On Being Overwhelmed – and Finding Perspective

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been doing my typical headless chicken act, heaping unnecessary pressure onto myself with an extra -large spoon and wondering why I’ve been feeling totally overwhelmed and unable to write a damn thing in what little free time I’ve managed to carve out for myself. The culmination of this stress was evident when I got around to submitting the one piece of recent writing I was really proud of to a competition on Monday – only to realise that the deadline was midnight the night before. Fortunately my super-pragmatic boyfriend was on hand to prevent me falling too far into a slough of despond over the incident, but nevertheless it made a further dent in my already damaged armour.

The truth is, whilst I established long ago I want to be ‘a writer,’ I grapple every day with what sort of writer I want to be. One day I’ll write a magazine feature pitch, the next I’ll plan a novel or start editing a previous story. Then I’ll turn my attention to short story competitions and try to churn something out for them.  On top of that I’ve recently completed an eight week sitcom writing course at the City Academy, and have this week embarked on a seven week crime writing course at the City Lit and signed up for a conference next weekend on how to get published – all this as well as holding down a job four days a week. Oh, and did I mention I’m also working on a screenplay idea with my writing mentor?

Just reading that last paragraph back makes me feel anxious, it’s no wonder I’ve been feeling overwhelmed. But what I’ve realised today, after having given myself a couple of days’ downtime (by which I mean no pressure to write anything, having impromptu catch ups with friends, sitting in the sun at lunch time instead of being hunched over my computer fretting about what to write and yet still not writing), is that when it starts to feel too much that’s generally because it is too much. It won’t help to try and force yourself to do more, the only thing that will work is to allow yourself to do less. Only then can you regain perspective and control over your situation. And, in my case, only then can I remove the creative block that undue amounts of pressure create. This realisation has made me feel instantly calmer, and you know what? I can feel the ideas start trickling back into my brain just like a tap that was turned off has been turned on again. Perspective isn’t always easy to find when you’re mired in the mud, but when you do find it again it’s both a joy and a relief. Phew.

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Listening to the Universe

You’ll likely think I’m mad by the time you’ve finished reading this post (my boyfriend certainly does), but as the threat of public ridicule has never put me off posting my opinions before, I’m figuring: Why stop now? So if you’re sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin….

I mentioned in my last post that I’m currently reading a creativity-unblocking self-help book called The Artist’s Way. In it, the author talks about the importance of opening oneself up to what she refers to as ‘God,’ but which I prefer (despite being of Christian persuasion – albeit not exactly practising) to think of as the universe. She says it’s important to listen to the guidance that it offers and pay heed to clues that you’re travelling along the right path.

Admittedly that sounds a bit far out, but in the past couple of days I’ve begun to wonder if it really is. Because all of a sudden I’m noticing the very clues she mentions, or at least I think I am. Take this for an example: Many years ago I woke from a dream with what felt like an entire screenplay in my head – a comedy screenplay, about two men who lived together, Men Behaving Badly style. Their names were Jeff and Pear (!), and I was so enthused I wrote a description of the show – and even drew the floor plan of the flat – before I could forget it (but then obviously did).

Fast forward to a few months ago when I stumbled across one of my old NaNoWriMo novel drafts – a light hearted chick-lit style story about a woman who owned a flower shop and got caught up in an accidental snogging session with a fifteen year old boy at the Hammersmith School Disco. I didn’t remember the story being particularly good, so was surprised to find myself laughing as I read the first chapter. But then, as with the Jeff and Pear screenplay, I forgot all about it.

Then, a few weeks ago, I stumbled across the City Academy website and its range of creative arts-related courses. Seeking some creative enlightenment, I signed up for the taster classes in stand up comedy and sitcom writing, not believing either would be something I’d pursue. The stand up one was fun, but as predicted not ‘my thing.’ Then, last night, I did the sitcom writing one.

[Interlude: I’m just interrupting this story to add that, last weekend when I saw my Mum, she told me that she thought I was really funny; a naturally humorous storyteller. Obviously she’s my mother so I paid no heed to her generous but biased encouragement. Okay, now I’ll continue.]

So I went to the sitcom taster class and I’ll admit, at first I wasn’t sure. The teachers seemed fun and slightly off the wall, but the other students largely more experienced in sitcom writing than me (though admittedly that wouldn’t be difficult given that the sum total of my sitcom writing experience amounts to zero). But over the course of the two hours something interesting happened. I felt the familiar feeling of my imagination stirring into life from its often dormant state. And I found the theory on structure and characterisation of sitcoms both fascinating and logical. I can’t explain it better than to say it was as if something was finally falling into place. Which is ridiculous really because I hardly watch any sitcoms, though I remember now I think about it how much I loved them when I was young: One Foot in the Grave; 2.4 Children; Fawlty Towers; Absolutely Fabulous. And when I think a little more I realise I’ve loved them more recently too: Friends; The IT Crowd; The Office; The Inbetweeners; Peep Show. What I don’t like is the shows with canned laughter, but those are only a subsection of the larger sitcom field.

After two hours of sitting in a room in Farringdon with eight complete strangers, this strange epiphany unfolding inside my head, I went home. And no sooner had I turned on the television than a sitcom came on – the new one about people working at the BBC (the name of which I forget, but it’s very funny). Whilst I watched it I absent-mindedly looked up the sitcom writing course page on the Internet – and I swear I didn’t click on the ‘book course’ button and it took me to the payment page anyway. Which is when I started to join the dots together and re-visit all the happenings I’ve mentioned in this post.

I decided to sleep on it because, let’s face it, £345 is a lot of money to spend when you don’t actually have £345 of your own money to spend (close your ears Mister Bank Manager). Then, this morning, I posited the potential plan to my online writing group to garner opinion. The result was unanimous encouragement, with the lovely Emma Darwin providing these wise words: “I think one way to think about these temptations is: It would be great to get a script out of it (or a later script) which was bought, but we all know that there are all sorts of reasons why things don’t get bought. What else do you think you’d get out of the course, that would feed your writing and your life and so on? I think that learning to write drama is fantastically good for prose fictioneers, so I’m sure it would be worth it.”

So I was sold, figuratively and literally. And the final nudge from the universe? Well that was someone else from my writing group deciding to sign up too (unfortunately not to the same dates as me, but still…) and her saying how happy she was I had brought it to her attention, as she had written scripts many years ago and wanted to get back into it.

To cut a long story short, I start the eight week course next Tuesday, and I can’t bloody wait. Thanks Universe – I think. Although if I don’t love it you’ll have a lot to answer for…

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Bad Teacher

I wrote this yesterday and then proceeded to go out and lose my phone. We are now happily reunited so I can finally upload it…

This afternoon I went to a free ‘master class’ in writing news features for charities. The content of the course was actually quite interesting. It was ruined, however, by the entirely lacklustre presentation. The woman who ran the course delivered it with all the enthusiasm of a convict waiting for their execution. At times she seemed to drift off into a world of her own, forgetting her audience (ironic considering one of her key pieces of advice was ‘know your audience’) and mumbling her points. Her decision to ask attendees to send examples of their own press releases in advance of the session and then publicly pick them apart in a group setting was one of the more interesting (read: awkward) techniques I’ve seen on such a course, and when the end was announced you could practically hear the sighs of relief as attendees fled like refugees in a war torn country towards the door.

It’s a good job the course was free or else I would have asked for my money back. It really does amaze me that people with all the charm and charisma of a sponge think teaching others is their vocation.

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Essentials – Day Two

Today – the second day of my Essentials Psychosynthesis course- has been extremely emotionally draining. We started the day with some exercises that made me feel exhilarated (not to mention awed by the power of my own imagination) but as the day went on I covered more emotionally  rocky areas that brought some surprising emotions to the surface.

I have no wish to discuss those emotions in this blog, or to recount the content of my therapy session this evening. But what I will say is I’ve been struck by the empathy and sensitivity of the therapists in all the sessions I’ve observed and taken part in. I’ve also been impressed by the various methods they’ve used to draw things out of their clients, and the positive ways in which the clients have responded.

I came to this course because of my work, but increasingly am seeing a whole new world of possibilities opening up to me. I’ve also met some amazing and inspirational people, many of whom I’d genuinely like to keep in contact with once the course is over.

Above all else I’m learning experientially just how many commonalities there are in the human condition, how similar are our wants, our needs and the sources and causes of our pain. I’m witnessing and experiencing empathy in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever truly done before, and I feel curious and greedy for more.

I’ve also learnt some valuable coping strategies for my own issues, which I plan to put into practice with immediate effect. Whoever says therapy is pointless needs to give it a try, because in the right environment and at the right time it can be so very powerful.

I was telling the story of my chance meeting with a Sadhu in north India to my fellow students earlier today, and as it’s both recent in my mind and representative of situation I found peaceful thought it appropriate to share this pic.