Critical reflections on practice

Esther Anatolitis has a great piece offering a set of provocations to critical reflection on our own artistic and creative practice, drawn from her presentation to Regional Arts Victoria’s Expanding Artistic Horizons symposium in Port Fairy in 2015.

A friend and colleague, Natalie Hendry, posted a recollection of those long questionnaires we all used to complete on LiveJournal and MySpace, and it struck me this list is similar.

So here are my answers. Feel free to copy it and fill in your own.

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What drives you?

At my best, a sense of mischief — playing in spaces and ways we’re discouraged from.
Other times, a gripping sense of rage or inadequacy. (Generative but hard to control.)

How do you make the space to understand what drives you?

I have to come at it sideways by making and taking unscheduled time for laziness and boredom.  And then understanding comes out of nowhere: oh, that’s what that was about.

And how’s your health?

It requires a lot of patchwork, at the moment, stitching together continuous care across a range of different physical, mental, financial, and spiritual providers and opportunities. 

What does your typical day look like?

I sleep as much as I can overnight — ten hours is best.  I try to drink a normal amount of coffee, get enough protein and eat enough fruit.  On a good day I do about two hours’ writing and two hours’ reading.  In good mental health I can write about 3,000 words a day.  In bad mental health I get into fights on social media all day and I struggle to write more than sentences.

When you need to think something through, what tools do you use? Be aware of how those tools structure your thinking before you’ve thought it all through.

Pen and paper.  Brainstorm first.  Then group into themes or axes.  I ask ‘what’s my angle?’ and ‘what’s my audience, purpose, tone and style?’  These are tools I’ve used since high school.  Lately I’m writing in much longer formats, arguments with more room for subtlety in them, and I’ve started using notes to self and various diacritics to coordinate that work over longer timeframes, interruptions by other work, or mental health issues.

Do you routinely reflect on what you’re making?

I have made a conscious effort to move away from writing in one hit, one big download fuelled by emotion, followed by hitting send.  I have learned to write more slowly. 

What stage is your practice at?

I’m at the stage of consciously pushing up against my limits, seeking to leave behind the naturalism and simplicity of my writing as an educator and a policy contributor, and instead develop the kind of playful control over critical language that I see in the work of my academic heroes.

Are you craving space and time for deep practice? Or are you craving instead the networks and provocations to broaden your practice?

I have both space and time for practice and the networks and provocations to draw my thinking out.  I need the constancy and discipline to make the practice actually bear results.

What is it about your practice that’s most sustainable? Unsustainable?

I can almost always hear whether there’s rhythm in my writing.  The unsustainable thing is the sense of ‘I can do this’.  It comes and goes without any rhyme or reason.

Are you able to articulate what a meaningful, productive, successful practice would mean for you?

Drawing on the sense of constancy and discipline, it would mean always writing at least 2 hours, developing the journalist’s commitment to deadlines, developing stronger faith in editors, starting to write when the deadline is still on the horizon rather than rushing up to meet me.  It would bring my collaborators into the process with me rather than hiding the writing away from them.

And how would you know?

My first thought was ‘it wouldn’t hurt so much’ but I know enough serious writers to know that’s probably not the case.  But that sense of ‘I can do this’ might not be so fickle.

Is your practice still developing?

I’m unlearning a lot of the defensive strategies and tics that I’d picked up in practice.  I’m developing my skills at interleaving personal narrative, research findings and technical discussion.

What risks are you still taking? Where is the risk in your practice?

The discomfort lies in writing the way I want to write for an cross-disciplinary audience.  The temptation is to use one of those defensive strategies — translation; pretending to speak in another language.  But I’m always so conscious, when I do that, of what things become harder or impossible to communicate.  The big risk lies in writing in language closer to my heart and hoping there will be an audience for it.

Where do your provocations to practice come from?

Often it’s the sense of ‘oh, that’s fucked!’  And then challenging myself to think it through carefully.  There are tactical pieces I’ve done, challenging e.g. The Hoopla on its attitude towards sex workers, or YEAH claiming to be the victims of homophobia, where I’ve just been so angry but I’ve worked really hard to stick to reasons and facts that an unbiased person could consider and accept. 

Are there mentors in your life? Someone in your life whose role is to challenge you – someone you already feel challenged by – someone outside of your field – more than one person – co-mentoring – formal and informal mentoring – ?

HEAPS.  There are so many people I could and will at different points mention and thank.  But there’s one person in particular, Megan McPherson, who brings a creative artist’s practiced reflection to the craft of academic thinking and writing and constantly provokes me to the same.

How do you set the most productive constraints for your work? Are you happy with the scope of your experimentations?

I try to write like Rey Chow.  I will never be as good as her, but her short, declarative topic sentences are miraculous.  Blogging is the place where I have the most freedom to experiment. 

What characterises your working style as an individual? As a collaborator? As a leader?

I want to do my thing in privacy.  I am terrible at collaboration.  Part of this is a learned habit of existential angst around writing and partly it’s the stop-start productivity of episodic depression.  Occasionally I will take the lead on an issue but I always want to ‘step up and step back’ – quickly.

How does your working style change as an individual? As a collaborator? As a leader?

A friend observed I have ‘hegemonic tendencies’… my style is not flexible.  Once I’ve thought something through I tend to have a clear vision of how a given situation works and I’ve weighed up the different pathways through it, and I can be incredibly stubborn in sticking to it.  I have often been told I need to communicate that understanding more frequently, consistently, patiently…  But that stubbornness is essential in human services work — without it, morphostatic processes kick in and organisations just do things the way they’ve always done them.  I need to develop my skills in maintaining the calmness to keep stubborn but still communicate what I want.

If you packed yourself off on a week-long retreat, what would you do? What wouldn’t you do? What could it mean for your practice? For your physical health? For your mental health? What could you make possible with that space and time? Or if you consistently dedicated fifteen minutes per day to this kind of reflection, what would it mean for your practice?

I would need to go somewhere without internet access.  I’d want to meditate in the morning and the evening.  I’d need a good chair and a desk.  A couple of those and I could knock out a book.  But I’d need a collaborator, someone doing exactly the same thing, to swap our drafts (for accountability) and read and talk about them in the evening. 

In fifteen minutes per day I could have a crack at imitating writers I admire. That’s what Stephen King recommends in his book On Writing. Hell, that’s Nam Le’s book The Boat in a nutshell.

Esther’s conclusion

It’s the arts. We’ve each chosen to live our lives at a high level of creative and intellectual intensity. If we don’t take our bodies with us, our bodies will take us somewhere else altogether. And this affects the work. And this is the work.

Make reflection a habit. Develop your commitments to your practice.

My conclusion

I’ve always argued that the work I do, getting funding for innovative programs, is creative. But I think I have a lot to learn from creative arts practitioners on how to think of my practice as something that’s separate from myself.  So many things about it would be easier were that separation clearer in my head.  This has been really helpful, and it has prompted me to re-read Twyla Tharp and Jane Bozarth.

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