Singers who move well


As the weeding out of the old, outmoded or less-than-“HELL, YEAH!” continues, startling things have begun sprouting up in the freshly emptied spaces.

Ideas, for starters. Crazy, wild tangles of ideas, some related, some seemingly random (I suspect that patterns for much of this will only start to emerge further down the road).

And not just for art projects or even business projects, but for processes and actions and ways of thinking. I work in metaphors a lot of the time, this whole notion of weeding and gardens to describe the clutter-clearing phase I’m in is a good example, and the metaphors are flowing more easily. So are the ideas for system tweaks, including everything from a better way to handle the recycling to how to order my errands so I actually do them. (Hint: simple stuff like having a capturing mechanism for every idea and then actually capturing it has made at least as big a difference as the excellence of the capturing devices themselves, although I’m finding it true that elegant tools you want to use mean a greater proclivity to use them.)

All that is marvelous. Anyone who’s ever cleared out a sock drawer of singletons knows how this sort of thing goes.

What is not so marvelous, or, what is marvelous AND terrifying, is the nakedness and the lightness one feels along with the roominess. Because part of the process of clearing is asking some really tough questions about what’s serving and what’s not, what’s valuable and what’s not, what you have time for and what you do not. Choosing one thing means not choosing something else. At its best, there’s a certain wistful sadness to it; at its worst, you can end up with startlingly nasty, super-judgy feelings about someone else’s choices. (Cartoonist/essayist David Kreider calls this tendency the Referendum, and so beautifully, you really should jump over there and read it. After you’re done here, of course.)

The other thing that gets a little gnarly in the decision-making process is, as you get down to the very, very precious stuff, the top of tops, say, your three favorite things to do in the whole, wide world, which one you choose. Because you can kid yourself all you want, but the number of people who are stupendous at one thing and then equally stupendous at one, or two, or, god help us, three, thing(s) is so small, you have a better chance of turning into a leprechaun tomorrow than becoming one of them. Fred Astaire had a thin, reedy (albeit charming!) singing voice and passable acting skills for the style of the day. He was also one of the greatest dancers who ever lived. Gene Kelly had a far better singing voice than Fred Astaire and even, I’d wager, superior acting ability. He was also one of the finest dancers who ever lived, but he was no Fred Astaire. There’s a sweaty, exertive quality to Kelly’s work that is nonexistent in Astaire’s: with Gene Kelly, you could see how hard it was to get there; when you watch Fred Astaire, it looks like the simplest, most natural thing in the world.

At a certain point in the musical performer’s career, she needs to decide: will I be a singer who moves well or a dancer who can carry a tune? You can get steady work as either. You may end up being so good at both that to the casual observer there is no difference but trust me: the truly great know what they are the very best at. (Or, paradoxically, they are insanely humble and profess to be middling at both. It’s a weird but real exception I’ve found to that rule.)

I have finally stuck my flag on the hill of writing. It’s terrifying because no matter how good I get (and I’m a lot better than I’d ever hoped I could be when I was really, really, really bad at it), I’ll always know that there are writers I will never be as good as. But jettisoning some of the other stuff that I’ve been hanging onto to stoke my pride, this idea of me as an actor (yes, I toy with thoughts of going back) or a designer, makes it a littler easier to justify the insane logging of hours required to get as good as I can at this writing thing.

You have to give up something to be really great at anything. And you have to do it full-out, and now; deferring is a sucker’s game, more mental clutter that gets in the way of you realizing the full potential of Whatever It Is that you’re good at. (And by “you,” I hope it goes without saying, I mean “me.”)

More and more will fall by the wayside, I know, with no guarantee of future success as many define it. If I define it as full pursuit of the awesome, though, and I follow through, then I could get hit by a bus tomorrow (although I’d prefer that not happen) and die 100% fulfilled. Not the hackneyed “doing what she loved,” but pursuing it. Pursuing the shit out of it.

Maybe you already know what your Thing is. Maybe you need to go through some kind of excavation process to find it. I’m always recommending The Artist’s Way for creative types who need to unlock their inner whatever. The Creative Habit, which I reviewed here recently, is another great, less woo-woo choice, although it’s also geared toward artists. If you know of fantastic books written for those outside the creative arts field, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.

Me, I know. My job in the immediate is to clear as much room as possible to facilitate the work of writing. That means plotting out the handoff of my few remaining design clients, wrapping up whatever projects I have outstanding and instituting a really strict and sensible system for deciding what to take on next. The aforementioned “Hell, yeah!” strategy of Derek Sivers and the corollary “No-Brainer Scenario” of Victoria Brouhard are two tools I’m playing with right now. Again, other strategies that may have escaped my attention are welcome.

Image by Arbron via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. I hear you. I enjoy your writing, both substance and style, and I applaud your stake in the ground. Choosing is hard and mourning the lives that will never be is hard too – both are necessary to be soul-alive.

    Throw away the stale and improvise the new! I look forward to the next chapter in the Communicatrix story.

  2. This is such a great post. I’ve been wrestling with the whole giving-things-up business. And by “things,” I mean “possibilities.” I can give *things* up ’til the cows come home. But possibilities are so much harder. (And it’s no secret that many folks who have clutter issues tend to equate stuff and possibilities.)

    But you’re right: to be awesome at something, you have to commit to that something. I remember reading an Anthony Robbins book (don’t judge) where he pointed out that the word “decision” comes from a Latin root meaning “to cut off.” Thus, once you decided something, you cut off all other possibilities. I think it was supposed to be galvanizing, but it only made me nervous at the time. Now, I realize that it was completely true.

    I love going on this journey with you, Colleen!

  3. This couldn’t have come at a better time! I’ve been doing a bit of “cleaning house” myself and just made a decision to leave a small theatre company I was on staff with…a non-paying staff position that was taking more from me than it was giving back and I finally said “Enough!”. I always hung on to the hope that things would get better, the opportunities would eventually open up, but it’s been two years and while I have had some good opportunities during that time, the staff position was draining what few resources I had left. It was still a difficult decision though because part of me still really hopes that the company will find a broader success and I won’t be there to share it. But I know this is the right decision for me right now. Thanks for being the little voice in my head!

  4. Now that’s some bravery in action! Good for you. Colleen!

    The world needs more smart-mouth writers – Dorothy Parker, Fran Lebowitz, Nora Ephron and even Stephen Leacock’s wry comments (he’s the Canadian Will Rogers – had to get one of my guys in there). There is room on my bookshelf and my ‘joyous reads’ pile for you!

    A tip of the hat to your commitment. Good on ya!

  5. Wow – it takes enormous ovaries to jettison stuff in the knowledge that you won’t be able to waffle around anymore once you plant your flag. Applause!

    Also, shivers! Because when I apply the thought experiment to myself, Giving Up Options is terrifying. Even if I’m primarily a writer, I don’t want to give up the other hatches, because what if this whole writing thing doesn’t go the way I want? And so on. It’s paradoxical, the thing with the commitment and the growth.

  6. Thank you, Colleen, for knocking my head straight. I’ve been waffling on what to focus on for the past I don’t know how long, without giving up anything – trying to be many things to many different people, including myself. This has caused a bit of a stalemate in my business and many times it takes an outside perspective to see where I’ve been fooling myself.

    That said, I know for me, when I do pick just one thing, it will be related to a long term commitment, but not a forever deal. I know myself too well to know the confining restraints I feel with “forever”. If I turn into a leprechaun over time because of my refusal to focus, then so be it.

  7. Mike – Hadn’t thought about improvising it; I was thinking of a planning model. Maybe improv should figure into the mix more. Hm. And thanks!

    Catherine – No judging on Tony Robbins! I sat front & center for his speech at TC140 a few weeks ago and he was tremendous. A force of nature who is doing what he loves, 100%. We should all be so lucky.

    Colleen – Good for you, brave girl! Extricating myself from my old theater company was one of the hardest things I had to do, but one of the best things I ever did for myself. Courage, and excelsior!

    Anne – That’s some mighty fine company you put me in. I accept the challenge, and will rise to it. Also, will check out the Canadian Will Rogers. Who sounds like he should be much more widely known.

    Germinational – I read your entry in that literary magazine; you, my friend, are definitely a writer.

    None of this means we have to ONLY do this one thing. It’s fine to pick up a guitar or learn tango or bake flan or what have you. But they round you out as a person, keep your learning tools sharp and hopefully enhance your central passion. If I thought I could *only* write, I’d never want to write again. But if I thought writing would be taken away, I’d die a little. That’s the difference.

  8. I’m totally flattered to have the No-Brainer Scenario be part of your system to help decide what you take on. (And as a corollary to Sivers’ post? Awesome.)

    What you said about how we define success really resonates with me. Probably because it’s something I’m working on for myself.

    How much angst would be resolved if I could stop comparing my creative outputs to others’, and instead define success as “pursuing the shit out of” the Thing?

    Not to mention that if I later decide to switch gears, and pursue the shit out of some other Thing, there would be no need to see the stopping of the old Thing as a failure.

    Lots to ponder.

  9. I so get this. And I’m likely using the following as an excuse to stay middling at The Thing, but here’s my current conundrum: The Thing, for me, is also writing, but the writing is wrapped up in being a mother of a now three-year-old, which is The Real Thing, but nobody pays me to do it. I love both Things, but The Real Thing takes up about 99.2% of all of my waking time, and even a decent chunk of my sleeping time when there’s a full moon or snakes in his bed or whatever.

    I see how much your dedication to writing ALL THE TIME is paying off in ever-increasing fabulosity, and I guess I just need to accept that my growth as a writer is going to be different and slower.

    For me, maybe it’s more about patience. It’s not exactly pursuing the shit out of something, but different life stages and situations present different lessons.

    And … there is that possibility that this is all an excuse; that I could actually find time, make time, every day to write. It’s possible…

    Thanks for the nudge and the inspiration.

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