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Distress, Disruption, and the Artist

Pat Patterson asked this question elsewhere, and it got me thinking. “Authors and other artists: When things are really going poorly for you, how does that show up in your work? What about when things are going well?”

My immediate answer to this was ‘when I’m sick, I can’t work’ which is entirely true, but not quite what he was asking about. There’s a stereotype that in order to create great art – and for the purposes of this post, that’s writing, painting, balloons, what-have-you – you must suffer greatly. But does this mean that while you suffer, you are creating?

Looking back through my life, I was very creative at times when I was going through a lot of emotional turmoil. In my late teens to early twenties, I wrote poetry. A lot of very bad poetry. I was terrible at expressing myself in spoken words, so I resorted to pen on paper and it was an outlet during a last milestone of childhood into adulthood. As a form of therapy, it was a great creative outlet. It was nothing I’d inflict on others now… and I haven’t written much poetry since I was told in no uncertain terms to stop writing things down and use my words, instead. That muted me for years. As an artist, you must learn to grow a thick skin. However, you will still find that there are chinks in your armor – and those closest to you can and will utilize them when they feel the need to harm you. I’m not sure there is a way to avoid that. Letting someone come near requires trust, and is, I believe, a vital part of life.

I began attempting fiction shortly after my first child was born. At home with no way of getting out and about, I rapidly ran out of books I wanted to read, and started writing in that old way, to create something I wanted to read. And again, it was a measure of therapy for dealing with new motherhood and a rocky marriage. I couldn’t write much, because there were a lot of demands on my time. This is something any artist will deal with, especially if they have a young family.

I find that there are a few factors that will shut off the creative faucet, as it were.

  • Disorganization: if my desk is messy, I have trouble focusing
  • Disruption: if I’m out of routine, then I have trouble staying on schedule.
  • Distress: worry over family, grades, money… takes my mental energy and leaves me none for work.
  • Distractions: The kids, the phone, the mail, the dog. One thing I can deal with, but when they come fast and furious I lose sight of goals.
  • Discipline: I’m dreadful at self-discipline. No matter how many times I tell myself I must write daily, I can’t quite seem to make it a habit. See the above…

Ironically, the longer I go without writing for other reasons, the more the distress grows, because this is a major part of my income now. I’ve been the major supporter and provider for my children and family for well over a decade, and not making enough on a given month won’t break me, but it makes me very unhappy and stressed. I’m working on that… But the thing is, I’m too damn fragile. That bothers me. I have a new husband and I’ve been sick almost constantly since we got home. Which means I haven’t been working.

I must work. I need to create. It chafes at me when I’m not doing my art. Does that show up in my work?

Yeah, it does. But not, I suspect, how you would anticipate, Pat. You’ve read Stargazer, and Memories of the Abyss. Both were cathartic stories written from the depths of a broken heart. Both get very strong (although not always positive. Memories scares people) responses. Both came out of a time when I was exploring the concept that to die to self was to live for service.

Stress affects everyone differently. For me, it brings my prose closer to poetry. Which… isn’t a good thing, at least in my opinion. For others, it will affect them in other ways. If as an artist you find that distress and disruption have shut you down, try implementing a few steps that help me get back up and running.

  • Set a routine and try to stick to it. For a new parent, this may mean staying up past bedtimes or getting up very early to have some ‘alone time’ to create in.
  • Use a timer. You can do anything for fifteen minutes.
  • Clean up your act. If you have towers of clutter hanging over and shadowing your workspace (metaphorically, although that could be literal) then take the time to deal with them. Overwhelmed? The timer works here, too.
  • Hang a do-not disturb sign on your door. Silence the phone. Explain to older kids that unless there is fire, or blood, this is work, leave me alone.
  • Talk a walk, eat a good, healthy meal. If you’re upset and distracted, you’ll forget about diet and exercise, if you’re anything like me (and I poll pretty average, as an artistic mind-type). Your brain can’t work without fuel. Also, the alone time will jog loose ideas.
  • Take a deep breath, find someone you love to hug, and stop letting your mind go over the worst-case scenarios. You don’t need to have that imaginary conversation a thousand times. Write it down, and let it go. Yeah, I know it isn’t that easy. It keeps me up nights, and I flail mentally because I don’t know what to do. But this is the time you have to find a good distraction, and channel your frustration. A nice long blog post works, just so you know…

 

 

2 thoughts on “Distress, Disruption, and the Artist

  1. You have to give your self (body and mind) time to acclimatize to all the changes. It always sucks, no point stressing out over it. Rest and think and read.

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