When I started writing blog posts about the connection between creativity and mental wellbeing I initially thought that I would write one, let it loose, see how it flew. Then I had an idea for another one, but I thought I would run out of steam on this thought stream pretty quickly, but then had another idea, and then another. So far each little thought seems to lead to another little thought, that is just enough of an idea to write a blog post about. Go figure.
Most of the things I blog about in this ‘series’ are just my ideas about theories that I know of and that I find useful in making sense of myself, and of my experiences. If working as a researcher in psychology and medicine and mental health for the last 12 years has taught me anything it is this: there are many splendid varieties of ‘human’. What works for one person will not work for the next, or will work but in combination with a third thing. For many people it is possible to manage their wellbeing through a healthy diet, a decent amount of exercise and a little enjoyable down time. It doesn’t seem to be quite enough for me, there needs to be something….else.
One of my blocks over the last few years has been in finishing things. I don’t know if this is a typical ‘scanner problem’ but I am pretty good at getting dug into a project, and then, about half way through there seems to be another project that I need to start, so I do. And then another. And another. The banner picture on my blog at the moment is a blanket I made for my sister. It took a whopping 7 years to finish that baby off. 7 years. And I was so proud of it that I took pictures of it before I handed it over to use on the banner of this blog. So in contrast to that, this little guy in the picture above only took around six months. And look, he lights up…
Many of my ongoing projects are quite ambitious, there is a play, a film and a novel, and now a book about art and wellbeing. I’ve struggled to get close to finishing any of these things and this was beginning to cause lots of creative angst. One of the strategies I’ve come across in the mental health world, and in the online world of inspirational businesses, is the idea of goal setting. Of particular use to me has been setting smaller goals, by which I mean developing much smaller projects that are I could potentially finish in a few weeks (it still takes a few months but never mind). I’m finding that in actually finishing some things I feel much more motivated to return to those more ambitious, difficult projects, and I feel better for it. It’s helping, that the play is actually looking in good shape to send somewhere soon.
I’ve not blogged this week as I’ve not really been at my best, and have been doing the ‘one thing at a time’ thing this week. I’m not going to do a long piece now should be back tomorrow with something a bit more interesting. I have, however, been enjoying the book Body of Work by Pamela Slim. She’s written a book about what work could mean in what is now a rapidly changing situation. The style of working that involves a job at the same place, in the same career path, for the majority of your career is becoming less common and indeed less possible to sustain. Many more people, through choice or necessity, are developing ‘portfolio careers’ with multiple strands, gigs and projects. I think this can leave some of us feeling a bit disoriented, and unsure exactly how to shape that kind of way of working in a way that may make the most of our varied talents.
I really liked Pamela Slims approach to thinking about this. In the book she makes the argument that over a lifetime we should look to create a Body of Work – so a collection of different projects and occupations that form a substantial contribution to society. I think what I particularly liked about this is how she writes about finding your own narrative. The book has a series of mini projects and exercised throughout the book that are designed to allow you to gain a sense of what your own narrative may be and how to tell that story about your body of work. I think in the past for me this has been a difficulty, I have worked in academic research in a number of areas, and tried to nurture my creative interests outside of that, and everything felt a bit bitty (I’ve recently found out there is a name for people like us, ‘Scanners’). Pamela Slim suggests that everyone should have a ‘Side Hustle’, which is very sensible, but some of us have more ideas for side hustles than time to really work them. I think the idea of working out what you narrative is can really help with that, as it can allow you a framework to work out which projects are worth prioritising, and which ones can wait a little. I am now working much more specifically to attempt to create more space for the creative interests and skill development. I think this book is another step in helping scanners or multipotentialites make sense not only of who we are but also who we can find a way of working that fits more naturally with our way of being. So in sum, I liked it.
I have been musing over the last few weeks in what has turned into a little blog series about how having an arts practice can be a positive thing for mental health. It certainly works on some level for me. Over the last few years I keep coming back to the idea art as a transformative practice in the projects I have started (and often not really finished – I have the multipotentialite problem of too many projects and not enough time). One of the characters in a novel and then in a play I have been (am still) working on was directly concerned with this idea, and I’ve often spoken informally to artists of have had similar thoughts about it.
The act of Making is one of transformation. We take all manner of things, objects, paper, paint and glue and in combining those things through various techniques we transform them into something new and possibly unique. For many artists one of those ingredients is feeling. The act of using good feeling or bad and channelling that into a project to transform into something else is an profoundly creative act. The idea that emotions can feed creative work has been around for a long time, as has the stereotype of the ‘troubled artist’, so I am doubtful that this is a new idea to many reading this. I think it is this ability of an arts practice to allow the expression of feeling that can make it particularly positive. It can be a way of expressing, and gaining clarity, on what is going on for a person without requiring them to directly verbalise it. Potentially for many, expressing themselves through visual means, or through music, makes far greater sense that attempting this through what can be the very limiting medium of words.
I’m not suggesting that all art is about this process, for many art can also be a restful or pleasing diversion. But frequently the art that speaks to me most speaks to me on this level. A really useful way of thinking about this for me came through reading Amanda Palmer’s Book ‘The Art of Asking’ (I really enjoyed this one, more on this another time). There are a lot of useful ideas in here, but the one that grabbed my interest in particular was the idea of the artist as ‘Sin Eater’. Traditionally the Sin Eater was a person who may live at the margins of a community. Their role was to take on the sins of a person who had recently died so that person would be able to pass on to heaven. In Welsh communities the Sin Eater may visit with a family and break bread and drink ale over the body of a loved one to ‘eat’ their sins. In ‘The Art of Asking’ Amanda Palmer speaks about the artist as the sin eater, as a figure who is able to take on the sadness, anger or distress of others and transform that into something beautiful, into art. I found this description particularly useful to think about, and in understanding the function art can play in helping us understand ourselves.
A few weeks ago I posted a piece about my making and mindfulness. I’ve had the day off work today and have been thinking a bit more about why making things seem to work so well for me in bringing my stress levels down. I think in part it’s because I’m experimenting at the moment with collage, paper and glue. I’m in the process of working on a few designs for decorative pieces and because I’m a bit of a scanner obviously I seem to feel the need to work a bit in all of them at once. It may sound hectic, but moving between projects seems to ensure that I give each stage on each project a little time to mentally marinade.
I’ve been trying techniques that enforce a slowing down. Even given a good run it can take days to get from an idea in my head to something that looks like an actual piece of work. I’ve been soaking card to mould it into various shapes and building up works through layers of paper of different thickness and texture. At each stage things have to be left to dry out and set before I can move onto the next thing, which removes the need for urgency. Indeed rushing around on these projects tends to ruin them, so slow craft is definitely the best approach here. I think as a consequence my mind also moves a bit slower, but is still very much occupied with the design details, which reduces the likelihood of anxiety creeping up on me.
I think I’ve been blogging for about a month now and I thought it would be a good time to take stock of where I’ve got to on this ‘I’ll just set up my own business, that’ll be simple’ path I’ve taken myself down. So far I’ve done the following;
- Bought a domain name
- Set up a blog
- Had a few people actually read the blog (eeek)
- Read a few books on business
- Bought some other books, not all on business
- Outed myself as having both anxiety and a strange affection for kissing gates
- Started to work out what it is that I actually want to do with this whole business thing (probably should have started here but never mind)
There is much more to do, and each time I learn a new thing I find a door opens to a whole new set of possibilities, and that my ideas evolve all the time as a consequence. This week I have come across 2 things that have helped me enormously. The first is this book on tax and accounting by Emily Coltman called ‘Refreshingly simple finance for small business’ which has already answered several questions I had about tax and what I would need to do about that. I do recommend this to anyone who is just starting out. I think one of the anxieties that stopped me from getting started sooner was being put off by the idea that the paper work would be really complicated, and this book was pretty re-assuring on that point.
The second is this website called Puttylike.com, which is run by Emilie Wapnick. She talks about a category of people she calls multipotentialites, who are people who have multiple interests and never quite fit into a particular niche. She strongly encourages people not to try to force themselves into a niche, but rather to find a way of bringing those interests together into what she calls a Renaissance Business. This works for me, I think I’m one of those people. In my time I have studied medicine, psychology, social sciences, animation, and film making. My parents are both artists so my childhood was like being in art school. And I like walking in the woods. And kissing my boyfriend at each and every kissing gate we encounter. So I think the next thing for me is to wok out if these things can be bought together into something co-herent. It’s really helpful to know there are other people out there doing this stuff, but at the moment I’ve only really discovered American peeps talking about it. Any UK multipotentialites out there?
In a recent mindfulness course I took my tutor spoke quite a lot about the ‘beginners mind’ which is the stat that you are in when you encounter something for the first time. What does it look like? What it it’s texture? Does it smell? At the moment I am encountering all of these new ideas and it feels very much like I’m frequently in a beginner’s mind state, which is having some knock on effects that I hadn’t expected. It’s also motivating me to go back to some unfinished projects and take another look, which can only be a good thing I think. It feels like each new little thing I discover is one small pebble, but over time I’m going to have enough stones to build something pretty cool. Exciting times…