!GWAK Guides: Anxious Artists - Going From Isolation to Creation | Shannon Clinton-Copeland

It's 11PM, and I haven't taken my medication.

It sits in my baby blue pill box, tantalizing under my warm desk light - see, this medication causes me rampant insomnia, and taking it in the evening is the first rolling wheel on the road to an all-nighter. But I am also absolutely terrified, filled with an abject fear as if pieces of the universe are coming dislodged and plummeting towards me with fast, malicious intent. It's late October 2019; the evenings are dark, sluggish, and I am rarely awake before noon. My days are short, sharp, barely drops in the water before everything turns twilight.

Work by Rosy Schofield

There's something of a placebo effect when you're on a prescription medication; you come to believe that the act of taking that medication, of popping the pill, is the literal performance of the act of healing. And I am desperate - I have my window thrown open, willing the cold to blow in, to let me feel something, to quench the rising heat of panic as I lie in the foetal position on my floor. Desperation and anxiety are close cousins - they share the DNA of palpitations, dry mouth, sickness, fear. It's past eleven now, closer to midnight - I actually haven't taken my meds for three days and I can feel, almost on a physical level, that I am descending into a narrow-walled abyss. So I find my lukewarm water, a day old, in a reusable Starbucks cup I misplaced the lid for. The pill is a bright green and yellow, small enough that I can't feel it when I swallow. I spend about another half hour on the floor; then I get up, write a three thousand word short story, walk on my own to the library in the dark at five in the morning, so wired that I'm almost manic, and am still awake for the always disorientating event of watching the sun come up.

I have always thought of creativity as something which occurs in its own, very particular vacuum; independent of distracting influences, creativity is supposed to be euphoric, difficult, gut-wrenching, to bring you, with every page, closer to death, to the pedestal of the tortured artist - isn't it? Isn't art supposed to, in small ways every time, kill you? Isn't that what it means to be dedicated to your craft? To fear a lack of recognition? I rolled back and forth towards either end of the spectrum trying to answer this question - I contemplated calling it quits, converting to a philosophy or theology degree - and I swung wildly to the other end too, pushing towards thirty-six hours of awake to finish a piece, to prove that I was an artist, a writer. But now, I can answer those questions for you so concisely, it requires but one breath... no. No, your art shouldn't kill you. No, your art should not make you so anxious you forego the trappings of being alive in its pursuit.

I still battle with the fear, everyday - the fear of lost time, wasted time, not enough time. And if you feel the same way, if these words stir the slow-boiling thing inside you that feels the same - perhaps I can help.

You Are Not Their Child

I'm not sure what, or who, 'their' brings to mind when you read that heading. It could be overbearing parents, lecturers with impossible expectations, grandparents, aunts, friends who are starry-eyed when they look at you and expect you to reflect back the kind of magnificence that comes from constellations. when I evoke 'their', I mean those that came before us - the writers, the artists, the painters, the poets, the composers and players and filmmakers who, religious or not, it feels are looking down on us, the next generation, waiting for a miracle. But you, despite all of your miracles, are not their child. You have no lineage to uphold. You are, in the best way possible, untethered. On my desk is a two-sided photo frame; on one side is a photograph of Oscar Wilde, and in the other, a photo of Anthony Doerr. When I first put the pictures there, it was to be a reminder of legacy. But I, and you, and all of us, are not legacies. We are alive. We are very much alive, and so is our art. We owe no favors, no pay, no dedications. Do not fear the eyes of the dead - they are closed.

The World, despite all of its faults, is Not Collapsing

Do you hear the sound of cracking? Of fracturing? No? Exactly, because it isn't there. Oh, I know it certainly seems like the world is splintering and coming undone at the seams. I re-watched a video recently which went viral a few years ago; it's 'Nature is Speaking: Julia Roberts is Mother Nature', and I don't just get goosebumps from the oddly attractive voice of Julia Roberts. There is a line which, whenever I feel entirely overwhelmed by my self-imposed feelings of responsibility in this world, I remember: 'Some call me nature. Others call me "Mother Nature". I've been here for over 4.5 billion years. [...] I have fed species greater than you. And I have starved species greater than you.' It's difficult to think of yourself as small in the grand scheme of the cosmos, or in the makeup of the globe. But, for anxious humans, I think a macrocosmic perspective is vital. I know that you're sitting there, reading this, and nudging with impressive force in your head is that incomplete task, or unwritten essay, that zoom meeting you have to attend with your camera on, that painting you just can't get to look right. But I promise you, with all the certainty of experience, that you will outlive all of these things. They will not break you, and they do not define you. And that's not motivational speaking, that's a fact. You are made up of small miracles. Cells, DNA, a perfect balance of acids here, nerve endings and brilliant white bones there. You are more than paper, or a digital calendar commitment. Close your eyes. You'll find that, when you let yourself do that, close your eyes, slow down to stillness, that motion you're constantly aware of? That movement? It slows. Sometimes, it even ceases.

And finally - practically, here's how

It's all well and good to use words. That's what I do, it's my nature, but I also know that there is an inherent resistance to language which affirms your worth. So, if you feel that fear, if you're staring at a blinking cursor or, like me, you can't quite bring yourself to face what's out there if you get up on the floor, here are some things you can put into practice.

  1. Use a blank canvas. It's amazing what can happen on an A4 square of paper. If your anxiety is stifling or even killing your creativity, I want you to get a piece of blank paper, or canvas, or sheet music, or a fresh document in photoshop. And on that blank canvas, I want you to make something. It never feels that easy, and it often never is, but I don't want you to create a masterpiece. I just want you to put a favoured medium to paper, and make something. It can be writing 'once upon a time' over and over. It could be drawing that cool triskele symbol from Teen Wolf, which you suddenly remember you'd love to rewatch. It could be the first line of a story you just haven't been able to figure out, or a giant crayon treble clef, or an abstract oil pastel of the wood grain on your desk. But make something, put something on paper. And my dear, you are an artist. You have always been an artist.

  2. Make art out of your fear. I am often crippled by my anxiety. I've been told to journal, keep a diary, try and draw how I feel. But then I started trying to make art out of what I was afraid of. To frame my fears inside the parameters of my own story. To give my characters that sense of something horribly wrong, and to have it be nothing but a westward wind. To wind down my own mind through theirs. To make something that attempted beautiful out of all of my chaos. Paint your chaos. Write it, transfer it, face it. Make it, for lack of a better and more eloquent phrase, your bitch. Cripple it with your punctuation. Kill it with the primary colours of your paintbrush. It is a relief, and a joy, to make art out of what was holding you. And it is possible.

  3. Breathe. I swear, I haven't been taking hints out of a small arsenal of self-help books. The best thing I have found for remedying the symptoms of being an anxious artist is breathing. It's something we so often hold - just until we get that last line out, while we place that delicate bead, thread the needle, get that shot, mix that perfect cobalt blue. But do we ever consciously let it go? How much carbon dioxide have we built up not allowing our lungs rest? So I want you to sit, wherever you are, stand, wherever you are, whatever you prefer. And I want you, with total awareness, to take a breath. Not a 'lift my shoulders, yep, that's deep' breath. One into your diaphragm, one that whistles unapologetically through your nose. And let it out. Expel it. You don't have to visualize the bad energy leaving your body (I mean, you very much can if you would like), just allow yourself those ten seconds of a conscious breath. Of control.

  4. Sleep. I don't need to see you to know you're probably tired. Exhausted, in fact. The late nights, the early mornings, the worrying, nail biting - it's taking its toll. So, sleep. I give you permission. I discovered this year that I feel that I need special permission from someone else to do anything good for myself. It's not true, and it's something I have to work on, but for anyone who feels the same way, this is your permission. Put the pencil, paintbrush, spray can, bow, down. Brush your teeth. Put on your grottiest old pyjamas. Get into bed, and sleep. If you have a ruminating mind like me, do a brain dump beforehand; put everything out onto a page, everything you have to do, should have done, need to remember, have been thinking about for days. Put it out on paper, and it will stay there. It won't run away while you sleep, I promise. Your inaction will not change the planet's turning speed. So, sleep. Dream, if you can. But sleep.

And finally, be gentle. Be gentle to and with yourself. You are but flesh and blood. You are not capitalism's machine, you cannot be fed coins and light up on command. Be gentle with your body, with that ruminating mind. In the 21st century, to have self compassion is a radical act. So be radical. Rebel with your gentleness. Go forward, and breathe.