Category Archives: Bardic

Jack of all trades

Yesterday’s post featured a rag rug, with a design drawn by my other half. I know three ways to make rag rugs. There are a great many other crafts I can do a bit, numerous musical instruments I can play passably, and a vast array of other things in which I have dabbled over the years. I like to dabble, I get excited learning new things, and I get bored if I spend too long doing all the same things. However, while I’m pro dabbling and experimenting, it’s not without hazards.

If all you end up doing is learning new stuff, you can find you don’t develop anything properly, never get beyond beginner stage, never learning to push and never doing anything for long enough to have it bear fruit. It can be a way of avoiding dealing with happens when you commit. As a dabbler, you may never finish anything, never really achieve anything but there’s always a new exciting project to wave at people. All the attention, none of the exposure of making something people can experience for themselves, and maybe judge.

Without a doubt, the best creative work comes from a mix of inspiration and dedication. It means building a skill set so that when you have a fire in your head, you can make best use of it. It takes a long time to become truly good at something – the general estimate seems to be about ten thousand hours. The more time a person spends dabbling, the less scope there is to get to that point with any given skill. But on the up side, you can become an expert in learning how to quickly learn things, and there are plenty of times in life when being a Jack of all trades is more useful than being the master of one.

I find that when I dabble, I deepen my appreciation for people who do the things well. When I know more, I am better equipped to enjoy and appreciate. I think this is because I’m pretty good at staying realistic about my own skills and insights. If you do a single course, or a brief session and you think you are then an expert, that can have some seriously distorting effects on how you see other people’s work.

Dabbling enriches my understanding of the world, and anything that teaches me feeds back into my writing. It keeps me fresh, and interested, and hauls me out of ruts and gloom. If something isn’t working for me I will eventually stop banging my head against it and pick up something else for a while. Dabbling is play, and fun and often what I do with my leisure time. I like making things, I like exploring.

As a creator I’m increasingly interested in what happens when disciplines collide. Not just putting words and images together, as with the graphic novel work, but putting music and images together, exploring stories through craft, how I can use my body more in spoken word performance… I love stories made out of fragments and ephemera, and that means I need to learn how to make more of the pieces.

So, I advocate dabbling, exploring, and playing. Know that’s what you’re doing, don’t mistake it for having the same depth and breadth of knowledge as someone has when they’ve worked on a skill for many years. Don’t use it as a substitute for seeing a project to conclusion. Don’t require yourself to achieve at the same standard as an expert when you’re only playing with something. Don’t lose sight of your personal goals, vision etc in the muddle of trying to learn to do ten thousand things. Sometimes a new skill is just a shiny distraction from the things you need to be doing. Pausing regularly to take stock helps make it all work.


Notes on Ophelia – adventures in art

This year, Tom and I have been experimenting with new ways of collaborating on art and artefacts.

Creating this image was a joint process. It began with my idea to re-imagine well known works of art in the Hopeless Maine setting. We chose the art to jam on together, but working out how to take familiar images into the world of Hopeless was largely Tom’s doing. Above, you see the Millais Ophelia re-imagined into a world where the water is murkier and has things living in it.

Tom did all of the original drawing. I then went through with coloured pencils. Colour impacts on mood, shape, depth and in this case I had the partial translucence of water to contend with as well – it’s without a doubt one of the most challenging things I’ve ever worked on. I then handed the piece back to Tom and he reasserted some of the hard lines, scanned it, and did the things in photoshop that keep the scan looking more like the original. We’re trying to do as little computer tinkering as possible.

I’ve written about collaborating before, but to reiterate, there are key things to making this work – letting go and letting the other person do their stuff is necessary. We also talk to each other a lot while we’re working, feeding back, working out how to make it go as a joint project. What emerges is, I think, far more than the sum of its parts. A third artist who can most easily be called ‘Brown’.

A lot of comics art these days is done in photoshop, which can make it very smooth and shiny. Holding my nerve to be ok with the medium showing is something I struggle with – in this case the pencil marks, in other cases the brush marks or the oil pastel smears. I like the organic, messy physicality of working with materials, but I also feel a kind of pressure to produce shiny industry standard smoothness, which of course, I can’t…


If we aren’t killed by sea monsters

Sea shanties were part of my life, growing up – my Gran was an enthusiastic singer of these songs, so my memories of them go back about as far as my memories go. Shanties are working songs, creating a rhythm to support the various bits of team heaving and hauling a sailing ship required. Any kind of singing will also help you keep sane when faced with tedious jobs – deck swapping, mending things. When working on boring, repetitive, necessary things, a song will make the difference between being a happy person, and being a miserable resource.

I wrote a sea shanty recently. It wasn’t something I’d ever really thought about before because I don’t spend a lot of time on boats. As a fairly landlocked person, it’s never seemed like something I should be writing. But then it struck me that Hopeless Maine needed a shanty. I’ve been making a lot of things this year that develop and expand on the life of the fictional island, and that’s given me time to explore the details of daily life there.

Being an island, sealife is a key part of the Hopeless diet. However, the sealife is also hungry, and dangerous. The rocks, currents, winds and waves tend to force boats in, so those folk who fish don’t go very far, and spend a lot of time trying not to get themselves drowned or smashed. Or eaten.

In normal sea shanties, chaps make a lot of macho, grunty ‘ho’ and ‘hey’ noises and the odd ‘wuuuh’ to punctuate the song. Hopeless just isn’t that sort of place, which is why, in the chorus, Mr Brown is making more of a groaning noise. And if that leads you to think that we must have a rather odd sort of home life… yes, yes we do.


The courting of poems

Everyone who writes will have their own process, or more than one way of bringing words together. For some it’s all about jotting down notes, mapping out ideas, sketching, doodling, trying things and putting together the bits that work. It’s rare that a good piece of writing comes together fully formed and straight onto the page, even those of us who don’t do much development writing expect to have to edit and tidy up whatever emerged in the rush of inspiration.

For me, a poem usually begins with a seed idea. That can come from absolutely anywhere, so of course every single day is full of hundreds of things that might be poems. There’s an unconscious selection process that makes me latch onto some things and not others. A sense of possibility, of something I can follow and develop is usually part of this, and I notice it happening even though I’m not in deliberate control of it.

Once I’ve got that seed idea, I’ll hold it for as long as it takes. Usually a few days, but sometimes longer – months, in a recent case. I’ll think about the idea I’ve got, feel my way around it, see what it connects with. I won’t pick up a pen and risk catching it on paper before it is ready, and I’ve learned that it pays not to rush. I’ll play with word arrangements in my head, testing turns of phrase against the idea.

For example, I recently posted a poem called ‘The Use of Cauldrons’. It was a response to the OBOD work I did with Taliesin more than a decade ago, and to Lorna Smithers’ The Broken Cauldron, which I read last year, so I’d been gestating unconsciously for a long time. I simply woke up with a sense of how to write about cauldrons. It then took several days of just letting that wash around in my brain, and then I was able to sit down and write a decent first draft fairly quickly. I left it alone for a couple of days and then tidied it up. A second poem written recently was sparked back in the winter, I knew what I wanted to do but not how to do it. Again, there were unconscious processes, and then an invitation to read locally, and things fell into place.

For me, the process of creating a poem begins long before pen meets paper. I can’t manufacture those little seeds of inspiration that stand out, and have the potential to become something. They are a consequence of richness in my life – that can come from time spent outside, time with friends, time being inspired by other people’s creativity and anything else with that kind of depth and intensity. If I don’t deliberately make room for that kind of experience, then there won’t be the ‘ping’ moments that give me something to write about.


Notes on creativity

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know I’ve had ongoing struggles with creative work. The creative industries are a mess, austerity means many people can’t afford books, art or music. It’s really hard making a living at the moment. There’s only so much time and energy available to me. However, over the last six months or so I’ve learned a lot of useful things about staying creative, so, here’s what’s been helping me get moving again.

  1. Not using writing to pay the bills. It’s incredibly stressful and requires a rapid output, which I have found depressing and exhausting every time I’ve tried it. I am more likely to make money from writing if I write the things I want to write and then try to find a home for it, and not have making it pay be my primary concern. If I’ve got my responsibilities to my family covered, I feel freer in my writing, and other forms of creativity too.
  2. Peer support. Knowing it’s not just me, it’s not my failing but an industry-wide issue. Feeling recognised and respected by creative people I admire and respect helps maintain morale.
  3. People to create for. For me an art is only complete when it encounters someone else. A book no one reads is unfinished. People to write for give me a sense of hope and purpose. This blog helps me keep going, I’ve also felt really inspired as a consequence of support for my Patreon. It’s more about people wanting my work than the money, but the money helps.
  4. Making headspace. I can do the disciplined churning out of words, but to really create I need time to daydream, wonder, question and whatnot. I need time when I’m not directly using my brain for other things. I need to be ok with apparently doing nothing in order to make a space for inspiration to come in.
  5. Time to study. I need raw material to use creatively. This means reading, experiencing, learning. I need time to take workshops or lessons, time to pick up courses – not all of it directly about writing, either!
  6. Opportunities to be inspired. Other people’s books, live music, theatre, film, walks, good food, nights spent dancing, conversations with friends, beautiful landscapes… If I don’t feed my soul, all the time, then I can’t create. Get this right and I’m much more likely to be inspired.

Put that together and what you get are creative friends I can spend time with, whose creativity I can be inspired by and who are up for reading my stuff as well. People to walk with, cook with, hang out with, go to gigs with… and as there’s been a lot of that in my life in recent months, it turned out all I had to do was start making better spaces for myself, and putting down things that don’t serve me, and creativity becomes a good deal more feasible.


Reclaiming the wells

Let’s recap the story as it is currently told. The land suffers. Crops fail, hunger and misery are rife. The king lies wounded. Heal the king and the land will recover.

Do not ask what role the king played in turning the kingdom to wasteland. He and the land are one. It suffers because he does. Do not ask about exploitation, or the way wealth flows in opposition to water, from low to high.

Do not ask for the name of this king, or else you may reveal his specific failings. This could then cease to be a tale about asking the right question to heal the king. Ask the wrong question and you will damn him forever. He hopes you are persuaded that without him, the land is lost. It is better you do not ask.

Once upon a time there were wells and well maidens who gave water and life from their golden cups. Do not ask where the wounded king got his grail from. Do not ask why there are no more wells and no more well maidens. Do not ask why the land is so dry. Power flows uphill from the weakest to the greatest and the king demands that he alone matters in this story. Heal him, and only him.

Do not snatch the golden cup from his rotting hands. Do not run in search of the old wells. Do not lower the grail to bring up fresh draughts of water, cool from the dark embrace of earth. Do not offer water to all who need it. Do not imagine that the real world can tolerate anything as naive and generous as a well maiden.

Just keep telling the story the way the king says it has always been told. He wants to fester in his authority and he wants you to feel sorry for him. You, who have the power to take his chalice and go back to the source.


Poem: The use of cauldrons

My cauldron will brew for a year and a day

Which is to say, forever.

No child slave labour,

No relentless using of the elderly

Never permitted to retire to ease.

Mine is not that sort of cauldron.

 

My children will eat from it,

The dark ones and the fair,

The nimble of mind, foot or finger,

And those slower in their ways.

All are beautiful to me and all shall be fed.

 

Some will say “must we have peas again?”

And “Mine’s got lumpy bits in it”

And “I don’t like it.”

They will eat the sweet and the sour,

The smooth, the chewy.

 

What comes from my cauldron is life.

None will have blinding flashes

Or burning heads

But I will feed them my potions,

Day by day.

Feed them with love, soil food, soul food.

Earth made, and nurturing.

I will answer what hunger I can.

 

This cauldron does not crack, or poison.

It offers everyday gifts.

Inspiration you can live with,

Ladled steaming into many bowls.


Tips for Collaborating

I’ve done a lot of working with other people – I’ve co-written, been illustrated, written for comics and done a lot of music with people. Collaborations have the potential to result in something that is more than the sum of its parts, if you can get them to work. Here’s what I’ve learned…

Are you thinking about a single project, or a working relationship? Either is fine, but it helps to be clear about your intentions at the beginning. Your intentions may of course change as things develop. Stay clear about them.

Pick people whose work you love, and who love your work. Collaborating is about letting something new emerge. If you don’t love each other’s stuff and don’t respect each other as creators, it won’t work.

You have to make room for the other person’s creativity and accept that they will do things you never imagined. I find this really exciting, but it is also a loss of control. If you want to be in control you’ll end up with people who work for you and that’s not the same as collaborating.

Pay attention to how risk is shared out between collaborators. Does more of the cost (of money or time) fall on one person more than another? How can you balance that out to keep things equitable?

Know your own boundaries and respect other people’s. Especially with reference to the time and money you are able to invest in a project.

Be ready to really listen to your collaborators. Be open to negotiation. Don’t expect it to work by magic.

It may not work perfectly straight off. That’s not necessarily a problem. You may need to invest more time in figuring out how to work together to best effect.

If working with someone inspires and encourages you, that’s excellent. It could turn out to be tiring, demoralising and a grind. Some of this depends on finding the right people, but it also depends on being the sort of person who thrives on working with others. You may not be who you think you are, and some things you only find out by doing them. Mistakes are essential, room for mistakes even more so. Never get so attached to the idea of collaborating, or a specific collaboration that you can’t consider it properly.


Art and entertainment

What makes good art? For anyone working creatively, it is a question you have to keep coming back to. The creative industries pressure us to make good product and to give people what they want. Not so long back I was at an event where Jonny Fluffypunk said that if you give people what they want, it’s entertainment. If you give people what they didn’t know they wanted, that’s art.  This really resonated with me.

I come back repeatedly to Ursula Le Guinn’s comment that good art is entertaining. Yes, I want to surprise, challenge and stretch people. I don’t always want to make everyone feel totally comfortable. But at the same time I want to add something good to their lives. I want to cheer people, enrich them, give them something they feel was worth having. I want to give people what they didn’t know they needed.

I feel this keenly as an author, and as an audience member. I am not comforted by seeing familiar things. I don’t want to replay formulaic products, or revisit endlessly the variations on a theme of stuff I once liked. I want to be surprised, stretched and challenged. I am willing to not always be comfortable, if it’s going somewhere.

I’m not cool with shock for the sake of it. I don’t want to distress, demoralise, desensitise a reader. I want to make big, difficult challenging things more palatable. And I want it to be accessible. I want to use a language plenty of people can keep up with, and put things out there in ways that don’t lock you out if you don’t have a degree, or aren’t glued to a thesaurus. Being too clever, too keen to show off all the big words all the time doesn’t make for a good reading experience.

I studied literature back in the day, and I learned some things that have stayed with me. Shakespeare was a crowd pleaser. Dickens wrote newspaper serials. The people we think of as the literary great and the good were not trying to make high art. The way language has changed makes them obscure to us and a harder read, that’s all. At the time, they were writing for people. Drawing lines between high brow high Art and Literature and popular stuff seems to be a modern thing. Beethoven was just trying to get bums on seats.

For me, if it’s being made for the special elite few who have been trained highly enough to properly understand it… I’m happy not to bother. I’m interested in books and arts that are made for people. Not to give people what some condescending industry oik reckons the lowest common denominator wants. Not trying to make everything be bland enough to be tolerable to everyone. But on the whole, making things for people as best I can.


Putting out the hat

There’s a moment when you start a busking set, when the empty hat goes out, and you have not yet begun to sing or play, and you don’t know how people are going to react. For me, that pause before beginning has always felt the most exposed.

Yesterday, I put out a hat, and waited nervously to see if anyone would find what I’m doing worth responding to. The first coins in the hat are always a massive morale boost. They affirm that it was worth the exposure. Thus far, Patreon is turning out to feel exactly like busking.

Those of you who have followed my blog for a while will know that I have a lot of issues with how the creative industries work. I struggle personally because it’s hard to make a living as a writer, and doing other things to pay the bills doesn’t leave me with much brain or energy for doing the creative stuff. I also need people to create for – I write this blog every day because there are people who want to read it, and that keeps me going. So long as someone wants to read it, I’ll keep writing.

I said recently that I wouldn’t ask for donations to keep doing this. I have put out a hat, but it’s not exactly for this blog. There’s a link at the top of this site now that says ‘support this blog’ because that’s short, but it’s not accurate! Much of the point of doing the Patreon page is to create a space where I can do other things.

So, for $1 a month you get a monthly newsletter with stuff about whatever I’m doing, and you also get one small original creative piece. For $5 a month you get that plus another modestly sized bit of creativity. My aim is to be putting out content there every week, eventually, if enough people sign up to make that viable. A lot of Patreon pages offer multiple levels for support, but, I would rather give things to more people. I’m only going to create extra levels if there’s tangible stuff to send out into the world.

I’m already feeling cheered by the few dollars that are in the hat for each month. I am imagining what could come next in terms of pushing out creatively. I’m hoping it will work and that there will turn out to be enough people who like what I do and want me to do more of it. I think it’s possible. It would only take a small percentage of blog followers to throw a dollar in the hat for my life to change radically.

I like the idea also of having scope to keep giving stuff away – here, and on youtube, and wherever else makes sense – and have support come back to me for doing that. It’s a key part of how Patreon works. It’s the other side of gift economy, the side that allows people to gift back to creators if they want to, on whatever terms they like. And nobody has to. So long as someone throws the odd coin in the hat, the busking continues…

For the first time in years, I feel hopeful about creating. It doesn’t feel entirely pointless and futile because a couple of people have already responded. So, if you want to come with me on this adventure, I would be delighted, and if that wouldn’t work for you – I’ll still be here, making my work freely available, and with a bit of luck and a fair wind, I’ll be better resourced to keep doing that.

https://www.patreon.com/NimueB