Downshifting: balancing your job, life, and your art

I stumbled on this old productivity post which, ironically, I never did anything with. I wrote it a while ago when I was preoccupied with getting it all done: work, writing, music, life: the full catastrophe. I’m not sure in all honesty how good I am at implementing these strategies. I have a more relaxed attitude now, and try to write when the mood takes me, and time allows. I suppose on a fundamental level I’ve tried to arrange my life so that happens more regularly, but I try not to force it.

On one level, my interest in downshifting arose because I thought it would enable me to increase my focus on writing and other ambitions. It has since become more about appreciating life in the moment, on its own terms. I’m gradually learning to say ‘no’ even to good ideas, to make room for those things that happen almost by themselves.  Like anything else, there’s always more downshifting to do…

Downshifting: balancing your job, life, and your art

In her obituary Maria de Villota, an F1 test driver, was quoted as saying “Life is beautiful. All we have to do is take it slower and enjoy it.” Her career and her life depended on speeding through fractions of a second, and yet she knew the importance of slowing down.

Maria was paraphrasing one of our great philosophers:

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.
– Ferris Bueller

There’s a lot that we can learn from this as creative-types and people-with-one-too-many-projects. The artist’s job is to be stubborn and slow: to stop and look around at what others have missed. That’s all very well, but for many artists and writers the hours of 9 to 5 are block-booked. As well as our jobs, we have families, friends and community commitments. When will we find the time to stop and look around, let alone finish that magnum opus? Like everybody else, we rush around trying to do more and get more.

Over the past few years I’ve been tried numerous schemes and strategies for balancing work, family life, personal projects, and leaving time to reflect and enjoy life. Here are some thoughts about getting things done in a lower gear.

Dossing days and doing days

The hardest thing is doing nothing. If I’m lucky enough to have tumbleweed blowing through my calendar before I know it, I’ll have spent half a day on a spur-of-the-moment idea (such as this post). Be watchful, and when the urge to do something arises, hit it with the whack-a-mole mallet of rational self inquiry. Do I really need to do this? What would happen to this urge if I tried letting it be? Try having at least one or more days where non-doing is top of the to-do list.

Find out where the bus goes

Creative people often have many things they are interested in and many things they love to make and do. It’s all part of making connections and playing with new ideas. Remember that your time is limited. By all means, try many different art forms and endeavours but be prepared to give a subtle preference to one of your pursuits when it develops beyond the others. Once you’ve guessed the general direction your talents have been leading you in, stay on the bus and find out where it goes. Try to actively avoid working on everything else unless it feels like fun.

Luddism 2.0

Make sure your technology works for you, not the other way around. It’s easy to get suckered into the dopamine reward systems of social media and checking your email. Turn your phone off every now and then. Your voicemail will get the calls. Get away from the internet. If you’re a writer, turn the computer off and write on paper once in a while. Jonathan Franzen would approve, and that’s the most important thing.

Deep time

All artists need to experience deep time: contemplative, empty time. When was the last time you had no idea what time it was? Try to avoid counting the hours when you work. Don’t let the clock decide whether today was successful: judge by the quality of one sentence, musical phrase, or brushstroke.

Disengage to reengage

Many of us have jobs that are, on a basic level, very similar to our passions. We work at computers all day only to open up the laptop when we get home. As far as our bodies are concerned this is no different from working a 14-hour day every day. Going for a run, to the gym, or doing yoga and meditation after work might clear your mind before you hunch over your MacBook in a self-inflicted stress position for another six hours of word-blending.

Booze blues

Graham Greene could only write when ‘absolutely sober’. Despite apocryphal stories, Hemingway didn’t actually ‘write drunk; edit sober’. Be warned: if Saturday morning is the only time you have to work on your passion, a hangover from Friday night is not going to help.

When the mood takes you

While I often wake early, I don’t usually get to jump out of bed and start scribbling. I’m sure that’s a productive thing to do but it’s also good to see what comes naturally. I do try to meditate before I’m mugged by the confusion and bustle of the day, and, if I have enough presence of mind, I’ll try to get the most important things done first while I’m fresh enough to do them well. Having said that, I think much of my early development as a writer came during midnight (and later) sessions when moon and muse were at their apogee. History’s most creative minds were early risers, though, and who am I to argue?

Stop and enjoy life

Chances are you’re impassioned to create because you believe there is something worth sharing or championing in life. Making yourself miserable for your art would be self-defeating. It’s tempting for maniacs like you and I to think of time out as a transaction by which we receive rest or inspiration to fuel another long creative session, but sometimes life is simply for living. Remembering Ferris’ wise words, I think I’ll stop and look around right now.

The Chalk Path

The Chalk Path - front cover

Joe, Hugh, and I are publishing our third shared poetry pamphlet very soon. Our hope is to have it coincide with the Chalk arts and literary festival in Winchester, which starts on Saturday.

The Chalk Path is the final instalment in our trilogy of pamphlets, which began with The Inner Sea in 2012. Earlier this year we published, The Tide Clock. Publishing a shared collection is a great way for poets to collaborate on a project, experiment with the format, and inspire each other. You can also benefit from exposure to each other’s audiences.

While The Inner Sea began our journey at the ocean, and The Tide Clock continued our journey to the fringe of land and sea, The Chalk Path concludes our odyssey inland, drawing on chalk hills and paths known to us, as well as themes of blankness and absence. The cover painting of Danebury Ring is another by multi-talented Hugh.

Where we might go from here is an open question. The trio of pamphlets seems complete, at least for now, and we may concentrate on publishing independently, or collaborating in a different format.

Blurb

An experiential exploration of movement within the landscape, taking you beyond maps to the cries of buzzards, the feeling of chalk dust on fingers and the glimpse of a white horse.

Contents

Joe Franklin

If You Fall In You Will Be Walking Home
Urban Bee Keeping
Dongas
Living With a Writer
The Chalk Path
Fernhurst

Hugh Greasley

Tap Water
Native Habitat
Rendzinia
Sunrise
Skin
Water Tasting
Whetstone

Mark Cooper

Chalk
Golden Cap
Garden of Opposites
The Lady of the Lake
Teething
Snow Buddha

Preview

Here’s one of mine from The Chalk Path:

GOLDEN CAP

Golden Cap is less brilliant now,
greenery mars its white pyramid, a sign
of climate change, or that our names for things
barely touch the things themselves.

We’ve always been walking this chalk path
and yet we take a Saturday out of the rush
of making our life the way we want it
before it’s over just to live. Just to feel
our footprints on the chalk, this blank grit.
The path we started on, an unfinished thread,
depends on billions of long-dead coccoliths
too small and short-lived to have ideas about living
yet they’ve shaped the land. Shy ammonites
also lie buried in this blank necropolis,
breaking free during an occasional storm.
Whether or not they ever came out of themselves
during their turbulent lives, they’re still here,
solid enough to walk on. It’s we who are ghosts.

 

An early draft of ‘The Edge’

There’s a poem in The Tide Clock titled ‘The Edge’. Here’s an earlier version of it that perhaps works in its own right, before the poem took a different turn. This version is more overtly about zazen: zen meditation practice.

Just Sitting

Waves relinquish the carracks,
make fractals, circles, then stillness.
My shadow drifts on the water,
part of the headland, tailed with rock.

Children play on the fringe of all
they can and cannot imagine.
The green sea peels back and here I am
between the inbetween; grateful,

coping, very nearly thriving,
content to be this not-self after all.
I’m scenery in someone else’s childhood
on a spit of land between blue nothings.

A fishing boat threads the bay
golden with a brazen shining stitch
lit by the falling sun. My legs ache.
So much for zazen. I have an itch.

The Tide Clock version:

The Edge by Mark Cooper

Read the rest of The Tide Clock here.

The Tide Clock proof has arrived

The new poetry pamphlet I’ve been working on with Hugh Greasley and Joe Franklin has arrived in proof form. There are a couple of minor errors to be fixed: I didn’t leave enough room between the bleed and the page margin on the cover, for one thing. These should now be resolved and I’ve put the order in for the first printing.

The cover art is Paziols Morning by Hugh. Check out more of his art at hughgreasley.co.uk.

Get in touch if you’d like me to post you one!

The Tide Clock proof

The Tide Clock - Mark's poems

Anon – the greatest poet?

No doubt this January 1st we’ll all spring out of bed refreshed and ready to seize the promise of a pristine new year. As our clear, crisp minds embark on new creative pursuits, here’s a question to help understand what kind of projects we’re working on and who they’re really for.

Would I be willing to do this anonymously?

In other words: is this for personal gratification or personal enjoyment? Is it something I’m willing to stand behind? Is it worthwhile for others, and/or in its own right? The question is intended to help us clarify our motivations for working on a task.

Anonymity does appeal, however. I remember reading poetry anthologies in school and thinking the best poems were by Anon. Who was this mysterious Anon who wrote all of the bold, simple poems that spoke with such undeniable clarity that they sounded fresh, funny and often alarming centuries later? Now I find myself wondering who these poets were and why their names don’t appear in the anthologies. Perhaps a famous master decided that a straightforward, comic piece didn’t fit her oeuvre. Were they risking controversy? Did they only have one poem to write or thousands? Were they always anonymous or was their name lost over shifting centuries? Conversely, how many poets now exist in name only, a bit like Ozymandias?

This touches on the topic of intrinsic motivation. Some projects are passions and important for our fulfillment and sense of wellbeing. These are some of the most meaningful activities we can do. If I write a story because I enjoy the challenge of expressing myself, I don’t need the approval of others to do so. In fact, in some ways writing becomes more enjoyable if no external recognition is asked for or received. It becomes deeply personal – and its worth won’t be coloured by the opinions of others.

Other projects are valuable because they do have meaning for other people. They could be social, like playing guitar with friends; or inspiring, like painting a scene that stirs emotions. Perhaps a project will benefit a community or directly alleviate someone’s suffering. We might consider still other works, especially those at the pinnacle of a craft, worthwhile purely as aesthetic or innovative achievements – or perhaps because such actions or behaviours are inherently worthwhile. Solving a hard mathematical problem or learning to dance might be good examples (though neither are strengths of mine).

On the other hand, we’re likely to encounter disappointment when we expect our work or art to bring us pleasure because of how it reflects on us. Then we derive little enjoyment from our effort unless it gains us recognition: something we ultimately have little control over.

It’s a good idea to know what kind of satisfaction we’re looking for. Happy New Year!