I wrote a little the other day about my daughter, A-, who was diagnosed this year with bipolar, and is currently battling a severe case of winter depression. This morning she came to me and said, “I wish I was still manic, like I was in the summer.” I asked why although, apart from the obvious sense of joy she experienced in the height of mania, I knew why. She missed the sense of mastery she had over every activity she attempted in the summer. She was a self-proclaimed spiritual rapper. She wrote reams of poetry. She took dozens of photographs of dozens of subjects, such as the sun breaking through from behind a cloud. Even getting dressed for the day was a statement of her creative self: brilliant colours chosen to outwardly describe the animal totem of her spirit that day: the yellows of the lion, the blues of the peacock, and (too rarely for my liking at the time!) the whites of the gentle (and quiet!) dove.
A- believed in the power of her creative dream and enjoyed it like a child who hadn’t yet learned about criticism and judgement. She didn’t connect to most people, which is why I suppose she saw the rest of us as critical people who didn’t understand the power of her vision. In truth, we all had something to learn from the experience: the rest of us about dropping the disapproving frowns and regaining some of that boundless sense of play and contentment in our own accomplishments, and A- about staying grounded enough to take responsibility for her life and respecting the visions of others. We all learned a lot in the summer.
This morning, sitting in ourbright yellow office with the grey morning filtering through the window, A- was unmoved by my argument that it was more important than ever for her to pursue her creative dreams. Although it’s a subject I feel passionate about, I knew my words weren’t getting through. I decided to write about it, not only for A-, but for me on those days when I get lost in the old tapes, and for any person who feels they have been thwarted in their creative dreams by depression or any other invisible illness. If you’ve been a reader here for a while, you’ll know that I have lived with depression and Sjogren’s syndrome (an autoimmune illness) for over twenty years. During that time, I’ve also managed to do a fair bit of writing and visual art. These experiences are my credentials. I’m just a person who has struggled, given up, and taken up my dreams again. I’ve given up too often, but luckily, I’ve taken up as many times and I’m still here writing.
Although it doesn’t seem fair when we already struggle with so much, but as people with depression and other invisible illnesses, we have to work (yes, work!) at being creative. Depression can suck the joy out of what we’re doing, and we have to work to regain that joy. Those creative dreams that come so easily when we’re well are even more critical when we’re ill. Our dreams give us hope, and it’s hope that keeps us getting up and getting going. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m saying it’s worth it.
If your dream is to be a writer, then by writing you become a writer. If your dream is to be a spiritual rapper, then you become one when you rap spiritually. By doing, you become. I believe it’s that simple. If you are someone who loves to create, whether you write, paint, sculpt, compose, quilt or cook (or any other creative verb), any time you create you are effectively living your dreams. You may not be happy with what you create if it doesn’t live up to a standard that you’ve set yourself. A standard is an invisible goal that often acts like a big stick – no one likes to be beat over the head with one. For example, if you expect to paint like Van Gogh, you will be disappointed because you’re not Van Gogh, but the good news is that you’re creating. If you want to achieve a mastery of your craft, then there’s only one remedy: practice often. I’ve been writing for some 31 years. When I started out, I thought I was a pretty good writer. In truth, I was mediocre. However, I had the desire to keep learning the craft. I read a lot of books and tried a lot of exercises. I kept writing.
The truth is, when I started out writing, I thought I was good because I was having so much fun writing. It didn’t really occur to me to judge quality. However, if you want to share your creations, you have to think about intention, quality, craftsmanship and many other things. If you’re creating just for you, then who cares what an invisible audience thinks? Only when you’ve gone through some schooling, or join a club where there are achievements, trophies and winners, do you realize that your enjoyment is not often an objective measure of quality. When you want to send your work into the world, someone or some group external to you is the arbiter of quality. Over time, you may learn to absorb that function to become your own inner critic. If your inner critic is anything like mine, he or she is likely harder on your work than anyone else could possibly be. Learning to tame that critic so you can resume joyful creation is something that can take years of unlearning. You can do it.
Our creative dreams are the things that distinguish us in life. Regardless of whether you create to live the dream or to pursue a specific goal, the barriers of practising to improve your craft and taming your inner critic can be difficult enough. When you suffer from depression or other invisible illnesses, there are other barriers that are much more daunting.
The physical burden of depression alone can be enough to stop one from creating. Some of the common physical symptoms of depression include fatigue, insomnia or oversleeping, back pain, headaches and other types of pain. For me, there is always a feeling of moving through molasses. I feel like there is a literal dead weight on my brain that makes moving my limbs difficult. Even if you can overcome these, there is of course the mental burden of depression. You have to battle feelings of melancholy and despair, lack of interest in a craft that you previously enjoyed, difficulty concentrating, poor self-esteem and self-confidence, and even thoughts of self-harm.
I thought these symptoms were bad enough, and then I developed a chronic autoimmune disease that exacerbated many of these symptoms and introduced new ones. I still had much cherished dreams and goals, but they seemed so distant. It seemed that taking any steps towards those dreams took simply too much effort when living seemed difficult enough.
However, engaging with your dreams and your passions is the very thing you need to do when living with depression. A sense of enjoyment and gaining mastery in your craft is what you need to feel empowerment in a life that may be overshadowed by depression. The key thing is to return to your craft and yourself with an open mind, open heart and a sense of loving compassion. It’s important to set reasonable goals for yourself, but don’t judge yourself by other people’s or even your own former levels of output and quality.
Some people say, if you’re not creating, you must not want to create. I find this a very judgmental and discouraging statement. I know for many years there were many times I wanted to write, but I felt so overwhelmed by my invisible illnesses, I felt incapable of even starting. I didn’t know how to start without judging my work, when it would have been more helpful to just spill out my words like the child who had absolute joy in creating without fear of others judging the quality.
Try to approach all creating as fun and as, what it truly is, a practice. Do you have a favourite writer, artist or creative person that inspires you with their work? They may have reached a mastery of the craft that is at once overwhelming as it is inspiring. The thing is, every day, every creative person – even a master – has to sit down and practice the craft. If they want to keep evolving they will keep extending their skills in new ways. Some days they will face a blank page or blank canvas and nothing will come to them. They too, will be overwhelmed by voices of fear, self-judgement and self-criticism, and even if they have produced substantial work in the past, they may be afraid they’ll never create work of that calibre again.
What would you think of a person who told that master craftsman that indeed they should just pack up and give up? That they didn’t really want to create because they hesitated? You’d think that person should just go and be discouraging somewhere else. You’d tell the master to keep creating. Why wouldn’t you give yourself that same encouragement?
Here are a few things I try to remember when I’m being hard on myself. I hope they’ll help you too.
Keep showing up to create as often as you can. Many books, for example, Julia Cameron’s, The Artists’ Way, encourage you to write several pages each morning. While this sounds like a laudable goal for developing a regular creative practice, sometimes it’s simply not possible. If you suffer from insomnia or even if you oversleep, the likelihood is that the quality of your sleep is poor. What if you have to go to work as soon as you do manage to wake up, or if the process of getting ready for the day takes up your whole morning? You may feel an immediate sense of failure at not reaching your goal. I used to try keeping records of daily writing. I don’t know about you, but when I did, I just tended to look at all the days I missed, rather than the days I sat down and wrote. Trying to quantify the frequency and length of your creative sessions is just going to discourage you. If you must count them, then count, but don’t count them over any time period, and don’t judge one session better than another. Even if you sat for 5 minutes, count that the same as a session where you got rolling for 3 hours. Whether you get 5 gold stars, or 10 or more, you’re creating, and that’s your best reward.
Keep creating, even if you feel blocked. I don’t know if there’s really such a thing as writer’s or creator’s block. There are all kinds of ways that we can stop ourselves, usually with messages that our work isn’t good enough, whether the standard is someone else’s work, or our own past work when we weren’t ill. Usually a block of this kind means that your inner critic is too active and is judging everything you make. Even if, especially if, you feel silly doing it, create like a child. A child doesn’t worry about quantity or quality. They’re just involved in pure, joyful creation. Maybe you’re tired, or in pain, all the time. I know the feeling. I’m tired and in pain writing this essay. Even if you spend 5 minutes at your craft, you’re creating.
Don’t be a perfectionist. Perfectionism is the source of most of my blocks. When I’m writing something like this, I want it to be perfect. I work hard at it, but at the end of the day, if I exhaust myself and make myself sick over it, I’m less likely to want to come back and write something else. There’s a maxim that we create 80% of a work in 20% of the time, and the last 20% of the work in 80% of the time. That rings true for me. I never know when to leave well enough alone. Sometimes I’ll tinker with a work until I somehow mess it up and become unhappy with it. Trust your creative drive. Quite often the work you create in that first 20% of time spent is the work that is the most vibrant and true to your vision. If something seems missing and you’re lost, sometimes the best thing is to put the work aside and start something else. You’ll come back to it when you’re ready. And sometimes, you just have to launch it out there as it is.
Don’t make your work too precious. Sometimes you’ve worked long and hard on something and it’s not going anywhere. This includes your magnus opus: the work you feel you were born to create. Put it in a drawer or a cupboard, and start something fresh. Sometimes you invest too much energy in something that isn’t working. With writing, I’ve learned that this means not posting or continuing something I’ve put a lot of work into. It’s hard, but you almost always get a fresh burst of inspiration from something new, and sometimes you find that shelved work reinvents itself through your imagination. Try it.
Try something different. When I became ill, I found working with acrylics, canvases and even canvas papers too difficult. It zapped too much energy and the set up and clean up was so daunting that I didn’t have much energy to invest in the work. I started creating digital art using royalty-free photos, then my own photos and finally ‘painting’ using software programs with a ‘pen’ and tablet. I not only rediscovered art, I rediscovered a sense of play as my experiments didn’t feel so precious. It doesn’t cost anything to keep all my experiments, including the ones I love and don’t love. I love playing with the same theme and creating small series of works before moving on to the next.
If your creative work is as important to you as it is to me, it’s worth spending 15 minutes on. Do it whenever you can. If it’s more than once a day, great. If it’s a couple of times a week, it’s still great. You’re creating, and that’s what’s important.