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On joy and anxiety

A little while ago a friend of mine was telling me about the new dog he and his wife were about to acquire as a new addition to their family. Without going into details, this led to the topic of how they had so far not had much luck in conceiving a child. They believed that it was entirely possible that the combined pressure of two careers that were quite stressful in very different ways could be hindering their ability to procreate, at least for the moment.

It wasn’t until earlier this week that this conversation resurfaced in my mind, when it occurred to me that fertilisation isn’t the only process that stress can impede. Stress can also severely interfere with the conception of ideas. Okay, so this is perhaps an obvious point. But having recently experienced some first hand, I had to say I was a little concerned at how much it can reduce those activities you have a passion for to activities that begin to induce a sort of dread.

Somehow recently, since discovering within myself actual ambition (something I had hithertofore avoided, put off by my school headmistress’s annual speeches about goals and becoming ‘tall poppies’) to become, of all things, an artist, I have been disturbed to notice the development of some persistent anxiety. This was not at all helped by having made the acquaintance of one or two people who are very successful in their particular fields.

I imagine this isn’t uncommon for young artists – worries like ‘I’m not practicing enough’, ‘I’m not moving forward’, ‘Do I want to do too many different things?’, ‘What do I actually want to achieve and how do I get there?’

I come across a lot of ideas about the creative process and making work (largely thanks to excellent blogs like those of Maria Popova and Austin Kleon) – words from artists and writers on the value of persistence and the importance of regular creation – how it’s possible to find time every day to work on your art, if it means that much to you. It’s intimidating. I can just barely commit to brushing my teeth twice a day. I used to fine myself for missing kickboxing class, but I just ended up with an envelope of unpurposed money.

But now that I actually, seriously want to improve as both a lighting designer and photographer (and someone who leads a full, creative life), it seems I’ve managed to enter into a bit of a cycle of anxiety. The nature of working freelance in a collaborative field like theatre means that creation is not always within my control. I have only done one small design so far this year (brought on somewhat last-minute), and this worries me. I don’t know if there’s some effective way of drumming up more work, besides just doing work and keeping an eye out for opportunities. Or somehow initiating my own theatre.

So I turn to photography. That’s something I can work on without waiting for the phone to ring. I’m managing to achieve one shoot a week, but could I possibly commit to a 365 project? I have an endless list of excuses and I can’t decide how many (if any) are actually valid. I feel a little like I’m being buffeted aimlessly. The anxiety of not working hard enough stifles my creative impulse, and my brain glitches like an infinite code loop.

So how then to break such a loop? Is it sheer force of will and hardening the fuck up? Is it taking the time to relax a bit and do something fun? (And properly fun, as opposed to the regular comforts like reading a book at a sunny café or having dinner with friends.)

Or perhaps the answer is to unplug for a little while? Stop looking at what everyone else is doing. It brings to mind the days of school rowing regattas. Two kilometres of eternity with a coxswain shouting from the stern: “Eyes in the boat!” lest we unbalance by turning to check the competition. (Hmm, that’s not a bad analogy, actually.) But I think it’s certainly time to re-evaluate the balance between input and output.

It does seem a silly problem. Having finally worked out what I’m passionate about doing, the occupations I desire to get better at, I then get too stressed about it all to enjoy them. But recognising the irrationality of such feelings doesn’t automatically banish them. I’ve been told “You’re too young to be worrying so much!” but I think part of the fear lies in the idea of setting habits. Tendencies to distraction and procrastination set in deep. (According to David McRaney, whose book I keep meaning to read (how fitting), this can be attributed to something called Present Bias.

I’m not entirely sure that the anxiety that comes with ambition and the wish to improve can be permanently or wholly eradicated. But, to take action:

Pursue extraneous interests.

Do something fun.

Create, without worrying too much about the outcome.

Commit to making art.

Remember to find and recognise pleasure where it happens.

I’m currently reading a collection of essays by E. B. White and find much of his sensibility quite concordant with my own. In a 1961 statement to the New York Times, he wrote “All I ever hope to say in books is that I love the world.” Examples of White’s ability to find pleasure in so many little every day moments are abundant in his writing. Not to mention the clear pleasure he takes in language itself. It is impossible not to like someone with such an outlook.

As disgusting as such seemingly forced optimism may seem to the cynical, it is a fairly good remedy for the grumps. Just the other day I was in a foul mood from the cold weather, and lugging around the previously mentioned anxiety, wishing I could post it off with no return address, when I happened to step on a leaf. Ordinarily, this would go unremarked. But it is autumn in Melbourne, and it was one of those fantastically dried-up-and-crunchy leaves that insist on being heard. I’m sure the therapeutic powers of crunchy leaves must be well-documented (and for me they appeal especially to my love of interesting noises). On that particular day, a brief sojourn into childishness with a game of jumping from leaf to leaf on my way to work lifted my spirits quite noticeably.

Less commonly experienced than crunching leaves, though in much the same spirit, is the glee that comes from playing tennis, soccer or chase with the beam of a followspot, as we did before an evening performance of the opera Partenope. Perhaps it is a pastime local our particular theatre, but I’m sure such harmless and unnecessary silliness can be found just about anywhere you may need it (though it certainly does help to have some co-conspirators). It is quite uplifting.

In my belief, one of the greatest tragedies of becoming an “adult” (I put the word in quotation marks for two reasons: one, I’m entirely sure I could qualify as one, and two, I am, for as long as possible, refusing that “growing up” is strictly mandatory) is the loss of designated play time. For some reason, we’re supposed to grow out of the need for play, but surely it is an element that is very necessary to our general wellbeing, not to mention our creativity.

I consider myself lucky to belong to a workplace that not only tolerates but (within reason, safety and job completion) actually encourages a bit of (dare I say it?) fun. To be fair, the theatre industry provides a lot more leeway than many other workplaces, and even though my ‘day’ (or night) job is as part of the hands-on, nuts-and-bolts, get-things-done part of theatre, the larrikinism either equals or surpasses that of the performers.

I suppose some adults find relief in activities like video games, or I don’t know, team sports. I think the most common substitute however, is getting drunk. And though it is far from me to condemn such a useful lowering of inhibitions, I do believe it cannot wholly substitute for the games we discard in the name of “growing up” – a bit of unrequired silliness every now and then.