Today, after presenting to a group of third year Creative Industries students on themes of the pandemic and the industry, a student asked me about my own personal experience of lockdown – both about my own well-being and creativity. The truth is these are intrinsically linked. If I am not able to express myself creatively then I feel stuck – stuck in my thoughts, in my emotions, in my energy. When I’m creating, I am generally in a flow state, which can stretch over weeks, with natural ebbs and flows in the energy. Making art in fact becomes like an inner alchemical furnace. Everything that is going on in my life is part of the work, the work is part of everything else.
“I haven’t been as creative and busy as this in the last 3 years” I tell him, acutely aware that I am speaking against the grain of anti-productivity narratives that have swept across Facebook these past six months. For me, being creative has nothing to do with being productive necessarily. There is a conflation here with art-making as product-oriented – that to be an artist doing our art means we are making some ‘thing.’ And that being busy, keeping busy is not something we should feel we have to do. For me personally, I love being busy! I love the dynamic movement of being engaged in work and life. And I also love being still. I follow my own natural impulse in these rhythms and therefore don’t judge myself or feel guilty, which can bring a lot of mental anguish.
We interpret our experience all the time. We create the stories to explain our experience to ourselves. On a wider cultural level this is the role that myths play. I’ve been following the kinds of language and metaphors that have been used about the pandemic in the media – Boris Johnson’s ‘Stay alert – Control the Virus – Save Lives’ is a perfect example of how the imperative tense is used to cause a fear reaction in the whole population. There’s a chain of causality in his statement that suggests if someone dies it will be because we have not stayed alert. The highly responsive nature of our nervous system means it is triggered into alert mode easily, at the merest whiff of a bear or a virus in this case. Minds couple these two things tougher alert + virus. So that every time we hear the word the same response is triggered in our bodies. For anyone who has previous trauma in their bodies then this will often be even more intense in its impact. We can slip into fight-flight-freeze mode in an instant.
My PhD research was about narratives and identity and how trauma can be created when we become over-identified with a certain future story about ourselves, which, when it doesn’t come to pass is devastating. This is my own lived experience of birth trauma. I had an idea of what my experience would be like and I was very attached to it. My sense of self was merged with it, so that when that story didn’t happen, I felt I’d lost some part of myself. That’s when I started to make solo performances. And the art healed me, in part at least. Being able to come into a truer articulation of my experience through body and voice, words and space allowed me to witness myself in new ways. I reclaimed the parts of me that I had experienced as a fragmentation. I sewed myself together metaphorically through actions and words.
“Imagine we’re all on a ship” I told the students “and the wildest storm is raging and howling round us. And some of us, those of us already in the creative industries are tasked with steering the ship, navigating, making sure the water is bailed out. But your role might be to find a place at the front of the ship or maybe high up in the rigging and get a new perspective. Can you see new lands, new gaps through the weather system? Look for the openings, don’t concentrate on all the crumbling cliffs and stormy seas. Shine your light so that you light up the darkened deck.”
Can we stay focused and attend to the role each of us has taken up on the ship?
Can we keep busy and rest when our bodies call for that? Can we give ourselves what we need?
Can we stop feeling guilty about experiencing joy and bliss amongst the chaos?
Can we keep opening our hearts in connection with each other?
Can we be here, together, in this moment of immense transformation?