Archives for September, 2012
Our inner experience as talented, creative people could be called "teeming" - as in the title of a book by Jane Piirto, PhD: My Teeming Brain: Understanding Creative Writers. She notes the title comes from a Keats sonnet with the lines "When I have fears that I may cease to be / before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain..." [From her article Themes in the Lives of Successful U.S. Adult Creative Writers.] Creative people may be driven to create more and more, to keep fueling a teeming mind. But that may also sometimes impede creative thinking and creative expression.
"Life without pain isn't real at all." Shia LaBeouf Many people have had traumatic childhoods, and are drawn to creative expression as part of their way to deal with it, to heal and regain self esteem. A number of talented actors have suffered traumatic experiences, including Ashley Judd, who was sexually abused; Charlize Theron, as a teen, saw her mother shoot her father in self defense; James Dean lost his mother to cancer when he was nine, and reportedly once told Elizabeth Taylor that he was sexually abused by a minister. Shia LaBeouf started acting at age 12 to support his mother when his heroin-addicted father abandoned the family. LaBeouf has said he was subjected to verbal and mental abuse by his father, who once pointed a gun at him during a Vietnam War flashback.
Depression impacts many people, including artists. A fairly long list of visual artists who died by suicide includes photographer Diane Arbus (1923-1971), painters Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), and possibly Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). From listing: Artists Who Committed Suicide. Creating art can be a powerful way to deal with depression and other mental health challenges. Artist Marlene Azoulai says she was "first introduced to Art Therapy while in a psychiatric institution. There, I learned that when there are no words, there can be pictures. I learned that an artist is not necessarily someone who has studied art, but one who has something to say, and the courage to say it. "I learned that an artist is someone who makes art to save her life.” Therapist Natalie Rogers says that “using the expressive arts gives people a safe place to explore their shadow side… The shadow is the part we have repressed in our lives. Some people have denied their anger and rage for a lifetime.” From my post Creative Expression and Healing. "The work talks about what people don't talk about - what people are afraid to say." That is a quote by Clara Lieu, a visual artist and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design; she is referring to her projects, especially "Falling" - a series of fifty self-portrait drawings that visually represent her personal experience with depression and anxiety.
Ellen Langer, a Harvard Professor of Psychology, relates the story of being on vacation and making a spur of the moment declaration to a friend that she was "thinking of taking up painting." She added, "I have no idea why I said that. I don’t think I’d had more than a fleeting thought or two about painting in my entire life up to that point." Her friend is an artist and gave Langer several small canvases to start her out, and advised her: “Your first painting shouldn’t be too precious,” a perspective shared by another artist friend who said, "Don’t evaluate your work. Just do it.” Langer continues in her book "On Becoming an Artist" that "A week or so later, I did my first painting on a small wooden shingle I had found. The painting was of a girl on a horse, racing through the woods. I was surprised at how much I liked it." One thing I like about this story is her casual pursuit of an impulse to paint: she did not assemble a lot of tools, prepare a studio space, or even take an art class; she simply found a throw-away "canvas" for her first project and went ahead.
“I don’t do anything anymore that feels safe. If it doesn’t scare the crap out of you, then you’re not doing the right thing.” I've always liked that comment by Sandra Bullock - but the quality and intensity of fear, which we refer to as anxiety, can both motivate and disrupt creative expression. In his post "Turning Anxiety Into Creativity - Using what scares you to motivate you," psychotherapist and mystery author Dennis Palumbo writes that "there is something to be said for accepting---and learning to navigate---the minor turbulences of life. I'm talking here about common, everyday anxiety. The jitters. Butterflies. "This is particularly true for artists in Hollywood---writers, actors, directors, composers---whose very feelings are the raw materials of their craft."
"I think I've spent my adult life dealing with the sense of low self-esteem that sort of implanted in me. Somehow I felt not worthy." Halle Berry was commenting in an interview about what motivates her to support and work with an organization that helps women who escape violent homes. She recalls being terrified that her violent father, who physically abused her mother, would turn on her. One of the consequences for many people who suffer abuse and trauma is a corrosion of their self esteem. Recovering can be a long, even ongoing process. Berry explained, "Before I'm 'Halle Berry,' I'm little Halle...a little girl growing in this environment that damaged me...I've spent my adult life trying to really heal from that."
If we are willing to put our creative work out there - into the world in some way - it will be judged and ranked. What if our book doesn't make it to a bestseller list, our painting is not accepted by a gallery, our blog doesn't show up on a Google page one, or our movie doesn't get invited to a film festival? One consequence is we may feel deflated, and question our worth as a creator. Elaine Aron declares that "low self-esteem is about power and influence, the result of rank. Like other social animals, we constantly rank ourselves among others--competing and comparing." From her post Ranking and Linking, For Better and For Worse. That sort of ranking may be true for anyone who is creating, but the emotional impact can be particularly intense for highly sensitive people.
Don't we need to keep practicing, keep learning, keep busy to be creatively productive? A number of psychologists and artists say daydreaming or otherwise "wasting time" is actually a way to enhance creativity. For example, author Barbara Abercrombie writes about working on an essay about her divorce, but not having created an outline or idea for its themes after a day of reading her old journals. She comments, "I felt I had wasted most of the day because I wasn't actually writing. "This can be one of the trickiest parts of being a writer, this need to fool around to be creative, and to be okay with that." From her book A Year of Writing Dangerously. In his post In Praise of Goofing Off, psychologist Dennis Palumbo notes, "Some people call it puttering, or screwing around, or just plain goofing off. Others, of a more kindly bent, call it day-dreaming. Kurt Vonnegut used the quaint old term 'skylarking.'