"You have to go to Burning Man.”Words I’m a little too familiar with. I remember about 10 years ago I was working as a dancer in a corporate entertainment company. We were in a limo en route to a gig on Long Island (or lord knows where) and one of my castmates kept going on and on about her week at Burning Man. I was intrigued. It sounded really cool to go out to the desert in the middle of nowhere and do nothing but make art and be creative all day. I never made it there, though. Time passed and along came social media which pretty much ruins anything trendy. Nowadays I might roll an eye or two if anyone even mentions their "Burn.”To be clear, I actually don’t have any hate for Burning Man. Perhaps a little FOMO about it, but that’s really it.I get that us creative folks need a retreat of some sort. A space to disappear for awhile. Some people really do need that week in the desert. People save up for the entire year to go pretend they don’t live their mundane, day-to-day lives. Me, I need a week in the mountains every year teaching at Camp Bravo. I’m lucky to have been able to go there since I was 14.Then there's this thing with social media that makes us to want to go to these places and post about how authentic we are. How we’re having such a great time while we take selfies.Again, I don’t hate that. But it’s not what I’m necessarily for. Make that escape whenever you can. Take the week off. Go to the desert, the mountains. A tiny hotel room to go finish the novel. The point should be to come back home to the life you have now having felt enriched by the escape. Maybe you come to some realizations or decide to make a few changes. Maybe you just made some memories. The point is to eventually come home, not constantly escape.So really, I don’t have to go to Burning Man. Stop telling me I do.
The most important thing to remember about feeling blocked creatively is that we all get there from time to time. I am someone who has had many different creative pursuits over the years--musical theatre, dance, photography, content creating, marketing, and activism--and throughout every season of every career I've gone after I have hit moments where I felt I just couldn't come up with a decent idea to save my life.
Thankfully, I learned early on how to deal with these moments. There are a few simple tools and tricks (if you prefer to think of them as that) that I learned almost right away. Nothing I'm about to say is original, by the way. Still, even I have to remind myself that these few basic practices exist and can be easily executed as soon as you stop reading this.
I picked up The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron when I was a sophomore in college and it's a book that I think anyone who considers themselves even slightly creative should read. It's a 12-week course on unblocking creative potential. If 12 weeks sounds intimidating, don't worry. The program is designed to be done in and around your everyday life. It's less of a bootcamp and more of a daily practice. Cameron lays out three simple tools:
1. Morning Pages. This is where the daily practice part comes in which is simply writing three pages in a journal first thing in the morning. That's three pages of longhand writing with a pen and notebook. (No typing allowed.) Cameron talks more about this in her books and on her website, but basically the point of this is clear your mind of clutter while the act of physically writing gives you a point of focus. I'll admit doing the Morning Pages every morning can be a bit of a challenge sometimes, especially as social media seems to continue to eat my brain. It's a simple tool that is very effective when used longterm.
2. Artist Dates. This is a fun one. An artist date is where you take yourself out on a solo excursion of your choice. In my experience, the easier the date the better. Visit a new coffee shop. Walk through a public garden. Stop a random library in a neighboring town. You can turn your Artist Date into a weekend road trip if you like. Word of advice, don't stand yourself up. The point of the Artist Date is so "fill the well" with experiences you wouldn't normally have. You want to break the usual routine here.
3. Walking. Cameron talks about walking only a little bit in The Artist's Way, but she expands on it in her later books. Take a walk. It can be a 10-minute walk on the lunch break, or over an hour through a hiking trail. Walking is free, easy, doesn't require much effort. If it does require some effort, it is an legitimate form of exercise--so it's good for you. This is honestly the tool I would turn to most often. If all else fails, take a walk.
Like I said, none of these tools are new so I can't take any credit for them. But in all of my creative pursuits they have been the reliable friends that see me through. It's important to remember that none of this is meant to be complicated. I believe we are inherintly creative creatures, so utilizing the most basic functions of thinking, of walking, of experiencing life ought to bring us back to that more naturally creative state.
Another thing to remember about creative blocks. Artists are sensitive. We are awake and alert to our environments. We tend to think we can somehow power through blockages by staying up until three in the morning and pounding out ideas. In my experience, that tends to make things worse. I'm a sensitive guy and when I'm feeling stuck, that's my cue to step away from the desk and go do something else--I wash the dishes, I garden, I talk a walk.
Also, if your job is to create stuff on a daily basis and things are just not flowing my best advice would be to keep a file on hand for these very moments. Your file can be physical or digital (or both) and the idea is to always be adding to it. Copy down passages from books, articles, lines from movies. Tear pages from magazines. Save paint colors you like, song lyrics, or random fabric samples. Digital files are easiest to keep, but for me the physical act of touching and handling a source for ideas is important. Index cards are more easily shifted around a work space than windows shifted around your computer screen. This may be my dance background talking, but physicality is a great conductor of creativity.
That's all I have for now. Like I said, the point of all of this is keep it simple. Don't over complicate things. Step one is acknowledging that you are blocked, the rest is more or less self care.
An artist graduates from school and gets told to go for it. Mind the gatekeepers, and you might get a lucky break, go on to success, and the school gets fantastic PR.
The industry shifts and everyone decries the fact that in the business of putting on a show, you lose to the so-called influencer who has 30,000 followers. Seems like the only person they are influencing is the casting office.
We moan. We stamp our feet. We hem and haw because for some reason we didn’t even think that promoting ourselves is part of the gig. This is the gig. You’re not with the band--you are the band. And the band has to work hard to pack an audience into that show.
I can’t stand the selfie-obsessed popular culture either. I don’t care to see straight up your nostrils. What I do care about is getting my work scene and the channels are wide open. Go where you can be seen.
You are many things to many people.
You are a role model. You are a failure.
You are unique. You are pretty basic.
You are dozens of books read. You are well un-read.
You are the sum of many thoughts--thoughts that matter and thoughts that don't.
It's the question I hate the most.
A very sweet and wonderful friend of mine wanted to set me up on a date, which is a huge compliment if not always a successful outcome. While describing myself and what I'm like, the intended date asked what I do.
"I didn't know what to say," she said.
I always find it odd that people seem perplexed at what I do with my time. I get it, but I still find it odd. I get that not having a single, full-time job doesn't necessarily compute in some people's brains. When I get the dreaded "So, what do you do?" question at gatherings (or it's cousin question, "So, what have you been up to?"), I try to summarize my life as easily as I can before the looks of confusion set in. I've failed at that more than a few times.
"I do a lot of different things..." is how I usually begin--the subtext being, I hate this question.
Despite posting regularly on social media and having websites devoted to my work as a photographer, along with this blog, people still seem to have no idea what I do. Again, it's understandable since I have always done more than one thing with my time. If you would have asked me what I do a few years ago, I would have grumbled something about being an actor/waiter/temp/barista. All sorts of non-committal "slashy" jobs. Los Angeles is full of people like this.
I've recently toyed with new words to identify what I do besides simply using the word artist--words like freelancer, creative-type, and content maker. I don't mind these words all that much, but they don't do much by the way of networking. I don't want to perplex people anymore. I'd rather open a conversation, one that doesn't wreak of some hidden agenda to get more clients or an interview with an agent.
A term I heard recently that I like is living the "portfolio life" (linked here for some more info). I like this term because it goes beyond a singular identity, and it's one that many of my early millenial peers seem to be grasping onto more than not. Having lived the life of the struggling actor, the cubicle dweller, and the boomerang kid, it's refreshing to know that other freelancers are out there going through a lot of the same things I am. The portfolio life is less about describing an occupation and more about all the numerous things in my portfolio:
I make beautiful photographs of people and places.
I'm an actor and dancer who has worked in theatre, film, and television.
I have been mentoring teens in the arts for the past 16 years with one of my favorite non-profit arts organizations, Camp Bravo.
I am passionate about living a healthy life and I'm pretty darn good in the kitchen.
There it is. It's a start, but by no means all there is. A few years I took a huge risk in leaving the cubicle, moving out of the zaniness of the city and back to the burbs, and working to create a life that allows all these wonderful things I am passionate about. This website is an ongoing experiment in keeping friends and followers updated on everything I do.
Dating...now that's a different story.