On a business trip to Toronto, I read the tourist magazines looking for some kind of theatre event that would fit in my schedule and my budget. I considered The Normal Heart at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, but it was sold out at the only times I was free. I ended up choosing “Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare”, a new Canadian Theatre 20 musical about the serial murderers in 19th century Edinburgh who sold their victims’ bodies to a medical school. It was at one of the big Mirvish theatres, the Panasonic Theatre, which is a modern functional space on Yonge Street with a tiny lobby and the bathrooms in the basement, rather than one of the ornate refurbished theatres like the Elgin or Royal Alex. I picked this show because it seemed less predictable or tourist-oriented than most of them. People who go to a matinee of a musical on a weekday seem to be mostly old people or school groups.
Reviewers didn’t like it much, but I enjoyed it. I thought it was neat that it got its start as a Winnipeg Fringe show three years ago. There were about 14 people in the cast, with the ensemble smoothly filling various minor roles and moving scenery between scenes. I liked the way that it started out with a sort of likeable-scoundrels tone but gradually darkened as it drew us in, showing conflicts between the conspirators as they attempt to define and redefine what’s not okay, and showing the disturbing class-based double standards, depending on who the victim was and also contrasting the doctor who purchased the bodies and the hand-to-mouth labourers who provided them.
The sets were simple and not distracting. The period costumes were fun to look at. The production is new enough that it doesn’t have a page on Wikipedia or a cast recording on iTunes, and there wasn’t any souvenir merchandise for sale in the lobby either.
In early 2006 I worked through the exercises in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. The exercises are designed to free people up from various things blocking them from being creative. I haven’t re-read the book since, but I recently got thinking about how many concepts from that book I am habitually or occasionally putting into my life, and about what creative explorations have illustrated those concepts in the intervening years.
- Morning pages One of the customs advocated in the book is to start each day writing three longhand pages of stream-of-consciousness. This isn’t just a practice for writers, but something that helps anyone. I occasionally do this or something similar. It’s surprisingly hard to start the day just with handwriting before turning on the computer, but when I do it, I feel less stuck and it’s easier to then focus on tasks at hand afterwards.
- Artist’s dates Another concept in the book (and in the author’s later works) is to periodically do things alone just for fun and art, whether it’s playing with modelling clay or going to a gallery or movie. I actually do that kind of stuff alone all the time – visiting the Muttart Conservatory is one of my favourites – and it’s funny to think about when I was doing the exercises and making that a special effort.
- Permission to do multiple projects I didn’t realise how much better this was for me until I started quilting in 2007. If I wasn’t in the precision-focused mood for squaring up blocks and unpicking seams that weren’t right, which one project needed, I could still be productive on quilting another project or picking out fabric for a new one. Getting rid of that echo of my mother’s voice about finishing one thing before starting another or I would never finish anything turned out to be astonishingly helpful. I realised that the same thing worked in my teaching work, in my camp planning work, and in tidying the house, and when I wrote a story with multiple viewpoints for NaNoWriMo, I often jumped to the next character’s narration when stuck on one, and then went back to fill in later.
- Clearing up to clear space for creativity At the same time, Julia Cameron also suggested various exercises about clearing out projects or possessions that we weren’t enjoying. One exercise was to go through dresser drawers and make decisions. Another was to pull out hibernated projects and either finish them or find a way to dispose of or repurpose them. I was surprised to find how empowering this was – I didn’t get rid of very many projects, but the ones I did made it seem easier and more enjoyable to finish others. Using this principle, when I got seriously into knitting after moving here, I dug out all the old partly-done knitting projects and all the yarn, got rid of a few things and found ways to finish almost everything. Ravelry helps motivate me with project tracking, and once or twice a year I make a point of finishing up hibernating projects, and feeling a huge accomplishment. Tidying up physical spaces has a similar effect, in giving me freedom to think about other space-needy projects. I had cleaners in a couple of weeks ago, so my living-space floors have been empty and vacuumed. And I’m pretty sure that’s one of the factors that freed me up to explore the large-scale patchwork artwork project that is currently consuming me.
- Taking risks pays off Another factor that set me up to start this project was doing an improv-theatre workshop with Rapid Fire Theatre. It felt very risky to start with, but I could feel myself thriving in it and taking lessons home from it every week. A job application and interview I did partway through the course didn’t feel nearly as scary as they might have, and not getting the job didn’t devastate me. And the initial concept of the current art project popped into my head a few hours before our end-of-course performance, when I was feeling a little anxious and mostly excited about having become that kind of adventurous.
- Learning techniques helps too In improv, in quilt design, in learning to work with colours, and so on, learning the tricks and skills of the discipline gives me the background to be both more confident and more successful. Which brings me to one of my key philosophies nowadays,
- Anything worth doing is worth doing badly I was a cautious controlled child, afraid to fail and hesitant to stand out. I mostly did the activities that my parents were interested in and thought we were good at – they strongly supported my Conservatory piano lessons as long as I was willing to continue, but were neutral to discouraging about goofing-around composing and about any of the practices that would have led me to be a social piano player, like playing by ear or sight-reading. I remember expressing some wistful envy about my cousins’ experiences at art camp and being told “[OurSurnames] aren’t good at art”, which meant that of course they’d keep paying for the clarinet rental instead of letting me try the oil-painting elective at school when everyone else got to pick a new elective. As a teenager I wrote some fiction privately, and daydreamed about being a Gordon-Korman-style prodigy, but never considered any steps along that way like taking writing classes in university or finding a critique group – by the time I was in Grade 13 I’d so strongly internalised the idea that I couldn’t afford to pursue that kind of impractical dream that the only way I could daydream about it was to put in the story that I was somehow instantly good enough to be published. Instead, of course, I went off to engineering school, put the 10 000 words of story-in-progress in a box, and did not consider myself a writer again for more than twenty years.
I’ve come to realise in recent years that although maybe some kids had more chances to explore things they weren’t naturally good at, adults typically don’t. Adults know what they’re likely to be good at, and they keep doing it or they try out related things. My friend Shaav commented recently that there was no place for adults to learn about science unless they were scientists. I pointed out that it was exactly the same about art. We like the idea of letting kids try everything, but we aren’t quite as eager to try everything ourselves, and if we do, we look for clues to see if we’re good enough to continue. And the more I embrace opportunities to try new things and to pursue things I’m interested in whether or not I am any good at them, the happier I am and the more creative I am. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.