Skip to Content

Joz Norris

  • Tape 95: Old Habits


This week I started reading A Choreographer’s Handbook by Jonathan Burrows (thanks so much to Robert for recommending it to me in this newsletter a year ago, and apologies for only just getting round to it!) and it’s fantastic. As the title suggests, it is ostensibly a book about choreography, but you can easily read it as a series of fragments and journal entries about creativity more broadly, and its insights are really brilliant. Last night I highlighted a couple of fragments about following habits when making creative work:

“Are you doing what you want to do, or are you following your habits? Maybe following your habits is the right thing to do?”

“The paradox is that when I accept that all I can do is the old ideas, the habits, then I relax, and when I relax then without thinking I do something new.”

The latter one of these I think is startlingly brilliant in its simplicity – I empathise a lot with the sensation of feeling stuck at the start of a new creative cycle and heaping pressure on myself to do something new, something different. I’ve been doing it a lot this year, telling myself not to fall back into “old habits” or “old patterns,” and in doing so have equated “habit” with “bad,” and this thought from Burrows was an interesting opportunity to check myself and reflect on that a bit.

I love the idea that actually our habits are not a shortcut into laziness and repetition, but in actual fact are simply the engine of our creative work – they’re the reason we make the sort of work we do, and therefore responsible for everything we’ve achieved up to this point. The thing I do think it’s important to do is to recognise when you’re at the end of a creative cycle and are trying to start a new one, and to do that by changing up your circumstances and goals in order to start achieving new results and avoid repeating yourself – to change the thing you’re putting your habits in service of. Hence why I’m not doing the Edinburgh Fringe this year, why I’m making more short films, pitching more scripted stuff, etc.

But the idea that underneath those circumstances and goals are a set of habits that are actually just the essence of how we make stuff is a really exciting one, and feels like a good opportunity to forgive ourselves for falling back on certain methods and approaches that feel familiar – familiarity is an agent of change. New ideas tend to emerge not when we sit down and force ourselves to come up with new ideas, but when we just go about our business in the world, engaging with it in a way that feels comfortable and habitual, until somehow we connect two ideas together that then turn into something new. Elsewhere in A Choreographer’s HandbookBurrows mentions this quote by the choreographer Rosemary Butcher:

“You’re going to make the piece you’re going to make, whichever way you choose to make it.”

This reminded me of the Upward Spiral model for life that I took away from my therapist a few years ago, and talked about in this newsletter – just as you’re always going to encounter different iterations of the same problems in your life, the problems that are the unique outcome of your own individual way of navigating the world, so too will every piece of creative work you ever make be a reiteration of your own approaches and sensibilities, as you have been able to interpret them at the time. Nobody else will be able to make the same thing, and nor will you be able to make anything different. I often think those of us who make shows are just making the same show over and over again. Filmmakers are making the same film. Everything we make essentially says:

“This is the product of my way of creating, and the expression of my way of experiencing the world, as explored to the best of my ability at this specific time in my life.”

That’s it. That’s all any of us are saying. All this, in a way, leads me on to the second thing I wanted to talk about a bit this week:

Weirdly, A Choreographer’s Handbook doesn’t seem to have a cover (I’m reading it on Kindle, maybe it doesn’t actually exist as a book), so here’s just a nice picture I found on of some dancers doing some rad-looking choreography.

Comedians vs. Writer-Performers

The other reason all this resonated so much was that one of the big reasons why I’m changing things up this year is because I’m trying to get better at recognising my habits, and recognising what they actually enable me to do, and that’s led me to some interesting discoveries about the nature of comedy vs. the nature of theatre.

In September, off the back of Blink’s run in Edinburgh, I had a lovely meeting with a big TV producer who was incredibly kind and supportive and generous and encouraging. He also outlined something fairly crucial about my own work that I hadn’t really noticed until he pointed it out to me. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but what he said was roughly this:

“I really like your shows, but I’d struggle to ever book you for something, because I don’t really know what you do. Every time I see one of your shows, there’s a different tone and a different idea and a different persona onstage. You’re a writer-performer rather than a comedian, because comedians filter each new show through the same persona, so that you always know roughly what you’re getting. So if I book X comedian or Y comedian, I know roughly what they’re going to do. But each show of yours is a fresh proposition, and you put yourself at the service of the idea, rather than filtering the idea through your persona. Which means if I were to ever book you on a TV show, I’d have no idea what I was going to get. It could be a great strength, if you learn how to be strategic with it.”

I had more or less already known this about myself for quite a while, but hearing it said out loud was a bit of a “Eureka” moment, and a big reason for my making changes of focus and direction in the last few months – I wanted to be strategic, and to turn the thing I was good at (writing and performing, and making projects that stand on their own as isolated ideas, rather than being expressions of a specific comedic persona) into a strength rather than a drawback when putting myself forward for opportunities as a “comedian,” a context in which that quality counted against me.

But reading that section of Burrows’ book feels like the next piece of an ongoing puzzle. I think I had assumed that I needed to burn old habits and fashion new ones in order to do all that, and that whatever I did next had to feel radically new or daring. Now I realise that actually, the reason my previous work had done well and found appreciative audiences was because it was the product of my habits, and that the task in actual fact was to recognise what those habits best enabled me to do, and redirect them towards a more strategic end goal.

There’s a place for the familiar. There’s a place for the new. If we decide to build our creative efforts entirely around the new, we drown. If we decide to build them entirely around the old, we fossilise. I’m sure many of you have already seen it, but Bowie’s advice on this remains the simplest and most iconic – “Always go a little bit further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in.”

David Bowie on why you should never play to the gallery

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – I saw Kim Noble’s Lullaby For Scavengers this week, and it’s astonishing. I simultaneously felt like I wished I could make something even half as good as that one day, while also being very grateful I would never need to and that Kim had done it for us all. I’ve never seen such a pure distillation of the costs and rewards of choosing to use your life to make art.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Probably a bit in Lullaby For Scavengers involving Kim’s mum, which I won’t spoil in case any of you go and see it. It’s amazing.

Book Of The Week – A Choreographer’s Handbook by Jonathan Burrows, obvs.

Album Of The Week – Crying Laughing Loving Lying by Labi Siffre. This guy’s amazing. An early 70s singer-songwriter who wrote and recorded the original versions of “It Must Be Love” and “Something Inside So Strong.” I can’t believe I’d never heard of him. He’s great.

Film Of The Week – Saw The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou this week. It’s…bad? Really, really bad. I was so surprised. It feels like in pop culture it’s maybe Wes Anderson’s most iconic film, but it’s messy and unfunny. I was so disappointed by it. Any fans out there care to leap to its defence?

That’s all for this week! Let me know your thoughts, and as ever, if you enjoyed this newsletter then I’d really appreciate it if you sent it to a friend, or encouraged others to subscribe. Take care of yourselves, and catch you next time!

Joz xx

PS Here’s a dumb sketch I made this week:

LEAKED: New James Bond Audition

Click here to go back

A weekly creative newsletter. The Tapes function as an interactive notebook/sketchpad exploring comedy, art, creativity, making stuff, etc.. More Info.