In this episode, award-winning poet and creative coach Mark McGuinness talks about how to integrate more creativity into your life as well as the risk of ignoring your creative self; overcoming fear in his own creative journey; and his new poetry podcast, A Mouthful of Air.
- Mark McGuinness
- The 21st Century Creative Podcast
- A Mouthful of Air
- The Creative Penn
- Kristin Linklater “Freeing The Natural Voice”
- Steven Pressfield
Tricia [00:00:03] Hey there. I’m Tricia Rose Burt, and I want to ask you a question. What creative work are you called to do but are too afraid to try? Are you in IT but dream of doing stand up? A PR exec who longs to write a screenplay? Did the pandemic change your priorities? Do you want to leave your fully funded PhD, M.D. program and go to New Mexico and paint? Or maybe you’re like I was in my early career, trapped in a lucrative but soul crushing corporate job when what I really wanted to do was tell stories on stage.
Tricia [00:00:39] In this podcast, we’ll hear from artists who took an unexpected leap and found the courage to answer their creative call so we can inspire you to answer yours, because this is no time to be timid.
Tricia [00:00:56] Well, welcome to the show. In this episode, we’re going to talk about the fourth principle of the No Time To Be Timid manifesto: Creativity is not a frivolous pursuit. When I told my mother 30 years ago that I was leaving a corporate career to become an artist, she said, Why would you make art when you can make all that money? At the time, it seemed like an either or decision. But now the marketplace welcomes creative people more and more.
Tricia [00:01:29] Last week, when I was browsing in our local bookstore, I found four fabulous books on creativity in the business section. And these days, we see successful artists adopting business strategies and rebranding themselves as creative entrepreneurs. I make my living by being an artist, both by making my own work and helping others make theirs. But mostly I make my art because it’s who I am. It gives me energy in life. If I don’t make art, I’m not nice to be around. And if I show up each day as an artist, my outside challenges have less of a grip on me.
Tricia [00:02:06] My mother is now 91, and while she’s happy and it turns out one of my biggest fans, she forgets more than she remembers, which breaks my heart. But if I spend time working on my next one woman show or my mixed media series of 10,000 Circles that I’ve been creating for the past two years. I find that I can be there for her in a more meaningful way.
Tricia [00:02:30] Today’s guest, Mark McGuinness, creates meaning every day. And if you listen to the prologue for this podcast- and if you didn’t, go check it out- he’s the creative coach who encouraged me to write the No Time To Be Timid Manifesto. Mark is the force behind 21st Century Creative, an enterprise which includes books, coaching and a podcast for creative professionals. And he’s an award winning poet. His poetry podcast, A Mouthful of Air, was named one of the top nine podcast for poetry lovers by Podcast Review from the Los Angeles Review of Books. He joined us from his home in England. Heads up, there is the briefest use of adult language in this episode.
Tricia [00:03:21] Welcome to the show. Mark, it’s so nice to have you here.
Mark [00:03:25] Thank you, Tricia. It’s really exciting to be here.
Tricia [00:03:29] I know because we have worked together that you were a psychotherapist before you became a creative coach. When did you become a poet?
Mark [00:03:42] Oh, that’s easy. That was when I was a teenager and I had a couple of really wonderful English teachers, Sue Dove and then Geoff Riley, and we would take an hour, you know, for our lesson, and they would say, So we’re going to look at a poem today, folks, or maybe two poems, but there wouldn’t be like ten poems, it’d be one or two poems. And you could spend the whole hour looking at these poems. And that was when it really came home to me, My goodness, you can keep looking and keep looking. And the more you look, the more you find. Whereas prose was a bit different, you know, you started and you finished it and it was a good story and you might want to read it again, but you wouldn’t be reading it over and over obsessively the way we were. And I remember, you know, after we’d done that a few times, I went to the library and it just blew my mind that you could get a whole book of these things. And it was like, wow, they should, you know, they should put some kind of health label on this. You know, it just felt so intense that that was so magically charged. And then Sue and Geoff were very encouraging about my own writing and they were saying, well, you know, you could do this, why don’t you write more? And that’s when I just realized that was the only thing I really wanted to do. You know, whatever else I would end up doing, I would be writing poetry.
Tricia [00:05:05] That doesn’t seem very typical for a 17 year old to say, I know I’m supposed to be a poet now.
Mark [00:05:12] I wasn’t necessarily thinking in terms of identity and this would have been about maybe 13 or 14. I don’t think I was thinking of it in terms of career or identity. It was just like, this is what I want to do, you know? And it was only later on when I was faced with the big question that all poets are faced with. But it’s okay, but what are you going to do to put food on the table? Yeah, I read poets biographies because I want to find out how they dealt with the inconvenience of wanting to write poetry because it takes a lot of time and bandwidth. And I think Robert Graves put it quite neatly once when he said he’d never undertaken any occupation that he thought was incompatible with the writing of poetry. Oh, okay. So usually you’re not people are queuing up to pay you to do it, but they want to make sure. But there are certain occupations that are incompatible with doing it. And so you’ve got to choose very carefully.
Tricia [00:06:08] And so you chose psychotherapy. Was that compatible with writing poetry?
Mark [00:06:14] Yeah, it was. It was a way of going deep and using language and engaging with emotion and story and perception and how we perceive and construct our reality. And all of those things relate to poetry as well.
Tricia [00:06:34] Part of the challenge of the people that I talk to, they’re in conventional positions and they’re hoping to make that cross, just to somehow put more creativity in their life. Like you are a poet and you have found a livelihood that is compatible with your poetry like you were talking about. And so, you know, a lot of the challenge that everybody has is how do I get to be more creative and what does it look like? Does it mean I have to leave my full time job and throw myself into being an artist? Or is it some hybrid of being part conventional part, you know, the more creative self? Or is there a way to take my business skills to really build up my creative practice? How do I put more creativity into my life is really the question: How do you make sure you’re a poet while you’re doing two podcasts, one for poetry, doing a coaching practice?
Mark [00:07:32] Well, if I could take the earlier question of first, which is, you know, how do I get more creativity in my life? Because it’s you know, I can tell you my answer, but it’s not necessarily going to work for everyone. Some people I tell them about my day and they look at me in horror. In fact, to the degree I remember when the first lockdown regulations came along and I read them and I thought, that’s my normal day. So my solution won’t necessarily work for everyone.
Mark [00:07:57] But I think where you should really start is think what kind of creativity do I really want in my life? Is it artistic? Am I attracted to the creativity of business? Because I think it can be an extremely creative field. Do I enjoy working with people, helping, healing, facilitating again? You know, I think that can be a very creative field as well. Some people, you know, well, I like doing more than one thing, but I think for each creative calling that you feel that you have or instinct that you want to be creative, start off by thinking, what does that work require?
Mark [00:08:37] Like there was a beautiful quote Steve Pressfield had recently on his blog from Elizabeth Gilbert. Apparently early on when she was starting as a writer, she made a deal with her writing and she said to it, as you talk to your writing like another person, she said, I will never ask you to support me. I will support you. And I thought that’s really lovely because she’s starting the right way round. She’s not putting pressure on the writing to to deliver and pay the bills and do all this extraneous stuff that maybe her writing might not have been designed to do. She put the writing first. She thought, well, What does the writing need? So in my case, I, I hadn’t been quite that deliberate about it, but I realized that one of the nice things about poetry is it’s generally doesn’t make money directly.
Mark [00:09:27] So I decided, well, I need time, I need space, I need to feel I’m doing something that the rest of my life that I feel is authentic to me, that is compatible in Graves’s language. So I would say start from that thing. And you know, if it’s art and you want to go to college, find a way to go to art college, you don’t necessarily have to leave your job. Maybe you could do it evenings, weekends, part time, whatever. And then at some point ask yourself, Well, what do I want this to be in my life? Some people are quite happy having the day job and doing creative work in other fields. Other people say, No, actually I really have to do this — I have to do it for my living. And it is a field of art where people do pay. So I’m quite happy to do that.
Mark [00:10:20] The model that I’ve got and I find can often get you out of black and white thinking is what I call symbiotic creativity, where you have more than one creative discipline and maybe one’s more commercial than the other, but they can help feed off each other. So for instance, I coming back to your second question, I will generally spend my mornings working on my writing, my podcasting, my poetry, my projects. That’s my time. And then the afternoons I will talk to my coaching clients. And so that’s how I divide it up. But the kind of coach that I am is influenced by the fact that I am a poet. Quite often clients will say to me, When I saw you were a poet, I kind of breathed a sigh of relief because I realized, you know, I wasn’t going to get the corporate version of coaching or that you would understand certain things about my values because you’re you’re creative like me. So and also I find the coaching practice, obviously, it creates time and money and a roof over my head to be able to devote time in the mornings to poetry. But another thing it gives is it’s a space to reflect on the whole creative process. And it’s you know, the thing is that you teach what you need to learn yourself very often and quite often, I’m talking to clients, they’ll ask me questions like you’re doing today, very incisively, and I will reflect and think, Well, how do I do that? Or why do I do that? And I learn things about my own process as well as obviously being helpful to them.
Mark [00:11:54] So to me, the coaching and poetry have got this symbiotic relationship. And, you know, so in nature symbiosis, where you get two species get together to help each other out. Like the pilot fish that clean the shark’s teeth in exchange for not being eaten. You know, my friend Joanna Penn, she is a thriller author. And she does that really well. And she also self-published her books, learned an awful lot about how to do that, how to publish and edit and market and run an author business. And she ended up creating a podcast called The Creative Penn, which is a huge resource for authors of all kinds, where she interviews people, you know, writers, publishers, marketing people and so on. And so she’s got this whole other range of books and courses marketing for authors, productivity for authors, business for authors, public speaking for authors, and so on. And so her nonfiction and fiction have that symbiotic relationship. So, you know, if you’re listening to this and you think, well, no one pays me money to do this kind of thing, there isn’t a huge market for it. But maybe it will, first of all, plug you in and give you what you need creatively. It will energize you and bring you alive. And also it could be there could be some kind of service offering or product offering that would be next door to it or related to it, and that the two might be able to feed each other. So maybe start to think in terms of symbiosis rather than, you know, the two sides of your life duking it out.
Tricia [00:13:34] Yet that either/or thinking is what I think is the kiss of death for so many of us. You said one of the reasons why that you left psychotherapy and went into coaching was that you had a particular kind of client and need that you could see around more creative souls. So I have a question for you, because this is for people who I think sort of disregard or can dismiss really the necessity of being creative just to their own personal health and well-being. Did you see it in your practice of people who were not using their creative self and it was coming out in ways that weren’t healthy?
Mark [00:14:16] Well, I saw it in myself, first of all. One thing I’ve discovered is I actually get physically ill if I try to neglect or avoid or put off my creativity. There’s a point beyond which, you know, my immune system will kick in or other symptoms will kick in, and it’ll be like it’s tapping me on my shoulder saying, Hey, Mark, you know, what about this thing that supposedly is the purpose of your life? And it’s like, okay, well, I was putting that off. No, no, no, no, no. I’ve experienced that in my own life. When I press pause on who I authentically am or I try to, you know, my body has other ideas. It’s saying, no, no, no, no, you don’t. And I’ve seen all kinds of versions of that in my therapy practice, where people are just — at a certain level, you can’t deny who you are.
Tricia [00:15:05] Mm hmm. And then that is just so clearly why creativity is not a frivolous pursuit, because I think the ramifications of not being who we are as creative people affects us in ways that we may not really fully understand.
Mark [00:15:23] Yeah, I mean, isn’t that the best thing about creativity is that we don’t fully understand it? You know, it’s the flipside of the risk that you go to the blank sheet of paper to discover something, to learn something, to have an experience, because otherwise, why would you, if you knew it was already what was going to be there, then you might as well be in accounting or something.
Tricia [00:15:46] But I think it is that risk that gets people so nervous. One of the things of yours that I was reading, you have 21 Insights for the 21st Century Creative and a point that you make: The bigger the dream, the bigger the fear. Talk about how that works in your life. That the bigger dream you’ve had. Like how afraid? I know you’ve just started this poetry podcast. How afraid were you when you started the poetry podcast?
Mark [00:16:16] I was as afraid as I should be, which was quite a lot. You know, we talked quite a bit about uncertainty and insecurity and fear and risk. And the thing is, this is the exciting and also the scary thing about creativity is it’s that uncertainty. And so if you do have a big dream and it’s remotely related to creativity, it’s will come hand-in-hand with fear. You know, you’re going to get so excited with the initial idea and then you’re going to wake up the next morning thinking, Oh, but hang on a minute. Oh, and you realize what’s at stake and all the ways it could go wrong. So what’s at stake for me?
Mark [00:16:58] So in terms of the poetry show, I had another podcast, 21st Century Creative, which is more general creativity, and that had been scary to launch that. But I kind of knew that the poetry show would be even scarier. So the way the show works is every episode it focuses on a single poem. So half the episode is just me. I will read a poem and then I will talk about why I love it, what makes it great, why you might love it, why it’s worthy of your consideration. And then you hear the poem again. And the idea is that the poem should sound different the second time you hear it. Now, in order to make that show, I went up to the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland and I worked with an amazing voice teacher, Kristin Linklater, who sadly is no longer with us. But she was a voice teacher. She worked with a lot of top Hollywood actors, Shakespearean stage actors. She specialized in helping people speak Shakespearean verse. And so, of course, I had to do this even though it scared the hell out of me, because they’re all extroverted actors and half of them were American, and I was just an introverted British poet, and I had to show up.
Mark [00:18:10] And Kristin gave me absolutely no mercy at all. I had to be just as out there as them. And I think I ended up going through a wall of fear on Kristin’s course. There was one day she got so fed up of me, she said, Well, over here you need to project, you need to reach us with this sonnet that I was reading and I thought I was. And she said, Right, we’re going to have to go outside. And so she opens the door onto this hillside in Orkney and she says, Mark, you’re going to the top of the hill and we are all going down to the bottom of the hill, she said. And then you are going to recite your sonnet so that we can hear it at the bottom of the hill. Well, the thing is, I was terrified of doing that, but I wasn’t quite as terrified as I was of Kristin because there’s no way to say no. So I knew I was going to do it. And so I went up, up to the top of the hill and I kind of staggered about for a bit and thought, What am I doing? And then part of me just went, Oh, fuck it. And I went for it and I boomed it out across the islands and this big voice came out I didn’t anticipate. And then I went down the bottom of the hill and there were one or two people with tears in their eyes. And it wasn’t just me.
Tricia [00:19:28] Wow.
Mark [00:19:29] And so then I walked back into the room and I was able to boom it out in the room, and Kristin was satisfied. And so I think that was that was — yeah, Kristin helped me go through that fear. So one thing she said to us one day was your voice is your self. And so when somebody hears your voice, they know a lot about you, so they can see right through you. There’s one reason why a lot of people don’t like the sound of their own voice when they first hear it because you think, Oh, my goodness me. It’s like, you know, I’m naked. And of course, reading poems, my own poems and other people’s poems, you don’t get much more naked than that emotionally. And so that was what Kristen helped me with. But I still, you know, every week when I make the show, I still want to push myself. Like, I was laughing to you earlier on that my mike level was quite low because I was recording a shouty speech from Shakespeare, which is, you know, the most dramatic thing I’ve read on the podcast.
Mark [00:20:32] To be imprisoned in the viewless winds and blown with restless violence round about. The pendent world; or to be worse than worst of those that lawless and incertain thought imagine howling.
Mark [00:20:51] So you know, you’ve got to keep pushing yourself. Otherwise it gets boring, doesn’t it?
Tricia [00:20:55] Yes, it does. What’s at stake for you if you don’t push yourself? What happens to all of us if we just stay in our comfort zone and don’t push ourselves?
Mark [00:21:05] Personally, I wouldn’t forgive myself. And I know you’re supposed to have lots of self-compassion and whatever these days, and quite kumbaya. But really, if I don’t go for it with the poetry and I don’t see what I can do and I don’t share that and put it out and I’m lying there on my deathbed, I’m going to give myself a hard time.
Tricia [00:21:23] Do you think being a poet spills over to your personal relationships and making you a better father and a better friend and a better I mean, you know, does it? Does it? I know for me, I am not a nice person to live with if I’m not making art. I’m just not a nice person to be around.
Mark [00:21:49] Yeah, absolutely. Well, I’m kind of smiling because, of course, it spills over into my relationships. And maybe there have been some people in my life with that really wish that didn’t spill over quite so much. But I think what you’re really asking is when you yourself, when you’re drawing from your own well, creatively, then you have enough to give other people. So this is one reason why I do my writing and recording in the mornings. And then in the afternoon, you know, I’m replenished. I have done my thing for me. I can get totally into someone else’s world and help them as a coach in the afternoon. I can obviously be there for my family on a more consistent level. I think if I’m doing my thing and it’s also a as well, I think children. Well, they certainly don’t listen to everything I tell them, but I’m sure they watch what I do. And, you know, we communicate a lot to our kids by the example we set about this is what’s important in life. And so, Mami, my wife and I are both writers. And I think one of the things that I think the children are picking up on is, oh, writing is important. You know, mommy, daddy do a lot of it. Creativity is important, and we’re encouraging them with their own creative projects. So yeah, it does. It does spill over and it should spill over. And I think, you know, you’re doing it right if it gives you energy for the rest of life.
Tricia [00:23:23] Do you have a short poem that you would read to us right now?
Mark [00:23:28] Sure. In fact, I could read one that is about the process of creative transformation.
Tricia [00:23:37] That would be appropriate.
Mark [00:23:39] Because sometimes people say, Oh, you know, where do your poems come from? It was this flash of light and inspiration. And sadly, a lot of the time it’s not that. Actually this time it wasn’t quite lightning, but it came to me in the middle of the night, and it was while I was working with my coach, Peleg Top, who’s an amazing creative coach in the States, and I was consciously undertaking this big transformative process. The subject of the poem is called Chrysalis. So it’s about a caterpillar being transformed into a butterfly. Now even I can make the connection. You don’t have to be Dr. Freud to make the connection between that and the personal transformation that I was undergoing. So I don’t want to kind of overinterpret that, but I think it’s fairly clear that this is a this is a poem about transformation. So it’s a sonnet. So it’s mercifully short. So the way I think about this poem is it’s in the voice of the butterfly, and he’s on the radio and he’s being interviewed about this. So, Mr. Butterfly, you’ve been on this amazing journey. Used to be a caterpillar, right? But now you’re a butterfly. And. And how did that happen? And what what was the hardest part of that whole process? And the poem is the butterfly’s answer to that question. So it’s called Chrysalis.
Mark [00:25:09] The hard part isn’t spinning my own shroud to cover me from head to toes to toes, then waiting for my dozen eyes to cloud my segments to collapse like dominoes. Yet neither is it fetid dissolution. My liquid eyes flesh, my petrifying shell or the agonizing slow reconstitution from serpent into angel via gel. The hard part isn’t being born again inside a wrapper like a folded kite unfolding and assembling struts and stems or hoisting the whole contraption into flight. The hardest part is where it all begins: Relinquishing legs for fantasies of wings.
Tricia [00:26:08] Ah, that’s beautiful. Thank you. Thank you so much for reading that. I think that’s a perfect place to end, actually.
Mark [00:26:18] Great. Thank you.
Tricia [00:26:22] When Mark was coaching me, he told me to do three things: Keep a daily art practice, trust myself as an artist, and look for ways to refill my creative well. I leave you with the same advice, and I’m pretty confident that if you allow yourself the space to create every day, even if it’s just for 10 minutes, life’s challenges may have a little less of a grip on you.
Tricia [00:26:47] If you want to tune in to Mark’s poetry podcast, A Mouthful of Air, you can find it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. It’s also on the Internet at AMouthfulofAir.FM, and you can follow the show on Twitter @AMouthfulofAir and on Instagram @AirPoets.
Tricia [00:27:07] If you’d like more information about the No Time to Be Timid movement, please check out my website triciaroseburt.com. And if you feel like this is no time to be timid in your own life, then maybe I can help you with that. In my private coaching practice, I help my clients to tell and live a better story. Some of them are artists and creatives who want to express themselves in a new medium. Some of them are leaders who want to motivate groups to take action. Some of them are business professionals who want to better communicate with their customers and employees. You can reach out to me at triciaroseburt.com.
Tricia [00:27:47] We’ll be taking August off to restore and replenish, and we’ll be back in the fall with Episode Five: Logic Can Work Against You. Until then, remember, this is no time to be timid.
Tricia [00:28:03] No Time to be Timid is sponsored by Interabang Books, a Dallas-based independent bookstore which takes its name from the symbol that combines a question mark and an explanation point. At Interabang their dedicated staff of book enthusiasts will guide you on your search for knowledge and the excitement of discovery. Shop their curated collection online at interabangbooks.com. No Time to be Timid is written and produced by me, Tricia Rose Burt. Our executive producer is Mia Rovegno. Our sound engineer is Jim McClure of Betsy’s Folly Studios. If you like what you hear, please spread the word, subscribe to the show, and review us on Apple Podcast or wherever you listen. No Time to Be Timid is a presentation of I Will Be Good Productions.