Tag Archives: creative

Putting the heart back into my creative process

One of the things that trying to work as a creative professional can do to you, is knock the joy out of the creating. When being taken seriously as a creator depends on earning enough, there’s a lot of pressure. How people see you – friends, family, people your life brings you into contact with – often depends on your earning power. The underpaid creative is often taken to be a hobbiest, lazy, incompetent, selfish… it can be a very unhappy experience. So you try to make it pay, to prove that what you do is worth doing.

When did I stop creating for the joy of it? Hard to say as it was a process, not an event. I used to be someone who wrote a lot, but that’s not been true in a while. I’ve struggled to be creative. Starting a patreon account a few years ago helped a lot, in no small part because of that economic component – if I was writing for people who were willing to pay me to write, that made it ok. Not irresponsible self indulgence. Not a failure to take care of my family and household.

As lockdown started, I realised I needed something to work on that would help me stay functional. There’s little point trying to be seriously economically active at the moment and that’s been liberating. So I’m writing a series called Wherefore – it’s a bit like a soap opera in that there’s no grand plan or over-arching structure. It’s on my youtube channel – https://www.youtube.com/nimuebrown I’m just doing it because I want to. It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything on those terms.

I have a collaborator in this – Bob Fry, who is also in my mumming side, and has a truly unusual mind. He’s been giving me prompts and ideas, and I started writing primarily for him. As it has gone along and other people have responded, I’ve started writing with them in mind as well, and so it is made out of love and the desire to entertain people who like what I do – and this is going well. For the first time in many years, I want to write for the pleasure of creating and sharing. Working with other people and having other people to create for is key for me. I don’t do this well as a solitary process.

Much of my difficulty stems from wider issues in the creative industries as a whole. Most creative people cannot make a living from their work. The question has always been about how to respond to that. Should I dig in and try harder to be ‘professional’ and economically viable? Or should I try and muddle along economically and create what I feel moved to create? I’m moving towards the second position. As a household, we are viable financially, and that will do. I need to put the heart back into my work. I need to create for the love of it, and for the love of the people out there who enjoy what I make. The worth of creating is something I need to measure in the joy it brings, not what I’m paid for it.

If lockdown has taught us anything, it should be that the value of the work people do, and what they get paid for it, are wholly unrelated issues. It’s true of the frontline essential workers, and it’s just as true of the creative folk who are keeping everyone amused and comforted – often just by giving work away. What we pay for, and what we need are two separate issues in our strangely structured society. I don’t have to keep on measuring my worth as a creator in terms of what anyone is willing to pay me. I can measure it in terms of what it does, and if I can delight a few people, that’s time well spent.


Remedies for Creative Block

You’re most likely to hear of writer’s block, but in practice, any creative person can get stuck and experience frustrating, arid patches. This isn’t just about high art, either. Creative block can strike around cooking, in your love life, in your Druidry and all kinds of other places as well. The loss of energy and inspiration can itself be distressing. So, what to do?

Make some time to look at your life as a whole and make sure all the basic things are in place. If you aren’t getting good rest and sleep, if your diet is poor, if you aren’t physically active enough or getting outside enough, start by fixing these things. If you have to do your creative stuff at the expense of your health, eventually what you do to your health will undermine your creativity. At the very least you have to stop and re-balance sometimes.

Where is your magic coming from? What inspires you? What feeds your mind? Because if all you do is create, without nourishing that creativity you might find you run out of inspiration. Early on we may have a lot of energy to bring to our creative stuff but find we can’t sustain it for the long haul. You might draw on years of life experience for one piece of work. But then what? Learning to be more interested in what’s outside of you gives you far greater resources to draw on for creating. It would seem daft to take up cooking in earnest and never open a recipe book! Experiencing the form you’re working in will teach you a lot and give you ideas. Anything else in any aspect of your life that you find interesting will help feed your inspiration.

Look hard at the economic aspect of your work. This can be uncomfortable. If you are selling your creativity to pay the bills, this added pressure can undermine you. If you have to work a full time job and do the creativity in your spare time, this will exhaust you. If you don’t have the financial security to give you relaxed working space, there aren’t any easy answers. It does help though to be honest about it, and to treat yourself kindly. Most of us can’t make the creativity pay enough to live on – that’s the state of the world, not a personal failing.

So long as you aren’t dependent on making things to pay the bills, fallow periods are ok. They are often necessary to allow growth and development. Being flat out all the time is not a good thing. If you have to work like a machine, it will compromise you. Again, that having to work flat out is a thing has a lot to do with the wider political and economic climate. If you need some down time, no amount of pushing is going to keep you churning out content forever. You will burn out if you do this, and burning out is not efficient. If you find any way of taking the pressure off, do it.

You are not a machine. While inspiration can be constant, it’s better if you don’t need it to be. You’re less likely to get seriously blocked if you can afford to have off days, and days off.


Stand out from the crowd

Standing out from the crowd is on Molly Scott Cato’s list of things to do to resist fascism. I think this is a particularly interesting one for Pagans. For a person who feels afraid, blending in and not drawing attention is a very natural approach to take. To make yourself visible can feel, in hostile environments, like making yourself into a target. However, if we all try to protect ourselves by conforming, what we get is an even narrower range of safe ways of being, ever more pressure to conform and ever more vulnerability for the people who can’t.

Fascism doesn’t like diversity. It doesn’t like there being many different faiths and philosophies, and ways of living and being. Diversity makes people harder to control. It’s worth noting that tyranny generally doesn’t like diversity – you only have to think of the clothing restrictions in Maoist China. Tyranny loves uniforms.

By undertaking to stand out, a person upholds visible diversity. It is an expression of freedom and choice, and if you have enough privilege to be reasonably safe doing that, it is a way of helping everyone else. Visible expressions of diversity, and visible expressions of creativity and alternate ways of thinking help empower other people to live on their own terms and not try to blend safely into the background.

The pressure to conform isn’t something we necessarily experience in a conscious way. We can absorb a feeling that we need to fit in from our surroundings, media, and environment, without ever having deliberately decided to go that way. This is why the decision to be visible and different is an important one. Everyone who manifests their own creativity, individuality, and different ways of being in the world helps reduce that pressure on the people around them to conform. Everyone who offers an alternative helps stop the people around them from feeling there is only one right way of being.

Fascism is a cheerless sort of project. There’s no joy in it, no colour or delight. Tyranny of all forms pushes people towards being drab, conformist, unimaginative, and inexpressive. To be colourful, flamboyant, original, and inspired is to be working against tyranny.


Debunking the creative life

Mostly when I’m online, I talk about my creative life and my Druidry – those are the bits of what I do that I find most interesting. However, it may give the impression that I’m living the dream – full time Druid and author. I’m not.

There was a point in my life where I spent most of my time writing, teaching, leading meditation groups, running rituals and so forth. I didn’t feel able to ask for payment for the Druid work, because I was hearing a lot at the time about how it was supposed to be service. I didn’t make a vast amount from the writing. Sometimes I wrote pub quizzes for money. I had financial support from the person I was then living with, but little money of my own and no economic freedom.

Most creative people, and most professional Pagans are in a similar situation. Either the money comes from somewhere else – an inheritance, a partner or a pension, or there is a second job, or there is abject poverty. Sometimes there’s a second job and abject poverty. The lack of money and/or the not being full time is not a measure of failure. It is nigh on impossible at the moment to make a living as a creative person.

For example, it takes Tom a day to draw a page of Hopeless Maine. It takes me some hours to colour it. Then it has to be scanned, tidied up, and the lettering done. It is a full time job plus a bit. To get a graphic novel out once a year, that’s six months of solid work for Tom and part time work for me. Advances are rare, and you’re more likely to get them on handing in finished work ahead of publication than when you start drawing or writing. That’s six months with no income, please note.

Now, work out how much money you need to live on. The cover price of the book is not the money the creator gets for a book, even if they’ve self published. Half of the cover price likely goes to whoever was selling it. From the remaining half, the print costs have to be paid, plus the publisher wants to make some money. Perhaps the creator gets £1 a copy. That’s optimistic. So, you can do the maths and work out how many books you’d have to sell in a year to have what you consider a decent standard of living. Note at this point that the average book sells about 3000 copies in its entire life.

Most of us work other jobs, because that’s the only way it’s possible to create. And if we don’t, we aren’t sat in our nice libraries pondering the world – I have friends who write at a rate of about a novel a month, and believe me, that’s intense. I have friends who spend their weekends taking their work to events and markets – while doing the creative work in the week. That’s a way of making ends meet that allows you no time off. That’s no kind of easy option. To sell anything, you have to spend time promoting it. That also takes time and energy. It’s pretty full on.

Creative people and professional Pagans alike won’t necessarily tell you what their private financial situation is. For some reason, many people assume that the default answer is full time and well off. The reality is much more likely to be part time and considering it a win if they can make ends meet.

I work other jobs. I have always worked other jobs, and I expect I always will. At the moment I’m working six small part time jobs. And because of that, we can afford to have Tom full time on Hopeless Maine, and we can keep making comics. This is normal.


Not keeping up appearances

One of the consequences of doing anything well, is that it tends to look effortless. If you’re doing something professionally, it is of course desirable to look as good as you can while doing it. Success is attractive. Relaxed capability is attractive. You want people looking at the elegant swan you’ve put into the world, not all the frantic paddling below the surface required to keep it there.

The problem with this – and I see it a lot – is that a significant number of people will assume it is indeed, effortless for you to do what you do. If they can’t see how much time and effort went into getting you to the point whereby it is indeed easy, they’ll use words like ‘gifted’ and ‘talented’ and maybe ‘lucky’. This can have consequences. It can leave other people assuming that they should be that good for no effort. Or they may assume that because they aren’t instantly that good, there’s no point even trying. Neither idea is useful.

The general wisdom is that to master something takes 10,000 hours of work. The effortless performance, the relaxed artistic flourish…  are possible because of the many hours of study and practice underpinning them. There’s also a lot of planning in the mix. Films have a nasty habit of showing us creators producing amazing work in a single frenzied round. Most of us don’t work that way. Paintings are planned and sketched for. Stories and pieces of music are built up in stages. And so on.

The same is often true of other things. Cooking. Gardening. Self employment. The effortless coasting towards success is often just a superficial appearance. People who get results usually have to work for them. If they can do it easily now, it’s because they already put in the work. Right now, Tom and I are starting to enjoy the benefits of the Hopeless Maine project – in terms of money, recognition, opportunities and whatnot. We’ve worked together on this for about a decade, Tom’s been on it longer. As one if my publishers used to say ‘it takes years of work to become an overnight success.’

We like the stories of people who come out of nowhere to achieve wild, unexpected success. We don’t tell stories about years of quietly chipping away at it, slowly building a following, and having modest success, but that’s often how it goes. We also don’t tell stories about people being able to invest in their own projects because their families support them and cover their bills, help them make time and give them space. It’s easier to be creative if you’ve already got money – are retired, or have a supportive spouse. This kind of information tends to vanish from the story of how the successful individual got to where they are.

It’s always tempting to create stories that make us look as good as possible. However, I think it’s ultimately harmful to create the impression of great talent welling up to achieve great things, and not mentioning the levels of work and dedication required. I also think its problematic to let people  assume you’re making it as a creator when you aren’t.

At the moment, my household is getting by on the money I make as a book publicist. We get top-ups from the creative side, which is always cheering. It looks feasible that in the next few years, the Hopeless Maine project will start laying golden eggs for us. This is because we’ve made a choice to invest time in the creative stuff rather than Tom mostly working for other people. If we make this work, it will be because of the massive amount of time he’s invested, and because I’ve been able to pay the bills. I intend to keep talking about this because there are myths I want to dispel.


Creative Community

I have never liked the image of creator as lone genius, up in their ivory tower, making Art away from the influence of nasty commercialism, nasty popularity and actual people. For me, this is an image that goes with elitism, wilful obscurity, pricing most people out of the market and creative irrelevance. I’m equally not a fan of disposable, industrialised pop culture where people make pretty much the same thing over and over for it to be consumed by other people who don’t much care about it.

There are of course other ways.

At the moment, I am blessed with a creative community. There are people whose work I am involved with to varying degrees, and who are involved with my work. People who pass me their first drafts, and who will read mine. People I trade reviews with. People I go to poetry nights with. People I can learn from, and be influenced by and test myself against. People who inspire me and who sometimes, to my great excitement, are inspired by me.

I find it always helps me to know who I am creating for. Much of my fiction work is written with a few specific individuals in mind. I can’t write for everyone; that makes no sense to me. Writing purely for myself feels too indulgent and narcissistic.

Being part of a creative community means finding out what other people are interested in, reading, looking at, watching, listening to. I may not be much engaged with mainstream entertainment, but I am engaged with things that other people in turn find engaging.

Creative community means support for what I do, and people I want to see thrive. It’s easier to get your books in front of people when someone else can say they are worth reading, simply. It’s good not to feel alone as a creator, and community helps offset the crushing qualities of the industry.

There can be a downside to all this. A small and inward-looking community can become a bubble of dysfunction. It can give people illusions of importance that stop them from doing things that would help them. I’ve seen it happen several times in different contexts. Creative cliques breed arrogance and obliviousness. The solution to this is to be part of an extended network that maybe has some tighter knit groups within it. There’s no real gain in finding a small pond in which to be a large fish.

There’s a romance to the idea of the lone creator that some creators have played up as part of their marketing strategy. The truth tends to be more complex. Stand-out famous creative people tend, when you look more closely at their lives, to have people around them. Wordsworth, for all his claiming to wander lonely as a cloud was actually out on a walk with his sister, and used her diary account of the day to help him write the daffodils poem. The myth of Solitary Great Men abounds, but in creative community we can find natural, healthy antidotes to this where we can all be excellent people in relation to each other.


Glass Herons and donations

A glass heron is a creature native to Hopeless Maine. Like most of the resident life forms, they’re a bit… odd.

There’s a glass heron front right in the image above and a second at the back and to the left.

Some time ago, in a fit of enthusiasm, I added a glass heron level over at Patreon. All of my Patreon levels are based on Hopeless Maine creatures, so at $1 there’s small things in bottles, and $5 is the splendid Dustcat level. They are about the size of a cat. I’m writing the dustcats a book about dustcats. I’m not the best when it comes to self promotion, so I put up the glass heron (size of a heron, give or take) and didn’t really spend much time telling people it was there. At glass heron level, you get things in the post – at least four times a year. Tom and I between us generate a lot of small things that can be posted, like cards, and dustcat books, little originals, handwritten things.

This week I was very excited to find that my first glass heron had sauntered in. There is a lot of validation for me in people liking what I do enough that they want to throw money at me. Not least because I appreciate that most of us don’t have a lot of spare cash to chuck about, so the decision to support creativity is a big deal.

Money is, simply, a great enabler. I’m living within my means, which are small. Extra cash means being able to afford research books, the odd course, getting to things that inspire me. Doing events as a creator costs money and you don’t always make it back – I’ve lost money on two events in the last year. Doing a print run for something like a dustcat book costs money. It’s a lot less stressful doing this sort of thing when you aren’t also obliged to carefully count the pennies. I’ve got very talented friends who should be getting their work out there and can’t afford to invest in it. I want to be able to help them with printing costs.

I like the gift economy angle with Patreon. I put free things into the world – here, on www.hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com, on my youtube channel, my Sage Woman blog column. I write regularly for Pagan Dawn and for the PF international. No one pays me for these things because there’s no money with which to pay.  Pagan magazine publishing does not make anyone rich. I know what it’s like to have no budget for fun stuff, and what a difference free, online content makes in that scenario. Now that I can afford to, I do buy books and music, and tickets for gigs, I support the creative economy as best I can. In turn, people who like what I do and who can afford to support me are doing so, and it really helps me make ends meet and feel like it’s worth carrying on.

Money of course is not the only thing to have that effect. Likes, shares, reblogs, comments, sharing my stuff on social media – these things cost nothing and they have a massive impact on me from one day to the next. At my lowest points when I’ve not known how to keep going in the desperately difficult economic environment of ‘creative industry’ it’s been this blog, the support here and the comments that have kept me moving and saved me from despair. That’s gift economy in action, too.

So, here’s a question. I’ve been wondering about putting a donate button of some sort on the blog. I appreciate that the commitment to regular Patreon funding is going to be too much for many people. A donate button is more like being able to throw small change in the pot when you have it. Would that be a thing? If you think you might like to chuck a dollar in a virtual hat now and then, can you let me know? No commitment required, just I want a sense of how people feel about this. If everyone following this blog chucked a dollar in the hat once a year, it would change my life radically. I’m also at the kind of level where small sums of money make a difference. I’ve resisted the idea of a donate button for a long time because I want people to feel comfortable about having things for free. I choose to give this stuff away, and I hate it when people tell me things are free and then demand a five pound donation… so I’m not doing that. Thoughts?


Into the Gallery

Those of you who have been here for a little while may have already seen the blog on The Hopeless Maine Arts and Crafts Movement and Fluffy Doom. Tom and I have been working for months now, alongside all the regular work we do, getting ready for a Hopeless Maine show as part of Stroud Book Festival. We’re setting up on Monday, Lansdown gallery will be open Tuesday through to Sunday, and on Saturday night we’re in Lansdown Hall with a show in the evening as well.

The canny amongst you will have noticed that this means a seven day working week with a late night near the end of it. There was so much to do this week, that although I can take some of this weekend off, I’m going to have to spend some of Sunday packing and sorting ahead of the setup. I’ve had a lot of extra work to do trying to get ahead on all the stuff I normally do in a week, and even so I’ll have to get up at seven and put in two hours of normal work before I hit the gallery each day.

This last week has been full of anxiety, stress, triggering, panic attacks and waking up in the wee small hours and being sleep deprived. I took yesterday afternoon off and walked, and it has cleared my head a bit, but by no stretch of the imagination am I in good shape going into this.

It’s going to be tough. I hope it’s going to be worth it. By Tuesday of this week, no tickets had been sold for the show, and other book festival events were in the same boat. Partly it’s because people buy tickets later at the moment. I assume it’s about the weather, and wanting to be sure you can go before you commit. Less money to throw around must be a factor. Stroud is also prone to people rolling up about five minutes after the thing started and buying a ticket on the door. But still, it’s a stressful situation to be in.

Also of course, like every promoter, every event, every publisher and music label and thing of that ilk… all the advance promotion went on the big names who least needed the advanced promotion and there is no budget for marketing. I never cease to be amazed by the number of activities that have a budget, but consider promotion to either be a luxury extra or not worth paying for. This approach becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, in which the not so famous are proved not to be worth it, so either get even less space, or even less promotion next time. It’s happening across the board in creative industries.

I hope, in a small way, to buck the trend, but it means having to do a lot of promotion work alongside actually putting together the gallery show and the evening show. That’s also increasingly the size of it for anyone not famous enough that their name alone won’t sell whatever they were doing. Most creative people now have to do most of the work involved in selling whatever it is that they do. Where big companies are involved, profits go to shareholders, while the creator who is both creating and doing all the promotion work, is the last person to get paid.

If you’re in striking distance and want to come along, here’s the webpage for the evening event https://stroudbookfestival.org.uk/event/tom-nim-brown/  – you can just turn up to the gallery.


A gathering of tribes

It’s interesting to think about where we fit and belong, the communities we call home and the relationships we have with them. I started pondering this a couple of days ago, and making notes, and the scale of it surprised me.

I have my blood family and the people I share history with – people who have lived in the same places, been through the same schools.

There’s the folk community – full of family ties and personal history. People I have played music with, people whose songs I sing, people I listen to. Also there’s the tribe that gathers for Genevieve Tudor’s folk program, and that’s an important weekly moment of belonging. I hope to put dancing back on that list.

I identify with the Pagan community, and with Druidry, and within that I belong a whole host of places – OBOD, The Druid Network, Druid Camp, Contemplative Druidry, Auroch grove, and through the bard side, it overlaps with the folk, and through my writing with the next lot…

Authors, book people, bloggers, readers, Moon Books, JHP fiction, other publishers. People I read and admire, storytellers, the local writing community and through those connections I branch out into…

Wider creative connections with artists, musicians, local creative folk, organisers of things, and I branch out into Steampunk, Comics, and geekery in general.

My Paganism also directs me to green activism, so that’s The Green Party, which is part of my local tribe, as is my engaging a bit with the Transition Network and other local, green, sustainable alternative outfits. People I know because they are local.

Eventually, I also managed to recognise that there are people who are in my life simply because they like what I do. I have a number of important connections based entirely on that.

Inevitably it’s the people who fit in more than one of those circles that I interact with most, because time is also a factor in all of this, and the more I share, the more time I tend to spend with someone. There are people I see once a year, or less, and there are people I pine for if I have to go more than a week, and I can manage an afternoon without Tom, but that’s my limit.

Of those people who I interact with in numerous ways, there are a few with whom I share creativity – either working together, or working alongside, swapping ideas and inspiration. This is a small tribe, and these relationships I pay a lot of attention to. They are the most defining ones in my life. It’s not any kind of coincidence that I married my artist… I am most emotionally invested in people with whom I can share creativity.

Beyond that, and overlapping with wider circles in all kinds of ways, is the tiny tribe I walk with. My most essential tribe.


Reclaiming my bloke

For the last year, this young lady has given me no small amount of trouble. When Tom wasn’t with her, he was mostly thinking about her, and that’s tough in any relationship. I knew about her of course – she was getting ten and twelve hours a day of his time, often seven days a week, I’d have to have been pretty oblivious not to notice her impact on our lives.

It’s the biggest project Tom’s ever had – a 200 page graphic novel for Inklit – a Penguin imprint. He gave it his all, because he always throws everything he has at doing projects anyway, and this being the biggest and highest profile one to date, really focused his attention.

It did not make for an easy year. Tom and I came together through a publishing house, many years ago. We were collaborating on www.hopelessmaine.com long before we were romantically involved, and our creative partnership was for years a defining part of our relationship. Only, last year, he was mostly working with someone else. I occasionally got to help out doing large areas of simple shading, but that was about it for me – I provided domestic support, and what other support I could, but I wasn’t part of the project that had taken over our lives. I found that hard.

It’s also a challenge in any relationship when one party shifts up a gear to become way more successful, and the other party does not. As the person not making huge strides forward, it was hard not to feel peripheral, and left behind at times. I’ve made my peace with that – there was nothing else to do. I’ve watched resentment of success eat other people up, and I don’t want to be like that.

I pick my collaborators carefully. Always did. I’ve probably made more careful and considered choices around investing in co-creators than ever I have in romantic relationships. In matters of the heart, I’ve been swept off my feet into poor choices more than once. I’d assumed that the focus and intensity of a creative collaboration would be too much alongside also living with someone, but apparently not. And, having spent this last year with my marriage stripped largely of its creative collaboration aspect, it is immensely cheering to find that we still get on well and can be happy in each other.

It’s a form of challenge any relationship can face – when the thing that brought you together, or defined you, is no longer part of the mix. For couples defined by their parenting, the growing up of offspring can cause real difficulties. Then you get to find out how many facets your relationship has, and whether there’s enough depth and breadth to survive what’s missing.

This last year, we’ve learned that while working together makes us both very happy, we can survive long stretches of being flat out on working with others. It’s been an interesting experience, and by ‘interesting’ I mostly mean that I hope we won’t do anything quite like that again! At least nothing quite that long and involved.

More about the aforementioned book here.