At the end of September, I travelled to Victoria, British Columbia, to attend a workshop taught by Nick Bantock. Nick is a multimedia artist and writer who is most well-known for his epistolary series Griffin and Sabine, a mysterious, cryptic story told in the form of letters and postcards exchanged between a man and a woman. The books are interactive; there are envelopes in them with printed letters inside; you must open them up and dig out the letters as you read. They’re beautiful books that I feel deep in the pit of my stomach.
I’ve been a fan of Nick’s work for many years. I don’t remember when I first came across Griffin and Sabine; I think I was in college. Now, when I return to these books, the strange, playful tone of uncertainty and intrigue brings me back to a time when I was less concerned with planning out every detail of every part of a story and more willing to let myself just bleed onto the page, just dance and play with words and see what happened. Reading Nick’s work, I return to a sense of my own creativity that is younger and less afraid and looser, and it’s a more comfortable place for making things. I stop with the “I should” and “I have to” and begin to see things more in terms of “What if we…” “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” “Hey, do you remember that story where…”
As I get older, more and more I find myself having less and less fun with writing, with art, with making things. I feel trapped by needing to have a specific structure, by feeling like I always need to know where I’m going, even before I start. So I’ve lived, in the last few years, with a bit of a wistful urge to be able to return to that younger joy I had in college when I was first just trying to figure out how to write, what I wanted to do, how to have fun with things and learn and go, get started.
I went into the workshop nervous, as you might expect. Who wouldn’t? Sharing work is always nerve-wracking, meeting new people, sharing yourself, showing yourself to others. But unlike with other classes and workshops I’ve taken, this time I had the benefit of the experience of the Matthew Hussey Retreat. The Retreat is 6 days, and I’ve seen how some people take a long time to warm up and commit and decide they’re going to take it seriously. I’ve seen how they get to the end of it and suddenly it’s over and they’ve only just thrown themselves into it fully at the end, and they’re wishing they would have done so sooner. Nick’s workshop was two days, and I promised myself I wasn’t going to miss out on a second of it; I wasn’t going to regret the way I conducted myself for any part of it.
I said to myself at the start, I’m nervous, but so is everyone else, and that’s fine. I’m going to take my nervousness, and what I’m going to do is commit to this workshop with everything I have in me. I will not hold back. I will not let the fear get in my way; I will go for whatever thing seems right, and I will not hesitate. I will not make myself feel bad by comparing myself to others; I will simply make what I can give to it the thing that matters, and that is my commitment to tackling it with my full passion. That, I know I’m good at. The quality of the writing is secondary. As long as I do it with my full heart, the rest is dust.
I won’t go into much detail about what happened at the workshop. Take a future one of Nick’s, if you want to know. 😉 He’s an expert teacher.
But I learned a few things that have influenced my working habits since, and I wanted to share with you.
Don’t be afraid to connect right away.
Lots of us are introverts. We want to get the lay of the land first, before anything. We want to come in, see what the place is like, see what the people are like, feel our way around, and then engage. Later. Once we know where we’re at. Once we feel a little safer.
But with this workshop I explicitly said, “Fuck that. I’m going in open.” I didn’t hold back for a second. I said what came into my mind. I spoke as much as I needed to when people asked me questions, and I asked them the questions I had for them. I told my stories, without waiting. I reached out, without knowing the lay of the land, without knowing if it was safe, without having a clue where I was. I just assumed it was going to be fine and jumped in.
They responded. Some more than others, but that was fine. The ones I was drawn to were the ones who responded. And it didn’t matter. It wasn’t about them. It was about me committing to me and the growth that I was capable of in that weekend, to squeezing every drop out of it from the moment I arrived and not letting their response or non-response get in the way of that.
It felt amazing. It made me strong.
Go toward the people you like.
As soon as I walked in, there was one woman who drew my interest, because of the way she was dressed, because of the way she moved, because of her obvious animation and passion, because of how she showed her interest in me. When I was younger I would have held myself away from that. I would have waited for an explicit invitation. I would have waited for the person who loudly chose me, rather than going toward the one I wanted to choose.
At lunchtime, she and another woman were deep in conversation, and I simply joined them. We all had lunch together.
That woman is the one person I’m still in touch with from the workshop. I still think of her, sometimes, when I write. She has a much slower style than mine; she naturally focuses on sensory details, whereas I have to get the story down! and add those later. She’s a good foil for me — and a lovely inspiration.
It felt good to get what I wanted because I wasn’t scared of it.
Your commitment is what matters.
In many ways, Nick made it easy for me to feel at home. He’s the most powerfully sensitive person I’ve ever known, with a unique knack for knowing exactly what everyone around him needs and knowing exactly how to give it to them at the right time and in the right amount. He listens to everything, including what you’re not saying, what you haven’t said yet, what you were never going to say but is there all the same.
He says what he needs to say, without worrying about the implications or stopping himself because there might BE implications. He just communicates, clearly and consistently and openly.
It’s not all warmth and light—some of his art has overwhelming darkness in it. He has darkness in him. But that’s part of what I love, too. He doesn’t shy away from the real. There’s nothing fake. His studio, a beautiful space in a beautiful city, full of curiosities of the kind I can’t resist, was the kind of place that makes me comfortable, too.
But I don’t want to take away the credit I’m due myself. I chose to go to that place specifically, I chose to go to him specifically, because I suspected it was the type of place I’d feel at home. But I also walked in there with the willingness to give everything I had to that weekend, without shame. And it made all the difference for how my experience of it went.
Work on what you feel like working on.
With perhaps a little less force. 😉
One of the things Nick talked about in the way that he works is that he goes into the studio and sees what he feels like doing. He has multiple projects in progress and he doesn’t necessarily work in a linear way continuously on one thing. He lets his mental and emotional state that day guide what he turns to. He lets what he’s capable of inform where he starts.
I’ve struggled with this in part because it’s hard on me to make decisions — the more I can make the decisions ahead of time, outside of my creative working time, and then just dive in and go once it’s time, the easier it is for me to get started in the first place. So I don’t like leaving it to making decisions in the middle of writing time.
However, what that has sometimes meant — especially lately — is that I find myself spending a lot of time staring at something that just isn’t going anywhere. Trying to make something go where I want it to go when I have nothing to give it. When what I actually need is to feed myself or to make in a different way or a different spirit.
I have three books I’ve been working on since publishing The Flight of the White Crow, one of which is a companion to it; one of which is my life’s work, the most giant important thing I’ve ever written and which makes my forehead bleed every time I look at it; and one of which is a silly children’s book without much plot that I’m writing simply because I like seeing what those two spunky characters will get up to next.
They’re all different moods, and some days I am ready for one but not the other, and it’s been so helpful to be able to relax a little and simply say, what do I feel like today? instead of worrying about WHEN AM I GOING TO FINISH SOMETHING?. How is it going to be what it needs to be if I do that to myself?
Never stop feeding your spirit with learning and indulging your curiosity.
Making art is a very internally focused act, regardless of your discipline. It requires a quiet, inward gaze that lets you shut out the world and get busy. But it doesn’t come from nowhere. It needs your engagement with the world, with other people, with values, for you to have something to give it, to put into it. To have something to say, we must have experiences and reactions — something to talk about.
It’s very easy for me to settle into spending a lot of time at home alone. I work remotely, and without scheduling myself and forcing myself to find things I’m really excited about going out and doing and seeing, I can easily not leave my apartment for weeks at a time. Seriously. I love my cat, I love my couch, I love reading and writing books. Why do I need to go out? 😀
It’s fine for me to have chunks of time like that. But I also need to be out in the world being spiritually and intellectually fed, and taking the workshop reminded me of that. It reminded me to get curious and playful and to challenge the assumptions I was making about what I was supposed to do, the rules I was creating for myself. It gave me a new outlook on my creative work and my life.
I couldn’t have asked for more out of a weekend, and while I have eternal gratitude to everyone who participated and for the multiple meals and sharing and learning about each other, it’s also true that I’m the one who truly made it happen that way — for myself. Remember this, next time you’re taking a class or a workshop or a seminar, and you’re nervous at the start. You can create your own experience.