What lies beneath, Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter?

  The Banquet  by Ana Maria Pachecho. Image: Pratt Contemporary Art

The Banquet by Ana Maria Pachecho. Image: Pratt Contemporary Art

It’s the unconscious mind. We’re all afraid of the dark inside ourselves.
— Dr. Sam Loomis, Halloween II

A visit to Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter – the RWA exhibition that celebrates the life, work and influences of the idiosyncratic writer 25 years after her death – is a profound experience. Provocative. Stimulating. Poignant. It’s hard not to feel moved by a collection that strips bare the surface to expose the underbelly of us all.

Co-curated by Dr. Marie Mulberry-Roberts (UWE) and Fiona Robinson (RWA), the exhibition is a powerful nexus which brings together work from historic heavyweights like Dame Paula Rego and Marc Chagall (a wellspring of influence for Carter), and leading contemporary artists like Ana Maria Pacheco, Andrew Munoz and Wendy Elia.

Pulsating with the recurring themes of subversion, feminism and fantasy, with which Carter has become synonymous, Strange Worlds is on a mission to make, “concrete the visual quality [and diversity] of [her] writing.” By blurring the line between art and literature to see what drifts up through the space (or lack thereof) between, the exhibition asks us to reconsider the fabric of our collective beliefs and, in doing so, what it means to be human.

In Wendy Elia’s Maxime (2010) we see a figure at once masked and unmasked, semi-naked yet guarded, uncertain of the unseen eyes that fall upon it. The hands wring together and the knees fall inward to form a kind of barrier, a re-masking perhaps, to counteract the vulnerability that nakedness demands. Reminiscent of a sad clown, of conventions and the truths they belie, this is bona fide Carter territory.

Similarly, The Bather by Andrew Munoz (2013) is a visceral witnessing of the outsider. A lonely, androgynous figure stands naked amid a desolate landscape but, unlike Maxime, there is a seeming openness at play, an acceptance of (or perhaps resignation to) a vulnerability that is rarely embraced in life or portraiture. Binary definitions of both gender and society are questioned here. You can’t help but wonder where the line between you and the emanating solitude of the piece starts and ends.

A complex interplay of form and theme is alive throughout the space, culminating in Ana Maria Pachecho’s nightmarish installation, The Banquet (1985). Four grotesquely oversized men sit hunched and suited in feverish excitement over the taught, naked form laid out on the table before them.

Tropes of power (white men, suits, a flat, elongated surface) are subverted to become monstrous, cannibalistic, making the point - as Carter so artfully did throughout her career - that truth is what lies beneath, and not above, the surface of conventions.

That quest for truth is the beating heart of Strange Worlds, a bold and fitting testament to Carter’s legacy. The gallery is alive in its consideration of a writer who personified boundless creative expression, and continues posthumously to do so.

In the same way that she re-visioned through her work the fairytales, myths and dreams that inform our collective waking lives, her work is (directly and indirectly) re-visioned throughout the exhibition. It is a frenetic yet considered dialogue, a dynamic narrative in honour of an artist who may have ceased to live 25 years ago but is immortalised by the art she produced and continues to inspire.

Carter studied Medieval Literature at Bristol University and continued to live and work in the city during her early career. The exhibition which closes this Sunday, 19 March – is part of Bristol800, a city-wide partnership programme that celebrates notable Bristol anniversaries.

Written for and originally published by Bristol Women's Voice.

Black Dogs and Blue Mondays

 Image credit: Annie Spratt

Image credit: Annie Spratt

Blue Monday

The view from the top floor Bristol studio in which I'm working this week is spectacular. Panoramic. And the day on which I'm writing these words was made for it. A crisp, cloudless nod towards spring that is stirring the city's soil and the hearts of its people. But the week did not begin this way because on a bleak midwinter's Monday I experienced uninterrupted blue of an entirely different nature, and I didn't get out of bed.

I get down sometimes, anxious. It's worse in the winter, a form of seasonal depression really, but tagging myself with that label makes me feel uncomfortable.

Societal stigma

Firstly, because my depression is mild and seasonal, not clinical or life-threatening, it feels like an overstatement to apply that term to something I mercifully experience only seldom.

Nonetheless, if I haven't seen the sun for a prolonged period of time, I can become overwhelmed with negative emotions. Tearful, anxious, irrational. Unwell, essentially. Unable to get on with my day. Markers of an illness that our society continues, despite its ubiquity, to misunderstand, stigmatise and trivialise.

Secondly, I'm self-employed. To admit on such a public forum that my mental health is sometimes below par makes me feel vulnerable and wide open to scrutiny. But I'm admitting it because it feels important to do so. And I know I'm not alone.

According to WHO

Easton, Bristol, where I live and work, is a hive of self-employed activity. Musicians, artists, performers, therapists. No matter the industry, this city is full of people paving their own way. And of course it's not just Bristol. As technological advancement continues to redraw the boundaries of what is and isn't possible, an increasing number of people across the globe are turning their backs on more traditional models of employment.

Coupled with this is the fact that, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 350 million people live with depression, making it the leading cause of disability worldwide. Being alone is a statistical impossibility.

Even so, it can be difficult to admit that you're feeling overwhelmed, especially when your source of income relies so heavily upon your capacity to be creative and draw from a well that, when you are depressed or feel low or anxious, is likely to be on the dry side.

Pressure drop

So, you're struggling to get up and going, knowing all the time that if you don't you won't find work / meet that deadline / get paid. You're experiencing self-doubt, questioning the quality of your output and, although you're not well, you've internalised the societal stigma around mental health so you feel that you really ought to be and give yourself a far harder time than you would if you had, let's say, a cold. That's a lot of pressure for someone on a down day.

Age and experience have taught me how to take that pressure off. I'm by no means immune to it but I know what I need (and what I don't) to better manage my small black dog when it comes.

Acceptance

I'm much more accepting of down days now, less fearful. I know the time will pass as all things do. If I wrestle or berate it, my dog is more likely to bite. But if I respect, allow and sit with it for a while, it will no doubt wander off before too long.

Insight

I have more insight these days, I know when to crack on and when to switch off. Sometimes gently getting on with whatever you need to do can shift your state of mind. Sometimes it can't. Knowing the difference and accepting with no judgement when the latter is the right choice can bring real peace, in my experience.

Compassion

I try to treat myself like I'd treat a friend, avoid piling shame and frustration on top of feelings that are already painful and exhausting. If the day isn't working out so well, that's fine. Tomorrow is another and it always comes. In the mean time I might eat some nice food, run a bath, listen to music or watch a film. Anything to give comfort and replenish the stocks.

The body

I used to observe the approaching autumn with dread; diminishing daylight and decaying leaves marked the start of a prolonged and bumpy ride. Then I got a bike and my experience of winter changed completely because I was generating so many endorphins on the way to and from work each day.

Cycling is just one of many ways to do it but moving your body and getting out of your head can have a lasting, transformative effect on your mental health.

A problem shared

I am no doctor and this is no foolproof advice. But I'm writing it because that's another thing I've learned - sometimes, one of the worst things you can do when you feel blue is to shut yourself away and suffer in silence. I'm sharing my experiences in the hope that, if you recognise some of the things I've described here, you'll tell someone too.

Talk to a professional, or a friend, and get the help you need in whatever form it comes. Acknowledging difficulty and seeking support can be powerful first steps on the road to a healthier mind.

Poet Jah9 on womanhood, intuition and doing what you love

Back in August, Jamaican dub poet and vocalist Jah9 braved the relative cold of Kelmarsh to grace the main stage of Shambala Festival 2016. We caught up with her after the show to talk about her experience of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, the power of intuition and why doing what you love matters.

As a Jamaican woman and a Rasta, do you have any comments about being female in such a male-dominated, arguably hyper-masculine culture?

I think the world is pretty male-dominated. In Jamaica, as in most of the diaspora, there is a lot of male energy and dominance in the music as in all industries. But more and more I find that women are rising, stepping forward and getting into music.

There are women who've inspired me to step forward, like Etana, Queen Ifrica and so on. And then I've seen women who've been inspired by me step forward. They're educated women who now see that music is a viable option. You're not limited to simply being a backing singer or whatever any more. You can stand up do your own thing, you know?

I own my own publishing company, I'm a producer, I have a record label. I mean, this is the information age, it doesn't take that much to be a record executive. You can do your own thing, you can create. And it's important that women especially realise this because we have a significant role to play in creation. We are connected to life, to cycle, to earth.

How did you get into music in the first place? Did you follow in the footsteps of your family?

I didn't force my way into this industry, and I wouldn't have. I don't believe in forcing myself into any situation. It was really more of a pull factor for me.

No one in my family is a musician, I am an anomaly. I had a good job, I was making good money in corporate Jamaica but it wasn't the life I felt comfortable in, I wasn't getting the fulfilment I wanted. When I stepped away from all of that and started to just serve my genie, serve my spirit, you know? Doors just started to open.

So how did that come about? Were you singing on the side in the space around your day job?

My father is a pastor so there was a lot of hymns and scriptures and singing in the church. I was on every choir and I would learn all the parts. My voice was my instrument and I was always writing poetry. I'd never written music or songs but the singing and the writing were happening at the same time.

Later in my life I got introduced to roots music. Instrumental dub gave me so much space to put my words. As a poet it really inspired and drew words out of me. I started to share what I created.

Do you think women are forced to choose between family and career in a way that men are not? Is that a choice you've had to make?

I don't have children yet because I am carefully planning how I want to tread this earth. No disrespect to anyone who has done it another way but I want to be there for my youths. I want to set a good foundation for them, even in finding the person I'm going to have my youths with.

All of these are serious decisions and while I am working on those things I can do music and spread my message. But I intend to have both.

Do you have a final message for our readers?

We have to tune in to our feminine intuition and ask ourselves, what is my purpose? Strip away all of the expectations of society and family and man and whatever and just say, what do I love? What gives me life and makes me feel good? Then do it. It will feed you. You can't doubt it, just do it. I am evidence of that, you know?

Jah9's latest album, 9 - produced by Steam Chalice Records and released on VP Records - is out now.

First published on theworldislistening.co.uk

Amy Hydes on music and theatre (and blood and guts and gore)

This Thursday we're throwing back to Mayfest and the wonderful world of women in theatre.

Amy Hydes is a theatre-maker, music-lover, actor, comedian, clown and writer. She's got a lotta hats. We caught up with Amy to find out more about theatre, music and the benefits of collaboration.

You've studied drama, English and clowning in Bristol, London and Paris. Do you think you could have built your career with a less formal eduction?

I think it depends what theatre route you want to go down. Unfortunately, now, if you're from a low income family it's very difficult to be an actor in the traditional sense. Cuts in arts funding and the expense of training make it very hard.

There are some incredibly talented actors out there but if they can't afford to go to drama school they're not going to be put in front of the right people. That's not to say you can't be plucked from obscurity but there's a lot of nepotism.

You used to live in London but now you're back in Bristol. What called you back to the South West?

It's hard to be an artist and sustain yourself. There are many brilliant actors out there but they don't have time for castings because they're doing six different day jobs. That's where collaboration comes in.

Collaboration makes it much easier to build a career. And it's so much easier to collaborate in Bristol because people go on their instincts more, they take more risks. You don't need a piece of paper that says you've been to a particular place to get you in the door, you just need to be curious.

Tell us about one of your favourite collaborations.

I work with [fellow theatre-makers] Giulia Bianchini and Grace Swordy on an immersive theatre project called The House Party Collective.

Coming from my passion for music as well as theatre, I wanted to create something where the two went hand in hand. So I rang Giules and said I wanted to do something in a house where live music and musicians were a part of the piece.

Our first show was at my house in Easton. We had five different groups all attached to a character. Each group had to meet in a secret location bearing a gift for their hosts, who were throwing a celebration when their brother turned up to fight for ownership of the house.

It all ended in a showdown in the form of vegetable poker. There was a lot of tension but it was just ridiculous really, born of the idea that adults don't play enough. Live techno and violin played throughout as the story unfolded.

We did our second show at the Stag and Hounds at Christmas and we're now looking for a venue for our third.

So you set out to marry these two passions. What, if any, conclusions did you draw about the relationship between theatre and music?

I think they're shared experiences. Good theatre often makes you question things. You come away feeling like something is buzzing inside you and you definitely get that with music too. Both theatre and music are about stories and journeys. That's why they go so well together.

As well as a theatre-maker, you're an actor, a writer, a stand-up comedian and clown. What are your experiences of being a feminist and a woman in many a man's world?

I think women in comedy especially are massively unrepresented. But it is getting better. When I first started doing gigs I'd be the only female on the bill. I remember one performance where the audience had to vote for who was best and they chose me. The MC came on to announce the winner and said, “Who knew the winner could be a female? Very strange, but here she is...”

What a dick.

Yeah, it was horrible. Some of the men on that bill had really sexist, politically misinformed material but I never see female comedians off the mark like that and I think that's because we have to work harder on our material.

That's definitely the case in theatre too. Women feel they have to prove themselves more. If you're entering a room full of men, even if it's only subconscious, you're automatically on the back foot.

What can be done about that?

With theatre the root definitely lies in more writing for women. We need to champion more female playwrights right from the grass roots. This is happening at places like Soho Theatre where they have a really good literary department and women are coming through, it's just taking a little bit longer.

But it isn't just gender inequality is it? The bias from boardroom to stage leans towards white, middle-class men. Having studied in Bristol, London and Paris, what's your take on diversity in the theatre?

Theatre is a middle class game now but that's just one strand of it. There's a lot more diverse and interesting art to be found outside the four walls of a theatre. The silver lining in the cloud of scarce funding is that artists are pushed to find alternative spaces, which can lead to far more exciting, sensory work.

Diversity also means talking about difficult things, like the refugee crisis. My friends run a community called Now We Make Tomorrow, a collection of artist's responses to the crisis. There are no rules about form, the work could be a painting or a poem, but they're gathering art to create a diverse picture of what's going on around us.

And it's about the bits in life that aren't pretty. The blood and the guts and the gore and the fear. The fear we all have bubbling up and down inside us all the time. Feeling the fear and seeing the fear and admitting that we all have it, we all feel it and it's nothing to be ashamed of.

What advice would you give to a young female performer at the start of her career?

Follow your instincts and be open. Everything’s more liberated now. You don't need to be married or own a house or have a kid by this or that time, or ever. You don't need to feel guilty for not achieving someone else's version of success. You don't have to pigeon-hole yourself socially or artistically. Just be adventurous. Do what makes you happy.

Hear, hear.

If you missed us the first time round, throwback to the The World is Listening on Mayfest Radio:

First published on theworldislistening.co.uk

Salt, a not-so-quiet trauma

My first step towards Salt, the compelling new solo show from Leeds-based artist Selina Thompson, is wrong-footed. Miscommunication has the friend I'm going to see it with thinking it's on at Tobacco Factory, so we decide to drive. But it's on at Arnolfini. In the centre of Bristol. At 6.30pm. On a sunny Friday.

Needless to say we arrive late.

As we stumble blindly through the stalls, Thompson is already on stage wearing safety goggles and a white colonial-era dress, smashing away at a lump of, what is presumably, salt.

I got a free ticket to review the show. As we sit down I can't help but think, Shit.

But then Thompson starts talking again and my fleeting panic about what we may have missed dissolves.

The woman is incredible. Only a month since the experience(s) upon which Salt is based, here she is bold as blue sky, on a stage, telling the world what happened to her. What has always happened to her.

So what did happen to her, exactly? Well, in partnership with another artist she retraced a well-sailed route of the Transatlantic Slave Triangle, from the UK to Ghana to Jamaica and back again.

She sets out to journey deep into the past in order to understand some things that are at once intangible and very, very real.

Racism. Diaspora. Grief. The unresolved shame of many nations. There are some pretty heavyweight themes running through this work. Thompson is nothing if not ambitious.

She begins to lay out the pieces from the once-whole lump of salt. Each piece is slightly bigger than the last and represents both the characters on the ship of the first leg of her journey (described by Thompson as a "quiet trauma") and a centuries-old chain of which she, a dark-skinned black woman, forms the weakest, smallest link. A chain in which she, a dark-skinned black woman born in another time and place, would have been tied and beaten and raped and drowned.

That may sound hyperbolic. It is not. Some of the stories Thompson carries back with her, the insults she endured, the way she was made to feel as a direct consequence of her blackness, may sound (if you are not black) like they're from another time. But, shamefully, that simply isn't true.

There is a rawness to the work, in every sense of the word. Over a post-show drink another friend says she felt it wasn't fully formed. More of a sapling than a tree. She certainly has a point.

As a piece of theatre is does feel a little raw, undercooked. Thompson's words are strong and firmly glue the piece together but the way those words manifest on stage does feel like a work in progress. It would be interesting to see again in six or so months time.

It is also, of course, emotionally raw. Thompson is at times breathless not just from the effort of repeatedly taking a sledgehammer to salt (there is more to the show than this by the way) but the weight of it all too. The sheer, physical weight of a lifetime of racism and a centuries-old system which is not gone but all too easily forgotten.

And ultimately it's the rawness of her emotion that makes this work so impressive. Her vulnerability is a weapon and a shield. She stands alone, boldly claiming a space in a world that would – as her journey at times brings into painfully sharp relief – have her disappear.

She peels back her skin and says, Here. Look. This is how my insides are.

That takes courage of the highest order. And what is art if not the junction at the crossroads of courage and vulnerability?

Despite any theatrical polish she may yet apply, Thompson's show is unforgettable.

Selina, we salute you. Keep doing what you're doing.

First published on theworldislistening.co.uk

What's in a voice?

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of delivering a workshop for Saffron Records, Bristol's first female-only record label, for young women aged 16 – 24.

Just before its launch in July 2015 I worked closely with Saffron's Creative Director, Laura Lewis-Paul, to develop the label's tone of voice. Over a year down the line, it's great to look back at all that Laura has achieved and see how established that voice has now become.

Just the two of us

Laura and I were the only two people in the room when we first got together for a tone of voice workshop. 12 or so months on and Saffron has recruited two fantastic apprentices (A&R and digital marketing) and signed three talented young artists.

The vision, values and personality that inform, as well as its tone of voice, everything the label is and does, have really taken root and become a culture. It's an absolute joy to see.

That said, when Laura asked me to do a voice workshop with Saffron's artists I was, initially, a little stumped.

What's in a voice?

Tone of voice guidelines are there to support people communicating on an organisation's behalf. While Saffron's artists are representing their label, they're not really communicating on its behalf in quite the same way as, for example, its digital marketing apprentice.

As artists they're largely in the business of communicating self-expression. With this in mind I asked myself what, for an artist as opposed to an organisation, is voice really made of?

Voice as art (vulnerability)

As Julia Cameron, best-selling author of The Artist's Way and The Right to Write so succinctly puts it, “True art requires true honesty, which means that for our art's sake, as much as our own, we must learn the skill of vulnerability.”

To be human is to be vulnerable. We are at all times on a knife's edge between existence and non-existence, life and death. An uncomfortable truth, which is probably why vulnerability isn't so easy to sit with.

We often want to skip past it to a place where we feel less exposed, more secure. But acknowledging and drawing from vulnerability can bring real strength, particularly for artists who trade in communicating emotion.

Voice as womanhood (courage)

It may be 2016 but the playing field still ain't level. That's why Saffron Records exists.

To be a woman in a male-dominated industry rife with gender inequality takes courage which, in her excellent TED talk on the power of vulnerability, researcher Brené Brown describes as “telling the story of who you are with your whole heart."

Vulnerability and courage are two sides of the same coin. To tell the story of who you are with your whole heart, you have to be vulnerable. One hand feeds the other.

Standing on a stage sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings, you're inevitably demonstrating both. And (perhaps) for women raised in a society that accepts their right to feel and express vulnerability in a way it (sadly) does not for men, womanhood and courage have a notable dynamic.

Voice as story (connection)

Stories cut to the core of who we are. They connect us to ourselves and each other.

Singers and songwriters are, of course, storytellers, connectors. They connect with themselves to connect with their audience.

This storyteller / listener relationship is old as hills and a cornerstone of the human experience. Any consideration of the artist's voice must surely take story and connection into account.

Voice for communication

We all have values and vulnerabilities, stories and beliefs. The more we understand them the better we communicate.

I love working on tone of voice with people and their businesses, understanding and helping them share their passions with the world.

If you're interested in tone of voice and would like to find out more, please feel free to get in touch.

Mustang: A modern-day fairytale?

As I arrived (late) to a recent private preview at Watershed, it occurred to me that I had no idea what I was walking in to. I scrabbled around in the dark, waiting for my pupils to dilate, and then the film began.

I was hooked, instantly. It grabbed me within seconds and didn't let me go until long after I'd left the cinema. In fact I think it's still holding on to some part of me even now. That's how beautiful Mustang is.

The début feature from Turkish-French writer and director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Mustang tells the story of five young sisters on that stark yet subtle threshold between girl and womanhood.

When a neighbour complains that the girls (who were playing an innocent game) have been, "rubbing their private parts on boys necks," their world, as youngest sister and protagonist Lale puts it, quickly "turns to shit."

Terrified by their burgeoning sexuality, the girls' grandmother and uncle take drastic steps to sanitise, confine and ultimately marry it off. They are stripped of all possessions that might further corrupt them and held captive in their house-come-'wife factory', learning how to sew and make dolmades.

It's a modern-day fairy tale (orphaned princesses locked in a tower awaiting rescue) so the film has an entirely appropriate timeless quality: is there anything more timeless than fearing and confining female sexuality?

But the sisters are a force, a united front. Despite occasional (and touchingly universal) bickering about the unasked borrowing of bras, or whatever, the strength of their love is boundless and speaks of a wider female solidarity.

This solidarity doesn't just play out between the sisters. One of my favourite scenes is when an aunt short circuits the village electricity supply to stop them getting caught doing something they shouldn't.

It's an act of love as funny as it is profound but it also gives an insight into that aunt's own wildness, her own willingness to disobey. How many of these women once roamed free, playing innocent games with boys before they were held hostage to their own puberty?

The boys we see at the beginning of the film, who were in no way punished for playing the same, innocent game, will never be held hostage in the same way. They can use their developing bodies however they want to. They can interact with each other and the natural world which surrounds them. They can play with girls; their bodies belong to them.

Not so the sisters. They can't be trusted to steer their own ships. Their ownership is compromised.

But the film returns their bodies to them. Ergüven's gaze is unapologetically female and feminist and makes us look, and look closely, at all the things their bodies do, not just that one, supposedly terrifying, thing.

They're shot from all angles and bathed in a golden light throughout. They play and lie in collapsed, sisterly piles. They pretend to swim through their bed sheets. They misbehave. They pull faces. They laugh. They feel and act on desire. They are alive.

I watched Mustang is a room full of other women. There were few dry eyes by the end. As I left the cinema, I wondered how many of those tears were tears of recognition?

Recognition of your teenage body being branded with a shame you can't possibly understand. Recognition of the unflinching solidarity between women, and its antithesis. Recognition of the violence and aggression of men who are (perhaps) terrified of the female sexuality within themselves. Who knows?

One thing I can say for sure is that Mustang is an incredibly affecting watch.

An edited version of this post appears on www.conversationsaboutcinema.co.uk

Let it breathe

Grandma's hand

My Grandmother wasn't the most affectionate woman. Her love ran deep but its journey through and out of her was less than straightforward.

I used to dread a visit to the shops. She'd grip my hand so tightly when we crossed the road that it hurt and frightened me. As a child I didn't understand why she squeezed so hard. As an adult the answer seems obvious: her grip was born of love but ruled by fear.

I sometimes wonder if my creative projects can relate.

The thing

I'm making a documentary which has my family at its centre. For over a decade it lived inside me as an idea but it's now taking shape. It has become a thing.

Heading up a tiny but talented team, I have to take this thing (footage from three weeks in Jamaica, where my brother and I grew up) and shape it into a story. Needless to say I've had my fair share of fears about pulling it off.

Sometimes these fears manifest themselves as an inability to let go, an unwillingness to accept help or even admit that I need it. But a recent light bulb moment changed all that.

I've been so afraid of all the things this film might not be that I've neglected to let it be what it is. Just like Granny wringing the trust from my six year old hand, I've been suffocating the emerging narrative by holding on way too tight.

Yielding

I have, at times, found it difficult to shape what I've come to think of as an unyielding clay. But I'm the reason the clay won't yield. It needs room to manoeuvre.

Although unfinished, Pick Me & Turn Me Round no longer lives in my head. It has claimed a space in the world. If I let go it's not going to hurl itself under the first car it sees. It's going to stretch its limbs and look around and start growing the way it's supposed to grow. Just like anything else that's alive.

Of course it will need guidance and encouragement and perhaps even reprimand at times. But I need to trust and listen to it, not force it to tell. I need to let it breathe.

Whether you're working on a speech, a bid or even a difficult relationship, the temptation to hold on too tight when things get tricky is significant. But real freedom and creative reward can come from loosening your grip.

Oxygen

Life goes better with oxygen. Here are a few of my favourite ways to let things breathe:

  • Go for a walk

    Walking is a well-known problem solver. It takes you away from the issue that you're tackling and gets you closer to the nature that you're part of, even in the middle of a city. 

    It makes a clearing in the forest of your mind and allows new thought to emerge. Just the ticket when the well runs dry.
     
  • Spend time alone

    Modern life is busy. Solitude often eludes. But if you don't make time and space for yourself what hope does your project have?

    Joseph Roux once said: “Solitude vivifies.” Whether you read, go for a walk or meditate, spending time alone is an excellent way to vivify your project, and yourself.
     
  • Do something else

    The blank page. The obstinate paragraph. We've all been there.

    There's a time to grit your teeth and plough on and there's a time to walk away. If you're strangling the life out of something then you might want to consider the latter.

    Play that hard-to-get muse at her own game and take someone else out for dinner. The work will still be there when you get back.

Resistance is futile

I have a confession to make. I hear voices.

Well, I say voices but there's really only one. And as for hearing, most of the time it chats away without my conscious acknowledgement. On and on it goes, unchecked and unquestioned. Therein lies the problem.

I'm talking about the voice of resistance. The sound of my own mind telling me why I can't, do, be or create this, that or the other. It's the thing that gets in between me and the fullest possible version of myself. Like its cousin, self-doubt, it's born of fear and is resisting not the shadows within, but the light.

I figured I'd silenced it. Last year I quit a stable, well-paid job that was making me unhappy, set up as a freelancer and returned to the country of my birth to make a film.

I'd wanted to do these things for a long time but I resisted. When I stopped resisting it all happened, so I thought my work was done. But that's the thing about the voice of resistance, it comes at you all the time.

It's perhaps inadvisable to admit this on my business blog – I should probably project an air of unflinching confidence – but every time I start a new project, that negative little voice is right there beside me, resisting positivity and telling me that I can't do what experience has proved, over and over again, I can.

What is that about? I do good work. I get great feedback. And yet there's always this lingering uncertainty, this sense that I'm a fraud.

Stranger still is the fact that it's not really failure I fear, but success. Failure's fine. It's what the voice expects. Success on the other hand flies right in the face of everything it's trying to tell me about myself.

Surely I am not alone here. Aren't we all a bit afraid of ourselves? Fearful of claiming the fullest, most honest space that we can?

I work part-time in a café. Until recently I told myself that this was because I enjoyed the social side. I like my colleagues and customers and writing can be lonely. It's nice to get out and be around people. It's also a way of hedging my bets, maintaining an alternative source of income in case I need something to fall back on.

There's an element of truth in all of that but something truer runs beneath. I'm resisting. It's not about having something to fall back on. It's about stopping myself from falling forward, without resistance, into the life I have chosen. I'm getting in my own way.

Goethe once said, "Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back."

I thought I was committed. Quitting your job to follow your heart sounds pretty committed right? Or maybe it just sounds clichéd. Either way, as long as I cultivate groundless fears then I'm not committed at all. I'm demonstrating hesitancy and resistance.

I don't know if it's possible to switch off the voice completely. Perhaps it's just as integral as lungs and skin and maybe, on some level, the want to defy it drives me on. But it doesn't really know what it's talking about and it certainly can't be trusted. Essentially, it's futile.

I'm turning the volume down.

Valuing the individual voice

One of the first things I did after jumping feet first into freelancing was sign up to receive all sorts of industry information. Regular email updates from all corners of the wide and varied copywriting world now land in my inbox each day.

Many of them are useful and I squirrel such emails away for some untold future purpose. Equally as many, however, are not. Well, I say this but of course it's not a universal truth. I'm sure plenty of people read, enjoy and learn from the content in the kind of emails I am referring to. I'm just talking of my own experience.

How to guides on SEO, top tips on writing for the web, content marketing dos and don'ts, know your buyer, sell more stuff, the list goes on. I'm not saying these things aren't important, of course they are and best practice is, after all, best practice. It's just that titles like this and the information that sits under them often leave me a little, well, cold.

Don't get me wrong. I am a professional and I know these things matter, but I sometimes feel that they fail to address one of the things I love most about being a copywriter: connecting people with words.

Many of my clients are similar to me, creative individuals who are just starting out or continuing to go it alone down their chosen paths. These people have taken a leap of faith to follow their passions and they come to me to ensure that their written voice reflects their ideals. They know what they need to say but not always how to say it. Finding the right words for them is a pleasure and a skill I am only just beginning to fully appreciate.

I consider myself lucky because writing has always come fairly naturally to me. I'm not saying it's not hard work because it most certainly can be, but finding the right words to express ideas and emotions has never troubled me all that much. And as a lover of words I think of this as a blessing. An even greater blessing, though, is affording this ability to other people, enabling them to say exactly what they want to say in a voice that rings true.

I know this is pretty basic stuff, copywriters are essentially pens for hire and honouring a client's tone of voice is a fundamental building block upon which all sorts of other technical skills must be founded. I suppose what I'm getting at is this: in the world of industry email updates that shout of buying, selling and search engine optimisation, it can be easy to lose sight of the quiet, individual voice and the value that lies in honouring it.

Pen for hire

Although I've been writing since childhood and throughout my working life, going it alone is a whole new world. It's not just the realm of self-employment and all that brings. One of the biggest challenges, I have discovered, is explaining what I do to people. Not as easy as it sounds.

I've had some practice. When employed as an internal communicator, for example, my response to "What do you do?" was met with faces equally as blank as they are now that my reply has become, "I'm a freelance copywriter." But somehow explaining my role as a writer of government communications aimed to motivate staff was easier to understand.

These days people tend to respond to my new job title with questions like, "What sort of writing do you copy?" or "Oh, you mean legal stuff? Like patents?" or simply "What's copywriting?" I say this with no judgement; why should they know? I mention it merely because as I find my freelancing feet, as I establish myself and refine what I have to offer, it seems that defining myself to others is an integral part of that process.

At the moment I work with a Holistic Massage Therapist writing copy for a blog that is at once personal, unflinchingly honest and a marketing channel with several business objectives to meet. I've just taken on a new project for Creative Director of an independent record label that aims to get more women into music, an industry that is (like so many) dominated by men. I do ad hoc work for a Bristol DJ who often needs a few words of summary for his website or various bar and club listings. I edit student essays. I blog about a documentary I'm making. I write press releases for my own and other projects. The varied list goes on.

But when people ask me to expand on what I do I generally draw for something which, although true, is fairly bland like, "Copy is writing that informs people of or persuades them to do something. It's everywhere [cue vague gesture to the nearest packaging / billboard / website] and can be anything, really. Brochures, leaflets, adverts..." By this point the person I'm talking to tends to glaze over and nod, a gesture that is less, 'I see what you mean' and more, 'I still don't get it but please stop now.'

So, what's the problem? Why this difficulty? Well, for one thing the world of copywriting is vast. If you'll excuse the hyperbole, there are almost as many different areas of work as there are copywriters. For the average dinner party conversationalist this isn't such a big deal, they're just making small talk after all. For the fresher freelancer though, it's a little more problematic because defining yourself and what you have to offer, finding your niche in an ocean of varied expertise, can be overwhelming.

But I have come to the conclusion that what I have to offer is as simple as it is effective. Me. And my pen.

I am a writer. I put words, sentences, paragraphs together. I am intuitive. I understand what makes my clients and their customers tick. I help businesses and the people they're made up of find the words they need to say what they want to say. This makes me a pen for hire. And the next time someone asks, that's what I'm going to tell them.

When two become one

I've never been a Spice Girls fan, nor am I likely to become one (if you'll excuse the semi-pun), but some timely advice from a new acquaintance brought the title of this post to mind. This person is a fellow freelance copywriter who, like me, is just starting out. A mutual friend put us in touch and we met for a coffee and a chat last week.

Unlike me, this person's business is a sideline to other work. I am a full time freelancer. I am also a creative writer. I'm currently working on an independent documentary, I recently rediscovered (reading and writing) poetry, I finished a new short story not long ago and have a few more as well as a feature film script steadily brewing inside. So creative writing and reading are a huge part of who I am and how I see the world.

But, when it comes to my business, I have always tried to separate the two in my head. This is copywriter me and that over there is artistic me and the former puts food on the table for the latter. We wave to each other from time to time but we don't tend to talk each other all that much. Or so I thought.

In an email received from this person a few days ago, it was suggested that I was unnecessarily splitting my attention, that these two writers need not exist apart. In fact, it could only benefit everyone (fragmented me, my business and my clients) if I married the two in my thinking, if I removed this invisible barrier and claimed just one space. Writer me.

Such a simple piece of advice, and so obvious (you have to be creative to be a copywriter, it's not something you ever leave at the door) but until that point I hadn't thought of myself in quite those terms.

Although I wasn't consciously aware of it, my attention was split. Having someone point out that there aren't two writers living in my head - only one - was a light bulb moment. I've felt great ever since, clearer and more confident about what I have to offer.

So onwards and upwards I go, with just the one writer in tow. I think I owe that new acquaintance a drink...

Feet first into freelancing

I did it. After over five years in government communications I recently took the plunge, made the leap, jumped feet first into a freelance copywriting career. "Are you mad?" I hear you say. Probably, but the freedom, excitement and potential for change more than make up for any security forsaken.

Of course there are challenges. But if you have the skills and you're prepared to graft then you're ready to go it alone. It's that simple.

I got back from Jamaica a few weeks ago, where I was making a documentary about home. Since then - as well as working with a valued client - I've immersed myself in the teachings of other freelancers. Their lessons are invaluable and I'd like to share a few of my favourites.

  1. How to create ad-copy that sizzles. There are hundreds of helpful acronyms out there, many of them geared towards getting you to put yourself in your readers' shoes. Here Jessica Swanson runs through the AIDA method: grab their attention; get them interested; appeal to their desires; ask them to take action.
     
  2. 15 blogs for freelance copywriters to run to when they need answers. Nuff said.
     
  3. This video is great. Lots of useful tips for all freelancers here.

This isn't an exhaustive account of all available hints and tips, just a brief overview of a few I've found helpful. Maybe you'll find them helpful too.