Saturday 21 April 2018

Well-being: Art for heart's sake

Unexpressed creativity can dull the spirits

Katie Byrne took drumming lessons.
Katie Byrne took drumming lessons.
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I had a beginner's drumming lesson last week during which the teacher taught me eight notes, "the money beat" and the proper grip when holding drumsticks.

Musicians will recognise this as a rudimentary lesson - and indeed it was. Yet afterwards it felt like an appetite I didn't even know I had had at last been sated. In truth, I felt happier than I had been in months.

We're hearing a lot more about the healing power of the arts. Hospitals are introducing creative programmes to help patients recover. "Art therapist" is becoming a recognised job title. Creativity is medicinal, as study after study is proving.

Some leading thinkers have taken this discovery even further. They believe that creativity is the antidote, just as they believe that unexpressed creativity is the root condition.

I hasten to add that I don't have an undiscovered musical talent. What I do have is the shell of the first chapter of a book, and the blinking cursor of a Word document reminding me of my failings. We could call this procrastination, laziness or a simple lack of inspiration. It doesn't really matter because, either way, it's all unexpressed creativity.

In The Gift of Imperfection, Brené Brown explains the importance of expressing ourselves creatively.

"Unused creativity is not benign," she writes. "It metastasises. It turns into grief, rage, judgement, sorrow, shame. We are creative beings. We are by nature creative".

Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, likens owning a creative mind to owning a border collie. "You have to give it something to do or it's going to find a job to do, and you won't like the job it finds".

Elsewhere, Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art, talks about an inbuilt resistance that comes between us and our creative endeavours: "What does Resistance feel like? First, unhappiness. We feel like hell. A low-grade misery pervades everything. We're bored, we're restless. We can't get no satisfaction. There's guilt but we can't put our finger on the source".

This isn't a temporary creative block. No, it's much more insidious than that. Unexpressed creativity is alienation of the authentic self. It's suppression of one's real identity.

We know what pronounced cases of this look like. The artist working in an admin job; the writer working in a bank. They are either stuck in a rut or completely rudderless.

As Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way, writes: "We ourselves are the substance we withdraw to, not from, as we pull our overextended and misplaced creative energy back into our own core".

Cameron also writes about "a creative energy that wants to express itself through you". Indeed, countless artists believe that they are simply vessels for this energy or force.

Christy Moore talks about music coming through you and not from you. Michael Jackson, when talking about songwriting, said: "It's as if it has been written in its entirety before we're born and you're just really the source through which the songs come". Ernest Hemingway talked about a well that would "refill at night from the springs that fed it".

The mystery that surrounds the process can actually be quite liberating for the frustrated artist. It reminds them that they will be met half way if they just show up each morning.

Spiritual author and lecturer Marianne Williamson developed on this idea during a talk she delivered to Google employees in 2013. "The idea of creativity being generative is a very Western concept," she says. "A more spiritual or metaphysical perspective says there is already a file and your job is to download [it]".

If you still can't put your bum in the seat, at least try to find a temporary outlet for your creative energy. Dance, poetry (think haikus rather than sonnets) or, as in my case, drumming. Alternatively, commit to doing something creative every day, even if it's just arranging flowers or adding something new to your cookery repertoire.

If you're considering a career change, the aforementioned The Artists' Way has long been considered an essential aide for the frustrated artist. If you don't want to invest in the book, try Cameron's Morning Pages technique, which is "three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning". Morning Pages sweep away any extraneous thoughts that interfere with the creative process and provoke insights along the away.

It's also important to put yourself forward. Frustrated artists have a curious habit of finding jobs on the periphery of the industry that they want to get into... and an even stranger habit of not using the networking opportunity when they get there. Speak up!

If you still feel stuck, Steven Pressfield suggests parlaying that sense of resistance into something positive.

"Resistance will unfailingly point to true North - meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing," he writes.

"We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others".

The other approach is not to think of it as art for art's sake. It's art for your heart's sake, and it's better out than in.

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