A Recipe for Accountability

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How can we structure our post-graduate lives to facilitate the kind of artistic life we want?

Any answer to how can I restructure my life would have to be complete and in many ways, completely life-altering.  Much like modern ideas about fitness.  Starting small with something like 2 hours a week of dedication, will grow into a daily practice.  

Let’s take the example of personal fitness. With fitness, regular workouts and tracking your progress is important.  Having someone like a personal trainer holding you accountable increases your commitment.  It also dramatically reduces your ability to just quit.  Drop out, defer living your dream.  The paid trainer won’t let you.  They show up at your house and make you work.  The fact that a partner is paid to devote time to your cause means very little.  The money is secondary to the relationship.  So what if we found a symbiotic partnership that served the same purpose as the paid trainer.  What are a few common traits of successful partnerships?

1. They sync their goals to that of a larger group of supporters/partners.

The goals of the Master may be to offload annoying or boring tasks to save more time for the meat of the work.  The goals of the Apprentice may be to learn, but both are synced for the duration of the relationship.  They don’t have to work on the same project for their goals to be synced.  They just have to agree to help each other with their projects when they ask for it.  They must do work to help your projects.  Read your script, work on new ideas with you, listen to you, encourage you and ultimately demand that you help them in return. The size of the group depends on the projects involved.  The time involved to give each project a fair look can decrease group size nicely.  The important part is everyone feels like they’re moving a project forward with the help of the group.

2. The Partners agree to meet at the same time, regularly to evaluate, share, offer help and encourage.  

Notice I did not say place.  I said time.  Virtual versions of the face to face meeting work to varying degrees.  I’ve found the same-time of it is far more important than the same-place of it.  If you’ve been meaning to get up at 5am to write that screenplay but can’t seem to get started.  Find another person who wants to get up at 5 to do something and wake them up.  The benefits of meeting regularly with set aside time cannot be overstated.  These don’t have to be long meetings.  The less time you have, the more you’ll have to get down to business.  

There is a myth that we’d have to have a whole day off or take a sabbatical from work to get something done.  If the task for the day is doable in a few hours, then do it.  Regularity over the long term is very important.  Especially at first.  You may be out of practice writing for hours and you may have to work your way up to a full day of creative work.  Be kind to yourself and schedule a weekly meeting for 2-3 hours that everyone can sustain at first.

3. They prevent their partners from quitting or prolonging completion.

Great partnerships smell the bullshit you’re cooking and they call you on it.  Your job is to motivate and push each other towards goals.  Your job is to speak up when the goal is too big or unrealistic to accomplish, when they’re moving backwards instead of finishing.  They make a solemn vow to leave no man or woman behind.  You know what I mean?  Semper Fi and all that.  It actually works and artists need it just as much as Marines do.  Make it part of the rules of your partnership.  Within reason, part of your commitment to your artistic lifestyle is to make sure your partners continue their commitment.  They must, in turn, hold you up when you need it.

Getting too creatively involved in other people’s projects or goals can give you a desire to procrastinate together.  Distance and a certain autonomy allows you to crack the whip when your partner needs it.  But you should be familiar with their project and be able to speak intelligently about it.  Sometimes the block can only be solved by your partner’s perspective.

These 3 ideas are well defined in armies but they need not be confined to them.  The last myth I want to discuss is that we need a teacher/trainer or other authority to oversee the meetings.  Granted they make it seem easier.  Most of the time when we’re blocked, we don’t need instruction.  Instead we need to be reminded of why we must keep working. In post-academia, we must accept responsibility for our continuing education. Your peers can help you find the answers to your questions.  Adding an instructor or coach surrenders a vital part of your accountability to each other as well.  So skip them during work meetings.  If you still want to study under an instructor, separate your work time from your education time.  They are very different activities.

Of course this doesn’t mean a group of Actors doing their scene work doesn’t want or need a writer/director collaborator.  In that case, everyone is working together at different tasks, No one is instructing.  The members of the group may have different roles and although a hierarchy can exist in this kind of collaboration, it needn’t.  We can all be in charge of ourselves and accountable to everyone else.

So, what’s the first step to structuring your new artistic life?  Your commitment to creation is vital but you probably already have that.  The first step is to find a partner and make a plan to meet.  This is not as daunting as it sounds.  It doesn’t need to be the perfect person in your life.  Just one other person who wants to complete something they’re not doing.  It doesn’t even have to be artistic, though I imagine the longevity of the group is extended through camaraderie and focus.  

The first meeting should include a discussion about how you’ll hold each other accountable.  The ideas about how to contain failure can come later.  Don’t put out fires before they happen.  But know that they will happen.  The only other thing you have to discuss on that first meeting is the date and time for the next one.  Phone meetings are fine and I’ve found that just saying same time next week works well for most people.  A week is the minimum amount of time between meetings and people usually already have a schedule that they can squeeze time into.

In my first writing group we began with once a week in the morning, before my writing partner had to go to his bartending job.  We’d meet with our ideas fresh in our heads and spend that time thinking and talking about art until our time was up.  We spent months doing this without anything accomplished except that our friendship was stronger.  Everything takes time and the important part was that we were enjoying keeping our meetings.  We’d reclaimed 2 hours a week for our artistic minds to take over.  That naturally lead to us beginning our projects in earnest again and changing the schedule to accommodate changing lifestyles.  The bottom line, and something we must keep to at least once a week we are accountable to each other and our goals.

You can structure the use of your creative time to your personal taste.  Remember, we’re only meeting for the accountability of it.  Working styles need not mesh.  It turns out most people don’t actually do 8 hours of work in a work day.  A lot of time is spent socializing, sitting in silent contemplation, eating, drinking, etc.  If you can prepare yourself and your space for 2 solid hours of concentration you’ve done the equivalent of a full day of work had you say, sat in an office filled with SNL writers and actors and had time to play fuck around.

People in office buildings get just as ADD as a person alone in their house on a Sunday afternoon with 2 hours of peace before the kids get back from camp.  Make those 2 hours count.

Ritualistic preparation to work also helps greatly.  Adding a few minutes to prepare your workspace.  Clean your desk, organize your notes, make your coffee.  Do this before every session so your brain gets used to it.  It signals, time to be creative.  Invite the Muse, then give her a half-hour to get to work.  We can see examples of rituals making activities more addictive and that’s really our aim.  We must become addicted to creating.  Anything less may not sustain a long project.

The best example I can find of humans defeating procrastination comes from an old joke about there being Writer’s block but no such thing as Plumber’s block.  I don’t think that’s true.  I’m sure there are days the Plumber doesn’t want to climb under the sink.  But the appointment and the client waiting with a stopped pipe keep it generally working.  

A better example of what I’m getting at is the surgeon.  There is probably less Surgeon’s block because of the scheduled appointment, the fact there is a team of people waiting to assist the surgeon complete his work and of course, that in most cases, it’s a matter of great importance that the surgery happen now.  They don’t have to wait for the muse or for the perfect inspiration to save the patient’s life.  But they do engage in a hefty pre-surgery ceremony of cleaning and preparing and they have other people focused on the goal, each doing their part in concert.  It’s a beautiful example of how much we can get done if we look at work in the proper way.  

Find a partner with their own goals.  Agree to work at the same time for a few hours, regularly. Invite the muse through a pre-work ritual and recognize that this is just the beginning.  As you create the habit of meeting and working, the work will push more meetings.  You will find yourself able to make appointments with yourself and keep them.   Soon enough you’ll find yourself working at your project every day and checking in with someone who cares about you and your project.  

Make the initial commitment short and sweet and be prepared to change forever the way you think about the creative process.

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