Resilience in the arts
The creative industries can be tough; knock-backs, obstacles, rejections and failure are part and parcel of the job. If a brilliant piece of art is shown to the public, it is sure to have been through drafts, re-drafts and no doubt bouts of failure. In order to thrive in the arts, resilience is vital. At a recent Creative Careers session, a panel of four creatives across various artforms invited open conversation about how to pick yourself back up after a fall. They used examples of their own work to explore the idea of resilience, with an equal measure of cynicism, realism and hope.
Bel “Bellatrix” Ehresmann: beatboxer, singer and bass player.
Tayo Odesanya: writer and film director.
Paula Varjack: theatre, video, spoken word artist, and teacher.
André Anderson: educator and editor.
Value your own creativity
Self-belief is the first step to being able to deal with knock-backs. Educator André Anderson suggested that relying too much on what other people think can be damaging. “The gift of being creative is that you can see things not everyone can see,” he said. “To ask for someone else to see exactly what you see doesn’t make much sense.” Being a creative requires putting value in your own work; by ensuring you make work that feels true to you, you will always achieve a version of success.
In 2015, Anderson edited and self-published Authors of the Estate, an anthology of essays about St. Raphael’s, the estate in North-West London where he grew up. He wanted to change the narrative. “Gangs and knives, you know how the story goes.” Gathering a group on the estate, he said they were going to “create a passport” – something that would open doors for themselves. He gave them the word “change” to interpret however they wanted, and asked them to write about it. “We wanted to make sure the perspective was changed of people who live on the estate.” The project started with no backing or funding, but through perseverance, Anderson managed to find financial support, give the book to 1,000 homes on the estate and speak about it in the House of Commons.
Sometimes rejection can help inspire something new
Anderson had almost finished his book when he got a job. He got distracted and abandoned the project. Then: “I wasn’t good at the job so they fired me. So I pushed the button and sent it off to print.” The rejection from the job encouraged him to take a leap with the book. “I think it’s important to know it’s not a clean linear thing. Sometimes you need to be pushed out to hit the button.”
Enjoy the process
Bel Ehresmann was the first professional female beatboxer in the UK. She won the world female beatbox championship and came to Guildhall to study jazz double bass, before deciding to launch her debut EP. She went from being at the top of one area of music to starting afresh in another. It has meant having to learn to embrace a new trajectory. “There’s so much focus on this endpoint and this word ‘success’, but really we create for the process and whether or not it goes interstellar, it’s important to remember that.”
All of the panel encouraged viewing projects as explorations rather than a job to execute and tick off a list. “See it as: you just want to know more,” Anderson said. Then you don’t fail, “no matter how many doors close.” If you see a project as an exploration, dead-ends are not endings, they are simply an indication that you should try again in another direction.
Filmmaker Tayo Odesanya found it hard to share her work at first. “Is it because I don’t think it’s good enough or I’m scared of what people could think? I hold it so dear to me, and if someone doesnt like it, it feels like they don’t like a piece of me.” She has since learnt that “it’s about detaching yourself. You’ve done what you can.” She suggested reading Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. “It teaches you how to retrain what you care about, making sure you’re putting your energy into the things that matter.”
Everyone has flaws
“I always had a passion for writing but my spelling and grammar were poor, so I kept it to myself,” Odesanya said. “When I was in university another student had a big idea, but no one else was willing to get it done – we were both kind of underdogs – so I said yeah sure, not really knowing what I was taking on.” That project led to Maya, the winner of many awards, including Best International Film at London Film Festival. “I learnt a lot in terms of what I was able to do that I didn’t think I could. Even if you technically can’t do something, your creativity can overshine something like that.”
Know when to say goodbye
After releasing her music, Ehresmann got addicted to play counts and likes, obsessed with checking back on social media. “It fed into a lot of anxiety. I had to learn not to compare myself to other artists.” She has since trained herself out of that pattern. “Now I put a piece of music out and it’s like, ‘okay bye’”.
Be selective in who you take feedback from. “Everyone who has a comment is not necessarily worth listening to,” said theatre maker and teacher Paula Varjack. As a rule, Varjack doesn’t read reviews until the end of tour, because:“I know I’ll take one negative thing and magnify it.” Instead, she suggests, “figure out who gives you feedback that hits you in the right way” and “grab onto them for dear life.”
Odesayna agreed. “I’m very selective who I show work to. Think about what they can give you. I’m aware if I’m looking for honesty or a professional opinion or a niche view.”
“I’ve found confidence is about practice,” Ehresmann said. “It’s really hard, but a lot of the time it’s about being compassionate with yourself.”
The panel all agreed that resilience comes easier with time. “You build it up as you grow as an artist,” Odesanya said. “I’ve learnt about putting pride aside and understanding and taking critique, knowing you can’t be too precious. You don’t start off being like nothing can phase you.” She spoke about the feeling of disappointment that can come with finishing a project, “because a lot of the time it doesn’t turn out like you hoped in your head. The next project might be closer to the image you have in your head. Next time you fix x, next time you fix y, next time you fix z. It’s that kind of growth.”
Know that the hard work continues, but it’s worth it
Varjack recently worked on All The Lights Are On, a collaborative project between theatre companies Clean Break and Cardboard Citizens, where women with experiences of homelessness and the justice system came together to create a show.
Working with two organisations with different working troubles presented certain issues with communication, but she expected them to be over after the first day or so. Instead, the job was a reminder that ambitious projects can have lots of bumps in the road. “[The hard work] continues through the entire process.” But it’s often worth it; now, she claims the project as the thing she’s most proud of in her career.
A project can take on a new life without you
Several years before Authors on the Estate, Anderson wrote a book designed to be written in and passed on. He recently got a DM from someone who had received the book recently and sent a photograph of it. “It had been all over the world.” Often, he said, projects are only “a seed form, you only really understand what it is when you throw it out.” It just requires a bit of bravery to chuck it out there in the first place.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Sometimes, uncontrollable events get in the way of work. As Ehresmann reminded us, “Real life happens.” Bereavement interrupted residencies she was on while creating her EP, and for a while she needed to hand the reins over to someone she trusted. “The ability to ask for help got me through.” Never be ashamed to ask for support.
Find out about upcoming Creative Career sessions here.
Blog post by Kate Wyver