Many of us aren’t just actors. We explore artistically as writers, directors, painters, photographers…the list is endless. In this series of guest posts, we’ve invited librarian, actor, spoken word writer and performer, Varshini, to pen her thoughts on her writing journey.
As an actor, Varshini has numerous stage and film credits to her name, including True Love, a feature film directed by S Viknesh which was selected for the Queens World Film Festival in 2013, Neil Simon’s play The Star Spangled Girl, Tan Suet Lee’s play A Second Life, Hum Theatre’s Nagamandala and Seventy Shades of Play by the Stageclub Singapore. Her commercial credits include Julie’s Biscuits’ “The Best of You” advertorial campaign across TV, cinema and billboard. She is currently performing in Phenix Arts’ The Immortal Bard, a showcase of Shakespeare’s famous works being shown across the libraries in Singapore. She will also be presenting her poems as part of Gnossem Nights in end April. One of her poems will be published by Coffee Stained Press in their first poetry anthology, Words: Lost and Found.
What if nothing was new, ever?
What if I cannot find anything to write about?
What if I am not a creative person?
Why am I struggling to find the right words now?
Why is my brain all mush now?
Why can’t I get this line?
What is wrong with my feet?
And the list goes on. As artists, we have experienced this to varying degrees. A writer’s block, an actor’s block, a painter’s block, a dancer’s block – essentially, a block. As if some unnatural, invisible force suddenly takes away our creative juices and chugs it down its throat. Have you seen some of us when we are persecuted by this strange entity? It is almost debilitating at times. Because it makes us feel unworthy. It makes us feel like we have failed. And that my friends, is the start of the spiral into the abyss of no return. Dramatic, yes. Truth, one hundred per cent.
If I had to explain why this happens to us, I would say it is a combination of two things. I identify with American novelist Robert Stone when he said in jest that he possessed two worst qualities a writer could have – laziness and perfectionism (as revealed by Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, Big Magic). I am not always lazy but sure, there are days when I am absolutely bent on staying in bed, watching movies and not doing anything. Of course, it is absolutely fine to do that, but still I would think about writing that next piece of spoken word, which I want perfect.
But therein lies the demon. Such extreme beliefs of how your art should be will derail you into misery. Your art should give you happiness, let you have fun, fill your soul with fire and make your spine tingle. But instead, I just lie there and feel completely useless. In my opinion, seeking perfection will cause us unnecessary stress, which then results in blocks. This is not to say that we cannot set high standards for ourselves; we should, by all means, go for it. Reach for perfection as you see it, but do not do it for the sake of the society appraising your work. Let it be your personal best, give yourself the satisfaction of having created a marvellous piece of art from your heart. Then you will be at peace.
But how do we overcome those blocks when they occur? What do we do when we are standing in front of a wall and find ourselves without a tool like Mjölnir? The best thing to do is not to over-think, and Stop.
Stop. As simple as that. Stop forcing it. Give yourself permission to be blocked, to experience that feeling of being blocked. You are not a robot. Give yourself permission to be a human being. Treat the block not as an evil manifestation of the creative life you have chosen, but see it as an opportunity. Perhaps it is an opportunity to go to a Yoga class, eat ice cream in a playground, sit with a glass of kopi at a hawker centre or light up candles, listen to music and dance away (a personal favourite of mine). Just stop and be. Become present in the moment.
Another thing to do would be to “steal” (after the famous saying, “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal”). In Big Magic (a book has been a great source of inspiration for me), Elizabeth Gilbert alluringly refers to these as “stolen moments”. Borrowed moments of inspiration.
I do this a lot. Look for inspiration by reading, watching plays or dance, or people-watching. Just watch, observe and steal. When you least expect it, you may find that missing piece of the puzzle. Perhaps while watching the two cobblers at Holland Village keeping their age old traditions alive, mending your shoes, your ears may pick up a sound or your nose may be assaulted by a pungent smell, or your heart may be touched by the occassional smile. Whichever it is, it evokes something deep within and awakens you. Now you can get back to creating. Now you are aware again.
For a quicker dose of inspiration, read Austin Kleon’s “Steal like an Artist”. On his list of 10 things he wished he had heard when he was starting out, No. 5 states, “Side projects and hobbies are important”. When I feel a block coming over me, when I feel I am more stressed out when creating instead of enjoying it, I take a break and do something else. It sounds so simple but you would be surprised at how many of us, forget to do this. We might turn our attention to other endeavours but our brains have not stopped trying to squeeze out that last ounce of creative juice left, to write that last line. But we need to truly turn our attention away and that is when your side projects and hobbies are important. Some of the side projects I have are painting meditation and recording beautiful moments and storing them in a memory jar. Cleaning too – my table and cupboards are in constant need of tidying up. It helps me clear the clutter, physically, energetically and mentally.
Gilbert also taught me to have a love affair with my art. Turn up to create your art like you would when you turn up for a hot date. Because you love it, don’t you? Even when stopping after encountering blocks, I always make sure I come back to writing with passion. I light some candles, sit in comfortable clothes in front of my laptop, no lipstick but I feel fire in my heart again and then I let the words flow. Steal these moments for yourself to be alone with the love of your life and make love with it. Time for sexy time.
Sometimes your work ends up being “crooked” (in Gilbert’s words). Like the protagonist in a spoken word piece I wrote, “The Girl with the Crooked Mouth” (published in Words: Lost and Found by Coffee Stained Press, copies available for sale now). She quickly learned her crooked mouth was a gift and set off on a different journey, to surround herself with people who accepted her quirk. Heck, she even celebrated it.
Similar to that, your work may be less than perfect, but just make sure you complete it. It is far better to have something completed than to have have half-written or half-drawn pieces lying around waiting for perfection. It may never come. Even if people were to critique your work, they’ll also soon forget it and you’ll be on your way, creating new things.
Coming back to the very first question in this post: What if nothing was new, ever? I soon learned that nothing is new. Someone once asked me, why do you write about Love so much? I replied, “Well, what else is there that makes the world go round and people go mad?” But so much has been written about Love – the romances, the tragedies, the thrills and the agony. For centuries we have been cajoled in these love affairs again and again and yet we write about them again and again, in different ways, with different characters and seemingly different plots. The same with other genres and other art. Nothing is ever new, so why worry? Even in this post, I have borrowed so much from other authors because they inspire me, they inspire my thoughts about this post and so I pay homage to them by borrowing their words and creating my own spin, my own version. Plagiarism is not allowed, but taking something that has inspired you and creating something from your own heart is. So go for it.
If you have entered the Haque Centre of Acting and Creativity and ventured into the pantry area, you might have seen this framed poster with the words of Jim Jarmusch greeting you as you approach the waste bin or wait for the washroom:
Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.”
Celebrate your thievery. So flush away this idea of perfection and flush away the idea of originality; steal from the dumpster of abandoned ideas, let it speak to your soul and then create your work, authentically. I do love this word. Authentic.
As I finish writing this, I hear news that the artist Prince, that enigma, that eclectic vision of unparalleled magnificence, took his last breath on this Earth. Somewhere out there, the doves cry. Somewhere out there is a concert in Purple Rain. Prince taught us early on that to be unapologetically you is the only way to be. He showed us how to live life fiercely and authentically, without feeling like you have to answer to anyone. He showed us how not to give a rat’s ass about other people’s opinions. He said, “Yeah, everybody’s got a bomb, we could all die any day. But before I’ll let that happen, I’ll dance my life away.”
Dance your life away, for it is but short. Dance with the days that provide no inspiration, dance with the moments when your creativity is bursting out of your heart, dance on the days when your heart is heavy and your body battles a raging war conjured up by your mind, dance through the sleepless nights, dance, dance and keep dancing even if you have to take it slow as your bones grow old, keep on dancing. Because you never know.
“A strong spirit transcends rules.” – Prince
Keep your spirit strong and dance your life away.