Ideas from science to boost your art: The restorative impact of nature

Before I started writing this blog post I took a walk in a nature park that is close to my home. I had spent the morning trying to upload my film to a website in order to submit it to some festivals (more news on that to come), and was in need of a creative reset before I started working on a different project. I frequently find that a walk in a wild place will help me think through what I want to say or do next on any number of my creative works in progress, and it has significant positive impact on my mental and physical health too. I’m not the only one who finds this, and the positive impact of being in green or blue spaces on humans has been established for some time.

This is why I wanted to discuss some of the ideas of Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in this next ‘ideas from science to boost your art’ post. I came across their book, The experience of nature: a Psychological perspective while working up a proposal for a project at work. It’s an old book, published in 1989 and doesn’t appear to be in print any more, but I was able to access it for free here.

The book outlines a theoretical perspective on how natural environments are beneficial to us, and then brings together a lot of evidence to support different parts of the theory from psychological studies that the authors and their students conducted around that time. I really liked how they described an inclusive understanding of natural environments on page 2 as “places near and far, common and unusual, managed and unkempt, big, small and in-between, where plants grow by design, or even despite it.”

I’m not actually going to write about the evidence here. This is partly because the evidence is likely to have been built upon in the thirty years since it’s publication, and should I try to update that here this would turn into a very long blog post. It’s also partly because I think the basic ideas are something that may be helpful and thought provoking to creatives and non creatives alike. Given the book is 368 pages it’s unlikely that I’ll fit everything into a thousand words or so of a blog post, and I have also simplified things because of this. If you like what you see, try giving it a read.

Humans and information

They begin by describing how human beings are highly dependent on information to function, which they hoover up from their environments through all the senses available to them. The brain is in a constant state of sorting through which information is important and requires some sort of action, and which is not. In order to do this hoovering and sorting the brain can engage in two different types of attentional processes:

  1. ‘Involuntary attention’ – the kind of focus you may have when engaging with something you already find interesting. This kind of attention is relatively low effort, and enjoyable
  2. ‘Directed attention’ – the kind of attention you have to work at. If we think about this as writers, it’s the kind of attention you may need to sustain your concentration through a difficult scene or a series of picky revisions or edits. Sustaining this kind of attention for extended periods of time can result in mental fatigue, even if this has been in the pursuit of a project that is enjoyable.

They then make the argument, which feels intuitively right to me, that in modern society we have constructed urban environments and social structures that constantly provide us with lots of interesting and distracting information, and thus there is lots of ‘sorting’ to do between the information that is just interesting, and the information that requires action. As a result we frequently engage in directed attention, which can result in mental fatigue.

Mental fatigue

For most writers and creatives, especially ones like myself who are trying to fit creative stuff in around other bits of life, I think that mental fatigue may be a familiar feeling. It is the state where someone may feel ‘worn out’ without necessarily having engaged in any physical activity. They even note that people who experience this may complain that they have not engaged in enough activity.

The consequences of mental fatigue may be familiar too. People who are mentally fatigued are more likely to commit human errors and to be aggressive, less tolerant, and less sensitive to socially important cues. So here is the explanation for that gaping plot hole that you didn’t notice first time round in that bit of the book you wrote while really tired and highly caffeinated.

Restorative environments

The bulk of the book is dedicated to building a case around why natural environments may be ‘restorative environments’, by which they mean environments that facilitate rest and recovery from mental fatigue. They cite four different characteristics that environments they consider to be ‘restorative’ have:

  1. The sense of ‘being away’ both from one’s every day concerns and responsibilities, and from noise and cluttered urban spaces
  2. The sense of being in ‘a whole other world’ in which things may look and feel quite different
  3. They are inherently fascinating, and easily engage those processes of ‘involuntary attention’ we met earlier
  4. They are compatible with the things that people like to do

The descriptions of these four types of characteristics are quite long and detailed. I’m not going to paraphrase them here as this blog will never end, and I feel like these characteristics will intuitively make sense to a lot of people. If you do want to read about the detail, the relevant sections start from page 184.

I think many of us can see how being in a natural space may fit the bill for all of the above. Being out in a green or blue space means we are away from our desks, our work places, perhaps even our caring responsibilities, and things feel quite different there. Allowing ourselves the time to pay attention to the plants and insect and other animals can feel like being in a whole other world, and is, for many people, inherently fascinating. Being in calm green places allows many of us to do things that we enjoy, like hiking, cycling or sitting near bodies of water.

Recovery from mental fatigue

The final aspect of this theory that I think is really helpful for creatives is their discussion of how being in a natural environment can help us recover from mental fatigue. They suggest this can happen at four levels:

  1. Clearing the head and allowing your mind to pack away the ‘cognitive leftovers’ from a recent task or project
  2. Recovering our abilities to engage in the processes of directed attention, i.e. our ability to concentrate
  3. The ‘soft fascination’ that is induced by exploring the plants and creatures of a place allows for a kind of cognitive quiet which may give space to think about things that are ignored, or not felt to be important on a day to day level
  4. The space for deeper reflections on one’s life , priorities, actions and goals

For me I think the most important take away from these ideas is that as a creative, the key to being productive and having good ideas is not to work on this or that project in every spare moment as western culture may sometimes suggest. Rather, those moments when we step away from our desks and out, into the garden, or away to the park are really important for our brains to be able to function when we do next sit down to work on something. Personally I found this insight really helpful as I often feel a bit guilty when I take an hour out of my ‘art day’ to walk in the park, and perhapse I don’t need to feel like that at all.

I hope you have found this blog interesting or thought provoking. If you have thoughts or comments, I would love to hear from you.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. 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.

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The Heroine’s Journey is the narrative template we all need right now.

I’ve been sitting on this post for quite a while now, having first drafted it when I was listening to the audiobook of The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger (affiliate link) back in the summer on Audible (affiliate link). I’m not really sure why I’ve held on to it for so long, other than I wasn’t quite clear on what I wanted to say. But a few weeks before the holiday season begins feels like an appropriate time to put this put there, so I’ve tried to pull those thoughts together a bit more coherently.

Anyone who has tried to write long form fiction will have heard about The Hero’s Journey, which was described by Joseph Cambell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (affiliate link), which is a kind of narrative template that forms the backbone of many, many books and films and describes the archetypal ‘journey’ which will take a hero from the start, to the end of the story.

I had come across this template when I was completing my PhD in the psychology of stories and how they influence us, and found it an interesting and useful tool in helping to shape a story in progress. However, over time I have become increasingly troubled. I’m not going to go into the specifics of the template, as this has been done many, many times before, but the main point of the journey is that while a hero may pick up many comrades along the way, to eventually save the day he must face the major challenges alone. When he returns home, he is so deeply changed by his journey that he may not be able to find his place there again.

My main beef with this, apart from being such a poor representation of so many of the real life major human triumphs, is that is sends such a troubling message. The kind of individualism glorified by the Hero’s Journey implies that anyone who needs help, who can’t defeat their deamons on their own, is essentially weak. I’m thinking specifically through a mental health lense when I say this (I have worked in mental health research for almost ten years). This is not the first time that I have said that we need better stories about mental health, and I really think that the focus on doing it alone, or failing alone, is part of the problem here. But my thinking hasn’t got very far on how we do that. As we all know, it is easy to point out a problem, but not nearly as easy to point to a solution.

Luckily for me, Gail Carriger has written a really great book about the alternative narrative framework, The Heroine’s Journey. If you have not read it, and you are interested in telling stories that offer an alternative to the ‘going it alone’ narrative, I strongly suggest that you read (or listen to) this book.

I’m not going to do a thorough summary this complex and rich book here, as that wasn’t my intention when I wrote this post. The headline is that Carriger carefully unpicks the Hero’s Journey, and explains exactly how the Heroine’s Journey is different. The main point that I am attracted to, both for my own work and for the more general message it sends, is that strength comes from building and working with a community of like minded people. The heroine will collect together a group of trusted co-travellers, seek collaboration, compromise and peace rather than revenge, and will prioritise protecting the people she loves over the glory of a victory. Through this process the heroine will get to know each one of her co-travellers, undertand their talents, and when the time comes, give them their moment to shine.

As Carriger states, to the heroine, ‘Asking for help is not seen as a weakness, it is the very definition of her strength,’ (I’m really sorry, I don’t know the page number for this) which for me is an essentially positive message with particular relevance to mental health.

In these difficult, and isolating times, we need to move past narratives that further promote the kind of individualism that can be toxic to mental health and look to something that helps us reclaim the value that can be found in connection and in community.

The Heroine’s Journey is the narrative template we all need right now.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. If you creative prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. 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.

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Reasons to be grateful: an overgrown garden lawn

It’s now November in the UK, and Autumn has really settled in. I really love this time of year, as the leaves turn red and fall to the ground, and we begin to experience some of the more atmospheric weather that I find inspiring. The other morning we were treated to a dense mist as I walked my son to his nursery. He had not really seen mist before, and spent a good portion of the journey pointing into the air and squeaking. It was a nice reminder that for him, many of life’s more normal experiences are completely new.

I planned to write this post several months ago, but somehow couldn’t get it together to write it. I had the idea for it when I was really struggling with some work related anxiety, but hadn’t yet felt ill enough to take any time off work. Since that time I did take a few days off work, before rushing back in again to do something that felt important at the time. A week later my son came home with a fairly common childhood disease, and not long after that I was really ill with it for a couple of weeks. I think my immune system was left struggling after I rushed back to work too soon, a mistake that I will try not to make again.

It is too cold to stand out on the grass in my bare feet now. But this summer I was enormously grateful that when I was feeling stressed I could walk down the stairs and out to my garden, where we are lucky enough to keep a rather untidy lawn. I like to feel the cool grass under my feet when I am feeling anxious. For me there is something about putting my feet in direct contact with the earth that is grounding. Things to not feel quite so bad after a few minutes standing quietly and looking at the flowers.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. If you like these prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. 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.

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Mental health and silver linings

Last week I wrote about my recent brush with anxiety and how at times like this I find that creativity can form a kind of refuge for me. During that time I made a picture of a cat that I rather liked. It’s inspired by my two cats. Both of them are black and a little eccentric, but one of them has displayed some almost saint like qualities in his tolerance of the overly enthusiastic affections of my toddler son.

Over the weekend I had a go at doing some finishing touches in photoshop, and was relatively pleased with the result. So even though I wasn’t feeling near my best in that time, I have come out with a little silver lining in the form of a piece of art.

This is the finished piece above. If you like it, and fancy treating yourself to something with this image on, it’s now available in my shop at Redbubble here.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. If you like these prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. 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.

Anxiety and creativity as a refuge

Last week I was off work with stress and anxiety. I’m back in now, but it was a bit of a shock to crash out with a panic attack on a not particularly difficult Monday morning, and find myself unable to return for a few days after that. While I’ve struggled anxiety for quite a long, I don’t normally find myself needing to take time off work with it, but that’s how things go sometimes, isn’t it?

During my time off I was feeling really tired and had that kind of brain fog that makes it a bit difficult to think things through properly. From a creative point of view, I wasn’t been able to write much either, which is my normal creative weapon of choice. When my mental health slips this way my instinct is to retreat into making pictures. I find something therapeutic in the physical activity involved in drawing, cutting paper and working out which other materials may work for that particular design.

There are a few theories about around why creative activities are helpful to mental health, including (not an exhaustive list);
1. That it provides a nice distraction from difficult feelings or circumstances
2. That it may provide a route into a state of ‘Flow’. This is a psychological term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and which describes a positive state of mind where a person is fully involved in and focused on a particular activity (for more information you can read his book on the subject here (affiliate link)).
3. A route for self expression or catharsis, allowing people to express, and more clearly understand their own feelings or thoughts on a difficult situation.

Over time I have probably found all three of these aspects of creativity helpful to my own mental health, and am grateful that it is something I feel able to do. One of the benefits of building some form of creative practice into my everyday life is that when things feel a bit difficult, I have something productive to withdraw into, like this last week.

And I made a picture of a cat that I’m pleased with too.

Thank you you for reading. I also write, make art and films. If you like these prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. 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.

Is it possible to write fiction about mental health well?

Over the last few years I have been writing the first book in a fantasy novel series (current title Feeding Jasmine Valentine). It has two main protagonists, and one of those protagonists has severe anxiety and other mental health issues. The more I write her the more I think about if I am doing justice to her.

One of the really problematic things about writing a character who struggles with their mental health is that there is a really troubling legacy of how mental illness has been portrayed fictionally in the past. For example people with mental illness are often portrayed as dangerous, uncontrollably violent, as an ‘evil genius’, or as incoherent and unpredictable (in what are often quite predictable ways).

There are a number of harmful stereotypes that were easy enough for me to avoid. I have not written my character, Julianne, as a dangerous uncontrollable psychopath or as someone who is inherently prone to doing unpredictable and damaging things to other people. She is not someone who does ‘mad’ eccentric things just for the sake of making a point about her mental health. I’ve tried very hard to give her experiences that are authentic, and have drawn from aspects of my own mental health at times to do so.

The main stereotype I am worried about falling foul of is that of ‘the unreliable narrator.’ Characters that have a mental health problem are often portrayed as inherently unreliable, and thus their version of events is not to be trusted. Over the last few years I have worked closed with many people who have struggles with their mental health and have found this not to be the case at all. The majority of the people I know give very clear accounts of their own experiences. However some of those experiences can be difficult to hear, and it may feel easier to the listener to doubt what is being said.

My concern with my writing is that it will automatically be assumed that she is unreliable, when this is not my intention at all. Any ideas about how to tackle this would be welcome.

Thank you for reading. I also make art and films. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. 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.

Seen in South London

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In the UK we’ve been in ‘Lock Down’ for about three months. Although technically we could have been going out and about for a walk for an hour a day as part of our ‘daily exercise’, we decided to stay at home while baby magpie was so small, and my section wound was still healing.

Baby Magpie has put on a substantial amount of weight since then, and I am completely healed up. While CORVID-19 has not gone away, cases do seem to be dropping a bit and the risk of getting it appears to be low when you are outside. For these reasons we’ve been going outside a bit recently to a local wildlife park to get a nice walk in a few times a week.

As we moved to the area not long before Baby Magpie was born, there is a lot about the area that I don’t know. Pretty much every time I go for a walk I see something new in my local area, which probably isn’t new at all to people who have lived here a long time, but which I find rather exciting.

The photo below is from the country park that is quite close to our house, and I rather like the idea that there may be some ancient magical creature living there.

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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.

Thoughts on Radical Kindness as a Daily Practice: Part 1.

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It’s almost ten years since Amy Winehouse died. I really liked her music and was lucky enough to see her perform twice during her first album. She was a wonderful, funny, forceful presence on stage. In later years I saw filmed footage of her at concerts and performances, and could see that things were going wrong for her, although niavely, I did not understand the extent of her distress. The world was not kind to the beautiful, talented, Amy Winehouse.

I do remember a point in time where I had bought myself a magazine and they had printed paparazzi photos of her out in the street, seemingly after having a fight, with only one shoe. At that point the penny dropped for me that I had bought a magazine that had effectively paid someone to stalk women. I have not bought ‘woman’s magazine’ since.

Not long after this Amy died. I was at a wedding with friends and we found out over breakfast with the morning papers. One of the people there said something to the effect of ‘well we all saw that coming.’ I remember thinking at the time how unkind this was, and how I didn’t really know my friend so well after all.

Over the last week or so press intrusion has been sited as a causal factor in the death of another woman, Caroline Flack. I didn’t really want to write about her, because before this happened I confess that I didn’t know who she was. I can’t comment on her work, or what kind of person she was, although the coverage suggests that she was very human, struggling along like the rest of us. One of the things I noticed in the last week that prompted me to write this post was a quote attributed to her circulating on social media. The quote went something along the lines of:

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

It’s a really nice quote, and it’s nice to see it circulating. I’ve also seen a lot of those ‘inspirational, pay-it forwards’ stories recently, like some one paying for someone else groceries in the checkout when they are short, and they are really nice to see too. However, sometimes I despair at quotes and stories like this, because it feels a bit like posting the quote is enough, and then we can go back to ‘business as usual’, which is not always particularly kind. Here’s my problem:

Posting the quote, or the story is not enough.

I have been working along side people with sometimes significant mental health problems for the last four and a half years, and I also spent a good amount of time talking to people who were thinking of suicide as a volunteer. This certainly doesn’t make me an expert on kindness, but it has given me a crash course in what practicing kindness can mean. In my experience genunine kindness is rarely about paying for a stranger’s shopping at the supermarket (although it can be about that). It is often about small gestures, and is as much about what you don’t do, as what you do do.

It means not interupting someone when they are trying to tell you something, even if you think you know what they are going to say. It means not giving advice, even if you are sure you are right, before you have taken the time to really try to understand the other person’s experiences. It means actively showing you are listening, that you care. It means putting down your phone. It means acknowledging you don’t know the answers, or that you don’t understand something. It means avoiding sentences that begin with ‘At least…’ It means not consuming click bait on the internet. And it means doing these things every single day, even when you are tired, or stressed, or distracted.

In a world where our politics and our media are becoming increasingly macho and frequently cruel, we, on mass, have a role to play in changing the direction of things. It means practicing radical kindness with each other, everyday, and it means refusing to support or consume things that are cruel.

This has turned into a rather lengthy blog post and I still have more to say – I will publish part two to this blog next week, so look out for that.

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.

 

Reasons to be grateful: being able to change my living situation.

It’s been a while since I’ve been here on the blog. After a lot of disruption we’ve finally managed to move into a new area in London and have even unpacked some of the boxes.  There were a few months when we were looking and looking, but it turns out that just before Brexit is not the best time to move, and there weren’t many flats available that would work for us. But we did manage it in the end. We’ve been in for about two weeks and have some interesting new views to look at, as you can see in the picture above. The change of location has really made a difference to our life style, which I’m pretty pleased about. I have managed to claw back an hour of free time in the evening through the move, and am able to walk a good chunk of the journey to work now (although some mornings my legs are not so happy about that). I would like to say I’ve immediately put that hour to use by making art, but I’ve only been mildly successful there. One of the reasons for this is that we have welcomed some new additions to the Magpie Nest.

Yes, we’ve adopted two rescue cats. They are older cats, and have arrived with us in a somewhat ‘plump’ state, shall we say. For followers of this blog you will know that we spent the last year trying to deal with infertility, and that there will be more fertility treatment a bit later this year. While we have not been successful so far in conceiving, we have been successful in expanding our little family to create a home for these fellas, who have settled in quite quickly to their new surrounding. In the process I am rapidly transforming into someone who can sustain long and meaningful ‘conversations’ with her cats. I am not sure what this will mean for my art, but I do feel pretty happy about it.

I am hoping now we are at least partially settled that I will be able to resume a more consistent blogging schedule from now on. Hopefully it will be something like once a week, with some extras here and there. I think I’ll be getting back to the Objects with Meaning project, and will be sharing a bit more art as well.

I hope everyone who reads this blog is well, and that I will hear from you all in the near future.

With Love

Magpie

Reasons to be grateful #6 – swimming with my sister

SWIA0424-20x30There hasn’t been a huge amount of activity on this blog for a week or more as I’m a bit exhausted and taking a bit of down time. However, Laurie from the lovely blog Meditations in Motion posted this post a few days ago which included a very kind write up of me and the magpie blog. It reminded me of the picture above which I had wanted to post for a while, mostly with her in mind. She writes very well about her experiences of running distance races. I’m not a distance runner, but I am a distance swimmer.

I started swimming longer distances last year, at a similar time as I began looking having tests and treatment for infertility. It was also about the time that my sister and I started swimming regularly together. The photo above is from the Great East Swim at Alton Water which happend back in June – it’s of me and my sister, finishing a 2 mile swim together (I’m the bigger, more sausage shaped one!). My sister is faster than me, but I have the edge when it comes to stamina. In that swim in particular she flew off at the start but I caught up at around the 1.5 mile mark and we swam the final half mile next to each other. In these group swims everyone wears the same coloured hat, and it can be difficult to find another person if you dont start together, so we got really lucky. At the end we got out of the water together, and finished just one second apart. We had a great swim that day, mostly becaue we got to finish together.

My sister and I swam a lot as kids, but during our early adulthood we lived in different places and I certainly took big breaks from swimming at times. My sister lived abroad for 4 years, and moved back to London two years ago. Soon after that we began swimming together regulalry when we could. Its been really great as we never really spent that kind of regular time together as adults before. She was one of the first people I spoke to about my infertility, which was kind of suprising because I’m not really a talker when it comes to difficult things. I am greatful that we had swimming to come back to together. It made me think about how it is worth spending the time establishing yourself in a physical hobby or sport when things are going well. Having something physically challenging (that you enjoy moderate progress in) to indulge in when things feel a bit dark is a very helpful thing indeed. I have just signed myself up for a 9 km swim next year in the Big Welsh Swim. This will be the longest distance I have to date. I am looking forward to traing with her for that.

I am also greatful to Laurie for prompting me to write this post and for her supportive messages over the last few months.

I also make art. You can things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying.