means saying NO to something else. One of my favorite essays in Cheryl Strayed's book Tiny Beautiful Things is "The Ghost Ship That Didn't Carry Us", in which Strayed gives requested advice on whether or not to have a child. It ends with these words:

"I'll never know, and neither will you of the life you don't choose. We'll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn't carry us. There's nothing to do but salute it from the shore." 

There's totally a place for mourning our ghost ships, even as we recognize the importance of continuing to act and choose.

Choices for You, Choices for Me:
Even more on my mind is the importance of making the decisions that feel right for us and standing by these choices. This is the hard stuff, and often the lonely stuff. I've found myself falling into comparison traps, looking around at others' choices and wondering if I'm making the right ones for myself: should I be making more art? OR should I see if a FitBit will change my life, too? (Yes, really.) It's so easy to crave the community of making the same choice as the person next to me.

I've been increasingly aware, though, of what a disservice this is to myself. It totally means second-guessing everything that I know and feel in my gut, and hugely diffusing my energy as I waffle around. I mean, DUDE, I'm 32 years old: that's old enough to know that I'm plenty type-A without attaching myself to a device that counts my steps, and to know that I value a balance of things in my life-- one of which is art-making. It's old enough to apologize less about what I do or don't do; old enough to know that life is way too finite for indecision. There's only so much room and space in the metaphorical life basket. We get to decide what we put in it, and that's pretty awesome. 

Your Creative Endeavor:
This all carries over into our creative endeavors-- one of the most important (and hardest) places to get comfortable making decisions from our gut; our own decisions. There's a lot of noise out there: lots of advice on how to make your work (books and blogs, oh my); lots of people taking different approaches than you are; lots of work that can lead you to second-guessing your own. It takes a lot of self-confidence to look inward and stay focused on your own work and goals. It's challenging to both stay open to new ideas (and resources and opinions), and recognize when they're diffusing your energy. I bring it around to priorities and urgency: what do you choose? what do you want? As that Mary Oliver poem goes, "what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" Choose that first.

[Image of an image by Anthony Zinonos from The Jealous Curator's Creative Block]

Found on the Internet

September 13, 2014

If its your weekend: sit in your pajamas, listen to a podcast, and leisurely click around the wonders of the internet! (Or make some soup or mow the lawn-- more good options.)

  • My friends Betsy and Justin are starting a nonprofit community film library next year, but right now their idea is a blog. An awesome blog, where they write smarty pants, funny, spot-on observations about loving movies. Warning: it will make you want to spend the day in your pajamas watching ALL the movies. Go read it! (I love Betsy's post on how it's ok to love Rom Coms.)
  • I've shared it before but I'll share it again: online resource Artists U has a great downloadable resource for artists trying to create a balanced, sustainable (you know, non-starving) life. You can get it for free here. I like that it's one of the few aimed at performing artists. If you're a visual artist, Lisa Congdon's Art Inc is finally available, which aims at helping visual artists sell their work.
If you have a couple extra dollars, I can think of two (ok, 3) great ways to spend them:
  • My friends Paul and Nicole are spelling to raise money for Family Tree Clinic in St. Paul. Family Tree Clinic is an awesome nonprofit clinic that offers reproductive health care services and education, and they have been of great help to my (underinsured) lady parts in the past. They have an amazing and generous sliding scale system! Your donation goes straight to their programming. You can give here.
  • If you're an artist in Minnesota, you probably love and rely on Minnesota Playlist for great arts coverage and even job opportunities. They're expanding in exciting ways that you can read about here, and they need your money to do it. Give to their IndieGogo campaign-- or at least go watch the funny video that Ben shot of some local artists talking about the upcoming website changes.
And, for Twin Cities locals: Are you going to Giant Steps? It's a conference for "creative entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial creatives", and this year's event is happening October 10 in Minneapolis. I've written about my experience here and here 

Let's Make The Work

September 11, 2014

I woke up yesterday in Minneapolis to a sky full of clouds, and when Ben and I walked around our neighborhood at lunchtime I actually needed a sweater. Fall is creeping in. It might be my favorite season, but in Minnesota it's also foreshadowing of a (longa*s, cold) Winter, and thinking about that made me panic a little. I searched for my vitamin D bottle and started thinking through a list of hobbies to jump into when the days get shorter-- maybe I should get more into cooking? Last year Small Dances made the Winter fly by, and when it was over it was (nearly) Spring. And Spring was accelerated by half a dozen transitions. I realize that it can't be a longterm solution to continually distract oneself with moves and major life changes (or at least not one I'm interested in).

When I think about what consistently propels me through grey days and all, I think about The Work, which is maybe an incorrect term, because I'm not necessarily referring to paid jobs. I'm referring to the stuff of life that you're building, love and feel invested in. It's the stuff that might make you feel small (in the best way) or challenged or infinite (yes, the best work is full of contradictions). Something you chew on and put your precious time into. Something you water. It probably takes numerous forms, and might only occupy a little of your day (or week), but it's yours and you discover new parts of yourself in it-- that's the important part. It's an ongoing investigation: it teaches you something. 

The acupuncturist I sometimes see recently asked me when I feel the most like myself-- the most grounded version of me-- and I told her I'd have to get back to her on that one, because at the time I mostly just felt the stamp of my day planner on my brain: fit it in, fit it in. But as I've thought more about her question, I realized that it's obvious: it's when I'm doing The Work. It's when I'm in the studio directing, or when I'm putting together the puzzle of a project or figuring out what to write. (It's also when I'm traveling, but that gets financially tricky....) 

It's easy to think that to make space for The Work, you need a big block of time, or preferably an entire free day (or to be master of your own entire schedule), but that's simply not true. If we wait for that to start, we'll be waiting forever. Every big thing can be broken into teeny tiny chunks, and you might be amazed how 15 minutes propels you through the rest of your day. I started Small Dances with a Daily 20, which worked well for that particular project (and sure, I skipped days, but it kept me going). Ideally I try to find something that I can do in my home, without outside funding or collaborators, so I'm not dependent on those things.

And if you're not sure what The Work is, or it feels like there are too many options, stay tuned-- it's a topic for fall I plan on writing about a lot: connecting to the work you want to make. As I transition into September, finishing up a few Open Field items of business through the end of the month, while playing catch-up with my own clients and business things, I needed a reminder about scheduling priorities: let's make The Work.

[photos from recent travels]

August Happenings

August 20, 2014

It's late August, which is a great time to remind you all to stop working in favor of cabin trips, bike rides, visits to the State Fair, and eating corn and heirloom tomatoes. There will be plenty of work opportunities in the inevitable dead of winter. 

A few things I want to share:
  • Open Field has come to the end of its summer season, over 70 programs later! Gabby Coll, my fantastic media intern, wrote a great summary of the season. Sharing #CatVidFest with 9,000 fellow humans was a delightful way to end our programming. As I've been reminded: "It's not about watching cat videos, it's about watching cat videos together." Amen. I end the season feeling downright inspired-- both by my Open Field cohorts and the inventive artists and community members that proposed programs. 
  • Nancy Rosenbaum is a talented writer and storyteller that I met at a Small Art two winters ago. She interviewed me for Pollen about my journey towards scaling down creatively (as I've described here and here). It's a most generous article, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to tell my story. You can read it here
Related to the interview: my thoughts are with you all going through transitions. My advice is to just keep going: follow anything that makes your heart beat faster; ask someone dangerous to coffee; have mad amounts of faith, even if you're not sure what that faith is in. You know, easy stuff (so hard).

I'm spending the rest of August wrapping up full time field work, pondering the future, and celebrating a new year of life (!!!!!!) with a travel adventure. I'm looking forward to blogging regularly mid-September. Enjoy celebrating the final days of summer!

Connecting to Creative Work You Love (3 Years Later: Part Two)

August 11, 2014

[Continued from Part One]

The Experiment

The last three years have been about figuring out how to connect to work and collaborators that make me excited. I did this by making a list of what I knew I liked: people I'm inspired by (& why), books I love, blogs and podcasts that lit a fire under my ass, ideas that felt revolutionary, experiences that have made me feel like my best self. I followed a trail of things that were exciting and a little out of my league, and didn't create the parameter that these things needed to relate to choreography or performance. Throughout this process, I also started noting my work strengths-- and I'm not necessarily talking about power point and excel proficiency. Artists have loads of skills! For instance, performance makers are great at supervising lots of people and making something out of nothing-- that's really valuable. And, as I noted before, I made a point of getting outside of my own brain and connecting to other people.

My interviews in 2012 were largely about doing research on one topic:

How does one connect to creative work they love without turning into a poor, bitter, tired individual? (What secret should I know? What training should I have?)

The folks I made a point of connecting with were people that possessed skills/outlooks/careers that I hugely admired. I wanted to know how they did it-- how did they deal with the fear and uncertainty?My questions were along these lines....
  • Jen Scott seems really easy going, prolific, and happy-- does she get freaked out about self-promotion and overwhelmed by career building? (Sure.)
  • Kate O'Reilly whittled together a career out of her skills (and based on her values)-- is that even allowed? (Yep.)
  • Alan Berks created a whole damn amazing website with Leah Cooper-- does he have secret survival skills? (Nope-- they just work hard and aren't afraid of failure.)
  • Mo Perry appears to be a balanced person with HOBBIES and an an artistic career-- tell me more! (She's worked really hard to make balance a priority.)

2 Big Lessons
Collage by Anothony Zinonos via Creative Block
Through these talks, formal and informal, I've seen two different themes continue to emerge:

#1-- Decide what success looks like for you; figure out what you need:
There are a hundred ways to make an artistic career, and you get to decide what your own will look like. There is no one way to do it, and your own path will probably (hopefully) change and evolve over time. Stay flexible! In the process of taking an art-making break, I finally was able to let go of the grip I had on my career, set it down, and take an honest look at it. One thing I learned is that I want to make work that involves more collaboration and connection to lots of different kinds of people. That's a valuable thing to know. I've also learned over time that I'm not the kind of person who wants to make a season of performance work-- I crave balance. I thrive on directing other people's processes and taking on non-performance-related projects with teams of people. Sometimes I look at my choreographic peers who are constantly planning rehearsals and applying for grants, and feel like the odd one out. Shouldn't I want that? Nope-- it doesn't work for me to constantly live in that world. For me, success looks like a balance (or semi-balance) between making a life with my partner, getting in a studio, writing in this space, and building opportunities for people to come together that involve a diverse group of collaborators. The common thread that I find in my creative work is an interest in connection: bringing people together around shared experiences. This takes many forms.

#2-- Do the work, make the thing:
The people I talked to didn't wait for permission to make an audacious step or create something radical- they just did it. I found this exciting and mostly terrifying. HOW DO THEY NOT THROW UP WITH FEAR EVERY SINGLE DAY?????? I'm guessing that they give themselves a soft place to land when they fail, and then get up and do it again. 

In 2012, I started a long run of doing scary things-- doing the thing I wanted to do, without waiting for permission. Some of it was writing, even though I had no formal training as a writer; some of it was inviting people over to my house and playing curator/producer with Small Art; some of it was starting a business. No surprise: like anything else, doing scary things gets easier every time. The more I try things outside of my comfort zone, the more I realize that the consequences of doing something poorly are much less significant than the consequences of doing nothing. Writing this blog helped me develop the chops to write for Minnesota Playlist, my clients, and Open Field; curating Small Art led to working at the Walker; quitting teaching and waiting tables were scary moves, but helped create the space for me to plunge into other, more fulfilling endeavors. Identify the impossible thing you'd love to do, and then make tiny steps backwards. Start working.

More of This

I won't pretend that making a life doing what you love is easy, but I will insist it's worth it. I can give lots of advice on what I've noticed as I watch the people around me build careers, and it will be helpful, but it's not absolute. Stay flexible, be gentle with yourself, make micro-changes, think as creatively about a career as you do about your actual work. Stop expecting outside praise-- find a way to be your own cheering squad (or use the buddy system). I find that success is less about working to a place of full-time self-employment and more about connecting to something, anything, that brings you fully alive for a part of each and every day. Cynicism totally dampens this, so I recommend avoiding it at all costs. Instead, breath more life into that thing that brings you alive: cultivate it, wonder about it, share it with someone else. The world certainly needs more of this.

Three Years Later: Part One

July 30, 2014

Oh, hello. I have been attempting to write this one post throughout the month. I word crunch/craft, then delete, then try a new approach...all which points me to believing that I've made the stakes unnecessarily high, or that maybe this is just touchy feel-y territory that will never feel properly articulated until something like ten years from now.

Who wants to wait ten years from now?

So, I'll just jump in. This is a photo of Ben with our friends' French Bulldog, Sophie. It's probably a good place to begin, though entirely irrelevant to this post:

It's a blog:
I began blogging publicly just over three years ago. It started with a month-long series of posts (which I have yet to reformat) called 30 Days of Awesome, for which I did something fun every day in an attempt to feel more happiness. Because, I was really depressed. I'd spent six years actively trying to balance making a living with making performance. Sometimes I was successful at this juggling, and sometimes less so. I made money through a combination of teaching dance and theater, nannying, and waiting tables. I spent the rest of my time hoping that I'd be able to climb the grant ladder. Meaning, rehearsing and thinking up projects. In 2011 I received my first significant grant to make an evening-length work, and decided that This Was It: a pivotal opportunity to show audiences and colleagues that I could make great things! Unsurprisingly, this high-stakes mentality led to a whole host of horrible anxiety and self-doubt, especially as I threw work and planning a wedding into the mix. I second-guessed ideas, I panicked at rehearsal, and I generally didn't sleep, since I was continually imagined what THEY would say after viewing my performance disaster. I hated the piece because I hated the experience-- made only worse when a friend was hit by a car leaving the performance one night. He eventually died. A couple weeks later the new manager at the restaurant where I worked fired me without warning or reason, other than the advice that I should really smile more. And this pretty much felt like the ULTIMATE failure, because I'm an unfortunately dedicated people pleaser/rule follower. I was all how wasn't I smiling more?, rather than recognizing a bat shit crazy person when I saw one. My anxiety turned to depression, and there I was, sad, broke, and burnt out. Also, hellllo shame: I was convinced that every artist I knew was talking about my massive failure. Probably in groups. Probably accompanied by head shakes of disbelief as to how anything could have been so awful.

Ob la di:
After stumbling upon this article and realizing how burnt out on art making I was, I decided to take a break. Which felt like giving up. I'd studied classical voice for 10 years, majored in theater, then made dance-based performance-- WHO WAS I WITHOUT THESE THINGS NOW????? I felt suddenly skill-less. How would I find a career without first knowing Excel? What did I like, other than making art? Did I even like making art? Why didn't I have any hobbies?

Though I've been extremely lucky in the friend department, I've had less success at having close, honest relationships with other artists-- the kind where we talk about the good and the hard of making art, and what we're figuring out along the way. Why? The usual suspects: feeling self-conscious about my work, assuming that everyone else has it figured out, forgetting that this is even an option. But in 2012, this was a big part of what helped me get back on my feet (along with tending to my depression with therapy and exercise). If you've read this blog, I'm sort of a broken record of love for the people who let me interview them, formally and informally. Breaking out of my isolation banished any lingering jealously I felt towards other artists. I benefitted from the resources they shared, and started advocating for their projects. I became something of a Jealous Curator. Not only did this introduce me to a whole new community of people, it helped me remember what I loved-- creative people, their work, community-making. I thought and wrote a lot about smarter ways of making art. It turns out that someone got into my head and wrote an extremely articulate version of many of the things I've been pondering-- you can download and read it for free over here

[Continued, soon!]

Experiments and Failure

July 18, 2014

Whether playing catch with lemons or putting 100 choreographers into 4x4 foot spaces, the summer has been full of experimental Open Field projects. I constantly wonder if people will show up to participate and watch these events. When they do, I wonder where they come from and who these people are. How did they know to bring their mitt for the catch game? Obviously I credit the internet (and of course the Walker) with a certain amount of promotional assistance, but sometimes I think that word-of-mouth and the spectacle of action on the field are far more powerful. Regardless: they came! we shared! the experiment worked!

And sometimes it doesn't quite, and this is valuable, too. One thing I will certainly take a way from this work and apply to my own art practice is the importance of looking at outcome with a certain amount of objectivity: it's not personal, it's an experiment. Open Field is made possible by an amazing team of people that take on the grunt work and brainstorming of each programming day. Maybe sharing the responsibility is a way of taking failure less personally and even examining what failure means in the first place. This can only be a great thing-- when we feel safer taking risks, we risk more often.

Earlier this week I sat down to chat with dance makers Monica Thomas and Theresa Madaus for an article I wrote about their performance trio, Mad King Thomas. I've gushed before about the gobs of respect and admiration I have for these ladies (including third group member Tara King), both as artists and humans. Their work never stays complacent; it's always taking big risks. How do they do this without continually high blood pressure? Theresa talked about two important tools for moving their work forward:

1) Framing each project as an experiment
2) Allowing space for failure


I'd add to this: a safety net of people who remind you that you're great, regardless of whether the experiment flops or not (and maybe a few good collaborators to share the risk with).

What helps you feel comfortable with risk-taking? What was your biggest flop?

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