Friday, 24 May 2013

Keep the T-Bird

Twice this week, I’ve read that we physically need creativity, play and rest.  Considering that last week, I posited the mental health issues of writers, this is good news.  The caveat here is that when we downgrade writing from creativity and play into work, it’s like what happens after Daddy took the T-Bird away.

A few months ago, Amanda Palmer used her TED talk to urge the arts community to give their work back to the people, asking for only what we need.  Then Palmer paid her local front bands with hugs and beer, which drew comparisons between the financially successful musician and the record labels she meant to combat. 

What Palmer suggests does appeal on an emotional level, but practically speaking, someone has to pay for our beans on toast.  In response to Palmer’s TED Talk, Cord Jefferson writes that the voice of American journalism now comes from the ‘trust fund babies’, as entry level jobs in the field have dried up in favour of unpaid internships.  To build a writing portfolio, the budding journalist must have financial back-up to allow her to give her words away.  Not only does this practice silence voices from lower economic brackets, usually voices of colour, but it devalues the work of writing.

This dilemma isn’t the sole prize of writers.  The entire crop of fledgling artists face the choice of putting all their eggs in the arts basket or having a day job while trying to enter the arts work force through an after-hours doorway.  A young friend of mine who chose the former path, still lives with his parents, puts all his energy into breaking into his field, and says he has no social life outside of contacts in the arts community.  While we can admire his dedication, this time of his life isn’t balanced; it forces him to make decisions about his life that his age peers in other professions don’t have to make, and pressures him to succeed or give up his chosen career. 

Doesn’t sound much like creativity, play and rest.  More like grappling for survival.  While the general consensus outside the creative community is that artists should live a life of deprivation in order to create, I say, bullshit.  There are things we can do to lobby for more support of the arts, a long but needed process.  In the meantime, let’s also take care of ourselves. 

Creative people are great for thinking outside the box.  Ellen Langer in her book, On Becoming An Artist, suggests we remember to ‘pursue art for life’s sake’.  As a writer, you know the feeling of your senses opening up in order to transform external stimulus into art.  Creativity makes us more aware of our life, which improves its quality, but also lets us see possibilities and solutions that a non-creative approach doesn't illuminate.  The trick is to step outside the box, but not lose sight of the practicalities involved.  In other words, pay the front bands more than hugs.

Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection that we should make a list of things that we think will improve our lives, then reduce from that list the number of ‘accomplishments and acquisitions’, replace them with things that provide ‘joy and meaning’.  Once we’ve adjusted the list, it’s important that we also implement the list.  In other words, do we really need to submit work to forty-five magazines in the space of six weeks or would we have better mental health and practice greater creativity if we only wrote one kickass piece in that time? 

 Okay, so one piece doesn’t pay the bills.  I don’t suggest that we eliminate the accomplishment and acquisitions list.  We subdue it slightly.  We change our focus from what we do, to what we experience and feel.  From what job we hold, what awards we win, what publications we’ve broken into, to who we are as people, what voice we cultivate as writers, what stories we tell, what messages we relate, how well we create, play and rest.  It is the creative person’s equivalent to an athlete’s fitness regime.

Research from the National Institute for Play in California shows that play shapes our brains in a way that promotes empathy, helps us understand complex social interactions, underlies creativity and innovation in the arts, science, maths and more.
What that means is play makes us higher functioning human beings who can understand the internal life of others better, move successfully through difficult social situations, think outside the box AND communicate this information in an artistic way that can be understood and assimilated by other people.  Creativity, play and rest could actually be the salvation not just of writers, but of the race.  

Go forth and ply your trade.  Write, submit, worry about deadlines, build your writing history.  But play.  Be silly.  Laugh.  Crack silly jokes.  Dress in costume.  Sing in the grocery store.  Hang on to your T-Bird.  Have fun, fun, fun while eating your beans and toast.

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