As I sit at my desk there's my pirate ship model that I bought on holiday in France earlier this year, assorted candles, a stetson, some sweet chestnuts and a Dr Who mug with cooling tea. There's also a polystyrene skull and two white candles which I never light but they look vaguely magical. There's a rock my mum gave me because it's purple and she liked it. And right next to my monitor there's a postcard I bought in Edinburgh a few weeks ago and it's got a quote by Goethe which reads "Whatever you dream you can do begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now."
I bought it half way through a brilliant and rainy day in Edinburgh with my friend the comedian and magician Danny Buckler. We'd talked about a great many things, but mainly about comedy and performance and where we saw ourselves and what we'd like to do with it. We exchanged stories about things that worked and stories of our own failure, and stories about our heroes. I'm sure some of the stories we shared were apocryphal, or legend building on the part of the players involved, but in an Oxfam shop I saw that postcard whilst I was buying a few books and it jumped out at me.
I've always been full of ambition, and energy and a clear idea of where I want to be, but I always feel like I've somehow lost the road map and my sat nav's broken, but I've got a vague idea of what I want to do, and this postcard summed up where I'd been going wrong. It's the simplest thing, but it's the thing that stops us every time. The beginning. Begin it.
There's a number of things it took me years to begin, to set the ball rolling, things that I put off and that made my life worse and more miserable in a number of ways. For most of my teenage years and early adulthood I suffered from depression, from this abject misery. Falling into a pit of despair, being able to see a single lightbulb hanging over it, and thinking that "Well I'm at the bottom, at least I can't go any further down." and forgetting that there was a massive capacity to move sideways. As far as I could tell there was no way out. Well there was a door, but it was like Deal or no Deal, or Schrodinger's cat. The only way out led down a path I couldn't foresee, I knew it would be either a way out that may be difficult and take a lot of effort but would ultimately bring with it success and happiness beyond my wildest dreams, or it would lead to a much much worse place, but without any foresight, it could equally be either.
Suddenly the pit I was in seemed not so bad if the other option was much worse, but all the more cruel if the other option was the success and happiness that I'd wanted my whole life.
I imagined that pit like the one under Jame Gumb's house in The Silence Of The Lambs, and every day I was rubbing the lotion on my skin so I didn't get the hose again.
Then eventually I reached the point where I couldn't take any more and even the much worse option seemed better than standing still, and I got help.
In this instance I came out to my family and friends and stopped trying to pretend I was something that I wasn't.
And it changed my life instantly and phenomenally, I suddenly wasn't depressed, I wasn't suicidal and for the first time in my entire life anything seemed possible. A little too possible as it seemed. I felt like I had the whole power of the universe extending from my fingertips and flowing through me. There was nothing I couldn't achieve.
It led me to try to be a script writer, an endeavour I failed at after producing a terrible script.
So many projects I started and then lost interest in before I finished them, or had an early failure and then thought "that's it, I'm never going to be any good at this, I put all my effort into that and it still wasn't good enough."
Even trying to write this Blog every day, I started and did a week and it didn't achieve what I wanted and so I threw my toys out the pram.
Then Comedy came along and it was different, for the first time ever I found myself amongst people who were like me, I'd never had that before, and it became an obsession. I'd talk about comedy, talk about the craft of it, the art of it, the minutiae of it, about how other people were terrible or good, and look for what it was that made them that way.
looking for this spark, this thing that made them special, that made them different from me. First it was easy, they were different because they were the people who always did well, they were likeable and charismatic, then it got bitter, all the "I'm better than them and they're doing really well."
I put it all down to a sort of fatalism. They're better because they're different, and people like them and people don't generally like me.
I may as well have gone to the bottom of the garden and eaten worms, it was self pity and nothing else. And it held me back.
And over time I watched people who started after me, and people who I thought much worse comedians with less interesting to say become successful. I saw successful comics suddenly become famous, and again I was looking for what it was that made them different.
This last few months has been really difficult for me personally and emotionally and psychologically. The biggest thing that happened is that My cat, Bettie died. And it was my fault.
I'm never having children, I've never wanted them, that particular facet of human existence holds no interest to me, and because it holds no interest it's probably for the best that I don't have a child to check whether or not I'm absolutely sure. I'm fairly sure that a disinterested parent is a terrible parent. Instead I got a kitten. And I loved that kitten in the same way that parents love their children. When I felt down she'd do something silly and it'd cheer me up in a way that nothing else could. It was like my priorities changed, when I felt really down and my mind went to really dark places, the thought of her would always bring me back.
And then one afternoon about a month ago I'd been in a bad mood and been an arse-hole to my girlfriend, we'd had a row and then later on my way back from a gig I'd stopped off to get some stuff from a shop and in feeling a bit shit I thought I'd get her some flowers. I'm normally not one for that sort of cliché, I'd normally buy flowers all the time if money would allow, but on this occasion my mind was a blank about what to do. And in a split second I thought, "you shouldn't get lillies, they're poisonous to cats." and then I thought "they'll be alright, you'll keep them in a safe place you'll not let her get anywhere near the pollen, and it's not like she'll eat them is it?"
A week later I was replaying this over and over and over again in my mind, hoping that if I wished hard enough I could travel back along my own time line, like Dr Sam Beckett in Quantum Leap, and stop myself from making this stupid decision, in much the same way as I used to when I woke up with alcohol induced paranoia from drinking heavily.
So Bettie had chewed a bit of the leaf and thrown up, and we took her to the Vet, and he said there were no symptoms and she should be ok, but if she wasn't to bring her back down. The next day she was ill. and they put her on a drip, every day we took her in and later on we picked her up, trying to nurse her back to health.
After a week it became clear that she wasn't going to get better. So we had to have her put down.
I'd never been in with a pet when this happened before and I was with her to the end. As her last breath steamed up the vets operating table and I kissed her goodbye and said sorry, I knew that something in me had changed forever, and that the responsibility for the death of one of the things that meant the most in the world was entirely at my feet.
I've always had trouble with empathy, but for the first time in my life I fully understood why people find it worse when a child dies than an adult.
This happened right in the middle of two other things, one was that it didn't seem like any more than 2 days went past when I'd get into an argument with someone over something that was very personal to me; addiction, LGBT rights, politics, bigotry, and art.
The other thing that happened was that my diary was more than usually full.
On the night Bettie died, and full of a head cold I went on stage in West Didsbury and did my job, I made people laugh, I collected my money and went home.
Each of these things was taking it's toll. The grief filled me up and every day something else would set it off. The arguments, especially those involving me taking a stance against bigotry felt like they took too much energy, like every day I had to get up and fight a battle that I was tired of fighting, so every argument became personal and added to the grief.
Eventually gigging every night, and grieving and arguing rather than working on comedy took their toll, and I started to hate what I was doing on stage. I had my crisis of confidence, and the paranoia and self loathing that came along with it, dealing with work and every aspect of my social life as hierarchical.
I was starting to run on empty. But it seemed the coincidence was about to line up a bunch of things to help me out.
I bumped into Danny, and we met up and looked at comic books and drank coffee and talked and it helped to drag me out of the downer, it got me motivated to get started on actually getting back to work, he recommended a book that Joe Rogan had recommended to him called The War Of Art by Steen Pressfield. And whilst we were out I saw the Goethe postcard and bought it there and then.
Russell Kane recommended an audio book to me called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and I had it lined up for my next book to listen to, and so after our discussion I went off to do my final gig of the weekend at The Stand in Edinburgh. I felt motivated, I felt ready to get out of this shitty mood, out of the rut I'd found myself in yet again.
I wanted to write, I sat there with that excited, need a poo feeling that comes with creativity, but couldn't figure out what to do.
The next day I left Edinburgh, went to Glasgow to do a kids show and finished the audio book I'd been listening to, and after my kids gig in Glasgow I drove home and listened to Outliers, and it hit me like a brick, it brought in all the other things that I'd been thinking over the 6 years since I'd started out in comedy, like all the jigsaw puzzle pieces falling into place.
The thing I'd been looking for all this time and missed, it was so obvious now. It felt like I'd done a massive jigsaw and then found out that the picture was a magic eye picture, and that in those seconds I'd figured out how to see it.
And it seemed so simple now.
The difference between me and the people I'd been bitter about when they got successful was simply that they'd worked bloody hard and that was recognised, and the harder they worked the better they got and the more recognition they got.
I just had to put the hours in, and work really hard at the writing and performing and learn lessons from what did and didn't work and not stop striving and if I put in enough practice I'd get really good, and if I got really good then the opportunities may or may not follow, but if they did then I'd be ready to grab them with both hands, and above all to be successful on my own terms.
I got the other book too, The War of Art, and that helped me to change the mechanics of how I work, to get a better handle on it, about how to make sure that the effort would pay off, and how to get started. To treat every day as a day in itself, not to look at it as part of a chain that leads somewhere, I learned this about gigging a couple of years ago, and after that I learned it as a way of managing my addictions, and then in the last few weeks learned it about writing.
I've mentioned success in this, and it means different things to different people. So different that it can get people very very angry because they impose their own definition over what you say.
To me, success is to be producing comedy to the best of my ability, to take that to as many people as possible and to create new and interesting stuff all the time whilst trying to increase my technical ability as far as I can.
All this excitement was short lived, in my attempts to help someone else I pissed off someone and I'm not entirely sure why, or why they seem to have taken against me in the first place. I did ask but they wouldn't tell me, so it's out of my hands. But it still hurt.
And it taught me my final lesson.
Which is this other people's criticism, like other people's praise is entirely for them, and for others, it has no baring on you, or your creativity, If you believe criticism that's not constructive, or criticism that's personal or based on ad hominem attacks, then you're just allowing your insecurities to win. The people who detract are physical manifestations of your own self doubt. It's as if their actions are their self doubt, their insecurities turned outwards. And they have no baring on you.
Just like praise may feed the ego, but the ego is the enemy of creativity and believing it stops you from striving to be better, from working hard to better realise what it is you're trying to create.
Criticism and praise are the same thing, and neither gets to the true value of your work unless there's some balance of the two.
And for the first time in ages, I feel focussed. I feel ready. I feel like this last two months has been the climb to the top of a very steep hill, and on the other side of it there may be another steep hill, but I feel like this time I've got the map, I've got decent walking boots and a good sturdy fleece and waterproof.
Starting stuff is difficult. Finishing is even more difficult. But breaking it down into: Today I'm going to sit and work for a set period of time. is achievable. And to get up every day and do that is a lot more achievable than to look at long term goals and to jump for them from a standing start.
The Stage, and this desk, with its Stetson, and Skull, and candles and sweet chestnuts and pirate ship and postcard are all my territory, and when I'm here, and when I'm on that stage it's mine, and that's when everything else fades away and what's left is what I do. And I do it all day. Every day.
"Whatever you dream you can do begin it. Boldness has genius, power and Magic in it. Begin it now."