Plans For My Empty Semester

Because of the way my course is organised for part time students, I now have a semester without classes while the full time students do their third semester. I’ve been looking forward to this, not just to take a bit of a break but to work on new music with the skills I’ve learned, return to hobbies I haven’t had the time or energy for while doing the course, and to just generally catch up with things, be productive, and get some long awaited projects done. Of course, everything changed with the pandemic and subsequent lockdown.

So my list is different now, depending on what is possible and what isn’t. I’d started collating this list – this post – before lockdown was announced and I’ve been reluctant to simply scrap it all just because it no longer fits with the future I’d expected. So I thought I’d post it anyway, just divided into different categories, for posterities sake if nothing else. I guess I just want to remember what I’d thought this summer would be like versus what it ends up being like.

Impossible:

  • Get back to swimming regularly – That’s obviously not possible as all the gyms are closed.
  • Mental Health Awareness Week Assemblies – For Mental Health Awareness Week, I was supposed to go back to my old secondary school and do a series of assemblies, talking about mental health, my experiences with it, and play some songs. I was really looking forward to it but then we went into lockdown and schools had closed long before Mental Health Awareness Week.
  • London gigs – I was scheduled to play a couple of shows in London but they were cancelled due to lockdown. Hopefully they’ll happen when it’s safe again.
  • Concerts – I was due to see several shows over the summer including Taylor Swift at Hyde Park and The Shires in London and Brighton but they’ve all been rescheduled or cancelled. I understand it, of course, but I’m still gutted because I was really looking forward to those shows.
  • See Waitress The Musical again – I was hoping to see Waitress at least one more time before it closed but it’s run ended during lockdown and they’ve announced that it will not be returning. I’m so, so sad that I’ll never get to see it again. But I’m grateful that I got to see it as many times as I did and that the last time was Sara Bareilles’ last show. That made it extra special.
  • Get caught up with my photo albums – I’ve wanted to get my photo albums up to date for months but there’s a problem with the external drive that holds my Photos library and since all the shops are closed, including the computer repair shop I go to, I can’t get it fixed until they reopen and it’s safe to go there. And therefore I can’t catch up with my albums yet.

Difficult or Different:

  • Music Theory lessons – I had a plan to improve my knowledge and understanding of music theory during this time, to prepare myself for the next semester but now, my teacher and I can’t meet or even travel to meet for lesson. In theory (pun intended), we can still have lessons using Zoom or FaceTime but it’s definitely more difficult when we can’t sit side by side at the piano, when I can’t lean over to watch his hands, and when he can’t adjust my hands on the keys, and so on. I’m sure we can find a way but it’s definitely more complicated than it was before.
  • Have as many cowriting sessions as possible – I really wanted to spend as much time as possible writing with my friends and course mates. They’re all so amazing and unique. Of course, we can still write using Zoom and FaceTime but it’s not a creative process that I’m super comfortable or productive in. I’ve been doing some but I find them exhausting and just not as much fun as I usually find collaborating.
  • Catch up with my friends – To be fair, I have been catching up with friends but it’s obviously always over Zoom or FaceTime. We can talk and I’m grateful for that but we can’t hang out or hang out in groups and I miss that. I miss just chilling out together, doing things companionably, and my god, I miss hugging them.
  • Sort out my bedroom – This is another project I’ve wanted to do for so long and while there are still aspects I can do (and still plan to do), there are a lot I can’t, which is very frustrating.
  • Create my studio space – Again, this requires changes that aren’t possible right now because having aesthetic building work done obviously doesn’t come under the lockdown advice but there are things I can do and have started to do. Despite the difficulties, I’m creating a space to work – some of which will be permanent and some which are makeshift and I’ll change later when it’s possible – so it’s a start.
  • Create a space to make YouTube content – This project I have yet to figure out and I’m not sure if it’s even possible without certain changes in my room, changes that won’t be possible until life is more normal again. But I’m still turning it over in my head, how and where to create an aesthetically pleasing space to make videos from. So we’ll just have to wait and say when it comes to this one.

Still Possible:

I feel like it’s important to add an extra note to this one because, while all of these plans and activities are physically possible, they’re not necessarily possible. I’ve been seriously struggling with my mental health, especially with my anxiety and depression, and my creativity has taken a serious hit too. So, while I do want to do these things and they are within the rules of what’s allowed and technically possible, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to achieve them, or achieve as many of them as I would like.

  • Write new songs/work on old songs – I’ve been trying so hard at this and I’ve managed some but with my creative and concentration struggles, it takes a lot of hard work and is really emotionally draining. It’s amazing when I can break through the fog though.
  • Sort through my clothes – This is something I’ve started to do but it’s tricky because there’s nowhere to take the clothes I want to pass on. It feels good to be clearing out some of my stuff and creating some space though.
  • Catch up with my diary – I feel like I’m in a perpetual state of ‘catching up with my diary’ but I’d hoped to use this time with limited distractions to really get caught up. But with my concentration in such shambles, it seems to be taking even longer than usual, which is endlessly frustrating. I have to keep going though. My OCD doesn’t take a break just because there’s a pandemic.
  • Start learning the Kalimba – I bought a Kalimba and it was going to be a present to myself for finishing my second semester assessment. I love the sound and I really want to learn how to play but, as I’ve already said, my concentration and motivation haven’t been great so I’m struggling to apply myself to it.
  • See a meteor shower – I have technically done this one already but it wasn’t a very impressive show so I’m looking forward to the big one, the Perseids meteor shower, in August.
  • Update my songwriting book – My songs are all over the place (in various notebooks, my laptop, different hard drives, and random pieces of paper) so I’d really love to compile them all into one book, something I’ve just started to do.
  • Watch some of the things on my To Watch list – I’ve been trying with this one but I’m finding it quite difficult to watch new things. It’s like there isn’t enough space in my brain and I don’t have enough spare emotion to invest in new characters and a new world, etc. Does that makes sense? I’m going to keep trying though. I think it’s going to be a case of just hoping that the trying and a moment of feeling okay will coincide.
  • Improve my guitar skills – I feel like my guitar skills have come to a bit of a halt recently and I really want to get out of that rut and get better. I don’t feel the need to be the best guitarist in the world but I’d love to be proud of what I’m playing when I play solo, rather than feeling like I’m playing a really simple part just to accompany myself.
  • Start coming up with ideas for my Masters final project – It’s not for a while yet but I want to have some potential ideas for my final project so that I have time to think them over and make sure I choose something that’s a good fit, for the exam criteria but also for me as an artist. It will just make me feel more prepared and more inspired when the time to start arrives.
  • Improve my piano skills – Just as with my guitar playing, I want to get better at playing the piano. I love playing the piano but I still feel like a really basic player. I want to be able to play more interesting chords and progressions, with more interesting and unique rhythms and melodies.
  • Read some books from my To Read list – During my course, I don’t tend to have time to read anything other than course related material so I was really excited to read some different stuff, especially fiction. But as with watching new films and TV shows, it just feels too hard to learn a new world and new characters and concentrate enough to get through a book.
  • Take some classes on Skillshare – I love learning. I remember being a kid and someone asked me what I wanted to do when I left education and I was completely mystified by the idea that you’d ever want to leave education, ever want to stop learning (obviously you don’t stop learning things when you leave education but I was very little and that’s what I understood it to mean). I never want to stop learning things and I was excited about having a solid chunk of time where I could focus on learning things outside the sphere of my Masters, as much as I love my course. Having said that, it’s hard to take in new information when I’m struggling with my concentration.

Uncertain:

  • Shooting a music video – It was during this time that Richard and I had planned to shoot a music video and now we don’t know when we’re going to be able to do it, given how far apart we are and the infection risk of travelling there. In theory, we’d be able to do it socially distanced so if we can figure out how to get the two of us there, then we might still be able to create the video I’d always imagined for this song.
  • EP gig – I really wanted to throw an event (a gig and a party rolled into one, I guess) to celebrate the EP and all we achieved with it but I don’t know when gigs are going to be allowed again or, more accurately, when they’re going to be safe again so I’m not whether this plan is possible. I don’t want to do it until it’s completely safe but I also don’t want to wait until months after the EP is complete to have this event. So I’m not sure where we stand with this plan.

I truly have no idea what the next few months will look like (especially with the government making a mess of everything, especially the lockdown) so I don’t know how many of these things I’ll be able to accomplish. Each day is unknown and that’s both terrifying and exhausting. I think that, whether you’re a person with mental health problems or not, just getting through this period of time (and managing your health – physical, mental, and emotional) is achievement enough. So I guess, when the next semester starts, I’ll look back at this post and see what I managed to do while keeping that in mind.

Escapril Poetry Challenge 2020

A while back, I discovered the ‘Escapril’ poetry challenge, organised by writer Savannah Brown. For every day in April, there’s a poetry prompt that can be used in whatever way inspires you. You then post the piece you’ve written on social media. I’d been eagerly awaiting it for what felt like ages because I’d been really excited to get into writing poetry again (prompts or briefs often help me when I’m out of practice at something), even if it did land in the same month as the deadline of my most recent university assessment.

Here are this year’s prompts:

I didn’t manage a poem everyday (especially while working on my essay) and very quickly, I realised that I didn’t want to post them online until I’d had more time to develop them, edit them, and just make sure that they were good enough to share. I didn’t want to put a piece of work out into the world that I wasn’t confident in.

I have to admit that I’ve been struggling to be creative since the pandemic started and we went into lockdown, something I know a lot of people are dealing with. I read that long term fear and stress affect your brain, making it difficult to find inspiration and be creative – I don’t know about you but having a scientific reason for why I’m struggling so much definitely helped, even if it hasn’t actually solved the problem. Knowing why at least reassured me that my brain hadn’t just stopped working for no reason, that presumably it will start functioning again at some point. So I just have to be patient with myself, as hard as that may be. I’m a lot less patient with myself than with others, as it turns out.

Anyway, the month and the challenge are now over. As I said, I didn’t manage to write a poem everyday but I did manage to write something for most of the prompts and I really enjoyed writing in this format again, despite struggling with all things creative. Since I didn’t post anything during the challenge, I thought I’d share a few here that I’m pleased with or can see potential in…

2. GROWTH/DECAY

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6. OBSESSION

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12. SUBMERGED IN WATER

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17. GRIEF

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18. HOW DID THE SKY LOOK?

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24. BLACK HOLE

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So I hope you enjoyed these, that they’re not too obscure or clunky. As I said, I’m out of practice at writing poetry. It has a very different feel to writing songs and it’s definitely different to writing essays, the two forms of writing I’ve been doing over the last few months. So, yeah, I hope they’re okay. I hope you like them.

Have you taken up any new hobbies or skills since the lockdown? Or revisited old ones?

My Current Favourite Book: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

For my degree, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert was a book recommended by my tutor and then I recently reread it for my Masters and remembered how much I love it. There are so many quotes that deeply inspire me and I’m filled with the urge to run to the nearest piano or guitar and write something beautiful because I suddenly feel like I can. It might not turn out to be beautiful but that urge gets me writing, gets me much closer to writing something beautiful than if I hadn’t written at all.

I recommend this book to everyone but especially to people who pursue creative passions. My brother the performance artist, one of my parents the Jazz musician, all of my friends and colleagues on my songwriting course. I know they may not like it, that it may not be their style, but if even one sentence inspires them then I’m happy, hence this post. I hope you like this collection of my favourite quotes from the book and that it inspires you to go and read the whole thing. It’s a fantastic book and I’m really excited to read more of her work (and listen to more of her talks).


PART I – COURAGE

  • “[Jack Gilbert] didn’t so much teach them how to write poetry, they said, but why: because of delight. Because of stubborn gladness. He told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of this world. Most of all, though, he asked his students to be brave. Without bravery, he instructed, they would never be able to realize the vaulting scope of their own capacities. Without bravery, they would never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, their lives would remain small – far smaller than they probably wanted their lives to be. […] I never met Jack Gilbert myself, and now he is gone – he passed away in 2012… I quite liked the way he lived inside my imagination as a massive and powerful presence, built out of his poems and the stories I’d heard about him.”
  • “A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life.”
  • “I had creativity within me that was original; I had a personality within me that was original; I had dreams and perspectives and aspirations within me that were original.”
  • “It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too.”

PART II – ENCHANTMENT

There’s an amazing story (I won’t type it out in full because that will take forever so here’s the short version) where she’s very passionate about an idea but after a big life event, that passion had vanished. She meets Ann Patchett – that story in itself is beautiful – and something magical seems to have happened: Patchett is working on almost exactly the same idea, conceived at almost exactly the moment Gilbert felt she’d lost it. It’s a bizarre and incredible story that is almost worth reading the book for alone.

  • “Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of writing, I feel like I am suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks that you find in a big airport terminal; I still have a long slog to my gate , and my baggage is still heavy, but I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force… It’s the feeling you get when you’ve made something wonderful, or done something wonderful… I don’t think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state…”

At one point she talks about how she wishes Harper Lee had written several easy to read books after To Kill A Mockingbird, just because she could, because she loved to write. She talks about how Lee was such a marvellous writer and how much the world could’ve gained from that but never got the opportunity because the huge acclaim of To Kill A Mockingbird completely changed her relationship with writing.

PART III – PERMISSION

  • “Go back far enough and you will find people who were not consumers, people who were not sitting around passively waiting for stuff to happen to them. You will find people who spent their lives making things. This is where you come from. This is where we all come from. Human beings have been creative beings for a really long time – long enough and consistently enough that it appears to be a totally natural impulse.”
  • “It’s your birthright as a human being, so do it with a cheerful heart. (I mean, take it seriously, sure – but don’t take it seriously.) Let inspiration lead you wherever it wants to lead you. Keep in mind that for most of history people just made things, and they didn’t make such a big freaking deal out it. We make things because we like making things.”
  • “Your creativity is way older than you are, way older than any of us.”
  • “I don’t want to be afraid of bright colors, or new sounds, or big love, or risky decisions, or strange experiences, or weird endeavors, or sudden changes, or even failure.”
  • “Most things have already been done – but they have not yet been done by you.”
  • “Anyhow, the older I get, the less impressed I become with originality. These days, I’m far more moved by authenticity. Attempts at originality can often feel forced and precious, but authenticity has quiet resonance that never fails to stir me. Just say what you want to say, then, and say it will all your heart. Share whatever you are driven to share. If it’s authentic enough, believe me – it will feel original.”
  • “Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart. The rest of it will take care of itself.”
  • “Work hard, make the most of your opportunities, and grow, grow, grow.”
  • “[Tom Waits] told me that he’s struggled deeply with his creativity in his youth because – like many serious young men – he wanted to be regarded as important, meaningful, heavy. He wanted his work to be better than other people’s work. He wanted to be complex and intense. There was anguish, there was torment, there was drinking, there were dark nights of the soul. He was lost in the cult of artistic suffering by another name: dedication.  But through watching his children create so freely, Waits had an epiphany: It wasn’t actually that big a deal. He told me, “I realized that, as a songwriter, the only thing I really do is make jewelry for the inside of other people’s minds.” Music is nothing more than decoration for the imagination. That’s all it is. That realization, Waits said, seemed to open things up for him. Songwriting became less painful after that.”
  • “As I write this book, for instance, I approach each sentence as if the future humanity depends upon my getting that sentence just right. I care, because I want it to be lovely. Therefore, anything less than a full commitment to that sentence is lazy and dishonorable. But as I edit my sentence – sometimes immediately after writing it – I have to be willing to throw it to the dogs and never look back.”

PART IV – PERSISTENCE

  • “When I felt no inspiration at all, I would set the kitchen timer for thirty minutes and make myself sit there and scribble something, anything.”
  • “That’s what you have to do in the beginning; everybody imitates before they can innovate.”
  • “Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process… You don’t just get to leap from bright moment to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living.”
  • “It starts by forgetting about perfect. We don’t have time for perfect. In any event, perfectionism is unattainable: it’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death. The writer Rebecca Solnit puts it well: ‘So many of us believe in perfectionism, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.’ Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes – but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don’t even both to be creative in the first place.”
  • “We must understand that the drive for perfectionism is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, somebody will always be able to find fault with it… At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is – if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heart.”
  • “Through the mere act of creating something – anything – you might inadvertently produce work that is magnificent, eternal, or important.”
  • “We all need something that helps us to forget ourselves for a while.”
  • “I also kept remembering what may mother always used to say: ‘Done is better than good.'”

PART V – TRUST

She has a friend who is a botanist and teaches environmental biology at a university. And she always begins by asking who loves nature and all the students raise their hands. Then she asks if they believe nature loves them and no one raises their hand. “Then we have a problem already,” she says. So she starts with the relationship between people and the environment.

  • “To suggest that nobody ever made valuable art unless they were in active emotional distress is not only untrue, it’s also kind of sick. […] You will often meet artists who deliberately cling to their suffering, their addictions, their fears, their demons. They worry that is they ever let go of all that anguish, their very identities would vanish.”
  • “I have no great love or loyalty for my personal devils, because they have never served me well. During my own periods of misery and instability, I’ve noticed that my creative spirit becomes cramped and suffocated. I’ve found it’s nearly impossible for me to write when I am unhappy.”
  • “My desire to work – my desire to engage with my creativity as intimately and as freely as possible – is my strongest personal incentive to fight back against pain, by any means necessary,  and to fashion a life for myself that is as sane and healthy and stable as it can possibly be.”
  • “If you choose to go the other way, though (if you choose to trust suffering over love), be aware that you are building your house upon a battlefield.”
  • On the suicides or deaths of artists: “There’s a hole in our world from all the art those people did not make – there is a hole in us from the loss of their work – and I cannot imagine this was ever anyone’s divine plan.”
  • “I have chosen to believe that a desire to be creative was encoded into my DNA for reasons I will never know, and that creativity will not go away from me unless I forcibly kick it away, or poison it dead. Every molecule of my being has always pointed me towards this line of work – toward language, storytelling, research, narrative. If destiny didn’t want me to be a writer, I figure, then it shouldn’t have made me one.”

Gilbert’s first short story she ever had published was called ‘Pilgrims,’ in Esquire. They were all set to go and then they had to cut down the magazine and she could either pull her story or reduce it by 30%. She decided to reduce it and in the end, discovered that it had become this new, interesting story she’d never imagined it could be, leading into this next quote…

  • “What you produce is not necessarily always sacred, I realized, just because you think it’s sacred. What is sacred is the time that you spend working on the project, and what that time does to expand you imagination, and what that expanded imagination does to transform your life.”
  • “Everything I have ever written has brought me into being. Every project has matured me in a different way. I am who I am today precisely because of what I have made and what it has made me into. Creativity has hand-raised me and forged me into an adult.”

When no story she was passionate about arrived, she just followed her curiosity. She ended up deciding that she wanted to have a nice garden and so she gardened. She learned more and more about the flowers she was growing (she preferred colour to order, unlike her mother) and she researched more and more until three years later, she started writing a novel about a family of nineteenth century botanists. It wasn’t an idea that she saw coming but by the time she was writing it, she was obsessed with the idea and the story. And she never saw it coming.

  • “As my friend Pastor Rob Bell warns: ‘Don’t rush through the experiences and circumstances that have the most capacity to transform you.'”

At one point, she talks about ego and how “it’s a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master,” because all it wants is reward but it will never be satisfied because there will never be enough reward: “Left unmanaged, that kind of disappointment will rot you from the inside out.” She talks about how the Buddhists call an ‘unchecked ego’ a ‘hungry ghost,’ a description that I’m so inspired and obsessed by. It’s a song. And one that I can’t wait to write. A ‘hungry ghost’ is “forever famished, eternally howling with need and greed.”

  • “What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant?”

PART VI – DIVINITY

  • “Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.”
  • “We are terrified, and we are brave.”

I mean, I could quote the whole book but here are some of my favourite quotes and my favourite stories. I really, really recommend reading it. It’s inspiring, in a creative way but also in a personal way. It makes life seem bigger and brighter and more beautiful. Read it. Please.