I’m going to be honest: when I was first working on the writing job that is my primary focus at the moment, I had to google ‘how to format a radio play’.
I never dreamed that my first radio project would be a two hour feature to an audience of millions.
To my credit: I worked hard for this. I have lots of prior experience working with a huge array of artists across different mediums to shape their stories, both as a dramaturg and as a writer. I also jumped through a lot of hoops to get this gig, including writing the sample pages that helped the project to get the green light for commission.
But this project is also stretching me. There are lots of things that are unfamiliar to the point of discomfort.
Writing for radio. Working in long-form documentary-drama. Crafting story for an episode-based format. Working with an array of new collaborators and hierarchies I haven’t encountered before. And all on a very tight and inflexible timeline.
I was thrilled to get the opportunity to take this on.
But if I’m being honest with myself – I’m out of my depth.
I’ve thought this more than once on this project.
Luckily, I already know this feeling. I’ve spent a lot of time here over the years on various projects. Which means I can recognise it as an experience to work towards rather than an all-out crisis.
I encountered this ‘out of my depth’ experience with my first commissions, where I was still working out the mechanics of how to write a play alongside trying to meet the needs of the companies that had hired me, and tell a story that I cared about.
At times it felt overwhelming – even a bit impossible.
When you’re in the deep end, there are two choices: you can sink, or you can swim.
Sinking is, in some ways, the easiest choice. You give up. You let the water take you. You let the weight of your own fears and self-doubt drag you down, or paralyse you into a tense and hopeless cycle of treading water.
It’s normal to spend some time here. It’s a common part of the creative process. We all struggle, there is no shame in that.
But when I ask myself this question in these stark terms: “are you going to sink, or are you going to swim?” I feel my survivor instinct kick in. (Try it – it’s exhilarating to feel how powerful this is.)
I’m going to swim, damnit!
What does that look like?
Not giving up. This is a given. Finding some way to persist, to move forwards, to make an effort in spite of whatever odds you are facing is the main thing. Even a small amount of progress is bringing you closer to the goal, and the little bits really do add up.
Hard work – making time to focus on the problem. The more we do tasks, the better we get at conserving effort, which can make it a rude awakening to re-encounter the amount of work required to do something for the first time. Making the time to allow for ‘first time experience’ instead of expecting your normal efficiency or seeing this as a problem is essential.
But it’s not just sheer hours that count. It’s focused work. It’s easy to estimate just how difficult this is to do – to train our minds on the task at hand rather than letting letting them wander. Like meditation, it gets easier with practice, but even just a pure desire to make this your primary focus for a fixed period of time is a great starting point.
The last ingredient is the hardest. Looking for help. This is the equivalent of reaching for the life preserver, and the further out you are, the more important this becomes. You’re not going to make it from the middle of the Atlantic to Florida by swimming alone.
Doing this can be a painful process. When I had to share my first pages since formally coming on board the project, I knew they weren’t strong enough. The feedback that I got echoed that, even though my collaborators were kind enough to share their thoughts diplomatically. (And fortunately, I also find this easier to hear when I’m already aware there is an issue.)
But this opened the door to a really valuable discussion about what was missing, what was needed, and what might help me in unlocking the next phase.
I haven’t always had people who are as kind or as clear. But there are usually still clues in the conversation about what will put me on the right track, if I’m able to put ego aside enough to look for them.
It seems counterintuitive, but the worse you’re struggling, the better off you are sharing. If you’re waiting for a lightning stroke of genius, you are taking a pricey gamble. The sooner you get a steer, or sounding board, or commiseration from another person, the less likely you are to waste energy.
I’ve got most of these pieces lined up. That still doesn’t mean it’s easy.
I just completed a rough draft of part one of an eight part series. I know it still isn’t right yet. And I have a really long way to go in quite a short space of time.
I had anticipated taking this project on with full time childcare, instead I am in coronavirus lockdown with a toddler. The deadline isn’t going to move, so I have to innovate.
I’m determined not to fall into old habits of staying up too late and wrecking myself to get this done – because given that the release valves of childcare or other support are out of the question for the forseeable future, burning out and then recharging is simply not an option.
I have no idea how I’m going to innovate under such unusual circumstances with such tight time pressure. If I’m honest, it is a little bit scary. I’m trying to balance making room for those feelings without letting them overwhelm me.
When it really all feels too much, I’m reminded of what they do to help ‘drown-proof’ people in the military. You’re trained to sink to sink to the bottom, then use your feet to push you back up to the surface, conserving your energy.
A well-timed, small push can be more powerful than hours of pointless thrashing.
You just have to keep doing it over and over until the life preserver arrives.
And eventually, if you keep choosing to swim, you find you have made the perilous but rewarding journey to shore.