What next?

We live in a fast-paced consumer society, in which we are always looking for the next best thing. Now that the BBC has lost Bake Off they will need to search for something else; car manufacturers seek to make the fastest car they can, while we check our twitter, instagram and facebook always searching for something new to fill our minds with. I can’t stand that aspect of our society, so it feels a little disingenious of me to say that as far as my writing goes, I am always looking for my best piece.

In May I got on to a small stage with a mic in a pub full of writers and listeners. I stared straight toward the back above everyone’s heads absolutely terrified, thinking that literally anything could happen. I reasoned “well, I’m here now”, drew my breath and performed for the first time with no script infront of me.  I nailed it. I didn’t fluff my lines. People nodded appreciatively and laughed at appropriate points during Selfie. They chuckled at the other one I performed, and I recieved some praise afterward. I had similar feelings after a more recent performance. Overall I was pleased, although there were things I could have done better. I felt great about Mark Seven Fifteen as a poem and the performance was good enough to go online.

But I now see these as poems as pretty immature – not in content (I feel they say something important), but in the mannerisms, syntax and devices used. Although there does seem to be more freedom to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ in spoken word than in written word, there is more room for subtlety in those particular pieces. It is wise to revise and strengthen your work, and I am doing this with these ones.

However, I enjoy more the task of seeking out the next poem to write. I am enjoying a period of sustained creativity at the moment, and I am encouraging this by not sitting around waiting for the muse. I am working on multiple poems at the same time. Words beget words. Phrases can spark other phrases, and lines can worm their way into a totally different piece to the one in which they were born. Not everything written will be good quality, but over-all the writing in the finished products will be of greater quality. Often writing is like pulling teeth, but I now actively look forward to sitting down and figuring out what the poem should look like, because it may just be better than the last one.

This goes for a lot of things we do. A fellow runner reminded me that “you have to believe that your best race is the next one.” Becoming faster and more efficient
means plugging away at each training run.  Progress can seem frustratingly slow. It’s taken me 4 or so years do take my comfortable 5k time down from 40 minutes to 30. It will probably take the same length of time to push below 25 minutes – but it will happen.

As for this blog, it is a learning process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t; what is easy to write about and what takes more time; what people seem to enjoy reading; how long I should make each blog post; what theme, if any, I should write about. Please bear with – my best post is coming. I don’t know when, but it’s on its way.

 

Encouraging good artists to be even better.

Relevant Magazine published an article a few years ago titled 5 Ways the Church can make Great Art Again. I read it while in the midst of rehearsing for an evening of poetry and music – it felt, well, relevant. Here’s my response to it. The headings are the ones in the article.

 

1. Embrace the crazy beauty of artists

As a writer, I have pillaged the depths of my despair to try to create work others can relate to. I am incredibly grateful for my previous and current churches for giving me space to be in touch with these emotions. I am not an easy person to get alongside, and oftentimes I sit quietly (some might say solemnly) in a bible study thinking really deeply. Sometimes people appreciate my deep questions that are formed through my ruminations, doubts and struggles. Sometimes they aren’t, but even having the space to explore deep emotions without sharing them is important. They can spark ideas.
2. Pay for great art

Here’s a simple statement of fact: I don’t get paid for these words you read or see me perform. I volunteer my time and energy. As an example, for the recent evening of music and rhymes, I rehearsed about 45 minutes every morning for a week (2 hours on the day) and I should have done so much more. This doesn’t count the hours going over lines in my head, or the time spent writing the poems in the first place. This time is time I carve out, and I make a choice to try and fit it in among all the other daily chores that need to be done. I know poets who go to other cities for open mics making friends, making their name. This comes at their own cost financially; money that is not being spent on their households. Yes, we make a choice to do so – this is why I am not complaining. I am merely exploring the author’s statement that “great art costs the artist.” It also costs the family: my wife has the pain of watching my final rehearsals.
My financial costs are not as much as a musician or painter. All I need is space to rehearse, pencil, notebook and laptop. And good coffee. I’d just like more time, please.

3. Demand a higher standard 

This is a tricky one. I am my biggest critic. When faced with the question “how did the performance go?” I usually defer the question to someone who was in the audience because I know exactly where I messed up. This can come accross as disatisfaction in my work, but I think this drives me to rehearse longer and smarter next time.

But what about when we are demanding standards of others? Unless we know something about art how can we say anything more than ‘I like it’?

On Saturday I read three poems by two established poets. To my horror, some people told me mine were better (I replied that they were just very different styles). I have a suspician that these people don’t read or see poetry performed regularly. Perhaps if they had they might have seen the flaws in my performance; how, for example, my accidental repetition of a particular phrase didn’t contribute anything to the poem.

It is probably easier to achieve a high standard in a church in which there are a lot of high quality musicians or artists or writers – you get better at an activity by practicing with others who are better than you. But how do we do so in smaller communities? I am pretty sure I am the only one in my church exploring spoken word (correct me if I’m wrong!)

One answer is being open to discussion. If we don’t know what’s good, we should at least be open to discussing what we like and what we don’t. Someone was confused by one of my introductions, and so afterward asked me for clarification. Great. That feedback made me realise I either need to change the introduction or remove it completely. This requires openness by us artists. After-all, if we’re open enough to share our work, we should be open enough to listen to the different responses of audience members.

4. Refuse mimicry

The author here is really referring to worship. I see the author’s point. Bad cover versions are bad. Amy Macdonald’s biggest tune the first year she played T in the Park wasn’t her own but an incredibly dull version of Mr Brightside. She didn’t add anything new to it. She just played it ‘straight’. It was a double shame – the crowd didn’t appreciate her own music as much as the cover, but also didn’t recognise how dull the cover was! But good covers are good. One of the groups on Saturday played Strahan’s Deliverence, and it brought a new meaning I hadn’t thought of.
Not engaging in mimicry goes for writing to; I am constantly  being challenged to find my own voice. I am constantly asking for guidance in the niche I am to take my work to, what genres to write in, who to perform to, whether to focus on performance or publication, or seek both.
5. Take risks

There are lots of stumbled words in rehearsal, a lot of shouting, panicking. A lot of coffee drinking and smiles when I get it right, self-consiousness as I wonder if anyone else is hearing my failed attempts; hope and worry as I wonder if people will ‘get it’; wondering if people will accept work that explores difficult subjects – and accept me for writing such stuff. Each artist needs to take such risks.

St Peter’s Free Church Dundee is a great example to me of a church willing to display art of a variety of styles (what does ‘Christian art’ mean, anyway?) This always produced varying opinions in the church, so I applaud them for doing so. Good art engages the mind, can point people to the truths spoken about in the bible – the fallen nature of the earth, our sin, and God’s salvation: not necessarily at the same time.  (Do I like My Bed? No; I think it’s gross. Is it good as a discussion of human nature? Yes). As a church we should take risks to display art, use artists in different ways. In so doing we’ll place a value statement on the art, and encourage more artists to come forward.

Be honest, yet not too honest

Frankly, I am often exhausted. Of smiling when people are expecting a smile, of being ‘fine’ when really I am not, of not being able show in my demeanour that things aren’t quite right, let alone of not being able to really open up to about what is going on.

I was recently playing a new game to me. I find new games frustrating but fun, but it seems my friends couldn’t understand that these two feelings could go together, and so some thought I was just being a sore loser.

I’ll never forget San Fran Man. We met him post-brexit vote as we waiting for the bus from the airport up to Lake Maggiore. At first he seemed interested as we discussed similarities and differences with the Scottish independence question, and Hillary and Trump. But every time I spoke his eyes glazed over and he looked away. Eventually I got bored of this, so just excused myself and sat down with my book – why invest time in a complete stranger who isn’t even listening?
This was interpreted as rudeness on my part.

I recently dared to speak out about the fact that the term ’24 hour bakery’ is a misnomer as it is only part bakery. When people didn’t read what I was saying – I clearly put the line “this  does not detract from its taste” – I jokingly called it a zeitgeist of the bakery (which it is). People derided my opinion, which is that I was disappointed to discover (after two years of hearing about the place) it isn’t really a 24 hour bakery, other than the fact that they (like all bakeries) make bread etc through the night. I was expecting Fisher and Donaldson type baked goods. I found a glorified chippy. Their burgers, though good, are just that – burgers. This was the wrong opinion.

What’s going on here?

I’m managing others’ expectations of how I ought to be feeling or acting.
I should have self-censored and not shown any hint of frustration.
I should have continued to smile at San Fran Man.
I should have joined the cult of the 24 hr bakery.

The thing is, we are told to be honest about who we are, and how we are feeling. Yet if others can’t handle your opinion or your feeling anything negative, we have to self-censor.

But I’m learning not to. To be open and honest about my opinions and my emotions. This is as exhausting as self-censor – but I am told it will be worth it. And I’m sure it will be, when others learn to accept that my emotions are complex – that just because I’m not smiling, doesn’t mean I’m not happy; that just because I’m smiling doesn’t mean I am happy; that just because I’m frustrated doesn’t mean I’m angry; and that just because I’m quiet doesn’t mean that I’m upset or annoyed, or that my experience is wrong because it is different.

I will continue to speak for what I believe, handle my emotions correctly, but also be open about them. Will you be able to handle that?

Becoming the man God wants me to be.

I think everyone should have a motto or a vision statement. It may sound corny, but I have one of each. Writing them helped me distill what I believe I am on the earth for, and provide a useful framework when I’m struggling with a sense of purpose in day-to-day life.  My vision is:

becoming the man God wants me to be.

Here’s what it means. There is a bit I’m not explaining because, well, it’s just too personal.

becoming
I am not perfect. I will never be perfect. But I can and should ascribe to be perfect. I am slowly learning what it means to be an adult; what normal ups and downs look like and how to manage these, and what my depression looks like and how to handle this; I am slowly getting better at living life. More importantly, I am slowly learning what it means to put my trust in Jesus day to day, and slowly becoming – I hope – less selfish and unloving.
the man God wants me to be.
God has ultimate authority. I shouldn’t want to become what want me to be. He made the world perfect, we screwed it up, and our own lives our suffering the consequences. One consequence of Adam and Eve eating of the tree of knowledge was a character assassination. Without God we are simply unable to be who we ought. God as my father knows what character is best for my life. He is most interested in me trusting in Him for my salvation and in having a relationship with him. As with any relationship, your character changes (thank goodness his doesn’t). This can be for the worse, but as God is perfect, it flows that when we grow in love for Him our lives will become more perfect, as we’ll reflect his character and we’ll become more like him. Such character is explored in texts throughout the bible, the most commonly cited being in Galations 5. “but the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” This is a slow process and often feels like it isn’t happening – hence ‘becoming’.