Downshifting: balancing your job, life, and your art

I stumbled on this old productivity post which, ironically, I never did anything with. I wrote it a while ago when I was preoccupied with getting it all done: work, writing, music, life: the full catastrophe. I’m not sure in all honesty how good I am at implementing these strategies. I have a more relaxed attitude now, and try to write when the mood takes me, and time allows. I suppose on a fundamental level I’ve tried to arrange my life so that happens more regularly, but I try not to force it.

On one level, my interest in downshifting arose because I thought it would enable me to increase my focus on writing and other ambitions. It has since become more about appreciating life in the moment, on its own terms. I’m gradually learning to say ‘no’ even to good ideas, to make room for those things that happen almost by themselves.  Like anything else, there’s always more downshifting to do…

Downshifting: balancing your job, life, and your art

In her obituary Maria de Villota, an F1 test driver, was quoted as saying “Life is beautiful. All we have to do is take it slower and enjoy it.” Her career and her life depended on speeding through fractions of a second, and yet she knew the importance of slowing down.

Maria was paraphrasing one of our great philosophers:

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.
– Ferris Bueller

There’s a lot that we can learn from this as creative-types and people-with-one-too-many-projects. The artist’s job is to be stubborn and slow: to stop and look around at what others have missed. That’s all very well, but for many artists and writers the hours of 9 to 5 are block-booked. As well as our jobs, we have families, friends and community commitments. When will we find the time to stop and look around, let alone finish that magnum opus? Like everybody else, we rush around trying to do more and get more.

Over the past few years I’ve been tried numerous schemes and strategies for balancing work, family life, personal projects, and leaving time to reflect and enjoy life. Here are some thoughts about getting things done in a lower gear.

Dossing days and doing days

The hardest thing is doing nothing. If I’m lucky enough to have tumbleweed blowing through my calendar before I know it, I’ll have spent half a day on a spur-of-the-moment idea (such as this post). Be watchful, and when the urge to do something arises, hit it with the whack-a-mole mallet of rational self inquiry. Do I really need to do this? What would happen to this urge if I tried letting it be? Try having at least one or more days where non-doing is top of the to-do list.

Find out where the bus goes

Creative people often have many things they are interested in and many things they love to make and do. It’s all part of making connections and playing with new ideas. Remember that your time is limited. By all means, try many different art forms and endeavours but be prepared to give a subtle preference to one of your pursuits when it develops beyond the others. Once you’ve guessed the general direction your talents have been leading you in, stay on the bus and find out where it goes. Try to actively avoid working on everything else unless it feels like fun.

Luddism 2.0

Make sure your technology works for you, not the other way around. It’s easy to get suckered into the dopamine reward systems of social media and checking your email. Turn your phone off every now and then. Your voicemail will get the calls. Get away from the internet. If you’re a writer, turn the computer off and write on paper once in a while. Jonathan Franzen would approve, and that’s the most important thing.

Deep time

All artists need to experience deep time: contemplative, empty time. When was the last time you had no idea what time it was? Try to avoid counting the hours when you work. Don’t let the clock decide whether today was successful: judge by the quality of one sentence, musical phrase, or brushstroke.

Disengage to reengage

Many of us have jobs that are, on a basic level, very similar to our passions. We work at computers all day only to open up the laptop when we get home. As far as our bodies are concerned this is no different from working a 14-hour day every day. Going for a run, to the gym, or doing yoga and meditation after work might clear your mind before you hunch over your MacBook in a self-inflicted stress position for another six hours of word-blending.

Booze blues

Graham Greene could only write when ‘absolutely sober’. Despite apocryphal stories, Hemingway didn’t actually ‘write drunk; edit sober’. Be warned: if Saturday morning is the only time you have to work on your passion, a hangover from Friday night is not going to help.

When the mood takes you

While I often wake early, I don’t usually get to jump out of bed and start scribbling. I’m sure that’s a productive thing to do but it’s also good to see what comes naturally. I do try to meditate before I’m mugged by the confusion and bustle of the day, and, if I have enough presence of mind, I’ll try to get the most important things done first while I’m fresh enough to do them well. Having said that, I think much of my early development as a writer came during midnight (and later) sessions when moon and muse were at their apogee. History’s most creative minds were early risers, though, and who am I to argue?

Stop and enjoy life

Chances are you’re impassioned to create because you believe there is something worth sharing or championing in life. Making yourself miserable for your art would be self-defeating. It’s tempting for maniacs like you and I to think of time out as a transaction by which we receive rest or inspiration to fuel another long creative session, but sometimes life is simply for living. Remembering Ferris’ wise words, I think I’ll stop and look around right now.

The Chalk Path

The Chalk Path - front cover

Joe, Hugh, and I are publishing our third shared poetry pamphlet very soon. Our hope is to have it coincide with the Chalk arts and literary festival in Winchester, which starts on Saturday.

The Chalk Path is the final instalment in our trilogy of pamphlets, which began with The Inner Sea in 2012. Earlier this year we published, The Tide Clock. Publishing a shared collection is a great way for poets to collaborate on a project, experiment with the format, and inspire each other. You can also benefit from exposure to each other’s audiences.

While The Inner Sea began our journey at the ocean, and The Tide Clock continued our journey to the fringe of land and sea, The Chalk Path concludes our odyssey inland, drawing on chalk hills and paths known to us, as well as themes of blankness and absence. The cover painting of Danebury Ring is another by multi-talented Hugh.

Where we might go from here is an open question. The trio of pamphlets seems complete, at least for now, and we may concentrate on publishing independently, or collaborating in a different format.


An experiential exploration of movement within the landscape, taking you beyond maps to the cries of buzzards, the feeling of chalk dust on fingers and the glimpse of a white horse.


Joe Franklin

If You Fall In You Will Be Walking Home
Urban Bee Keeping
Living With a Writer
The Chalk Path

Hugh Greasley

Tap Water
Native Habitat
Water Tasting

Mark Cooper

Golden Cap
Garden of Opposites
The Lady of the Lake
Snow Buddha


Here’s one of mine from The Chalk Path:


Golden Cap is less brilliant now,
greenery mars its white pyramid, a sign
of climate change, or that our names for things
barely touch the things themselves.

We’ve always been walking this chalk path
and yet we take a Saturday out of the rush
of making our life the way we want it
before it’s over just to live. Just to feel
our footprints on the chalk, this blank grit.
The path we started on, an unfinished thread,
depends on billions of long-dead coccoliths
too small and short-lived to have ideas about living
yet they’ve shaped the land. Shy ammonites
also lie buried in this blank necropolis,
breaking free during an occasional storm.
Whether or not they ever came out of themselves
during their turbulent lives, they’re still here,
solid enough to walk on. It’s we who are ghosts.


An early draft of ‘The Edge’

There’s a poem in The Tide Clock titled ‘The Edge’. Here’s an earlier version of it that perhaps works in its own right, before the poem took a different turn. This version is more overtly about zazen: zen meditation practice.

Just Sitting

Waves relinquish the carracks,
make fractals, circles, then stillness.
My shadow drifts on the water,
part of the headland, tailed with rock.

Children play on the fringe of all
they can and cannot imagine.
The green sea peels back and here I am
between the inbetween; grateful,

coping, very nearly thriving,
content to be this not-self after all.
I’m scenery in someone else’s childhood
on a spit of land between blue nothings.

A fishing boat threads the bay
golden with a brazen shining stitch
lit by the falling sun. My legs ache.
So much for zazen. I have an itch.

The Tide Clock version:

The Edge by Mark Cooper

Read the rest of The Tide Clock here.

The Tide Clock proof has arrived

The new poetry pamphlet I’ve been working on with Hugh Greasley and Joe Franklin has arrived in proof form. There are a couple of minor errors to be fixed: I didn’t leave enough room between the bleed and the page margin on the cover, for one thing. These should now be resolved and I’ve put the order in for the first printing.

The cover art is Paziols Morning by Hugh. Check out more of his art at

Get in touch if you’d like me to post you one!

The Tide Clock proof

The Tide Clock - Mark's poems

Anon. – The greatest of all poets

No doubt this January 1st we’ll all spring out of bed refreshed and ready to seize the promise of a pristine new year. As our clear, crisp minds embark on new creative pursuits, here’s a question to help understand what kind of projects we’re working on and who they’re really for.

Would I be willing to do this anonymously?

In other words: is this for personal gratification or personal enjoyment? Is it something I’m willing to stand behind? Is it worthwhile for others, and/or in its own right? The question is intended to help us clarify our motivations for working on a task.

Anonymity does appeal, however. I remember reading poetry anthologies in school and thinking the best poems were by Anon. Who was this mysterious Anon who wrote all of the bold, simple poems that spoke with such undeniable clarity that they sounded fresh, funny and often alarming centuries later? Now I find myself wondering who these poets were and why their names don’t appear in the anthologies. Perhaps a famous master decided that a straightforward, comic piece didn’t fit her oeuvre. Were they risking controversy? Did they only have one poem to write or thousands? Were they always anonymous or was their name lost over shifting centuries? Conversely, how many poets now exist in name only, a bit like Ozymandias?

This touches on the topic of intrinsic motivation. Some projects are passions and important for our fulfillment and sense of wellbeing. These are some of the most meaningful activities we can do. If I write a story because I enjoy the challenge of expressing myself, I don’t need the approval of others to do so. In fact, in some ways writing becomes more enjoyable if no external recognition is asked for or received. It becomes deeply personal – and its worth won’t be coloured by the opinions of others.

Other projects are valuable because they do have meaning for other people. They could be social, like playing guitar with friends; or inspiring, like painting a scene that stirs emotions. Perhaps a project will benefit a community or directly alleviate someone’s suffering. We might consider still other works, especially those at the pinnacle of a craft, worthwhile purely as aesthetic or innovative achievements – or perhaps because such actions or behaviours are inherently worthwhile. Solving a hard mathematical problem or learning to dance might be good examples (though neither are strengths of mine).

On the other hand, we’re likely to encounter disappointment when we expect our work or art to bring us pleasure because of how it reflects on us. Then we derive little enjoyment from our effort unless it gains us recognition: something we ultimately have little control over.

It’s a good idea to know what kind of satisfaction we’re looking for. Happy New Year!

Running as creativity

I’m never sure what exactly is meant by ‘creativity’. The word brings to mind an off-hand, highly-strung activity: the artist thrashing out a masterpiece in one sitting before settling back into their neuroses. While they start with inspiration, most creative pursuits involve a process of continual craft and re-evaluation. In this respect, they resemble a lot of seemingly very ordinary things we do. Is it that creative tasks are actually very natural, or perhaps the ordinary things we do are fundamentally creative?

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.

— Henry David Thoreau.

Take running. When you head out your door for a run, you’re crafting an experience. You choose the route, the time of day, whether you run alone or with friends, the effort, whether you push on a hill or amble up it, whether you stop to admire a view or maintain the flow. But as with all creative acts, there are many elements that will be decided for us: who we meet along the way, and – to some degree – how we perform: whether our Achilles tendon will be sore; whether the heavens will open up at the furthest point from home. The art is in balancing our intentions with what arrives.

The bones of a song

2014-09-15 19.23.27

Six new Uffmoor Woods Music Club tracks have come along, currently in various states of completion. I like the way Ableton Live enables you to capture ideas quickly that will then become the bones of a song. I’ve been recording melodies and immediately playing along to find accompanying parts while the inspiration is still there. That’s really handy when you have a small window of time in which to work. For the most part, this record will be quite guitar heavy, though that doesn’t mean heavy guitar. Clean, interlocking tones predominate so far. In fact, the working title is People Are Guitars. I won’t venture a release date just yet.

Gear talk

It’s funny how our preferences change. After summarising my musical modus operandi a few weeks ago it all felt a bit too set in stone. I’ve been resistant to switching to Ableton Live, thinking that it was more efficient and unique to keep plowing my own furrow on Cubase. However, I want to collaborate with a few friends who use Ableton and see what new possibilities appear because of Ableton’s novel way of triggering clips and instruments. I’ve installed it on my wife’s laptop, which I’ve basically commandeered and where I have recourse to none of my preferred plugins. It’ll be fun to start from scratch.

I’ve also finally gone ahead and bought a Fender Stratocaster. In my reckless youth, I was all about high powered humbucker pickups and the uncompromising shape of my cherry red Flying V. I played an Epiphone Les Paul Black Beauty for a while, probably because it was like my guitar tutor’s Gibson custom shop model. Perhaps some part of me thought that by owning the same guitar I would acquire the same speedy chops. This strat is all white with a rosewood fretboard, a mexican model rather than the more expensive American made guitars. How can you play the blues on a thousand pound guitar? I asked myself. Same as you can on a burned out and swamp-rotten one in all likelihood but in the end I didn’t want to spend quite that much.

The Fender tone is there. It’s much more subtle than that of many other guitars, I believe. Those crunchy, warm but clear and bright chords would have been great for the rhythm sections of Distant Signal songs when my MO was to make everything as loud as possible and hope the song would fit around enormous riffs. The strat has plenty of soul for lead lines too, which I’m hoping will come through on the next Uffmoor record. I have no idea what that will sound like at the moment… only a few guesses. Whether these changes will make more difference to the creative process or the end product remains to be seen.

The Uffmoor Sound

I was recently asked what kind of gear is used to make the Uffmoor Woods Music Club records. I got a bit carried away in my reply and thought I’d post it here in case it helps budding indietronica producers. The UWMC tracks vary in their aesthetic quite a bit but there are some consistencies when it comes to gear, budget and my own abilities and limitations.

Digital Audio Workstations

I use Cubase SX 6. I’m really used to Cubase now, having learned how to record and mix on an old freeware version. I’ve experimented with the Ableton Live demo but found it difficult to stamp my mark on it. I’ve no doubt Ableton is a great piece of software (all my friends tell me it is) but I’m just not adept with it yet. I might try it out again in the future.

Fruity Loops. I don’t use this that much anymore but it’s simple and useful and cheap. Good for making quick and dirty loops.


I make frequent use of Cubase’s Double Delay plugin to thicken tones up and add interest. You can hear it on the ukulele on I Spit on Your Grave. It doesn’t sound much like a uke because there’s so much delay on it.

A fair bit of compression ensures that the instruments come through strongly in the mix. However, in more recent mixes (such as those on Everything I Will Remember When We’re Gone and Romances of the Djinn), I’ve been a bit more careful about not exceeding 3-5db of gain reduction so that the subtlety of the instrument isn’t lost. i.e. so it doesn’t come through really loud all the time and can rise and fade dynamically in response to the song. I use fairly strong ratios like 4:1 to 6:1 quite frequently. Maybe that’s because the mixes are often filled with parts and the background instruments need to be consistent (and slightly quieter) so the main elements can vary in loudness and catch the ear.

SupaTrigga is a great plugin for mashing up parts, especially guitars and ukuleles, on tracks such as Paper Lanterns and The Axe.

PSP Vintage Warmer is useful for warming up mixes, pads, kicks and snares.

Waves Multimaximiser is great for settling a mix. It allows the various frequency ranges of a song to breathe independently of one another. So the hi hats won’t get quieter just because your kick thuds in.

iZotope Vinyl is a free lo-fi plugin I’ve made extensive use of. I’m almost loathe to mention it as you’ll hear it all over every Uffmoor track now!


I always roll off frequencies on every instrument under 50hz. These just muddy the mix and can’t be reproduced accurately by most stereos anyway. I sometimes use a visualiser to see where the instruments frequencies are and EQ accordingly. Probably the best method is to create a narrow, very strong boost temporarily and sweep it up and down the frequency range to find out where the various sounds contained within the instrument are. Then you can hear what you want to boost and cut. A goniometer is useful for identifying when frequencies might be interferring with each other.


I don’t have any expensive synth packages. I just like using some of the ingenious free stuff you can find out there. Such as Tweakbench. My midi keyboard is an M-audio Oxygen 61. It is no doubt heresy in this day and age but I sometimes use the synth packages that came with Cubase. Maybe I’ll invest when I find one that will work for a few songs.

On the early tracks I used a MicroKorg quite a bit.

I like to use synth pad sounds to provide a moving background on tracks like I Spit on Your Grave and Your Smile. On I Spit on Your Grave I recorded the pad into a broken tape recorder and then pressed on one of the spindles with varying pressure to get a warping, tape slowing effect.


On most Uffmoor tracks the electric guitar is a Gibson Flying V and the acoustic is an entry-level Fender. I use the rhythm pickups, or both, most often and usually have the tone pot at 10 but sometimes like rolling it off to 0, though I haven’t done this much on record yet.

My amp is a Fender 90 watt thing which sparkles on the clean channel but is fairly grimy on the distortion channel (which I don’t use). For distortion I’ve used a Deucetone Rat pedal into the clean channel. The Deucetone Rat is something I spent far too much money on many kalpas ago when I had a disposable income. It’s two Rat pedals in one unit and you can set them differently and let the signal from the one cascade into the other. I’d just buy one Rat pedal if I had to replace it. It’s pretty good live though as you can still have the Rat sound and get an extra boost for a solo by stomping on the second Rat. You can hear this set up on Darth Vader’s Slowest Dance.

On Everything I Will Remember When We’re Gone, I used an old Line 6 POD for the electric guitar parts, on the fuzz setting. I liked it but miss being able to wail with feedback! I’m thinking about buying a very extreme fuzzbox to get that warm electronic sound.

A cheap Danelectro delay pedal serves on a lot of guitar tracks and has been used on Distant Signal songs and live as well as tracks such as The Axe. This is a tape delay sound rather than the icy infinitely receding galacial caverns you can create with digital delays. I use plugins for that kind of sound.

I use a ukulele or a nylon string acoustic on a few tracks. I like the sound of nylon strings and think they chop up well and you can do interesting things with them in your DAW. The Axe has a ukulele that’s been chopped up by SupaTrigga.

I have a little box of toy instruments: bells, xylophones, a harmonica, a plastic accordion. I record these with a microphone and then play with them digitally, adding plugin effects etc. Unexpected sounds can have a big impact.

Drum sounds

I used to download various sample packs people had made and now have a fairly random selection. On Your Smile I recorded my bedroom door closing and EQ’d it to make a kick drum. I want to do this kind of thing more and more.

Sometimes I’ve been known to record with a real live, breathing, drummer (dangerous and not recommended).

Other hardware

I use a Focusrite Scarlett USB interface and a cheap Samson USB condenser mic, which I might upgrade at some point, though it’s served me well. I have an SM-57 for close micing my amp. Sometimes I’ll put it close to the edge of the cone; sometimes far back from the edge of the cone. On Darth Vader’s Slowest Dance I just put the condenser a couple of metres back from my amp, which was raised onto a table.

General wisdom

An atmospheric sample can add a lot of texture to a track. There’ll probably be more of this on future records. It’s also fun to go out and gather the samples just using your phone or whatever you have to hand. You don’t need great audio quality for this as the way it’s recorded becomes a feature of the sound. That’s probably true of recording as a whole, or at least, that’s the approach I take.

You can never quite get the sound you heard in your head (or on your favourite record) but that’s part of the journey. You get something new. I was trying to do something a bit like M83 with the vocals at the start of Your Smile but I’m happy with it as it is.

A lot of effects can be created out of a limited palette of audio tools. EQ, gating, compression, reverb, delay are all staples of recording and mixing but, used creatively, they can conjure up totally far out sounds, man.

The early tracks, such as those on Forgotten Lore, sound lo-fi and experimental because I didn’t have a lot of kit and didn’t really know how to use what I had. So I played around and improvised until I found something workable. You can always get something from nothing.

I have no problem with using a preset if it’s a shortcut to the sound I want. There’s no point spending a lot of time fiddling with something for the sake of it. There are those who’d burn me at the stake as a witch for saying that.