How jazz shaped my philosophy of life

I’m not alone am I? I mean, most guys in their thirties … with a waistline you don’t want to be reminded of, and a knee-jerk cynicism about the world … most guys are wondering what happened to that little boy they once were: his focus, his energy, his passion, his fundamental optimism … his innocence?

A mid-life crisis? It’s basically a second adolescence where the question has changed from ‘who do I want to be?’ to ‘who have I become?’

There are a few things that make me feel sixteen. One of them is swimming in open water, another is listening to jazz, old jazz, New Orleans jazz from the early 20th century. That’s essentially the sound-track of my teens.

How do you rebel in a world of non-conformists?

It’s a strange choice, but honestly it was about the only avenue left open to express my rebellion, while I was trying to be a non-conformist like everyone else. My peers were listening to Nine Inch Nails, Portishead, House of Pain, Iron Maiden, Guns N’ Roses. My family (and music teachers) listened to baroque and classical music. Even the lefty teachers listened to New Model Army and The Levellers. I got captivated by the energy and optimism of jazz, and later found in it a voice for the melancholia and rebellion I treasured in my adolescent heart.

I started out taping jazz radio programs on BBC Radio 3. I ended up collecting photos of jazz musicians, reading every scrap of jazz history I could find and spending every break time on a piano in the music school. This music became one of my earliest mentors and I’m only discovering now how much it set my expectations and shaped my outlook. That boy I once was is still fundamentally running the show from a speakeasy in the back of my mind.

Freelancing is the highest form of employment

For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever questioned my assumption that freelancing is the highest form of employment. I learned this from my trumpet-blowing heroes. At the end of the day, they had themselves, they had soul and a horn to blow it out from. They pitched up, they did their thing, then they disappeared back into the night, beholden to nobody. If they were good, they got booked; if they weren’t hot enough, they got cut. If they got into self-destructive habits, they burned their career, because they were inseparable from it.

Gentlemen prefer banjos

Gentlemen prefer banjos

That’s it, you know, these musicians stood or fell on the basis of something that it was quite impossible to fake. You can paint jazz by numbers, and I’ve heard plenty of these guys who have emerged from conservatories who can run up and down scales very prettily — but the elusive elements of soul, swing and hotness … sticks out a mile.

Of course I’m romanticising it – but it’s the myth that wired me to be a freelancer.

I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I love it

Then there’s my almost-pathological preference for spontaneity. My heroes were (and still are) improvisers. None of them would pitch up to a jam session and ask to see the score, or dream of showing up with a bunch of pre-rehearsed licks. They’d internalised the outer forms and the inner core of their art a long time before they stepped up to the mic.

I can’t see the problem with going by the seat of your pants as long as, you know, you made those pants yourself, you know they are up to the job, and you carry a sewing kit in case they get torn

I still believe that you’ve gotta be a sponge and soak in stuff, so when you get poked that’s what comes out. If it’s not in you already, it’s too darn late to start preparing now. Being an improviser isn’t about not being prepared, it’s about the preparation happening over years in the past.

Individualism can coexist with collectivism

Then take the matter of ‘teamwork’, ‘leadership’ and all those buzz words you’ll never find on the sleeve notes of a hot record. My take on these tings is still cast acccording to the loose categories of ‘ensemble’, ‘soloist’ and ‘bandleader’.

The feature that makes early New-Orlenian jazz so special compared to what followed is the ‘ensemble’. Everyone plays together – everyone improvises together. It’s not about the solos, like it is today. You might not hear any solos; sometimes the most a single instrumentalist gets to play in the limelight is a four-bar break to key the ensemble back in.

The phenomenon of a band leader is an interesting one in this egalitarian context. From my reading of early jazz history the bandleader is:

  •  needed by the entertainment industry so they have a name they can use to sell records and attract the punters (‘Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers’ is going to sell better than ‘some guys with horns and stuff who happened to be available on Friday afternoon’)
  • the one with the personal influence, the network and the contacts (in modern business terms) to convene an assortment of seasoned musicians who are going to sound good together (the cats dig him/her enough to pitch up)
  • someone who has to take care of that client-facing stuff, you know, and make sure everyone gets paid if they’ve been sober

None of that means the band leader is any kind of big-shot when it comes to the team performing (or the band playing).

Classic New-Orleans jazz is a shining example of how both individualism and collectivism can play loud and strong together in society. I guess I’m holding out for that.

That’s almost enough said … yup, enough. I’ll just let the music speak for itself. This is Black Bottom Stomp (it still raises the hairs on my neck):

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Swifts for the tacit longings of our adult years

As we approach middle age, is it normal for birds to become more fascinating to us? We start feeding them, watching them, doodling them. Do they represent our longing to shed the earthbound web we’ve woven for ourselves and to be as light as air? Maybe it’s just me.

Once again my scratchpad (the notebook I keep strictly for rough work/business notes, lists of action items and phone calls) has been invaded by the doodling dreamer.

try to make a swift with as few strokes of the pen as possible.

try to make a swift with as few strokes of the pen as possible.

Lest you be tempted by the dream of freelancing …

I’m not complaining for a minute; this is the life I have chosen for myself and I love it. As in any job, though, there are good days and bad days.

I am often asked for advice by people who are considering going self employed in creative fields and my first line is a reality check. If I had known all this when I started three and a half years ago, I don’t think it would have changed anything, but this is my second attempt to “go it alone” after I learned some hard lessons the first time round, which was about ten years ago.

Dream

Reality

Shuffling to your PC in your pyjamas with a cup of coffee at 11am to start work Getting up at 6am and sometimes working ‘til midnight to meet a deadline.
Lunching with friends Skipping meals because you are “in the zone” and don’t want to lose the flow
Being your own boss and beholden to nobody Working for a string of “bosses” in succession and often simultaneously
Never having to fill in another job application Being on a permanent job hunt to line up the next month of work
Never having to go through another annual performance review Trying to stay on top of your game and develop your skills with virtually no guidance
Holidays when you want them No paid leave and the laptop comes on holiday with you because it’s impossible to “abandon the baby”
Extended amounts of time in your own little world Missing the banter and mutual support of a work environment
Doing what you love every day Tax returns, accounts, marketing, pitching and admin at least 30% of the time
Time to work on your “big idea” Shelving the “big idea” until things calm down a bit
Having control over your working environment Moving to the kitchen because the desk is too cluttered, tripping over the laundry pile and the dog/cat who is doing everything in its power to distract you
“My office is a coffee shop” Spending half an hour trying to get access to their unfeasibly slow WiFi, getting the shakes by lunch time (after your 4th espresso), going outside to take a phone call that you don’t want to be overheard
Practice the guitar in your “lunch break” Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and Stumbleupon in your “lunch break”

8 Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Tips for Freelancers

Back in my nursing days, my right to practice was contingent upon staying up-to-date with developments in the field and being able to show evidence of continuous learning and improvement. The possibility that the NMC could call in my learning portfolio at any point was always in the back of my mind. In reality, the organisation I worked for also required, and arranged, a certain amount of mandatory training and extra courses that covered my CPD needs.

As a freelancer, nobody sends you on courses or asks for evidence that you are keeping up with changes in your area of expertise; it’s down to you.

You are your own training department.

You expertise is your stock in trade and you are responsible for keeping it fresh and for staying informed. I aim to spend at least three hours a week on CPD and, as you will see, this doesn’t have to be much more than religiously reading a few blogs or listening to a podcast. Remember, Most freelancers sell a skill they have developed plus the stuff they have stashed in their brain cells; we need to keep the stock fresh.

My field is copy editing, document support and coaching written communication across  academic, business, technical and fiction writing. As we go, I will share a few links to free resources for my fellow word-mongers, but here are a few CPD ideas to keep any freelancer on the ball.

Dedicated time

We all know where to go to download information if we need it. I use web searches several times a day to check facts or verify current practice, in the middle of my workflow. However, the CPD dimension of my work requires time that is set aside for it (out of office hours, usually soon after waking up). Decide how many hours a week you are going to spend purely investing in yourself as a professional and block out that time in your schedule.

A professional musician racks up hours of practice on a daily basis; they don’t rely on performance time to learn and improve technique. It should be no different for other freelancers.

The reading list

A shelf of books to consult on-the-fly is essential for any freelancer. However, you need as much of that stuff on the tip of your tongue as possible because you can’t take “SEO for Dummies” to a client meeting. For this reason, my books divide into “to refer to” and “to digest” categories.

Maintain a list of books to read and books read, and set yourself a target to read two or three books in your field every month. It is tempting to read more books on becoming a better freelancer or running a better business, and these should form part of your diet, but don’t neglect learning more about your actual trade – the stuff you sell.

While we are on the subject, libraries are great, too. How about using your local library once a week for a dedicated reading session.

Grab the news

As well as subscribing to the leading RSS channels in your field, it is worth setting up a couple of Google searches for key terms and having them pushed to your inbox. This makes it easy to add keeping abreast of developing news and trends into your email-reading routine.

For example, I currently have a news search on “grammar” set to send me a daily email so I don’t miss a story.

Read a blog, or two

This is not difficult for most of us. In fact, the challenge is to restrain a tendency to disappear down the rabbit hole on a fairly boring “clickathon”, only to emerge a few hours later either choking on information reflux or wondering how we ended up looking at LOLcats … again.

Choose two leading blogs in your field and read them, religiously. Separate them out from all the other channels. My online RSS reader aggregates lots of fluff for me to read in my spare time, but these come to my mailbox.

For me, these are Daily Writing Tips (absolutely leading the field from my point of view) and Copyblogger (slightly off-topic for my speciality but often useful).

Podcasts

If you have a commute, these are ideal for the train or car – you can get edumacated on your way to work.

Since my journey to work tends to be down the stairs and through the living room, I still make time to listen to podcasts every week. As with the blogs, pick one (two at the most) and block out time to listen. Think of it in the same light as learning a language: you are going to spend a certain amount of time with the headphones on … learning.

If you listen at home or in an office, you may even want to treat it like a classroom and take notes.

Quite apart from the fact that Mignon Fogarty taught me most of what I know and is still my “go-to guru”, the 15 minutes I spend listening to her Grammar Girl podcast two or three times a week often gives me the edge.

Find a coach

There is no substitute for the walking, talking expertise of someone who is further along the road than you.

I’m extremely lucky to have worked for and with Hannah Juby of Express Language in the last few years. This has included informal mentoring and feedback that has corrected a lot of my worst habits and pushed me to improve.

Finding a mentor who is prepared to share their knowledge with you for free could be tricky, especially if you are a potential competitor. However, scroll through your phonebook now and you will surely spot someone, perhaps in a parallel or overlapping sphere, with whom you are friendly enough to be allowed to draw on their brilliance.

Online (and other) courses

Finally, I have a few thoughts on courses, because I’ve thrown money at them and I know people who have thrown money at them.

Be cautious: there is an industry that plays on your ambitions by reselling stuff you could find out quite easily for yourself. Having said that, they are not all scams. Some will offer certification of some sort and, at the very least, someone has usually put a lot of time into making the information structured and digestible. You may also find that paying for something means you are more likely to follow through on it – so courses do work for some people.

In my experience, people who have completed courses don’t necessarily have more expertise than the folk who rig up their own CPD program as recommended in this post.

Use it reflectively

Reflect on learning before moving on to the next chunk of information.

In my nursing portfolio, I used to have blank copies of a form I would fill in every time I read an article. I forced me to think about how what I had read would affect my practice in the future. It asked me to respond to a few questions (if I recall correctly):

  • Do you agree with this?
  • What are the problems with this article?
  • How will you apply what you have learned?
  • Has it raised any further areas of enquiry to direct future learning?

Put what you learn into practice at the earliest opportunity.

In summary …

  • DO take your continuing professional development seriously and block out time in your schedule to train yourself.
  • DON’T flood yourself with information or lose yourself on the web, find a few good resources and digest them thoroughly on a routine basis.
  • DO draw on your personal network.
  • DON’T sign up and shell out for courses on a whim.
  • DO see it as a journey and enjoy every minute of it.

Grammar Patrol

I am ashamed to admit that I found a copy error on the back of the  business cards I have been using for the last three years. When I started freelancing in 2010, I didn’t know how to use a colon. At worst, dodgy copy makes things downright confusing for the reader: at best, it makes you look like a numpty – especially when you are selling your writing and editing skills.

Here is the offending item:

business card

I’m always recommending that people don’t use a colon to introduce a list in this way. It is unnecessary and it often leads to confusing sentences. I think that must be the reasoning behind the fact that it is plain wrong. Nevertheless, this use is extremely common. If you want to go for an “A” grade, make sure that what precedes the colon is a proper sentence. Yes I’ve just re-ordered my cards with a rewritten blurb; that colon cost me £20.

So, having admitted one of my many faults, am I permitted to share a giggle over some other people’s, from my collection?

This invokes visions of staff swinging into the toilet, Tarzan style, on the disabled alarm cord (and possibly landing with a splash of toilet water).

27-WP_000416

Here is some classic apostrophe abuse, compounded by inconsistency. If there are Coffee’s, why aren’t there also Tea’s, Breakfast’s, Cocktail’s, Wine’s, Spirit’s and Beer’s?

IMG_0111a

I was very disappointed that I didn’t see any old vehicles being smashed at the museum in Alston; I wouldn’t mind smashing a few exclamation marks, though!

Grammar Patrol! Grammar Patrol ‘ten’SHUN! Turning to the right in threes disMISS! Carry on!

Freelancing: a Time Management System that Works for Me

As a natural procrastinator and date-phobe, deadlines do nothing to lower my blood pressure. In the last two years of trying to get established as a freelancer I have tried every single time management strategy available. I have probably spent as much time re-structuring my diary and prioritising to-do lists as I have spent actually working. More recently, my growing workload has made it an imperative that I get this thing nailed down – pinned down, to be precise.

All my experimentation and money spent on index cards and software has not been in vain. I’m going to share with you the system that I have evolved to suit my way of working in the hope that it might help other freelancers like me.

You will need

  • A large cork board
  • A large assortment of different coloured pins (I have about 50 of each colour)
  • A marker
  • Some labels
  • Possibly some coloured tape or sticky notes that are the same colours as your pins (these are to indicate deadlines)

    It should start to look something like this.

  1. Take the marker and divide the board into eight rows (for days of the week and a label) and as many columns as you can fit across it.
  2. Label the bottom seven rows Monday to Sunday (or Monday to Friday if you strictly don’t work weekends …  as if!)
  3. Use the top row to add labels for each coming week. These will need to be removable so you can update it with fresh weeks every so often.
  4. You are ready to go.

How to use it

There are a few simple principles to grasp:

  1. Each pin represents an hour’s work. When you take on a new job you need to estimate how many hours it is going to take you and set aside that number of pins (I write at about 500 words an hour and copy edit at about 1,500 words an hour).
  2. Use different coloured pins for different clients or jobs.
  3. Populate the “calendar” with the pins, showing when you are going to do each hour’s work. Each of my days has space for nine pins (nine working hours). Loosely, the first pin is 8am-9am and the last pin is 5pm-6pm (with an hour off for lunch).
  4. Use a specific colour (I use white) to block out days when you are not available and hours when you have appointments or non-work commitments during the normal working day.
  5. Indicate your deadlines with a piece of tape (or even a dedicated pin) in the colour for that job.
  6. You can play with the pins as much as you like but there is one rule: red pins can’t go past the red deadline, and so on.

Advantages

This system works for me because there is something about physically moving pins around that really helps me to understand how my time is distributed in a way that paper or a computer screen never does. I can tell at a glance if someone phones me up and says “can you do it by Tuesday?” If a job takes less time than I expected I can just subtract a few pins. For each hour of work completed, that pin gets removed and put to the side so progress towards completion can be seen instantly (and taking a pin out is a nice feeling). If something else needs to be slotted in, it is very easy to arrange the pins around it.

Handy tip: take a photo of the board with your phone camera and set it as your screensaver/background so you can carry it around with you.

There is lots of flexibility and scope for creative variation, but here are the basics.

It is not until you start using it that you realise the elegance of the system. Give it a go!

Thoughts on Creativity: Lessons from the Journey

Reflecting on the last year of creativity after having quit my full time job in order to pursue some creative stuff that had become too lively to be confined to evenings and weekends, I have learned a few lessons:

1. It Takes Longer Than You Think

Waiting

Wait for it!

Firstly, until I tried to give myself over to creative paths on more than just an “ad-hoc” basis, I never realised what a long time the act of creating actually takes. Previously, I had worked when compelled and inspired and with not much expectation that what I was doing needed to be really all that amazing. As a result, things got done easily and quickly and there was not even an expectation that I needed to finish anything if I lost the muse during the process. Now it is different, I need to write when I feel less like it, when the words come slowly, or when my imagination takes a vacation.

However, this has not been the most time consuming thing.The real time-sink has been the slow process of facing down the chatter of the demons we encounter on the creative path:

  • Motivation – Why am I doing this? Am I just being selfish? Is this really contributing to society? Does it matter what other people think? Who am I doing this for? These kind of questions can put a dampner or things for weeks. And just because we have answered them once, it doesn’t mean we won’t have to answer them every day.
  • Vulnerability – Putting creative work out there, sharing it, publishing it, is all very exposing.We make a deep personal investment in our work and then others get to see into us through it in ways that we might not be ready for. Am I ready to go public with this?Am I ready for criticism, or indifference, or misinterpretation?
  • Doubts – Does anyone really care about what I create? Does that matter? Am I good enough? Look at what other people are doing, they have been doing it for years and they are brilliant. I’m not a natural like them. I should get a proper job. I’ll never be world class. Should I care if I’m not?
  • Discipline – I’m so badly disciplined. I’m supposed to love what I do and it’s a privilege but I can’t settle to it sometimes. Most people who have jobs with bosses breathing down their necks and set work hours have that extra incentive to stay on task. I have none of that. It is hard, every day I have to start by re-discovering my reasons for doing this.

2. Persistence

From my observations and from the received wisdom of others, the difference between great writers and the rest of us is not necessarily innate gifting but pure graft. This goes for all the arts. Some talent helps but there are more talented people out there who have fallen on the first hurdle of of applying themselves to their craft. Working on your creativity daily brings two rewards:

  • Upping the Average – If 2% of what you write is pure gold then you just have to write enough for that 2% to be significant.The analogy is often cited of a photographer. Again, the difference between a pro photographer and the rest of us is that while I take hundreds of pictures, they take thousands. Even if one in every thousand pictures is an iconic masterpiece, you have more chance of hitting it if you take more pictures.
  • Practice – Honing and improving your work comes through practice, repetition, iteration. The more you create the more practice you get creating. I once spoke to a silversmith who had his own business and he told me how when he first came out of art college and went for his first job, he was walking around the workshops and the boss picked up a ring off a workbench. “How long would it take you to polish this?” he asked. “About an hour, maybe two,” he replied. “That’s a four minute job,” said the boss. Sure enough, after several months at the workshops, doing not much more than polishing,this guy could do a two hour job in four minutes. Practice!

The basic skills of our work need to become second nature whether that is mixing oils, playing scales, or writing dialogue, so that we are not hindered by technique.

3. Finding the Right Motivation

Whatever our initial reasons are for embarking on a creative career, sooner or later it has to become about more than wanting to be noticed.

Creativity

"Creativity"

Most people I know, who are trying to get traction or considering putting significantly more energy into their creativity, are actually not after fame or recognition. In fact it is slowly dawning on them that what they have been doing as a hobby might be something that others will enjoy, and it is time to “come out”.

I think a lot of writers, however, have a desperation to see “their name in print” as if there is something magical about that. We have to find better motivation than that, otherwise (among other things) we will be in danger of feeling bitter about the “success” of others who get there before we do with what is often quite lousy manuscript.

We have to joy over the intrinsic rewards of our process and product, and hold the adoration of fans lightly. I’ll admit that on weeks when my Borders of Sleep podcast is getting 50-100 downloads a day, I feel great. The problem is that when it drops to 20, that affects my mood, too. I forget that I’m not doing this for the hits but because I love creating stories.

Do what you do, well and lovingly, and if it turns out that you are the prophet of the zeitgeist then let that be what it is.

4. Community

In spite of the “cult of the artist” and this idea that the creative’s lot is to slave away in a windy garret, that’s all bunkum. Yes it is lonely at times, but that is why we need others. Really one of the most enjoyable aspects of pursuing creativity, for me, has been the community that forms around it. I think the community gives us two things:

  • Accountability – I know that if I talk to people about my plans and dreams, they are more likely to happen. As long as they stay in my head as a vague nice idea, they are safe; and if I never tell anyone then I’ll never need to try them and risk failure. Even better, I know that if I can rope people in collaboratively then a project is even more likely to fly. I cannot overemphasise the value of this. For example, with my podcast, if it was not for the producer (Tim) and illustrator (Robyn), I doubt if it would have been sustainable. Having other people involved and interacting with ideas keeps me working on it week after week.
  • Synergy – Actually working with others often means that, together you are more than the sum of your parts. That extra element of “synergy” comes into play. It is great to have friends who say, “that sounds like a great idea, why don’t you go ahead” but it is even better to have allies who say, “that sounds like a great idea, let’s do it together.” In order to open yourself up to synergy, you have to let go a little of the control but I think it is a small price to pay for having a creative ally.

So …

What are the core lessons you learned along the way that it would have been helpful to have known before you got started?