Elvis Costello and Stephen Fry: the creative work-work balance

23 Feb

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I have a fading newspaper clipping taped to the wall near my computer. It might seem a strange motivational message because the title is “Elvis Costello quits recording Albums”. The article contains a quote that is alarming for those heavily engaged in creative work.

Costello tells music writer Iain Shedden“You can’t spend your entire life enjoying yourself in everything you do. You have to choose.”

Really? But I don’t want to choose! I want to know that when one door opens, there are endless possibilities.

The industrious English singer songwriter was referring to his decision to stop making albums. Shedden says it’s a declaration that reflects the shift in the way that people now consume music. The industry has gone through changes now hitting media and publishing, professions I have called home. Writers are wondering, like Costello and other musicians, how to make a living from what they do.

But while Costello might be chewing over how to go about recording or releasing new material, he hasn’t stopped actually making music, writing songs or collaborating with the likes of Burt Bacharach or the Brodsky Quartet.

The market place may shift under you, buckling from the seismic changes wrought by the Internet, but as a creative person you need to keep on producing material.

Be it writing fiction, music, academic articles, whatever, you need to be engaged in creating content. Because no matter what unforeseen changes there will be in the distribution of that content, one thing is for sure. Creative output will always be required.

I am a firm believer in the power of the narrative. Everyone needs a story – businesses, major corporations, politicians and children. They all need to read other people’s stories and have their own story told. And who writes, researches or sets these to music, these stories of our hearts and minds, the threads of our lives and the tentacles that connect us together globally? Writers do this.

The trouble is, creating, and at the same time trying to earn a living, comes at a price. As Costello knows all to well, the work-work balance is a bitch. Can you do everything? It’s a juggle that doesn’t get as much media coverage as the work-life balance. Possibly because there are less people trying to do work-work rather than work-life.

My motto is you can sleep when you’re dead – there’s nothing decent on television anyway. Besides, I believe for creative people, there is no downtime. Everything is an inspiration and everything engages our rapacious curiosity. I am reminded of Stephen Fry, whose latest autobiography The Fry Chronicles  details this restlessness and engagement.

Fry works, works, works. For him, work is more fun than fun. If there is a work-work balance, like me he hasn’t found it. He works like someone is chasing him or he is chasing something. He has a writer’s desire to find out why – why people do what they do, why they feel what they feel, and why they create what they create. And that’s because, as he reveals, he finds other people more interesting than himself.

I also find work more fun than fun and prefer spending time around people who push their comfort zones and stretch themselves beyond what they think they can do. I am fortunate in that my work puts me in touch with people who are more interesting than me. Apart from my blogging, fiction writing and the impending deadline to hand in my doctorate, I have a full time job in arts communication working with Australian and international visual artists who never fail to inspire and a weekly evening stint of sessional teaching that sees me nurture focused and driven post graduate creative writing students. I believe we learn from everyone if only we stop to listen.

So then, how do we find time to do all the things we want to do creatively? Well, here is the thing. Alas, Costello is right. You can’t! Sometimes you just have to say no. Just as Costello has decided to say no to making more albums, I have reluctantly said no to several additional projects until the looming doctoral deadline is over in May. The idea that women can “have it all – but not all at once” equally applies to the creative life. I don’t like saying no, but there are priorities.

My mother gave me good advice early on about time management. She graduated from two different universities on the same day so knows a thing or two about the work-work balance. She taught me there are As, Bs and Cs and that they must be shuffled around. If she calls and I’m stressed about a project, she’ll ask “is it an A?” That is – is it a main priority right now? No? Then drop it, and concentrate on the A.

Only you know your personal A, B, and Cs. But I would suggest that in the doctoral journey, while there are periods of intensity that mean your research is the A in your life, there is much to be said for the engagement with other doctoral students over the four or so years. The Bs and Cs are part of the process, too.

Joining reading or writing groups, attending workshops, going to conferences, actually meeting other people and talking about your work – and more importantly, finding out about their work – are all part of your doctorate.

In The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry says when he was at Cambridge, it was the people at university and those connections he made that were his education. It doesn’t hurt that the roll call included Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie.

If you are lucky enough to find your creative other half –a collaborator and muse to spur you on, a Hugh Laurie to your Stephen Fry – then never let them go.

And if you haven’t found them yet, keep searching, but look in the right places. Get up from your computer, go to a conference, and talk to people. Listen to them. They have the same frustrations about their research, the same anxiety about their ability and the same dreams about their future.

Of course, it isn’t always easy to do, especially if you are an introvert. But there are tips you can use. A recent post in The Thesis Whisperer by  Julio Peironcely, a PhD student in Metabolomics and Metabolite Identification at Leiden University, The Netherlands, provides good advice about advance preparation for conference attendance and dinners, so you won’t sit there resolutely chewing a bread roll and wishing the ground would consume you before you have to try and make small talk. I highly recommend this post, it may be about science conferences but it applies to everyone, and as a creative writing student I am going to make sure I try all of Julio’s tips before my next conference dinner. A career in journalism means that I always heed to advice to talk less about myself and ask questions and listen to the other person, however, I am pleased Julio deems questions about your new friend’s journey through the infamous valley of shit (the ultimate in doctoral dispair) acceptable for dinner table conversation.

Knowing how to make the most of meeting like-minded people in structure environments like conferences is essential, as the people you want to share your creative world with are unlikely to be found in the pub on the weekend slumped in front of a large screen TV, or dozing like an inert kipper on a tanning bed. For a start, it’s really hard to read – or write – in either of those environments.

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