“It’s like a fortune cookie” — When you surprise yourself with what you’re capable of - Jessica Abel
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Answer these 10 quick questions to uncover the real reasons why you’re not able to take control of your creative work.

“It’s like a fortune cookie” — When you surprise yourself with what you’re capable of

Cliff Fuller realized that facing the hard tradeoffs would give him agency over his creative life

On March 14, Mx. Tiffany Leigh performs an excerpt from her unpublished memoir Camp Football at the live storytelling event Take Two, in Brooklyn. (In NYC? You should go!).

Mx. Tiffany Leigh performs

… A memoir that was little more than a twinkle in the eye of Mx. Leigh’s alter-ego, Cliff Fuller, as recently as October. Here’s Cliff:

If Cliff from even six months ago was like, here’re all the things that are going to happen to you very soon…It’s like a fortune cookie.

You’re like, come on. There’s no way.

I don’t have room for this. I don’t have time for this.

It’s great. It really does feel like I’m alive!

Cliff Fuller is a writer, a memoirist, a performer, and a game show host—yes, I said, “game show host,” more on that in a bit—who once thought he’d be a screenwriter. I got to know him a little bit in the fall of 2016, when he first took the Creative Focus Workshop.

But to be honest, though I enjoyed chatting with him then, I didn’t have a strong sense of what he was all about until the second time he took the CFW, a year later, in October 2017. All of a sudden, Cliff was ON—full of insight, changes happening in his life at an amazing pace.

I had to find out what had happened in that intervening year.

I always felt like I was very limited, like I didn’t have enough ideas. I felt I had a finite number of stories I could tell on stage.

It felt like there’d be a little bit of light shining on my creativity for a brief moment, and then it was gone. And then I wouldn’t know when it would happen again.

It was the absence of everything else that allowed my creativity. So then, a presence of anything else took away my creativity. The presence of a girlfriend or boyfriend, or family commitments, or wanting to go out, and go to parties or events.

And then because of that I would be like, I don’t have time to write. I’m too busy.

I didn’t know there could be a coexisting state of “I am creative” alongside these things.

But since writing my book and this second iteration of the class, I feel like I have infinite ideas, and they are not all related to my father and they’re not necessarily all related to my gender identity, and all these other things that I thought that the stories had to be about in the past.

That’s been really exciting. It’s just this abundance. And it’s ever-present.

And those are the two conditions by which I’m not worried now about being creative or running out of ideas.

Even when I’m not sitting down working on a book or writing questions for Match Game or practicing for a staged reading, even at work or walking around, I’m always working on this stuff now. I’m reading something for fun, but I’m exploding with connections, and new ideas. I just feel there’s an abundance of my creativity.

And there’s a lot more consistency as well. Up weeks, down weeks, I never get too high or too low because I know I’m always surprised at how much I get done.

I’m not miserable, because this morning I wrote another chapter, or next week I have a show, or yesterday I got a booking. All of that’s happening alongside the rest of my life now, instead of just being tabled, the carrot on the stick that you never reach.

Building an ideal week: freedom comes from facing the tradeoffs

The key element for Cliff, as it turned out, was mastering a lesson I call “Your ideal week: Next week,” I title I’m thinking about changing since it sets up misleading expectations. The “ideal week” lesson is not about reaching perfection. It’s about doing the best you can with the week you have in front of you.

It doesn’t surprise me that Ideal Week was the key element for Cliff. After all, it’s also the key element for me, and for most other CFW students. Basically, I think this is the key understanding for everybody, if you’re going to prioritize your creative work.

But it’s hard. (That’s why most people DON’T prioritize their creative work)

It’s highly charged emotionally, and it requires clear-eyed, strategic decision making.

What is the Ideal Week? Short version: plan out your week so that you pay yourself first with the creative work that’s most important to you.

(For the long version and step-by-step hand-holding: jump into the Creative Focus Workshop, or if that’s not possible, get a copy of my book, Growing Gills.)

Why figuring out the ideal version of your week is so hard

The Ideal Week is hard because although it seems simple, in fact it’s the physical framework in which your dilemma (HOW do I make time for this work? What has to go?) sits.

You’re sitting there looking at your actual dilemmas. They are there in black and white and you realize that you have to make choices.

When you master the Ideal Week, every time you plan, you simply say to yourself, OK, will it be this or that? It’s about the calendar, it’s not me.

The shame of not doing a thing falls away. You can forgive yourself when you make mistakes. You can recognize when you’re feeling shame and say, it’s okay that I’m feeling shame. But if it’s not necessary. And so you can let that go.

Ironically, the first time Cliff took the Creative Focus Workshop, it was the Ideal Week that stopped him.

The ideal week was really frustrating. I was tracking my time, and what crushed me was seeing, side by side, what my week was really like and then noticing all these patches where I wasn’t doing what I should have been doing, or could have been doing.

And I wasn’t ready to cut away some of these things in my life that I needed to cut away to make time and space for that yet.

There are consequences of the tradeoffs.

Like, if I do this tonight, I will get home later.

If I get home later, I will get less sleep.

If I sleep in, I’m not going to write tomorrow morning.

So I don’t have time to write if I’m going to go out to a movie tonight and maybe not get home till midnight.

And so, am I okay with that?

Yeah, maybe I am okay with that.

Or maybe I’m not anymore.

The consequences of those decisions for me were was so emotional.

I had to break through and understand that there’s an emotional component to every aspect and every assignment you do for this class. Even if it doesn’t seem like it. Even though Jessica is saying explicitly that there is.

Every decision is emotional.

And some people are like, Just slot it in, like it’s a schedule for baseball games or something.

As if it’s not a person that has to decide to do this, not that.

The consequences of that decision weigh on you. And maybe it’s accrued, because maybe you’ve done that over and over again, and not written, or not acted on something, or not followed through, and it just builds up.

Because I’m 45, and it’s been building up since I was 5 and I was writing in notebooks.

I mean, that’s why I’m writing my book. I think having all this integrated lets me finally break through and write about my past. The shame, the regret, all this stuff ultimately stems from the relationship I have with my father.

It’s the most clear project I had to do.

Making tradeoffs = creative empowerment

But once Cliff got a handle on making those tradeoffs, he felt the power of having that choice in his hands.

In one of the lessons, we answer, when did you feel most creative? I felt most creative when I was making those decisions about tradeoffs, about prioritizing Match Game over the book, or the book over Match Game.

And forgiving myself for the time I was spending doing these things and not feeling like I was shortchanging something at the expense of another thing.

I have agency over my creative work and my process through this class.

Planting the seeds that later will become fruitful

When he first took the Creative Focus Workshop, Cliff was nervous. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to make real changes.

The first time I took the course I was nervous. Part of it was the cost.

And there were other classes I had taken online that weren’t as useful, like a screenplay class or a creative meditation.

You have that momentum of being caught up in it while you’re doing it. And it’s almost like a New Years’ resolution: your January’s just crushing it, and then it’s February, and you don’t go to the gym anymore.

And then, it’s like a memory of that other person.

I think the first time I literally feared what it was going to mean for me to do it. What if I take this class and I fail, and I just wash out? I think I even said, before I pressed send on opting in…

What if a year from now I’m not working on any of this stuff? ha ha!

Part of it was a lifetime of not owning the fact that I wanted this life more often than I was getting it, and more consistently than I was getting it.

And maybe some of that was the shame of, if there’s a better life for me and I can see it and I want it, it means that I have to reconcile all the choices I made leading up to this.

Maybe a few weeks after the class and I wasn’t really implementing the stuff as well? It was starting to slip, and I was like, Here we go. I kinda really did think, There’s yet another thing I took online.

But my brain was bubbling and working on it in its own way and I just didn’t realize I was moving towards it subliminally.

That was like a gap year. I went backpacking in my head, and I came back and took the class again with a little different perspective.

Making creative work is a part of your whole life, and needs to integrate with everything

What Cliff didn’t realize is that what he’d set out to learn wasn’t a concrete skill, it was an approach to living his life.

The course is a creative focus workshop. It’s not a how to write a screenplay, how to write a memoir, how to write a graphic novel. So people aren’t taking it to learn to do a thing.

They’re learning how to live their lives to be able to do what they want.

It’s not just the parts of the day or week or the year where I’m working on a thing.

It’s the parts when I’m with my partner. It’s the parts when I’m at work, it’s the parts deciding to have dinner with my sister or visit my parents.

It’s my entire life, and it has to integrate. I integrated this very inconsistent, long-malnourished part of my life, back into my life.

Cliff did come back to the CFW a year later, and he’s one of many alums who return for more. But plenty of other students don’t come back, and they still see this effect: slow-but-steady improvement as the principles of the CFW sink in, then, 6 months to a year later…things are rocking and rolling.

But it takes time to process the emotional work, to make the tradeoffs, to face the hard truths, that will make it possible to commit to making the life-expanding work you care about most.

I recently did a series of free CFW Reboot sessions exclusively for CFW alumni, and many former students who came were in this same place: much further along, working steadily, AND seeing how it’s possible to go even deeper into building a sustainable creative life.

Lessons learned from Kylo Ren: Kill it if you have to

Part of the apprehension about the second class was that I wasn’t going to learn anything. which is hilarious, because it’s actually when I put it all together.

The second time around I did get rid of a lot of regret. I had to move through all that to just be like, Yeah, drop it. ha ha!

Kylo Ren, you know? Kill it if you have to.

But I was ready for it.

A lot of what I needed to do was mentally make those tradeoffs and make these decisions.

And over the last year, I cut out all this stuff in my life that was outmoded, that was this negative influence on my life, that was preventing me from being creative and carving out time and space for me.

I was getting closer to my creative life all year.

I just didn’t realize it, because it wasn’t a step-by-step “extreme makeover” version where five weeks later I’m like, Now I’m a published author.

… Or, Now I’m super-successful.

… Or, Now I can quit my day job.

None of those things happened, but all these other things happened.

And now it’s been, 14 weeks? And I mean, I’m rolling.

Opportunities are opening up for me.

I’m making time and space.

I’m constantly making decisions and tradeoffs.

I know I’m going to have this kind of free-floating anxiety around the things I should be doing. Or the things I wish I was doing. But now I have this structure and this workflow where I know when I’m supposed to do them.

And I sit, and I honor that time to do it.

The rest of my life has improved immeasurably because of that, because now I’m present in my interactions with my friends, and work is less miserable, even though it’s not an ideal job, because I know that that’s not defining how my life is being driven.

Making a big, scary pivot. (Or realizing he already had?)

In the second class, I created a whole new idea debt inventory without looking at the first one, because I didn’t want to be influenced by what I wrote.

Then I dusted that idea inventory list from the first class off, and I was sort of stunned. It’s like a time capsule where I was a year before. And all the things I was prioritizing the year before aren’t even on my radar now.

Growing up, ever since high school, I was like, “I’m going to be an award-winning screenwriter.” But I saw, here are other things that I’ve been doing more of and maybe I should honor those things.

That’s where I came to the revelation, You’re not a screenwriter right now. Maybe you shouldn’t have been a screenwriter for a big chunk of the time you’ve been screenwriting.

You might go on to write a screenplay, but what you’re not doing now, is that.

It doesn’t mean you don’t get to do those things. Maybe down the road those move back up the list, but for now, they don’t.

Even this idea for the stories and the memoir, and the non-fiction stuff, those are all intentions I was setting.

It was just stunning to see that I was like a totally different person from the first list.

So what is Cliff actually doing with his creative time? He’s got two major projects, the Match Game live performance game show, and his book, Camp Football.

The Match Game!

Match Game is a live game show based on the 70s, 80s game show. I’m the host, the producer, I book guests, we usually have celebrities. I write all the questions for it. It’s pretty much a one-person show, and it’s been going for a couple years in the city at a couple different venues.

I’ve been doing that show for two years, I can’t believe I haven’t been tracking attendance or having a mailing list or working on those marketing things.

I started putting more focus into Match Game, which was the thing I really loved. And it’s starting to expand. It sort of just kind of went into the stratosphere when I took this class the second time, because I was able to implement a lot of things.

It isn’t just necessarily this experience at a bar, it’s sort of plug and play wherever you want it, whatever questions you want for it.

And it’s because it’s all of my stuff, I’m like, yeah, I can do that. I can do that. Let’s figure it out.

Camp Football

I was talking to my partner, and to my sister saying, I’m working on this…I’m working on a…what is it? I kept not knowing what to call it.

It was that whole, “I made a thing” syndrome. You’re afraid to actually own it as what it is.

It’s a story…

Well, what is it?

It’s a story that’s a 400-page rough draft.

Oh. It’s a book.

And then even more it’s a memoir, which is weird, because if you had told me a year ago, or even three months ago, that I’d be writing a nonfiction memoir about my childhood and my relationship with my father, that’s literally the last thing I thought I’d be doing. Ha ha!

But of course the class brought up that that should be the first thing I should be doing.

I’m virtually done. I’m probably be done in the next couple weeks with a rough, messy draft that of Camp Football that I can put in a drawer. I’m very close to finishing. [He’s finished since this interview, by the way .–J.A.]

I got a call to do this storytelling show that I’ve done in the past called Take Two, where you tell a story with the real ending, and then an alternate ending of what could have happened. Or what should have happened.

A longer-term goal is to start doing more stories, and figure out some open mic’s. There’s a lot of stuff in New York City that I can do this with.

These stories are mine. I want to tell these stories. I’m ready to tell these stories, and now I have the framework to sit and do the work to finish these stories.

Ready to make some tradeoffs in exchange for agency over your creative life? Check out the Creative Focus Workshop

More about Cliff Fuller

Cliff Fuller is a genderqueer writer and performer in New York City (often appearing onstage as Mx. Tiffany Leigh). They’re currently finishing a memoir about grade school (first conceived in Jessica Abel’s Creative Focus Workshop). Tiffany has told live stories at The Slipper Room, Take Two, the F*ck You Revue, and with the BTK Band. Since 2016 they’ve written, produced and co-hosted MATCH GAME NYC, a monthly live game show.

Follow Cliff/Mx. Tiffany Leigh on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter at @matchgamenyc to get news on upcoming live show and other events!

and… website (coming soon!): mxtiffanyleigh.com

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Answer these 10 quick questions to uncover the real reasons why you’re not able to take control of your creative work.

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Answer these 10 quick questions
to uncover the real reasons why you’re not able
to take control of your creative work.