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The Bringer of Ideas

To my dear Incomplete Self, as she is wondering if she will ever finish one of her great ideas:

Fir tree, Saltspring Island, 2016

Fir tree, Saltspring Island, 2016

What's the difference between completion and finishing? Someone posed that question on Facebook yesterday, and it struck me as being true: we don't have a satisfactory definition in the English language that distinguishes one from the other. 

Completion: the action or process of finishing something; the state of being finished. 

Finished: an action, activity, or piece of work having been completed or ended; a person having completed or ended an action or activity. 

I would say that this fir tree ably demonstrates the act of finishing, with its broken off branches scaling upward, and also completion at the top, where it rose to meet the sun. Not all the branches survived the journey - they finished their task of providing nutrients and energy to the tree as it grew. But its larger mission was completed once it pushed upward and reached the light. 

Either way, I've had very little experience with either of those words when it comes to my own projects. 

I tend to be a very, very serious person. Somehow, I never acquired the ability to lighten up and accept the moments in life as they come, as randomly assembled bits of life that don't necessarily have to make sense. Instead, driven perhaps by the messaging from my Christian upbringing in which I learned that "God has a plan", my Big Brain uses an awful lot of its hard drive power to ponder how it all "fits together" and "am I accomplishing my mission in life" and "what the hell does this project have to do with the other" and trying to figure out how I will "get it all done" before I die.

Seriously, that is a fear that I have. That I will die, like my mother, with boxes and boxes of unsorted photographs and unfinished projects. Her projects haunt me, and my own quietly hiss at me from my 40+ terabytes of hard drives. There are literally thousands of hours of footage I haven't looked at yet, waiting to be turned into a work of art, if I could just get around to it. 

It's like I took my mother's love of taking photographs and quadrupled the challenge, brought it to the 3rd dimension with moving images and sound, and thus ensured I would be shackled to my projects for the rest of my life. 

A photograph from Brazil, at Fazenda Cavalos Selvagems (Wild Horses Farm) where I've been shooting a documentary since 2010. The amount of footage is amazing. Daunting. Just like the skyscape.

A photograph from Brazil, at Fazenda Cavalos Selvagems (Wild Horses Farm) where I've been shooting a documentary since 2010. The amount of footage is amazing. Daunting. Just like the skyscape.

There's "The Trapper of Peace River", surrounded by oil and gas and forestry, watching his beloved wilderness be gutted by industry. That one, started in 2009, I have to admit I will probably never finish, though it's a subject that continues to both fascinate and grieve me. 

There is "Wild Horses" the documentary about my amazing horsewoman friend Ingela Larsson Smith, as she and her husband Richard take a band of unruly orphan boys and try to turn them into leaders and good men, through mentorship and horsemanship. Started in 2010, I have roughly 400 hours of footage, and hundreds of thousands of photographs to sort through. 

There's "Between Wood and Water" my current project about the oldest sailboat in Canada, Dorothy, set to sail again (we hope) sometime in the near future. It's her 120th anniversary and I've been waiting for progress on that front since 2014. Have given up a few times but again, the story is too good to quit on, even if it has been 5 years. 

These three projects have consumed me, by turns obsessed me, traumatized me and caused me to weep, at regular intervals over the last 7 years. It's been a long, hard road, and like the fir, I have many broken off branches to on me. 

And that's not even it. I seem to be born to generate new ideas. I want to start a media co-op on the island. A film school. An artists/production space. A tool-sharing workshop. A tiny house building series. And I have many many more ideas for community development and interactive projects. Ways to make life better for people. Strategies for all of my friends' small businesses. Every time I talk to someone I have an idea how I could help them, what they could do to grow or expand their business to fit the shape of their life. 

I have begun to suspect that I may not have enough time to do them all. I've often said I need an executive secretary to tell me what to do every day, and an army of workers to help me carry it out. I bring the ideas. But I can't do them all. 

So I've begun breaking off my own branches. Saying no to some things (and yes to still others - horses, WTF am I thinking, argghhhhh). I've said no to clients, to exciting opportunities, to people who want my help. I've largely become a hermit, housesitting up here on a hill in a beautiful house with the beautiful Winnie dog, because it's all I can do to just focus on my own work and not get distracted by having other people around. With every new conversation, I have a new idea, and then I'm off... on someone else's tangent. 

So our conversation on completing things will, of course, be continued. I have some other strategies for reaching the sun, as it were, that I'm slowly putting into place. But I just wanted you to know that it's ok if you haven't finished a project or 5, or you have so many ideas that you know you can't do them all... because I'm in the same boat. And I believe there is a way forward, a way to complete things, a way to have a beautiful life and not die with everything still unfinished. 

I'll let you know in the next post. 

In true form, leaving this conversation incomplete, but finished for now... 

love Tobi

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From Fear to Here

To my Precious Fearful Little Artist-Self, as you think about embarking on The Work,

My boat, Golden Eye, in preparation for getting to the water (2014)

My boat, Golden Eye, in preparation for getting to the water (2014)

I had written you a lovely letter this morning, congratulating you on your recent success in getting out of the Fear of The Work, and into actually doing it. And it was really a nice post, but then I accidentally deleted it. Hmmm, this publishing directly to a blog thing may not be a good idea. Perhaps to save myself from having a mini-coronary every time the internet kicks off and I lose an hour of work, I'll write in another format before publishing here. Lesson learned. 

Anyway, to stick with my "write every day" rule, I'll summarize my process from Fear to Here: 

  1. I was afraid to attempt The Work for a very very long time.
  2. I thought I was No Good, and a Terrible Editor, and besides, I had an outdated editing system. 
  3. I had no one to help me and felt very alone. 
  4. I practiced my mantras: "I have no money!" "I need help!" "I can't do this!" "I suck at editing!"
  5. To keep myself busy so I didn't have time for The Work, I saved some horses and did what I felt I was good at, for a very very long time.
  6. I made a few plans to attempt accountability to engage with The Work. I wrote them down in a journal. They were such a spectacular failure that the journal up and walked away in protest, along with my other 8 journals, to-do lists and diaries. I think they are hiding out in a bar in the Bermuda triangle. 
  7. I was inspired briefly by a legendary local artist's death, and made it my mission to "go out and make art like you're going to paint the shed" every day. 
  8. That lasted for 3 days, before I realized again how actually impossible and monumental my task was - SO MUCH BIGGER THAN ANYTHING ANYONE ELSE HAS EVER ATTEMPTED - and gave up.
  9. I got drunk a lot and watched Netflix a lot and was very lazy. 
  10. I decided I didn't want to be a documentary filmmaker, after all. I would be a community organizer!
  11. I didn't do pills or smoke weed, but I did my other coping things, which is to build up a series of urgent tasks (Tiny House workshop series, horse rescue, house-sitting, moving, downsizing stuff) and a list of people depending on me for things, to avoid the fact that I was avoiding The Work.
  12. One day, probably because I was delirious and over-tired because I kept dreaming about The Work I wasn't doing instead of sleeping, I got sick of the fear.
  13. I made a new plan: do bits of The Work every day, do it in the morning, don't do anything else, however urgent, until I did it. 
  14. I tried this for a week and got so high on exhilaration that I was actually laying some track, that I even began tackling other work that I had also procrastinated on. 
  15. The more worked, the more I wanted to work. The more progress I made, the more I wanted to see progress.
  16. I became obsessed with finishing rough cuts and fine cuts and getting them to clients, even if they were half done. I loved seeing progress, any progress, being made. 
  17. I got good feedback from my clients and discovered, "hey! I don't suck at this as much as I thought I did!"
  18. I bought some new software, sat down with my new laptop, and figured shit out that I had been afraid would be too daunting for me. I watched Youtube videos, the university of every other Millennial, Baby Boomer and Human on the planet. It was method I had eschewed as lazy and a sign of incompetance a few months ago, preferring blind ignorance and fear to actual knowledge.
  19. My new plan, surprisingly, worked! 2 months later, I had my very first rough sequence of footage for my documentary "Between Wood and Water".
  20. I wrote a letter to you about it and then deleted it. Wait, now we're getting a bit meta.
  21. Despite knowing that it's not good enough, I will publish this rough cut, because it features a man who is currently in his last few months of life, and he might never get to see the finished film (although I definitely hope he does!) I want him to know that his voice and his story will contribute toward this film about a boat that he loved and worked hard to save.  
  22. I am proud of myself, not because I produced something, but because I got over my fear and found I actually enjoy The Work. Especially when the alternative is dying of cancer-induced stress and getting ulcers and becoming an alcoholic trying to avoid The Work. 
  23. I also discovered I like my story, and it's going to be a pretty damn good documentary if I continue to just show up at the desk and work a little bit every day. 

So that is a summary of what my process, and likely a much funnier version than this morning's drivel. You're welcome, my now-Shining Star of Productivity. Congratulations on getting to The Work.

Love, Tobi

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Sekiu under sail at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat festival (2015). 

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The Perfect Workweek

My Dear Driven Artist and Compulsive Overworker,

I've always known that working 40 hours per week was not for me. It was always either 70 or 80, or 10/20 ish. I believe I'm really only productive when I'm working flat-out, obsessively, enjoying the rush and stimulus of expediting food for a conference of 1000s of attendees for example, or fitting in a leisurely 2 hour work period as I do in my late 30s, between caring for horses, large dogs, gardens, and packing or unpacking my things from whatever housing arrangement I have at the time. 

Now I have scientific proof that working less is better for me, and is more productive in the end. I hereby present: The Ideal Workweek, According to Science, by Simon Parkin.

ideal workweek poster.jpg

Basically, he explains that just because "we live in a culture that venerates overwork", doesn't make us more productive. In fact, a lot of the research shows that four hour stints of work is about as much as anyone, from artists to philosophers to athletes, can handle. And even that might be best broken up into one hour work segments, with 15-20 minute breaks. 

My challenge, and perhaps yours too, is that my brain has been transformed by the ADD-inducing nature of social media culture, to the point that I can't seem to concentrate on a single task for more than 20 minutes before I'm actively looking for a distraction.

Ironically, when I'm "working" on social media content and surfing the web and Facebook for marketing opportunities, I can sit there, zoned out like a zombie, for hours. But when I'm standing in front of the computer doing some actual creative work to do with one of my documentaries, it takes about 20 minutes before my brain starts to drift, and if I can harness it at that point and wrestle it back to attention, I'm still only good til around the 40 minute mark before I have to do something else. 

Why is that? Why can't I focus on the work that is most meaningful and will produce the most long-lasting feeling of satisfaction for me? At the end of a workweek, I don't look back on my social media posts and go, "wow, those were some creative pieces of work there, Tobi, well done!" OK, so I do pat myself on the back a little bit for the bloggy bits that actually take some storytelling skill. But when I think about what I've done that week in terms of "real work", it's only the time I've put in to actually putting bits of video on a timeline, or words on a page, or ideas and research in a publishable format, that I really feel a sense of accomplishment about. 

The problem perhaps is, that the sense of accomplishment comes long after I've actually done the work, not while I'm creating. I usually have a sense of un-accomplishment while I'm creating something. It feels always rough, unpleasant, not enough, not polished, unhappily unfinished. So I go away from it with the nagging sense that I have to come back, and it bugs me. Whereas social media publishing work has an immediate sense of accomplishment, a reward right at the time of posting, and I feel a little rush and sense of satisfaction that makes me want to do more. 

So instead of limiting myself to a single post, like an addict, I have to replicate that post's success, doing it in multiple groups and trying to get even more traction, chasing the dragon of more reach and interaction. But it's a high that never lasts, and I don't think about it beyond that limited period. The gain is instant, and instantly over. 

But real work... the hard, uncomfortable stuff that I have to do daily if I'm ever going to finish one of my documentaries... the grinding, hair-pulling, sweat-inducing valleys and troughs I have to push myself through to actually lay track... this kind of work can only be done in short bursts.

I take hope in the evidence that far greater artists and thinkers than I am have traditionally worked in short bursts and then taken their leisurely time to do the rest of life, and let their mighty creative minds and juices slowly recover. Here's to a better workweek, and to working with less pressure and compulsion, for all of us. 

Hang in there,

love, Me.

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Marketing vs. doing the work

Social media stuff I love-hate.jpg

This week I found myself tackling a long-overdue job of setting up and sorting myriad social media accounts for the Dorothy documentary I've been working on. OMG it's awful. I both love it and hate it - but the part I dislike most is that I seem to have tunnel vision about the whole thing. Once I started setting up Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, Hootsuite and Facebook, it's like a whole Sim City world that you can't just walk away from but have to continually tweak and manage and breathe life into. It's exhaustilerating. 

So that's the struggle this week. Is this social media thing a distraction from the actual work of logging, editing, crafting, watching footage, making stuff? Or is it a legit thing I actually need to keep doing as a producer for this indie film? Again, hate it or love it, it's how you get the news out into the world when you don't have a network backing you. Probably something you have to do even if you do have a network - who am I kidding? Do you really think the busy communications people at any of the major networks have half the social savvy as I do, or the commitment to the story? Nope. So it's all on me. 

But this is a very real struggle people! I'm working on focusing on my art. Doing the stuff. The work. The shitty, grinding, annoying, back-destroying things on my computer and laptop that simply have to get done in order for a piece of craftsmanship to emerge in the world. But the more time I spend on Twit-Insta-FB-Tum-Hoots and all the rest is time away from the actual work. 

If I'm honest, the social media stuff is easier for me than the work. That's why I've delayed logging footage from 2013 until now.. It's just hard work. Social media is a mind-sucking sort of endeavour that I can use my monkey brain on and watch television at the same time. I can get sucked into the vortex of online existence and still feel like "i'm doing something," whereas the actual work doesn't let you lie about production like that. Either you have a beautiful sequence at the end of 5 hours, or you have pieces of things because you distracted yourself with a bunch of busywork crap. The work doesn't let you lie. Social media is pretend work. 

So, in the interest of keeping it real, I'll just say that I love it and hate it. I know it's necessary. I have to keep getting the word out there about this remarkable boat and her incredible survival story, and the only way seems to be with a decent social media platform. But I'll use this blog to stay accountable about how much actual work I get done, too. You will be my witness. 

Am I an artist or still playing at being one? 

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Welcome

Journal: Letters to the Artist is a collection of personal writings from my journey to becoming an artist and independent female filmmaker. It's a raw, honest account of the internal and external resistance and obstacles I encounter, the heartaches and setbacks, the lessons I'm learning and the anticipated, dreamed of achievement of actually, this year, maybe getting some work done. That's my only goal. Just get the work done and let the cards fall where they may. 

So this blog is not a promotional vehicle. I'm not going to sell you my stories or ideas. Just sharing as I work to become a healthy artist with a vibrant, balanced life, one who is not martyred or obsessed with the work, but who produces art in harmony with my life.

The threads of my art and life are inextricably entwined. I've found as a documentary filmmaker that I become so caught up in my subject and what I'm learning, I become either part of the story, or the story becomes part of my life, or both. In "Between Wood and Water", I document the restoration of the oldest functioning wooden sailboat in Canada, Dorothy. I also fell in love with her shipwright, had a tumultuous relationship with him over 3 years, and am emerging on the other side with some more wisdom, a 15-foot wooden sailboat of my own called Golden Eye, and some emotional bruises I'm still healing from. In "Wild Horses" I document the journey of one of Europe's premiere natural horsewomen as she leaves her professional career to teach a bunch of orphaned and neglected boys in Brazil the secrets of the horse. Over the 7 years I've been documenting the story, I've become wedded to the family and stayed on the fazenda not just as a filmmaker, but as house momma and friend. And I've acquired two horses of my own by rescuing them from neglect and potentially death in winter 2016. 

So this Journal is not just the story of my Stories, but the Story of us as we all weave a tapestry of beauty from the many colourful threads of our lives. 

It's going to be personal, raw, unfiltered and unprofessional. You will not find tips and tricks for shooting in certain kinds of light, because honestly I have no idea how to get the sometimes magical images I come away with. Almost nothing in my shooting career is pre-planned and thought out, I just launch the boat from whatever shore I'm standing on, and we go from there. Sometimes I have partners, mostly I work alone. Most of the people I've partnered with along the way have gone their own ways for various reasons - the one main reason being is that I can be demanding, exhausting and challenging to deal with. I keep my own pace, and race against my own clock. It's part of the magic parcel. But I'm hoping one day I'll find a tribe I can work with so I don't die alone. Ha! The existential fear that I'll no doubt keep coming back to explore. 

So I don't know what this will be like. Sometimes I will write to myself, letters to my own artist. Sometimes I'll write to someone else, as if I know you and what you're going through. Sometimes I'll have advice, mostly I'll have questions. I make no promises. I simply want to make art with integrity, and to live life in a way that supports my body, mind and heart. And maybe you want to do that too so perhaps this series of letters will be a medium of communication. Feel free to comment, post your own stories and share your journey. 

My one rule is that I be real, not fake/professional/cutesy or overly smartass. Though I will allow myself to cop an attitude on occasion. I will endeavour not to use exclamation points as I feel I used up my quota in my twenties. 

This is just me. Period.

Welcome. 

 

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