In Praise Of Working Your Freaking Tail Off

This week in rehearsal, we expanded the geographic footprint of ENDURE threefold. Means I suddenly have to run three times as far and the show was no joke to begin with. ENDURE has now become a sprawling behemoth that takes audiences on the adventure of their lives. (You should come.)

We re-built one of our most troublesome sections this week, transforming it from a chilled-out charm school exercise into a full-on four-minute anaerobic dance number that travels UPHILL. By the end of Wednesday, I was so exhausted, I didn't even have the energy to shower.

Somehow, I did my production work for the day then, at 7pm, got up and walked to Sunset Park to record some more more audio. Walking (nay: limping) along beside Greenwood Cemetery on my way to the studio, the thought of waking up to yet another rehearsal brought tears to my eyes and my only thought was, 'I can't do it.'

I am SO tired.

With four or five rehearsals, four or five runs and two Klein classes every week (not to mention all the stretching and recovery stuff I do), I am working at the volume of the peak of my Ironman training. That's about 20-25 hours of physical activity per week. Then there's marketing work, production work, management work. Planning, budgeting, motivating, begging, forgiving, ordering, deciding, doing interviews, writing, waiting, photo shooting, coordinating, mediating. Even my runs have turned into Melanie's Mobile Marketing Machine as I foist show postcards on people out for their morning miles. 

It literally never ends. And I'm not exactly on salary here.

I'm not writing this as some kind of Poor Me story or even as a Look How Amazing I Am device. (Ok, maybe I am. A little. Lonely business, this self-producing.) But really, looking at the sheer quantity of energy that is required right now reminded me of three things.

One was this post about my O-1 visa process. Go straight to #4 on that list. Aw hell, I'm just going to paste it right in here:
#4: No One Will Ever Know How Hard You Worked
This is a big one. People will remember you saying you were applying for a visa and then they will congratulate you when you get it, but no one will understand the amount of effort, doubt, hope, fear, time, uncertainty, sacrifice and utterly mind-numbing tedium you endured to get there. 


No one knows that you get up at 5 am to train for Ironman. No one applauds as you chip away at the novel 100 words at a time. No one feels what it's like to be brokety-broke, hustling for your dream, eating Chef Boyardee. No one watches you save every $5 bill for two years to get yourself to Italy or art school. No one sees any of this. Or maybe someone sees it twice, but the other 9,998 times the alarm clock rings at 5 am, you'll be in the dark on your own. 

In the tough middle parts, this might make you slightly bitter. When people say breezily, 'Oh yeah, maybe I'LL get a visa/run a marathon/write a novel/become president, TOO,' as though you just order these things online for $29.95 and POOF there it is five to eight business days later. You might want to kill those people.

You will never get validation from the outside for the amount of work you put into the things you love. 

This is the truth. Which means you have to do it for some other reason and you have to validate and motivate and celebrate yourself and talk yourself off the ledge four hundred times because even the people closest to you won't really get it. They will love you and believe in you, but this experience will always be privately yours, the good parts and the bad parts. This is both isolating and profoundly satisfying.

So that's the first thing. And that moment of 'I can't do it' walking by the Cemetery brought me to the second thing.

Christine Owman once told me a story about a terrible gig she played once in England. The sound system was horrible and kept cutting out on her, something like four people came to the show and she got paid nothing. As she dragged her giant case of equipment behind her down the street, it started to pour with rain.

It was the quintessential dark night of the artist's soul. And she realized during that moment that 1,000 artists would have quit right there. Somehow that was the thought that got her through: 'A thousand people would have quit after that.'

So, there's that.

And there's also the third thing. Which is that a whole lot (a freaking TON, actually) of books, magazine articles and blog posts will tell you over and over how you just have to do a little bit each day. A little effort every day adds up. And yes, that is absolutely true.

But it's also misleading.

Because there are times. Make or break times. Crunch times. Turning points like Christine's bad gig. Times when opening night is 8 days away. And about a zillion other days when doing 'a little bit' doesn't actually cut it. 

I don't want to scare people off here and YES it's about process and habits and doing those small actions, but it's also about committing to excellence which means working your freaking TAIL off a whole lot of the time.

And that is, in fact, what the people who inspire you are doing right now. Trust me. They are doing a little bit at a time...for 12-14 hours straight. And then they're getting up and doing it again and again.

They are putting themselves out there. They are doing it over and over and over until they get it right. They are working their shift and working overtime and then getting up early to get the rest done. They have accepted the fact that it will NEVER be done. And they keep at it in spite of that. Some days, they come home, flop on the couch and cry. Not because they hate it or something went wrong but because they are just so damn tired that's all they can do.

I think the gentle Zen-like 'little bit at a time' approach to creative work and life is nice. Really nice. And I aspire to it every day of my life. But there is something to be said (and something to celebrate) about putting your head down and working your fucking ass off.

(This has to be THE WEIRDEST send-off for a long weekend of all time, but hey...that's my style. Now, go kick some ass!)

How To Be Better Than Perfect

It's been quite a couple of weeks. After driving myself crazy (and giving myself a migraine) it occurred to me I wasn't having very much fun. ENDURE is supposed to the holy grail of all creative projects, bringing my two great passions, endurance sport and making art, together at once. And yet, I found a way to squeeze every drop of pleasure right out of it.


By trying to make it perfect.

I'm not even sure what that means, perfect, but I know I wanted it really badly. So badly, in fact, that I had to be reminded in several gentle and not-so-gentle pep talks from my amazing team of undying supporters that I am, in fact, supposed to LIKE what I'm doing here and not, say, cry and be miserable all of the freaking time.

I was interviewed by a local paper who quoted me as saying that the purpose of ENDURE was to pass my joy of running along to audiences. 

Oh yeah, I thought when I read it...JOY.

The search for perfect is amazing in that its effect is the opposite of what you want. Rather than move you towards something great, it serves only to stifle the natural flow of creativity, happiness and evolution that is always present and trying to operate. In other words, things are naturally and easily progressing toward excellence, but perfectionism actually STOPS that process. And often throws it into reverse.

Rich irony there. Rich.

And so we enter the phase of the creative process called Learning Not To Be Perfect. 

I had a session with my brilliant coach who said to me, "What if you dropped it?" Which made my ears buzz for a full minute because how could this show possibly be any good if I let go of my super-bitch fascist regime and just went along for the ride? "IF I'M NOT DOING EVERYTHING, HOW WILL ANYTHING GET DONE?!?!," my ego screamed.

Her again. Getting in the way of the miraculous and magical natural order of things which is always so much bigger and better than anything she's been ever been able to pull off.


Lesson #1: Let go.

Because the thing is, I haven't even gone for a real run in two weeks. All my runs have been commutes to and from rehearsal, weighed down by a backpack full of supplies, props and a metric buttload of overblown expectations. 

First thing on my 'let go' list? Ditch the backpack and go for a pleasure cruise.

The next day, I chatted with my dearest friend on the planet who just opened a restaurant with her husband (and a brand-brand-new baby and a holy terror of a four-year-old). Her perfectionist was working overtime in the weeks leading up to the opening and she adopted a series of mantras beginning with the words "It's easy." It's easy to open a restaurant. It's easy to be a success. It's easy to make money. It's easy to host a grand opening for 400 people. Etc.

Lesson #2: It's easy.

The restaurant has been packed to the gills since the moment they opened and I've been muttering 'It's easy' to myself for most of a week. You know what? The more I said it, the truer it got.

And then something weird started to happen: I started to feel really great about myself. Because if something is easy than it kind of follows that you are good at that thing or have natural talents or luck or that the universe is smiling on you and the net result of all of that is...

Lesson #3: I am awesome.

A few days later, I had my second "run along" rehearsal. It was approximately TWELVE ZILLABILLION times better than the first. And I realized that there is a point to the notion of process and practice and self-love in that it opens the door to committing to excellence. 

Because excellence is something different than perfect. It's something better. It's a state in which you feel your own inherent value and worth, and are willing to do the absolute best you can. Same general concept as perfection, utterly different sensation and result. 

Perfectionism has this pinched, obsessive, micro-management feeling. It only sees what's wrong, not what's right.

Excellence stands firm on its feet. It says, of course this is great...now let's make it better. It sees the elements that are outside its control and it doesn't worry much about them (see Lesson #1). Instead, it inhabits the present moment fully and asks for nothing less than 150% commitment in everything you do.

Lesson #4: Be excellent.

Committing to excellence, letting go and accepting myself has drawn my attention to something else, which is that this isn't a one-shot deal. This production of ENDURE will be the result of everything that has led to this point, but it doesn't have to end here. 

Opening day doesn't mean it's set in stone and this is it, the fat lady singing be-all-end-all ENDURE RunWomanShow full stop no changesies no take-backs. 

It means this is where we arrived given the time, energy, resources and knowledge we had up to this point.

That's what "finished" is.

In fact, waaaay back two years ago when I tried to get sponsorship for this show, all the potential sponsors said the same thing: 'Come back when you have a show.' They didn't even want to START until I had finished.

Lesson #5: The finish line might actually be a start line. 

Now, let's think about what I would do with a chunk of sponsorship cash. 

I would invest in a more elegant audio system. I would head back into the studio with Christine see what happened if we didn't have to crank out a show over 10 intense days and a few long-distance weeks. I would workshop the script and develop it into something that could work in a theatre space, maybe even with an ensemble cast instead of just one woman. I would test the show in indoor spaces, outdoor spaces, running tracks and treadmills. I would try it as sound art, installation art, film and straight-up spoken word. I would try it at theatre festivals, dance festivals, running conferences and endurance race events.

In other words, I would try a bunch of the seven thousand ideas I've had about this show and see what works best.

But for today? This is where we've landed and this is what we've made.

Now, less than two weeks from opening, my tasks are only these: let go, feel my own value, be excellent. And trust the natural process of evolution, magic and brilliance that has brought us this far already.

Barfing. Cleavage. Virtuosity. Dog Shit.

The past week has been about getting dump-trucked outside my comfort zone which, as many of my regular readers can attest, is something of a lifestyle choice for me. 

It began last Wednesday with an invited rehearsal full of artists and friends I respect so highly it hurts. Even though these people were in the room because they love and support me, I was so nervous I almost barfed. I did a run-through of the material we had so far – about 40 minutes – in the BAX (Brooklyn Arts Exchange) studios, which meant the sense of space and, you know, NATURE wasn't there at all. But it was an excellent chance to put our movement vocabulary under the microscope and get a sense of people's reactions to the thing as an almost-whole.

The feedback was amazing. In most cases, it was about stripping down to something more simple, more specific and, oftentimes, less literal. ENDURE has to walk an interesting line where my movement has to articulate the emotional through-line, the physical through-line but not necessarily the narrative through-line. 

It's like watching a modern dance piece while someone reads a soundtracked short story in your ear.

So, we can't tell the story twice, but at the same time, physical/athletic virtuosity HAS to be there. "We want to see you show off," is how Suchan put it. "It's a run woman show, after all." In fact, the consensus of that group was that the ending should simply be me running, at race pace, for about 10 minutes straight.

Finding and understanding the balance between the abstract and the literal, and the ever-shifting emotional and physical states of the piece has been a real challenge. In some spots, we're clear. Others, we really struggle, unable to see what certain sections want or need from me as a performer. Which is to say: Wednesday was absolutely affirming and positive, but we had our work cut out for us.

Only we didn't have the time to address anything because we had our first runalong rehearsal three days later. So, we got to work re-staging a 14-minute section of the piece outdoors in Prospect Park. 

To say the park changes the game is the understatement of the year. Instead of a flat, smooth dance studio floor, I navigate the lumpy bumps of grass, dirt and tree roots. Inclines, declines, weird pitches and camber, holes, trees, people, puddles, dogs (and dog shit). Distances not measured in square feet but square miles. Pick-up soccer in the middle of the "stage."

It's a whole new world out there. And I was not clear about how to relate to it as a performer. Same with the audience. Do I interact with you? Make eye contact? You are six inches away from my face...do I ignore you and do my thing? None of this had been determined and, let me tell you, an autonomous, mobile audience is a very different animal from one sitting obediently in the dark.

Meanwhile! On Saturday, my earphones fell out every 10 seconds, my giant afro of hair was constantly in my face and my iPod, which I keep tucked into my sports bra, flew out of my barely existent cleavage and dangled dangerously by the headphone cable.

"You weren't as specific that time," Michael said after the showing. 

NO SHIT, I (mentally) spat back. The audience enjoyed it, but I felt like I was utterly flailing.

We all gathered for coffee and again, the feedback was incredible. There is something about ENDURE that inspires animated and lengthy discussion. Everyone who interacts with any part of this show (the text, the music, the movement, even just the concept of the thing) has a zillion ideas and a zillion opinions. That a piece of work I'm creating can inspire such a dialogue is a real gift. 

That I have to navigate the ideas and opinions while trying to find some kind of artistic centre in a state of constant uncertainty, dog shit and flying iPods? A little challenging.

After two public showings, a week's worth of rehearsal time used to prepare for said showings and the mountain of feedback the showings generated, I felt less grounded in the piece than ever before. Although Michael seemed better about filtering people's comments, I could feel the pressure mounting for him, too. 

So today, we went back into the studio, locked the door and got to work.

We started from the beginning and in the true spirit and essential nature of the creative process: we burned it down and built it back up. We scrapped a whole bunch of material outright. We stripped some vocabulary way down to its essence. Simplified tasks. Stretched time and space. Brought vocabulary that appears later in earlier. Choreographed new stuff. Threw out anything literal, anything arbitrary, anything that could be put in the category of "acting." 

Michael was demanding, throwing direction at me without taking time to breathe. I was equally demanding, peppering him with questions about intention, purpose, specificity. In three hours, we re-worked over a third of the piece. 

By the end my brain was leaking out my ear holes. But what we made worked. Now we keep going. We bring it into the great outdoors and demand the same specificity and clarity there. Then we add an audience (another one, this Saturday) and get specific about that. 

Then we do it all again. Oscillating toward what this thing is trying to become.

It's Freaking Happening

So my Sunday night pep talk led to a bunch of 'I love and accept myself' affirmations and the minor realization that I am really, seriously bad at just chilling the eff out which led to MORE 'I love and accept myself' affirmations and then KA-POW everything really started coming together.

First off, as of yesterday morning, Michael and I have roughed out more than 40 minutes of our 50 minute show. We took our material outdoors for the first time yesterday (we've been working in a studio for the past three weeks) and the freedom to actually MOVE and RUN was unbelievable. I've got a crew of brilliant artists coming in to tomorrow's rehearsal to help us develop it even further.

Yesterday afternoon, Christine sent some of her best music yet for the endorphin rush section of ENDURE. This was a section we were really struggling with, but my Swedish genius had a breakthrough and turned a section that was once a 'problem' into one of my absolute favourites of all time. It makes me smile and cry and clutch my chest. Sooo goooood.

It also represented the last piece of music to be composed for ENDURE! Now it's just mucking about with levels, working in a few performance-specific timing cues and we're good to go. Once again, I am reminded that these things have their own timing and it really is best to let it all unfold naturally instead of turning into a butt-clenching super-bitch. Just sayin'.

And this morning, my marketing genius Erica woke me up with one of the most badass web sites I could have imagined for ENDURE. The site now has online RSVP set up for the free shows and the run-along rehearsals (first one's this Saturday!) and a calendar for all the live shows which will continue to be updated as more get added. (I'm just about to confirm a show in Canmore on either August 12 or 14 and my people in Vancouver are chomping at the BIT for a show there!) Extra special thanks to my sweet friend Shea McGuier who designed the site!

And then there's the trailer. The ass-whooping trailer photographed and edited by Erica Min (although I manhandled it for length purposes). I just made a new video with Christine's new endorphin music and my text set to Miz Min's original cut and, I must say, it's gorgeous. Watch it!

So for some reason, after that moment of completely irrational, completely overwhelming self-doubt, I have finally clued into the fact that WE REALLY HAVE SOMETHING HERE. 

This is a show, people! It is HAPPENING! It's no longer far off in the distance, someday, one day...it's here. We've been working our asses off and we have made stuff. The site is complete. The music is complete. The writing is complete. The movement/choreography is coming together. The marketing machine is rolling. You folks in Canada might have to wait a bit for tour info, but once ENDURE opens here in Brooklyn, NY...I'm setting my sights firmly on the Great White North.

And then, let's face it, the entire freaking planet.

Sweat Collective Workout #3: What Fuels You?

Sweat Collective is the online community associated with ENDURE – a group of people who have taken on awesome challenges in their lives and are sharing their journeys with huge courage and openness.

I'm honoured to be part of this group and to have my creative work be associated with a community of badasses such as this.

Workout #3 asks the question: What fuels you? And today on my long run, I was reminded once again of what keeps me going more than anything else. 

Early this week, I had a body treatment. When I told the woman doing my treatment that I wanted to increase my training volume, she gave me the blank look I'm now used to receiving from non-runners. "I like to run a really long way," I said, smiling and shrugging. "Why?" she asked and I tapped my fingers on my head and said, "The farther I go, the quieter this gets."

Today my workout was 8 miles. I woke up nervous but excited – this is my longest run since my gradual return from eight months of injury and I'm finally approaching the kind of distance where the magic begins to happen. A runner's high or endorphin rush doesn't take too long to hit, a good solid 20 minutes or half an hour of effort will get you a decent dose of euphoria, but run a while longer and things really get interesting.

Endorphins are a weird thing. I don't know a ton about the science of it, but I do know that for me it starts with a surge of joy. Sometimes it coincides with a great song on my playlist (or Beethoven's 6th in it's entirety), but sometimes it's just a sudden awareness of the beauty of the trees and the absolute deliciousness of being in motion. The joy of the self-propelled life.

For me, the high then transforms itself into a sense of grandeur, a DELUSION of grandeur to be frank. I start scanning my Sunday morning "competition" – comparing my pace to the other runners on the path. Sometimes I pick someone to race with, sometimes I rationalize how heartily I'd kick that person's ass *if* I didn't get injured last year. All of a sudden, I've gone from the joy of the self-propelled life to wanting to lay waste to everyone on the path.

But as much as the aggression can make me run fast and kick ass, I don't like it. I don't want really to beat people, it's just my ego beating its chest. And one humbling fact of the road is: someone is always faster. So no matter what, if I'm out for blood, I'll get my ass handed to me sooner or later. 

Running to win feels like a closed fist and if I have the presence of mind, I can choose to let that aggression go. Sometimes my energy goes with it and I feel tired. Sometimes the aggression sharpens itself into a kind of hunter focus and I feel like an animal athlete. I imagine myself as part of a nomadic tribe chasing antelope across the savannah. There is a primal, necessary sensation to this kind of focus. A test of the will that has more to do with besting myself than besting anyone else.

But, this isn't what fuels me.

It's not a closed fist or a carried spear, it's not even that first surge of delight at the motion of my body. It's something that I can't plan for or predict, a moment that arrives so infrequently and so without warning, it feels like magic. The hope of its arrival is why I train. Why I show up four, five times a week, why I laboured back through injury when I could have chosen a different (gentler) sport, and why I am not satisfied to run six miles and stop. 

Because even though I can't predict this moment, I know it takes time and miles to prepare for it. To strip away, layer by layer, all the masks and fear and ego and bullshit I carry around in my regular life. It takes a lot of distance and a lot of time to run down that one perfect moment.

The moment when all sense of me as a separate, isolated being melts away and I see we're all on this road together. That everyone has their own pace and their own direction. That some of us run alone and some of us with other people. That some of us run two miles and some run twenty. That even though, on the surface, we seem different...we're not. We're all here together, sharing this road and we're connected. We are all individual cells of one collective body, moving together, breathing in and out.

That moment. That tiny, fleeting, precious moment when we're all connected and everything is one. That feeling of love. That's what fuels me. That's why I run.
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