!GWAK Guides: Balancing Creativity and Mental Health | Millie Norman

Updated: Jun 22


I hope this blog post finds you well in these strange and uncertain times. A phrase we have all heard a hell of a lot over the last few weeks, no doubt. As a creative, its easy to fall victim to the narrative that we should be using this “free time” to work on all the projects we’ve had on the back-burner, and to come out the other side with a metric fuck-ton of creative work. That if we do not, as yoga Karen and Bill-Gates-wannabes love to remind us on social media, ‘you never lacked time, you lacked discipline’. It is important to remember that this is not “free time”—we are in the midst of a pandemic, which is putting enormous stress, in a multiplicity of ways, on us and our loved ones.


Because of this, it is more important than ever to do activities which are restorative and replenishing (and this absolutely includes bingeing Tiger King), above those which are depleting. As Amber Bardell’s wonderful film Art as Catharsis reminds us, we create because it is restorative and replenishing—when we treat it as a release, rather than an obligation. While we might be vulnerable ourselves, concerned for our vulnerable friends or family, grieving, battling financial worries, health anxieties or struggling with the absence of routine, it is crucial that we do not let our release become another burden. This was something I learned to adapt my practice to when I reached breaking point with severe depression and PTSD last year, forcing me to take time off work, university and blog editing (guess who’s back). Based on my experience during this time, here are my tips for maintaining a healthy relationship with your creativity in times of strain.



1. PROCESS OVER PRODUCT

Why did you love drawing, or writing, or singing as a kid? For most of us, it was about the activity, rather than necessarily what comes out of the process. It was about having a space of abandon, of total freedom, an absence of rules and rights or wrongs. As we grow creatively, it’s easy to lose sight of that. Not that it’s wrong to want the best of yourself in your work—we all want that. It is more about learning to view the process of creating as something mindful, something present, above expecting the outcome to be your best work every time.


As a writer, I have found this easiest to practise through automatic-writing exercises (taking or creating a vague prompt and writing without taking your pen off the page for a period of time, usually 5-10 minutes). Doing this physically (unless you need to use a computer for accessibility issues, the principle absolutely still applies) really helps you engage with viewing writing as an ACTIVITY, rather than as a means to an end. It’s also hilarious, sad, and strangely gorgeous to see what your brain comes out with when you don’t police it with focusing on how your writing or voice should sound or look. And sometimes you’ll write a word, or a line, or a paragraph which might prompt a bigger piece.


This idea of incorporating a mindless/mindful process-focused exercise in your creative routine (which does NOT need to be daily for you to be a valuable/valid artist), can be applied to any creative outlet. Focus on being present in the process—of drawing, painting, moulding, instrument-playing, Tuvan throat-singing, whatever—without pressurising yourself to make a complete end product. Accept whatever you create, thank yourself for doing it, and move on.

2. STEPPING OUTSIDE YOUR FIELD

Placing process over product, however, is much easier said than done, especially for the perfectionists amongst us. Another way to practise this idea is by applying it to a discipline that you are not so familiar with. It can be easier to abandon the idea of creating a perfect end-product when doing something you do not associate with yourself professionally. For example, I started collaging last year. I am not a visual artist by any means, so it was really fun to try my hand at something else, without pressurising myself to make it seamless—which I’m super guilty of with my writing. Re-using old materials like magazine clippings and illustrations from old books also helps alleviate some of the pressure we put on ourselves to come up with entirely new creative ideas.


It can be liberating to explore your creativity through a new, or unfamiliar, conduit, and might prompt ideas for your own extended projects in the future.


Collage by Millie Norman

3. CONNECTING AND COLLABORATING

One of the greatest things about !GWAK is that it provides us all with a platform to communicate and collaborate with artists of all disciplines from around the globe. If you are finding it hard to motivate yourself creatively, it can be helpful to foster a collaborative, supportive relationship with another artist(s)—for feedback, workshopping, or to contribute other elements to each other’s pieces. Creating something together can help alleviate some of the self-criticism we all apply to our own work.


Outside the !GWAK community, many creatives are hosting free online classes and workshops during the lockdown period. For example, poet Cecilia Knapp is running a weekly lockdown poetry workshop via Crowdcast (only she appears on screen) and tattoo artist Rebecca Vincent is hosting a weekly drawing class via Instagram Live for free—these are chances to collaborate, to enjoy others’ work and to connect with other creatives.

4. BEING AN OBSERVER

These tips are all about remembering why we create, and to make sure it remains a space that is replenishing and restorative. It is just as important to take a break from it. If you need to feel creatively stimulated, take the time to remember why you love art, or literature, or music outside of your own practical engagement with it. It is NOT wasted creative time to be an observer of others’ practice. Watch new films or re-watch the ones you love, make mood-boards, read books, make a sixty-hour lockdown playlist if you must (and I must). We are so lucky to live in an age where so much creative work is accessible to us. I would particularly recommend checking out Elephant, Bomb, The White Pube, Live Art Development Agency, Dazed, MoMA’s YouTube channel and Exhibition on Screen as resource platforms.


However, for some of us, it’s not always easy to take your foot off the pedal. If you are struggling in the absence of a work/uni routine and feel like you need structural stimulation while you are away from creating, it is well worth looking at some of the short free online courses on Coursera. I’m currently studying MoMA’s ‘What is Contemporary Art?’ course and LOVING it—I am walking out from each module with so many questions and ideas. There are no deadlines or proper assessments—it’s just a great, easily accessible (there is also a mobile app if you do not have access to a computer) resource for inspiration.


Illustration by Amelia Cox


To stress—this is a guide based on how to create in a way that will limit the amount of strain on your mental health, in times when you find yourself struggling. By NO means is it to say that if you are struggling, you MUST create. I would like to call bullshit on the popular myth that we create our best work in times of acute distress and pain—the last thing I am thinking about when I’m really depressed is writing. I’m generally more focused on making myself change my underwear.


The most important thing to do in this time is to listen to your body and what you feel capable of on a day-to-day basis. You are not less-than if you do not feel able to create in any way during this time, or any time of difficulty—because of access, increased responsibilities, difficulties at home or just not having the energy or right mental framework. The kindest thing you can do for yourself is treat yourself gently, reach out to the ones who love you, and remember that none of us are in this alone.


Stay safe, and stay hopeful.

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WORDS BY MILLIE NORMAN

EDITING BY WILL BAKER