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Svetlana Dvoretsky: The Woman Behind Theatre

A Russian-Canadian Impresario

Have you ever heard of the word “impresario”? That’s someone who organizes and maybe even finances performing arts events, including concerts, plays, ballets, operas, and more. It’s a very risky profession, and likely not one taught in arts management programs. And yet, impresarios are in part responsible for expanding our interests in the arts precisely because they always stand on the cliff of audience expectations. An impresario calculates the risks with bringing in various performers, and if the risk doesn’t pay out, the impresario loses out, often quite a lot. But it’s a risk impresarios like Svetlana Dvoretsky, owner of Show One Productions, are willing to take. Why? Because they love the arts so much.

Who Is Svetlana Dvoretsky?

Her name is likely unfamiliar to you, but you should get to know her: she’s one of the movers and shakers in the Toronto arts scene, and she’s ready to take risks.

Born in Russia, Dvoretsky spent eight years studying piano. It inspired her to make a living in the arts, but not as a performer. Instead, she moved to Canada and eventually—by accident—became an impresario. 

Studying piano in Russia means something almost entirely different to studying piano in North America. Dvoretsky’s music education included not only direct piano instruction but also hours devoted to other aspects of music, like music history and conducting. After school, she’d spend four to five hours a day, four days a week at her music school. By the time she emigrated here, she had an appreciation for music that only a few dedicated music students in Canada likely possess.

Arts Culture in Canada

When I speak to people who’ve immigrated here, I often hear a common lament: that arts programming in Canada is weak. My local newspaper backs me up in this impression. Despite my living in an area with almost 500,000 people, the arts section in our local daily is only two pages long, with ads occupying about a quarter of that space, at least once a week. On good days, it’s a few pages long, but with even more ads.

Another example: Canada, to my knowledge, has only one magazine devoted to dance (the other one folded earlier this year). Moreover, if I enter into small talk about something arts related, it’s usually a movie, TV show, or pop artist, and rarely about relatively unknown shows or acts.

So why become an arts impresario? Good question.

Music and Pop Culture

It’s probably easiest to see the development of pop culture through music: the Dave Clark Five has a vastly different sound from Drake. But that could only happen because those artists (and the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, between them) learned and experimented to develop an audience.

In the world of the performing arts, like dance and theatre, it’s impresarios who help bring this experimentation to the fore to expose these artists to a broader audience than the artists could do by themselves.

Dvoretsky and Experimentation

For Dvoretsky, that experimentation often is bringing Russian artists to Canada. These names in the Russian world are huge, and yet they may be unknown to us, meaning we’re much less likely to go.

But this year, Dvoretsky brought a world-famous name to Toronto: Mikhail Baryshnikov. The show was called Brodsky/Baryshnikov.Which you’d think would have the entire dance world flocking to Toronto.

But Baryshnikov wasn’t here to dance; he was performing poetry by Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, a friend of his, in Russian. Although Baryshnikov was no newbie to acting, he has always first and foremost been known as a dancer.

So, Baryshnikov in a one-man show in Russian about poetry?

Dvoretsky’s risk paid off: according to The Toronto Star, all four shows sold out.

Dvoretsky’s Latest Risk: Clowning

One clown inside a plastic bubble; another clown bounces a large bubble on a stick.
Photo by Pascal Ito

The latest show Dvoretsky is bringing to Toronto is called Slava’s Snowshow. Its package may be unfamiliar and “untrendy” to many viewers: instead of talking actors, the show’s stars are clowns. Instead of a well-known story, none is advertised. And yet, despite these problems, the show has been on the road since 1993 (with breaks in between, of course), spent six years on Broadway, called London’s West End home for a time, and has performed in dozens of countries around the world. It’s won a Drama Desk Award and Laurence Olivier Award and in 2009 was nominated for a Tony Award.

Clowning is an art form that, as I understand it, connects the deepest parts of the performer with their audience. Clowning is perhaps less about putting on a personality, the way stage acting is, and more about bringing out something hidden within you and sharing it with the audience. Some people have fears of clowns, others consider them relics of a bygone era.

But not Dvoretsky.

To present art, you have to be confident in what you’re presenting, and Dvoretsky’s confidence about this show is unshakeable.

“This show makes people kinder, at least for a little while,” she says. “That is guaranteed. Those two hours are guaranteed. The rest is up to the person. It’s an emotional and visual spectacle. It’s really, really amazing.”

And emotional, visual spectacle that guarantees to make you a kinder person, at least for those two hours.

Sounds like the perfect, snowy, winter night, doesn’t it? Only you get to sit in the comfort of a warm theatre, sharing the experience with thousands of others.

Slava’s Snowshow runs December 7 to 16, 2018 in the Bluma Appel Theatre at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.

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Flamenco at 50: “It’s too easy when we age to give up. I don’t agree with that.”

Starting Dance Past 50

When I turned 40, I suddenly cared about aging. Always active in my younger years through dance, and proudly displaying a photo of me doing the splits still at age 37, turning 40 suddenly made me realize my body was changing. So when I spoke with Bonnie Masina, who started dancing flamenco at age 50, I was all ears.

Flamenco is a passionate, emotional dance form for both men and women and has its own style of musical accompaniment. I’ve seen flamenco dances on and off over the years, thought right now the music for the flamenco routine from Riverdance is playing in my mind.

One thing I’ve noticed is the age range of female flamenco dancers. (I feel like I see more pictures of female dancers because of the beauty of their dresses.) Coming from your standard North American background, seeing an older female dancer is rare.

The Body Changes As You Age

But starting flamenco at age 50 is not something I hear of too often. Granted, Masina did compete in ballroom and Latin dance in her youth, but she says she stopped when she was 20 because of kids and, well, life. Getting back into dance after a 30-year hiatus can’t be easy.

But that’s not as remarkable as the rest of Masina’s story. She worked for decades in IT, eventually reaching IT Manager and working extensive hours, which she describes as 24/7. From all those hours glued to a computer, she’d developed rotator cuff injuries in her shoulders and spinal problems resulted in pain in several of her fingers. Over time, she’d lost the ability to raise her arms past her shoulders and to articulate those three fingers: they started functioning as one because years of bad posture had begun pinching things. (I’m fighting the beginnings of that kind of job-related injury.) In addition, a broken toe had broken through the bottom of her foot and healed that way.

These may sound like minor inconveniences. After all, we’re used to hearing about catastrophic accidents to get our attention. However, this is how aging works: bit by bit, the story of your life grows into your body. But instead of the sexy scar across the adventure-movie star’s face, it’s little aches and pains that start to change how you move. I’m over 10 years younger than Masina, and I’ve already noticed it, too.

Flamenco at Fifty

Masina’s hectic work schedule inspired her to seek out its complete opposite: dance. She sought out something Latin but didn’t want a partner. So flamenco it was. She registered with Carmen Romero’s School of Flamenco Dance Arts in Toronto. Masina learned quickly the need to leave work at work and focus on her dancing.

“If you let the outside world in, you’ll mess up,” she says.

Masina didn’t let her injuries get in the way. When Romero tried to push Masina’s arms up, Romero said, “Oh my gosh, you’re stuck!” Masina recalls. “I wanted to be unstuck and I knew dance and repetitively doing it and trying to do things better would help. I can now pull my arms all the way beside my ears.”

Masina even found a way to deal with her improperly healed foot: orthotics with a hole for her bone and, with Romero’s help, special flamenco shoes with a lower heel.

But unlike those products-for-the-aging commercials that make it seem like aging is a picnic, Masina explains it took her a while to dance properly. “But I was determined I was not going to not dance because of one stupid bone in my foot,” she says.

Over time, Masina sought chiropractic treatment and therapy for her fingers, and with Romero, who’s also a brain-injury therapist, regained almost complete use of those three fingers.  She also learned how to balance better so she wouldn’t aggravate her foot.

Age Doesn’t Matter With Flamenco

Bonnie Masina in a lavish, purple flamenco dress, seated on a couch.
Bonnie Masina poses in a flamenco dress.

Flamenco has become a sort of second life for Masina, and she’s adamant that you can start at any age and at any ability level.

“I don’t think it matters what your age is, dance can help you, even if it’s just having fun,” she says. She’s even taught flamenco at a senior’s home. “You can dance in a chair. You don’t have to be all over the dance floor to enjoy dance.”

Picking up dance can be done at any age and at any ability. When my chiropractor told me the pain I’d been experiencing for months in a joint in my toe was osteoarthritic pain, I thought I’d never be able to dance again. Mind you, I don’t dance every year, but the thought of never is a bit much. However, after talking with Masina, I might revisit that.

[grey_box]The Little KW Flamenco Fest takes place this weekend, running July 31-August 2 at various locations. The program includes workshops (disclosure: some are held at my sister’s studio), and they’re open to all.[/grey_box]

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The Freelancing Fallacy: You Believe a Freelancing Career Means You’re Your Own Boss

Enraptured by the idea of running your own business so you’re your own boss? Sick and tired of answering to a tyrannical boss at work? Love the idea of getting up whenever you want to without having to apologize to your manager and team at work?

Please, please listen to me when I say this: When you run your own business, you have lots of bosses. They’re your clients, vendors, and, yes, even the government.

So don’t quit your day job to start your own business just because you can’t stand the manager you have right now.

Freelancing is Like School

One of the best things our education system teaches us is how to adjust what we produce to meet the needs of the person in power. In school, college, and university, that’s your teacher, instructor, professor. At work, it’s your boss, and likely even your boss’s boss, your boss’s boss’s boss, and so on.

You had to look at the course requirements, you likely listened for hints from other students on how to succeed in a teacher’s class, and you may even have visited rating sites to find tips for profs you were stuck with.

School was the perfect training ground for running your own business. Some clients will be happy with almost anything you produce, and some will have exacting standards you need to meet. If you want to find success, you’ll have to learn to adjust to each client’s preferences.

Running by Your Own Rules

There are also consequences if you ignore your clients’ wishes and requirements. Yes, you can set your hours without asking anyone for permission. That’s true. But if a good client calls you up and says they have $1,000 worth of work for you to do the week of your vacation, what will your answer be?

There are ways to mitigate such situations, and I thankfully haven’t lost any business yet because of family time away from home. But I have taken on last-minute work that needed weekend time to get done, because otherwise I would’ve lost out on $700.

Choosing Your Clients

The plus side to needing a variety of clients is choice: you can choose whom you want to work with. For some, that is the ultimate freedom. If a potential client is already very demanding on the phone before you’ve even agreed to a contract, you can politely decline, saying you’re busy. Or you can refer them to someone who may be willing to work with them. (Just because you don’t jive with that person doesn’t mean someone else will have that same feeling.)

If your client roster is full of people you enjoy working with, then almost every assignment is fun and fulfilling. Unlike in an employment situation, where you have the same boss, no matter your feelings about them, you have some leeway with your clients.

 

Employment Laws

I love freelancing, and I don’t want to turn you off running your own business if that’s what you really want to do. But if you’re doing it to escape the nightmare boss you’re working for right now, you may be better off just getting another job.

Running your own business can cause a lot of financial insecurity, and you have no employment laws to protect you. Client not paying on time? Can’t call the labour board. Client shouting at you over the phone? Can’t talk to their boss about harassment. Did someone choose not to work with you because of your sexual orientation? I’m certain you won’t have much of an argument at the human rights tribunal.

If you need to force a client to do something, it’s up to you to get a lawyer involved. And it’s up to you to pay for it.

Do This Self-Test

If you’re planning to freelance, write up your business plan. In it, include your ideal type(s) of client AND where you think you could find them. Then gear your marketing plan towards that. Estimate time and cost, and add 15% (because it’ll often take longer and cost more than you think).

You still run the risk of finding less-than-ideal clients, but once you sit down and think this through, it should help clarify if running your own business is really what you want.

Why?

Because you will hopefully find out how hard marketing is and think twice before you strike out on your own. Freelancing is extremely fulfilling, but some aspects of it are extremely hard, and finding the right clients can be one of those aspects. But don’t go into freelancing because you get to be your own boss.

Because you don’t.

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Getting Back on Top of Your Goals

It’s Not too Late

The first quarter of 2018 is almost over. So, I’m going to ask that ominous question, the one that sounds like the monster that’s been hiding in your closet all these years, whose presence you keep denying to yourself.

How are your New Years’ goals coming along?

Ouch. Did that hurt? Did you feel an arrow fly into your stomach? Or maybe into your head as you suddenly remembered you even had New Years’ goals?

I’m certain you’re not alone, and I’ve got news for you: it’s not too late to start the pursuit again.

Review the Last 3 Months

This might be painful, but quarterly reviews clarify for you what’s going on. What’s really going on. They break the safety bubble you live in, because you’re faced with the good, the bad, the ugly, and the very ugly when you review your progress of the past three months. But keep this in mind: In my experience, the more honest I am with myself and my progress, the easier pursuing my goals becomes. Why? Because I fear less.

When you review your last few months, ask yourself these questions:

Am I where I want to be?

If so, what did I do that got me there? (And continue doing it.)

If not, what did I do that didn’t work? (And find a new way of doing it.)

Get Support to Reach Your Goals

If you’re on track with your goals, you probably don’t want to mess with things. But if you’re off track, then it may be time to get help.

Here’s what happened to me last year: For the first time during my annual review, I calculated how much the time I’d spent on marketing efforts, multiplied it by the hourly rate of what I’d earned for the year, and used the total as a measure of how much money I’d “spent” on marketing last year. I then reviewed how much new business I’d won over the year. The final figures weren’t pretty. In fact, they were pretty devastating. So, I contacted a marketing consultant to do an audit on my efforts and set me on the right path.

But that’s what I’m talking about. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, haven’t reached your word goal, or still have the same number of customers as last year, get help! Either join a group, see your doctor, find a good therapist or coach…Whatever your means allow, now’s the time to get a little assistance.

Do You Need to Re-Align?

The beauty with checking in on your goals every quarter like this is that it gives you a chance to re-align them with where you are now. Remember, you created your New Years’ goals in a certain frame of mind, at a certain time in your life, under a certain set of circumstances. If your situation has changed, you may need to adjust how you achieve your goals.

That’s okay!

What if you planned to write 1,000 words a week but the serious diagnosis of a loved one rammed you off course? It doesn’t mean you can’t write at all.

What if you wanted to quit smoking but in the meantime lost your job, leaving you with more stress than your non-smoking self can handle? That  doesn’t mean you can’t regain your footing. You adjust. (And, of course, get help so you can make it through.) Remember, every little bit helps, so don’t discount small, regular steps towards your goals. Not everything has to be achieved by leaps and bounds.

Don’t be Afraid

Looking at progress is a powerful motivator to help you move forward. It’ll help you figure out what’s gone wrong and hopefully inspire you to plan your next steps to get back on track.

They say every journey begins with a step. Take that next step now to get back on the path you dreamed for yourself this year.

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Returning to Grad School After 13 Years: What I’ve Learned So Far

Considering grad school? I did. For over 10 years, actually, after I’d completed a Masters and two years of a PhD. Now I have a husband, two kids, a freelancing business, and my sanity. So I added a part-time PhD to the mix. You know, just to liven things up a bit.

Many things improve with age, and grad school is one of them. What strengthens my story a little is that I returned to the same department and program I had left over 10 years ago. Even my prof this semester is one I had back then. So the changes I’ve experienced at least can’t be attributed to a change in subject matter or school.

The Importance of Purpose

In my 20s…

I was too scared to step out into the real world. Teaching at the university level looked like fun, so I figured I might as well do it, since I had no idea what else to do with my life. (By now, I had become a professional student, though I didn’t realize it at the time.)

In my 40s…

My goals are crystal clear: to improve my German, my translation skills, and add literary translation to my freelancing business. Now, every book I read, every paper I write, every project I do is fuelled by this reason.

A Willingness to Learn

In my 20s…

This goes back to my Masters. My prof in my research methods course strongly advised us to take off one day a week. It was the only way to handle the workload, he said.

And you know what went through my head? He’s a prof. What does he know?

I also followed instructions literally. If our assignment for that week was to read a range of pages, I read them. And then I stopped. I’d love to blame the absence of the Internet to explain why I didn’t spend time looking up supplementary reading sources, but alas, I cannot: we had the Internet back then, too. The honest answer is that I just couldn’t be bothered to put in more effort than was necessary.

(I think I was actually angry that so much work was regularly assigned in grad school. And I was the one who’d chosen to be there…)

In my 40s…

Some of what we read is really difficult. My writer self can now see that it’s a case of bad writing and can try and decipher it. But more important than that, if I don’t understand something, I look up supplemental information, sometimes spending up to two hours if needed. (If I still don’t get it, I stop there. Yes, I’m in grad school, and independent learning is the cornerstone of that level of education. But I’m also here to be taught.)

As with any grad class, we have major assignments to complete: for this course, it’s a group project on a not-so-well-known author, and a 15-20-page paper. I’m no longer scared of spending time going down a few rabbit holes to find information that may or may not be useful. Why? Because I’m here to learn, and those rabbit holes often leave some interesting crumbs behind for later investigation and exploration. Moreover, I know from past experience that spending time reading and exploring is actually a lot of fun, and once I have the exact topic I’m looking for, researching, writing, and editing flow much easier.

Planning is My Friend

In my 20s…

I had no plan for anything I did in grad school. I just knew that I had to keep working so I could be ready for class the following week. I invariably left essays until the last minute, too. I just dove in, because, hey, who wants to waste time planning when you can just get the stuff done?

The result was a lot of stress because, without clear plans, work never ended.

In my 40s…

I plan each upcoming week over Friday and Saturday evening. It takes me an hour, sometimes two, and I’ll expand the plan into the following weeks if needed. The bonus: I often have Sundays free, despite all my commitments. However, if I need to work on a  Sunday, I make sure my time is carefully planned so I only do what’s necessary to stay on schedule.

These plans aren’t carved in stone, and the moment a kid gets sick, or a client suddenly needs more work down now, I have to shift my plans around. But because they’re already set, it’s easy to see what I have to give up and, more importantly, decide if that activity or plan is worth giving up for the new one that’s taking its place.

The Meaning of Boundaries

In my 20s…

Boundaries affect many areas of your life, including schedule, social, and work.

Without a clear schedule to my entire day (teaching and seminars excluded), work just bled and bled and bled. I couldn’t shut off. I was starting to analyze people’s speech patterns during casual conversation, because I hadn’t told my mind to stop working. It’s hard to enjoy a conversation when you’ve got theories running through your head to help you analyze it.

At first, I chalked it up to excitement at having discovered an area of study I loved. However, this excitement built and built and turned into full immersion: I studied and socialized within the department, and even dated within it. (And if I wasn’t dating within it, I was dating another PhD student within the faculty.) My studies, friendships, and relationships all deeply affected on another: Class was more exciting sitting next to my boyfriend, my friendships were more exciting because we could lament about not enjoying class all the time, and my relationship acted as a crutch to help me get through some of the tougher areas of class.

My studies had become my life, and if one thing went wrong, my whole world fell apart. Trust me. It’s not fun.

In my 40s…

The bus won’t drop my kids off when it’s convenient for me, and I can’t cook supper when I feel like it. So, when I calculate the time I have left over after my familial duties are taken care of, suddenly my available time for my studies becomes that much more valuable.

And guess what? I get a lot done in that time, more than I did in my 20s.

(Now, before you criticize me and ask how I know this, let me answer that for you: Once in a while, I fall back into old habits, for example, checking how many more pages I have left to read after every single page I read, or letting my mind wander far too many times. It makes a difference.)

How Did All This Change?

What happened, I believe, is that I spent about 15 years in the working world, where you risk getting fired if you don’t perform up to par. And unlike in the academic world, work keeps piling up and you’re left to your own devices to learn how to deal with it.

As a writer, that means meeting deadlines. A family member had an operation at the end of last month, and I had a short assignment due two days later. I handed it in before the operation. There was no way I was going to ask for an extension: that would embarrass me far too much now, because I see my prof as my boss.

I’m not saying that grad school is easy. The material we have to read can get really heady and often leaves me wanting to scream at the researcher for writing in such dense language. But I have processes to help me deal with the workload, and the maturity to once in awhile shrug my shoulders and go to class not fully prepared. In addition, I know roughly how long assignments will take, so I start working backwards to see when I need to start a project.

But it all comes down to what I just said: I know what I’m looking for, I’m open to learning, I take time to plan, and I live in a world of boundaries and commitments.

So, yes, returning to grad school can be done with work and familial commitments. But in my experience, you need discipline, project management skills, and a dose of humility: there will be times when you just can’t do it all.

And that’s okay.

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Mixing Work and Kids = Inspiring Your Creativity

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a hard time balancing work and kids. Next week, we celebrate Family Day in Ontario, and I realized I’ve book the day full of work duties! But the upcoming holiday has also reminded me that your family can feed your creativity and reinvigorate your brain for work.

If you’re more on the cerebral side of the spectrum, like I am, you may find communicating with kids a little hard, because you have difficulty breaking down your thought process to their level. Heck, you may even find what they do boring, because it doesn’t challenge you intellectually. I’ve been there, I’m still there, and I’m still trying to work on it.

(Granted, as hard as I try to find interest in my kids’ hobbies, I can’t develop any amount of enthusiasm for watching YouTubers play video games.)

Over the years, though, I’ve pushed myself to spend creative time with my kids, not just chore and parenting-related time, and not only does this push my brain in different directions, but it brings me closer to my children, and I find they even listen better.

See if any of these ideas work for you.

Creative Activities for Parents and Kids

Mad Libs: You buy these as pads, usually somewhere in a bookstore. They’re short texts with blanks, and you have to fill them in. The blanks are usually described as a noun, verb, adjective, or something similar. Not only will they help your kids recognize some parts of speech, you’ll likely both find yourselves in stitches as you read back the zany story you’ve both created.

Lego: This I find hard, because I’m stuck with some old inhibitions (I can’t create anything out of Lego except basic houses), and because I need to concentrate on the very foreign world the kids have created. But nothing makes my kids happier than showing off their Lego creations, and the brain drain I experience when playing with them improves my concentration.

Sewing: If you own a sewing machine,  just letting the kids (carefully!) run some fabric through it can be fun. I used to let my older son control the foot pedal when he was four or five. But certainly use your parenting judgment here. A sewing machine does have a needle, and kids’ hands are very small.

Sports: You don’t necessarily have to play a game that already exists. My husband loves making up games with our kids, and they have a blast at it. They’ve even created their own boardgames that the two play together in the evening. I’ll admit, this is less suitable for me, because I like consistency, but then again, maybe it could force me to use my brain differently.

TV: Yes, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest you watch TV with your kids. Not only does this help you, the parent, see what they’re actually watching, but it will, again, force your brain to focus on something different. If watching YouTubers playing video games is all your kids watch, then try a movie on the weekend, with some popcorn.

Painting: Yup, show your children that they’ve probably already bested you in the arena of art. And if you are talented in art, show them one or two tips that’ll make them better. (Of course, if your kids are old enough, maybe actually painting a room might be more engaging for all of you.)

Colouring: Those adult colouring books are more than suitable for kids over the age of five. My older kid (in the junior grades) will occasionally sit in the same room with me as we both colour for ten or fifteen minutes in separate books.

Writing: My youngest loves this. He’s in the primary grades, so he still finds spelling and printing arduous. He absolutely loves to dictate a story to me as I type it out in Scrivener. I set the timer for 10 or 15 minutes (my forearms can’t handle anything longer), and he’ll easily produce 300-600 words.

Dancing: Kids don’t care how you move. If your kids is active, turn on the tunes and get dancin’!

So, those are just a few ideas of how to build in some creativity time that will help you in your profession but also connect you with your children. Do you do any of these activities already? Or other ones?

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Get the Best out of Your Goals: Join a Group

Joining the right group can help you achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself this year. Not only can group members help you stay accountable to your plan, but being around others with similar goals can really affect your ability to stick to your own plan. I belong to a professional writing association in Canada, and it has kept me going over the years. But how do you know you’ve found a good group?

Speaking from Experience

I’m a writer and therefore belong to a profession that has an unusual trait: it invented a term for when you run out of ideas: writer’s block. I forget who said this, but it seems writers are the only ones who’ve done this. Have you heard of doctor’s block? Sales rep’s block? Politician’s block? Writers can easily spend an entire evening talking about how they have no ideas.

But I pay $250 a year to belong to a group of professional writers. You can bet I don’t want to spend my evening talking about not having ideas! Nor do I wish to spend an entire meeting lamenting about industry changes, bad clients, or the like. With my group, even if several members have had a depressing month, there’s always someone there to say, “Yeah, but did you know there’s a way to deal with that?”

Groups That Raise You UpTeam-building fist pumps over a table.

The catch is that you want to surround yourself with people who are moving forward. Even if these people fall three steps back, they find enough energy to take one step forward. If they then fall back five, they still get up and take one forward. You get the picture, right?

No matter what group you join to help you with your New Years’ resolutions, it’s the you-can-get-past-this attitude you’re looking for. The last thing you want is for everyone around the room to nod their heads in understanding and then start sharing similar stories. By the end of the evening, you’re all depressed. What good does that do?

So now you may be asking, “But I’ve had a rough time since the last meeting. Am I not allowed to talk about that?”

Of course you are! Whatever your goal, you’re going to hit roadblocks. It’s inevitable. And those roadblocks will at best frustrate you and at worst make you debate if your goals are worth striving for. How do you overcome these ugly monsters? You differentiate between venting and commiserating.

Venting releases the pressure that a roadblock has built up, and there’s nothing more freeing than talking with others who know exactly what you’re going through. Commiserating, on the other hand, means everyone joins in and laments with you, and nothing is accomplished.

How a Group Can Help You

In the end, you’re going to have to make a decision, and hopefully you’ve found a group that sees things the same way, because this decision really boils down to three choices:

  1. Keep stewing about the issue, wasting valuable creative energy.
  2. Let the situation go, if possible. (E.g., if you’re having a hard time paying taxes, you can’t let that go. But if some stranger said something rude to you today, you can imagine turning it into fuel for a fire and using it to warm yourself up.)
  3. Decide to change something in the situation (which often means changing something about yourself) and take your first step towards that change.

Ask your group for various options, and then commit to your next action, even if it’s that you’re going to think things through and report back to the next meeting.

Finding a Good Fit

If you’ve already joined a group that can help you with your goals, and if that group meets your expectations, then you’re doing awesome! If you’re not sure about joining a group, though, here are a few tips:

  • Check out the group’s online presence and see if it feels like a supportive, knowledgeable group to join.
  • Ask the group’s organizer if you can participate in a meeting. Then you can see how the members support each other.
  • If you don’t want everyone staring at you, ask if you can meet in person with one or two members.

There are ways to get a feel for the group before committing to it, and these suggestions are especially helpful if the group costs something to join.

Joining the right group can be just the thing to propel you forward faster than you planned. Don’t sit back and deliberate if you should join: do some research, then send out those emails and ask for more information. Do it now before the month is over.

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Are You a Forest Type or a Tree Type?

forest_reduced
From unsplash; photographer unknown

 

“This constant back-and-forth is one of the most metabolism-consuming things that our brain can do. We step out of time, out of the moment, and survey the big picture. We like what we see or we don’t, and then we go back to the task, either moving forward again, or backtracking to fix a conceptual or physical mistake. As you now know well, such attention switching and perspective switching is depleting, and like multitasking, it uses up more of the brain’s nutrients than staying engaged in a single task.” – Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind

 

The old forest vs. trees spectrum, but I’m starting to see it in a different light. I’ve been reading this book for the past week or two, trying to learn more about how my brain works and how I can work more efficiently with it. On the one hand, many things aren’t new to me, e.g., it’s more efficient to stay on one task, multitasking doesn’t actually exist (he means multitasking as in “flipping between tasks,” not as in actually doing two things at once), etc. The difference here, though, is that Levitin goes into the science, using examples and highlighting individual studies to make his point. That makes the information more alive for me, and that’s when I start to see connections and start asking more questions.

Volleys of Insult

For example: Is this energy-draining task a reason for many of the insults firing back and forth online?

It’s a bit of a scary time in the world right now, I feel, because of the high-noon stand-off between the American and North Korean governments. Although I’m starting to see that humanity will always be scared of something and claim the world is coming to an end (i.e., Chicken Little), I have to admit, I’m a bit more nervous about this one.

With how often the President of the US has been in the news, I’ve noticed on Quora recently questions about conservative thought in the US, how liberal Europe is, questions about Canada’s prime minister, and comparisons among all three parties. Unfortunately, some of these discussions have often turned into Facebook-style exchanges, where very generalizing comments get catapulted around, and invariably someone says, “If you don’t like it here, then you can move.”

But It All Started Out So Innocently

What does this have to do with Levitin’s quote above? Usually, the first few answers on such contentious subjects are detailed and considerate, regardless of the person’s opinion. Someone took time to write them and to explain their point of view to anyone reading the string. Some respond in kind.

These are the answers that are most interesting, whether I’m reading a Republican’s or a Democrat’s answer. I may still disagree with the answers, but these kinds of answers are the closest I have to being in someone else’s shoes.

This Q&A process, when done with respect, lets you find commonalities between both parties (e.g., “I’m doing this because I think it’s best for my children”), and you suddenly realize you’re not that different after all, even if you disagree on the subject.

And Then Came the Slingshot

But why the mud-slinging? Because it’s easier? Mud-slinging involves insulting someone and cutting down their ego through generalizations and assumptions about the person. I’ve often wanted to engage in it myself, simply because someone’s ego grates me the wrong way (we’re past rubbing) and I want to shoot them down using the written word.

Instead, I start writing down a more detailed answer, and before I know it, 20 minutes have passed and I haven’t even posted my thoughts. Looking at the time I’ve already wasted, I delete everything and move on.

What Levitin is saying above is that it’s hard for us to switch between the general and the detailed, the forest and the trees.

Tornados and the Blues

Last night, my family and I went to the local blues festival to catch Steve Strongman, a singer-songwriter we’ve all come to really enjoy. The entire festival was cut short by a tornado warning. This usually only happens maybe once every year or two in our area, so it was scary. While I was waiting with the kids for my husband to get the car, I was frightened that lightning would hit any of the many trees we were near – the festival was in a park. The lightning was bright and thick and flashed down from the sky. (If you’re wondering if I’m overreacting, a student on the campus where I work got struck by lightning three years ago, because she stood under a tree.)

My husband drove up the street, and I was waiting at a four-way stop with the kids. The motorists all waited for me to cross and get the kids into the car. That’s when I saw the trees – that people are kind and compassionate – instead of the forest – the world is going to hell in a hand basket.

It’s Not All Hellish

It’s easy for us to read the headlines, whether we get them via social media or traditional media, and start to worry. And I will be the first to say that this old-fashioned pistol-drawing going on between these two governments does worry me. But it also makes it far too easy to have a negative view on the world.

Back to my original problem: I know hurtful things cause feelings of hurt, and I see the natural reaction in kids, namely, to hurt back. But what if we stepped down from the forest and into the trees and actually took 20 minutes once every week or two to explain our points of view instead of three minutes everyday slinging insults? I think we’d come a little closer to humanizing all the arguments out there and seeing that, yes, we actually have more in common with each other than we thought.

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Hertha Mueller: A Writer You Should Get to Know

I came across German-Romanian writer Hertha Müller* (“Mueller” in English) about two months ago. I’m embarrassed to say, I had no idea who she was, despite having two degrees in German Studies. In my defence, though, I stopped studying in 2005, and it wasn’t until 2009 that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

She’s in her 60s now, and I believe lives in Sweden. Let me introduce you to her and what the idea of freedom for the arts means.

Who was the Guy and his Wife being Shot?

Mueller was born in the 1950s in one of the last leftover German villages in Romania. (The majority of ethnic Germans had been deported after WWII to either Germany or the labour camps in Russia.) I remember once at Christmas being at my grandmother’s – she and my grandfather were also Germans from Romania but (thank God) never returned after the war – and she had her eyes absolutely glued to the television. (My grandfather had been dead a few years by then.)

A man and his wife had been captured and were being executed. The news was full of lots of death, so I didn’t get why this execution was so important. (I also didn’t get what was so important about a graffitied, cement wall in Berlin and why its destruction was so celebrated.)

All I recall was that she said his name was Nicolae Ceaușescu and she was glad he was gone.

I eventually learned he was a dictator, but that was it. Only recently, with reading Mueller, have I begun to understand what that fully means.

Germans in Romania

I’m reading a book whose title can be literally translated as My Fatherland is an Apple Core: Conversations with Hertha Mueller. (The title refers to a poem or song that I’m not particularly familiar with.)

It’s unfortunate the book isn’t available in English, because she describes in exacting, vivid detail what it’s like to be a writer in a brutal dictatorship that’s trying to silence you and your friends.

As you can likely imagine, being an ethnic German in Eastern Europe during and after World War II wasn’t an enviable position to be in, regardless of which side you supported. After all was said and done, only a handful of Germans remained in these areas. I forget the exact figures, but the German populations decreased by the millions, partly due to deportation to those Russian labour camps, where many died.

Mueller’s mother was schlepped off to one of these camps but returned. (Whether she was lucky was debatable.) Mueller was eventually born and grew up in one of the few remaining German towns in Romania. It might be likened to Mennonite or Amish colonies, where everyone speaks their form of German and continues on with life as they know it, often sans electricity and telephone (though not by choice in this case).

Sneaky and Sly Like a Fox

Hertha Mueller had a fox fur on the floor between her bed and wardrobe, something she and her mother had purchased together from a neighbouring town. She says in the book:

The village tailor was supposed to make a fur collar and cuffs for a coat from it. It was a whole, flat fox with snout and paws and shiny claws. It was far too beautiful to cut up. I kept it for many years as a carpet. One day, I was mopping the floor, and the tail slid to the side. It had been cut off. I convinced myself at that time that it had torn off on its own. I didn’t believe myself that it was an exact, very straight cut, not a tear. (Page 86 of my ebook version via OnLeihe.)

She put the tail back where it belonged. A few weeks later, the first hind leg had been cut off. Later, the second one. Thereafter, one of the front legs. She describes that the cut-off limb was always placed on the fox’s stomach. This took place over months, but during those months, she always entered her apartment and immediately checked if a part of the fox had been severed.

The secret police (the “Securitate”) had a key. They wouldn’t break in, ever, they would just quietly enter. She said they wanted you to know they could come in whenever they wanted to.

Eggs and Onions and Hair

In another episode of intimidation (there were very, very many), she was on her way to get her hair cut. A police officer asked her for her ID and then whisked her off into a hidden room, where she was questioned, accused of blatantly false crimes, and forced to eat eight hard-boiled eggs and an onion. At one point, the agent picked a hair off her clothing, and she said, “Put that hair back, it belongs to me” (page 97 on my Onleihe e-book version). She said he actually put the hair back.

But it Didn’t Stop There

Even after she was allowed to leave in 1987 for Germany, the intimidations and games continued: they stamped her passport with February 29, 1987. That drove the German authorities nuts, she says, because it wasn’t a leap year.

The threats continued. The interviewer also mentions a situation where a Romanian operative was stopped at the German border, allegedly with instructions to kill several who were speaking out against Ceaușescu. Mueller’s address was on his list.

The dictatorship – from what she can gather – even blackmailed a very good friend of hers who had been diagnosed with cancer and was in its last stage. The friend was required to travel to Germany to visit Mueller. It didn’t take long for Mueller to figure out why her friend had come: the passport has visas for many different countries, a kind of passport that was not given out in Romania. Once she called her friend on it, her friend spoke openly and said Mueller would find her name on the death list if she didn’t stop speaking out against Ceaușescu.

We Need Our Openness

I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for our press, publishing industry, and the breadth of opinions out there. It’s not perfect. But it’s not what Hertha Müller had to contend with just to get her voice out there. I know we don’t all agree on how much freedom the press should have, what fake news really is, and how much censorship is too much.

(I recall reading that Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree had been banned by school boards in the past because the tree talked. I draw the line for my kids at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the current cartoons: my kids don’t need to learn a list of names to call people they don’t like.)

But we need to continue having open discussions about all of this, so long as our discussions show respect for the other side. I know there are thousands, likely even millions of artists out there in countries whose work is censored for something as simple as saying they don’t like the government.

It can be frustrating reading comments from people who disagree with you, especially when those comments are rude (and I, too, wish they would be more respectful). I don’t know if this helps, but as I read through this book, it certainly helps me realize that we at least have that right to say something.

*I didn’t add a photo here: the topic is serious, and I’m not an artist who can create something fitting. In addition, I didn’t want to use a photo of Hertha Müller, because, honestly, I feel guilty about using her picture to help promote my blog.

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A Quick Note on Gut Feeling

7K0A0075I know gut feeling is highly debatable: No one has more impeccable intuition that Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and he’s a fictional character. Some argue that gut feeling is just our five sense working with our brain to come to a conclusion. Others feel it’s a sixth sense. I’ve also seen people claim that something is intuition when it’s really just their ego masquerading as this undefinable gift or skill.

Whatever it is, though, I still go against it even though it’s proven itself right on numerous occasions. The other week, an acquaintance presented me with a wonderful volunteer opportunity where I would have gotten to meet lots of incredible musicians. My gut feeling was telling me to turn it down, but I couldn’t figure out why: my calendar was clear, and although I had several assignments on the go, I could certainly squeeze in such an opportunity.

Something was urging me to turn it down, but I couldn’t figure out why, so I said yes.

We often think gut feelings are there to protect us, but in this case (as in others, too) it was there to protect this person. You see, I’ve been fighting this cold for over a month. And as embarrassing as that is (it’s been a few years since I’ve had a cold that lasted longer than two days), I assumed it would be gone by that night.

You know where this is going.

Not only had the cold not left by then (a good week after the initial phone call), it had gotten worse. There was no way I was going to infect over 100 singers with some kind of bronchial infection. That morning, I had to call her up – sinuses congested and my trying to suppress the horrible-sounding cough – after I’d arrived at work and cancel. (I also left work a couple of hours later to go home and rest.)

Had I listened to my gut feeling, my acquaintance would’ve had time to find someone else to help her out that night. The night went ahead, and from what I can tell, all ended well. But sometimes that gut feeling – whether it’s your mind just knowing something or it truly is some kind of sixth sense – needs to be listened to.

Have a good Canada Day long weekend!