I wrote this two years ago, and most of it still feels horribly relevant. I hope, then, it’s still useful…
This year, so far, has probably been the least productive of my life. Hell, even that time I was homeless I managed to write a book, but 2017 has felt like one long anxiety attack, where any impulse to create has been buried under a deluge of apathy and stress. Some of this has been personal, if not particularly original or unique to me – recurring health issues, work hassles – but most of it is just a deep-seated despair at the current state of the world, with a nice dose of helplessness, anger and fear thrown in. Isn’t doing anything creative completely pointless right now? Aren’t we all just rearranging the deckchairs?
In some ways, those who depend completely (or significantly) on their creative output for a living are lucky: there’s nothing like knowing you won’t make the rent to incentivise you to get on with things. Those parts of my work where I’m committed to other people – the shit I need to do or I don’t get paid and, um, will starve and die – I still find relatively easy. The magazine print deadline, the submission date, the client schedule; I have never missed a single one (in fact, I’m proud that I have a professional reputation for delivering quality work to a tight deadline: it’s one of my USPs.) But everything else? All bets are off. So how can I – how can we – keep creating in an increasingly crazy world?
Channel your anger: God, I am so angry all the time right now. Angry at the venal politicians and the press who exploit people’s fears for their own agenda. And, yes, angry at the people who are letting their fears be exploited, who are punching down instead of up, turning on their neighbours instead of against the people who profit from their pain.
And tied into this, is helplessness: I couldn’t stop people voting for Trump, I can’t stop him if he decides to kill us all. I can’t stop women being harassed online or black people being killed by the police, or terrorist attacks or refugees drowning. So I feel, so often, that I can do nothing. But that’s not true: we can all do something. Visiting a friend, recently, I was impressed that she had channelled her post-Trump/Brexit anger into starting a local activism group, to campaign for causes they cared about – making a difference in her neighbourhood, even if nowhere else. Maybe you can’t do that, but you can write to your MP. Get behind social media campaigns like Stop Funding Hate. Contribute to those organisations that are in a position to do something: this year I renewed my membership to Amnesty, and donated to the ACLU. And though I am not great in crowds, I actually went to demo! It felt massively out of my comfort zone, and I nearly talked myself out of going several times, but I did feel better afterwards.
Chunk down your tasks: If you are feeling anxious or depressed, committing time to creativity can feel daunting, but breaking it into smaller goals can make it more manageable. You don’t have to write your book today, but you can write a page, and that’s progress. 5 minutes spent writing is better than no minutes spent writing, and you may find once you start, you get into the zone.
Or, conversely, try pushing yourself a little bit harder. I recently found that I was giving up too easy: I’d write a couple of good pages, then call it a day and tell myself I was done. So I started setting aside 45 minute slots where I had to sit at my desk and work on a project: no breaks, no social media. 45 minutes is the length of a TV show – I know I can manage that! Frequently, it’s true, I have spent 20 of those minutes doodling, but more often I found that focused bursts of writing were productive for me, and it stopped me telling myself I was done after 10 minutes.
Focus on the process: This can seem counter-intuitive: I see a lot of advice that is basically ‘think how good you’ll feel when you’re finished!’ – and if that works for you, great, stick with it. But I find this has the opposite effect, and leads me into a spiral. What’s the point, I wonder, if the finished version is going to be rubbish/might not sell any copies/will just mean I have to spend loads of time and energy on marketing and convincing people to buy it – ugh!/people might hate it/we might all die in a fiery nuclear explosion before anyone has a chance to read it, etc. etc. But the actual process of writing, I love. It’s therapeutic. The buzz when something works is unmatchable. My finished book might bring a whole load of anxiety with it, but a perfect page is something I can get behind.
Get a support network: I have a couple of people who I email updates on my life and work on a regular basis: one in a structured way, with a weekly update, the other on a less formal basis, whenever one of us needs a boost or to vent. But in both cases, while we are honest about any frustrations we are facing, the emphasis is on the positive: what we have done, what our goals are, how we plan to achieve them. If I am honest, sometimes this actually gets me down – on a bad week, I feel my failure is compounded by hearing how someone else is doing lots more than I am – but in general, it’s helpful. And when you actually sit down to list what you have achieved in a week (or a month, or whatever), you can surprise yourself with just how long that list is. I would often find myself starting a message with a ‘didn’t get much done’ and then be, ‘oh, except I wrote 3 guest posts for bloggers and pitched an article and wrote an awards submission and… wait, I did loads! Go me!’
Bonus tip: Anxiety and depression can be isolating, and stop you reaching out to people even when you are in most need of contact (‘they won’t want to hear from me… I’ll bore them/I’m a burden, etc’.): Scheduling update exchanges gives you a commitment to stick to and means you don’t feel like you’re burdening anyone – you know they are expecting to hear from you!
Do something nice for someone else: One of the fastest ways to get out of your own head is focus on someone else. Volunteer in your community. Clear out your cupboards and give stuff to charity. Send a cute card or a gift to someone for no reason (a friend I haven’t seen in years recently sent me a box of geeky craft projects she and her daughter had been working on, completely out of the blue – it made my day). Every time you commit a random act of kindness, no matter how small, you help create a world where kindness is the norm.
Be kind to fellow artists: It’s easy, when you are struggling, to feel resentment towards other people and envy their success or productivity. But supporting other people’s work can make you more invested in their success (who isn’t thrilled when they introduce others to something they are passionate about? At the very least, turning people onto stuff you love gives you someone else to talk to about it.) And it also makes you feel like you are still part of, and contributing to, the creative community.
Tweet about that book or show you loved. Bung a fiver into that Kickstarter that looks kinda fun. Share your mate’s Facebook page for their craft shop or photography business. Message the writer of an article you enjoyed and tell them you liked it. (I recently wrote something suggesting people tell their favourite author they enjoyed their books, and an old colleague messaged me to tell me she’d done just that: and in return, received a lovely message from an author whose work really mattered to her. So the author was (presumably) happy, my colleague was happy, and I was happy, because she took the time to tell me she had read and acted on my article. See how this stuff works?)
Get help if you need it: I keep repeating this because it bears repeating. If you are really struggling with any kind of mental health issue, there is no shame in seeking help. Even if you can’t articulate your fears any more than ‘I’m terrified Trump will kill us all/the country will go bankrupt after Brexit/[insert other fear here]’: they are not silly, they are not trivial. No professional will laugh at you for voicing them (if you find someone unsympathetic, go find someone else.) If you broke your arm tomorrow, you wouldn’t put off going to the hospital because it might not matter anyway if we all get blown up by mad men. Treat your mental health the same way.
And remember – bad times need good art (but you can still be silly): We need art more than ever, now. But it doesn’t all have to be serious art. It can be easy to feel you aren’t really contributing if you are not writing incisive political essays, or working on the next Handmaid’s Tale. And we need those, we really do: we need informed, smart voices saying thought provoking things. But we also need fun, and escapism, and joy, and romance, and superheroes and cartoons about cats and pictures of landscapes and book blogs and cooking shows and video games and fanart and whatever the hell it is you are working on right now. We really do. So get on it.
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