Thoughts on Radical Kindness: Why writers and artists should practice it (Part 3)

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[This is part 3 of a series of blogs about kindness. Please see parts 1 and 2 here]

When I began writing these posts I kind of thought this would have been one of my ‘here are my random thoughts on this’ kind of posts and that would be it. However life rarely turns out as you expect. I have been thinking a bit about my own journey as a person, and as an artist and writer, and what I’m about really through these posts.

I actually wanted to write and make art when I was a teenager, but I also wanted to ‘help people’ and somehow got it into my head that being an artist/writer would mean that I wouldn’t be doing that (I have seriously revised my view on this now!). Instead I went off to university to study medicine, thinking that doctors ‘helped’ people so that was what I should do. While I really loved learning about the science, and believe that having the opportunity to study human anatomy through full body dissection was one of the great privileges of my life, it turned out that the practice of medicine was not for me. I left after four years to do a PhD in psychology, during which I studied things like advertising, persuasion and the impact that stories can have on us. I still wanted to write and make art, but some how I wasn’t ready, because I hadn’t really found my subject.

Later I did research into mental health and genetics, and I left a long term relationship because my then partner would not even talk about having children (hence I am quite late to the baby party). After this I had a bit of a break down really, although I would not have called it that at the time. I was depressed, very anxious, and drinking lots. I was in a bad way, and (cliche alert) I became attached to a number of men who were not attached to me.

I continued to work in mental health but the kind of work I did changed so that I was doing research with colleagues who also had mental health issues. We talked a lot, and I listened a lot, and in the middle of all of that, I found I was ready to make things and write things. I am now writing a novel in which people have experienced trauma and who live with those things. It’s also a fantasy novel, so I am trying to weave in strands of myth and magic, which makes things a bit complicated, but and I think I finally found my subject. I think this is the many splendid forms of being human and all the emotional consequences of that. 

So why do I think that artists and writers in particular should practice radical kindness? I think that, beyond just being a good person, there are a number of reasons. I think to create art, or convincing characters that really speak to people, it can really help to understand people. It can really help to understand the rich and varied emotional lives many people live. To understand people, you need to connect with people on an honest level. To connect with people, it really, really helps if you are kind. People will tell you things about themselves, and help you, incrementally, to better understand all the different ways of being human, if you are kind.

I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

A thing I’ve been listening to, and you should listen to too: Scroobius Pip and Distraction Pieces Podcast

So while I’ve been getting steadily more and more pregnant I’ve been finding it a bit difficult to do things. However, that has meant that I have had a lot more time on my hands to sit in the bath and listen to podcasts. I came across the Distraction Pieces Podcast almost by accident as I saw that Neil Gaiman was doing an interview with the host, Scroobius Pip and I thought I would have a listen.

I’d actually been aware of Scroobius Pip for quite some time after a friend put me onto his spoken word poetry and music a number of years ago (which you should also check out). I have seen him perform live and he was great. It was also at one of his gigs where I came across Kate Tempest and her amazing work so I have many reasons to like what he does.

I started off by listening to his interview with Neil Gaiman and have been hooked ever since. He has an extensive back catalogue to get through, which I will look forwards to during those late night feeding sessions. If you want to know why you should give him a go I think that for me the thing I really, really love about his podcasts and that is that he is so human. He has interviewed a whole bunch of very interesting creative types, and when he meets someone who excites him for interview, you can tell them that he is really excited. When he thinks something is important he speaks with real passion about that. He also has a stammer, and I really love that this is sometimes present in his interviews, and that he will talk about that openly rather than avoid the subject. I have found the interviews that I have listened to so far really thought provoking, and often inspiring. If you have not heard of him yet you are in for a treat.

If you take a look at his back catalogue and don’t know where to start I would particularly recommend an episode from late 2019 called #293 Stammer Special, with Natalie, Owen and George. For some reason I can’t directly link to the episode but I do recommend that you take the time to look for it.

He has a website here for all of his collected stuff.

If you are into Patreon, which I am, you can support him here.

I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

Lessons on listening

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I’ve been thinking about what to put into this post for a week but have struggled a bit in working out what it is I’m trying to say exactly. I suspect there will be more than one post as I try to tease this out.

Over the last 5 years one of the most significant things I’ve learned is the importance of listening. In all of the important roles I’ve adopted at different times (researcher, manager, volunteer, artist, partner, daughter, sibling, friend) listening has been an important part of what I do (most of the time more so than any of the ‘talking’, truth be told). There has been a growing public conversation about the importance of talking in the mental health world in the last few years. There have been significant efforts to encourage people to reach out, to talk, and these are really important. There are multiple platforms through which we are able to connect, digitally or otherwise, but often little thought is given to the ‘listening’ that this assumes. For someone to reach out and actually find some comfort there needs to be a Listener. I think for these efforts to be truly successful we need to develop not just the capacity of our community to talk, to express themselves, but also the capacity to listen. And ‘just listening’ isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Listening well is actually an important skill. I once had a boss who huffily told me ‘pah, listening. What is listening? I listen’. In doing so interrupted me mid-sentence and failed to hear the complete thought I had at that moment about the importance of being heard. This was not a good example of listening. During the past few years I have done some training on my listening skills, and volunteered for a time to have long, careful conversations with people who are suicidal. Here are a few things I have learned:

  1. Everyone has one infuriating friend who will continually tell you the same story over and over, or make the same point over and over. Think for a moment. Is it possible that this person feels like they have never truly been heard?
  2. Listening well is an act of mindfulness. Truly listening to someone requires you to be present in the moment. It requires you not to sit there agonizing over what clever witty thing you are going to say next.
  3. It’s ok not to know what to say next. Silence can sometimes be your friend.
  4. It’s ok to ask ‘I know you are going through something. Are you ok? do you want to have a cup of tea, a little talk?’
  5. It’s ok not to have any answers, to not know what to advise. Often people, both in their good times, and in their bad times, aren’t asking for advice, they are asking to be heard.
  6. Listening well, listening carefully to a person without a personal agenda, is an act of profound kindness.

On this blog I talk a lot about creativity and arts practice, and maybe this post seems a little left of field. But in my own arts practice I have found listening to be an important part of it.If you listen to other people well you will inevitably end up learning something interesting about the world around you, or about yourself. Listening is fundamentally rewarding, in that it adds richness and depth to your understanding of the human experience.