On Claiming My Creative Practice
Writing is my business; turning artists’ visions into funder-friendly prose that will engage and persuade and generate a grant. Begging letters, as my Dad likes to call them. I don’t see it quite like that, but I get his point. For nearly three decades I’ve dedicated my professional life to the realisation of people’s creative visions, as a producer, as a strategist, as a mentor and as a fundraiser. I’ve considered this a privilege. Think of me as an arts’ Doula, supporting creators during the birth of an idea, helping them to ease new works into the world, shape them, grow them and put them before audiences. However modest the ripple, I hope I’ve made a difference and contributed something to our shared cultural life.
Beneath this public persona, there’s been a shy creator beavering away, wrestling with self-doubt. It’s taken me decades to reach the point of claiming my own voice. The reasons are complex and numerous, nebulous and concrete; a mixture of circumstance and excuse. For now, it’s enough to share that it took me until 2014, my 50th year, to acknowledge the voice that had been whispering in my ear for decades and allow it to be heard. I embarked upon an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. Under the naked, strip-light scrutiny of group critiques and gloves-off tutorials, the voice was small and faltering; shy at first and barely audible. I put words down on paper, but they weren’t quite my own. Gradually, with encouragement and help from various quarters, the small voice became stronger and bolder and began to sound more like me.
Thus it was that after various creative experiments and searching and some false starts, I wrote the first draft of a memoir (more about that choice later) and then in July 2018, drafted an application to Arts Council England to the newly launched ‘Developing Your Creative Practice (DYCP)’ fund, to finish my first book.
I know lots of people are writing DYCP bids at the moment. It’s very competitive, precisely because uniquely, unlike ACE Project Grants, this fund really is about your creative practice, not about realising a project that has a public benefit. If I can share some helpful feedback, do take time to consider whether your bid would be more suited to an under £15k ACE Project Grant. Ask yourself if the bid is about your practice, or about public outcomes and outputs.
For me, the application process was filled with the anxiety of self-doubt, which seems incredulous, given a near 100% success rate with Arts Council applications across my career. The difference was, confronted with the reality of writing about my own work, I now fully appreciated why artists commission me to write for them. Unless you’ve got a great big ego (spoiler alert, I don’t have), it’s damned hard writing about your own work. I knew this intellectually before, but confronted with my own insecurities, I felt doubt’s sting precisely.
Writing about my writing forced me to consider it in the round – not solely as a production (my book) but as a process and as a deeper expression of a creative voice. This reflection forced me to really interrogate exactly how the support would help me to develop my practice. My imposter syndrome was huge and crippling. I felt like a fraud. The words I rely on every day, my familiars and friends, scattered and scurried to hidden places, the way silverfish slip through the cracks in the skirting and floorboards when the light’s turned on. The barren page mocked me with all the usual believable nonsense: ‘who do you think you are?’, ‘you’re not a writer’, ‘you’re a fraud’, ‘you’re a joke’. And so on and so forth.
If I could have written from my heart, I’d have said: ‘Please help! I’m a highly-sensitive, introverted creator who’s rubbish at speaking up for myself. I’ve been kidnapped by a lifetime of over-helping and whenever I’ve tried to escape I’ve fallen into deep potholes or got lost in the fog or misread the signposts or taken directions from variously malevolent or well-meaning or lost souls.’ I’d have pleaded: ‘Just give me a break! Please please please let this be my turn, because I’ve waited so long and I’ve not asked for anything before and I’ll be really, really good, I promise’. Instead, I wrote what needed to be written. Adopting the mantle of arts professional, I wrote about transitioning from producer/consultant to creator. I wrung the damned words out of me until, at 2-minutes to the deadline, feeling sick and stupid and embarrassed, pressed submit.
Hot-desking in a cafe in early October 2018, my laptop open and working on a grant application for a client, an email arrived from Arts Council saying ‘Action required: Your decision letter is available for review Project Name: Transitioning’. Here comes the rejection, I thought, as I logged-in to Grantium, Arts Council England’s electronic grant portal, my shoulders already slouched in preemptive disappointment. I had to read it twice. Three times. On about the fourth time I took it in: Offer Letter. I felt fireworks going off inside and a grin as wide as the Golden Gate Bridge starting to stretch across my face. I looked around the cafe. It was okay, no-one had noticed.
Now, to be transparent, I’m not a published writer, but then I’ve never sent my work out into the world. It’s been my secret thing, so I can’t honestly say how it would have been received if I’d given it wings. But there in front of me on the screen, in black and white, was an endorsement of sorts. I sat back in my chair, took a sip of my coffee, and said to myself – ‘I write. I’m writing. Ergo, I’m a writer. And it’s no longer just me who knows or believes it.’
The secret was out.
It felt phenomenal.
A series of blog posts about my journey through my Arts Council England Developing Your Creative Practice project.