Nobody, particularly anyone who is bereaved, or ill, or in financial or any other crisis, or worn out with child care, or on the frontline and worn out, should be put under pressure to be creative, and there are times we have to use up our creative energy just to get up and get through the day. Life can be so hard. We have to be kind to ourselves, and not beat ourselves up if we can’t operate normally. It is not life as normal. At the beginning of this crisis I felt sick with anxiety about everything. My family were all dispersed, and I was frantic about the situation. I was juggling too many things, and my husband and I had both been ill (we think it was Covid-19 but we can’t be sure) , and I couldn’t write.
However, now I am not in direct crisis, and I feel fine, and we are going through a relatively calm time, and there has still been a problem. I have been helped by a few things, and I thought I’d share them in case they help. It might be that you have not got yourself into as much of a twist as I have recently, and will not identify at all and think I am rather strange, in which case, please look away! This is rather embarrassing for me if so! However, in the hope that this may help someone who gets in as much of a muddle as me, I will carry on!
These are the questions which I made myself miserable asking myself, and here are some answers other people have given me which have made me feel better.
1) How on earth can I create when other people are suffering so much?
It is easy to feel that when bad things are happening to other people, and you are in a relatively privileged position, and not a politician or a health worker, creative work is an indulgence.
I told this to my friend Katy, who is a wonderful artist, and a very kind and good and ethical person, and she said : ‘Anne, there are always people somewhere else in the world who are suffering.’
And as she said this, I realised that what she was saying was so true. If I am OK myself, but feel too guilty to write now, because of other people’s suffering, I will NEVER be able to write. By letting myself be blocked by guilt, I am saying there is no point in creative work , but I know deep down, I don’t believe that. There were bad things happening all over the world before Covid-19, and sadly, there will be bad things afterwards, and Art has always helped people in bad situations. When I have been going through difficult times I have been greatly helped by the creative work of others, be it writers, artists, musicians, script and play writers, actors etc. If I want to be a writer I will inevitably write in a world where there is suffering. That’s part of reality, and as a writer I can make the world better. If I am not going through a difficult time personally, that’s precisely the best time to get on with creating things for people who are. It’s my turn to step up. Then, when I am having a bad time, I can be nourished and comforted by the creative work of others. It might not help people immediately – there is a creative gap which is painful – I write something but first I have to submit it to my agent, who will submit it to publishers, and even if it ends up being accepted it won’t be published for a year or so, and so that can add to the feeling of my individual work being no practical help in this crisis – but I think it’s better to think of myself as part of a community of creative people producing work, and that the point is to keep the creativity going so that there is always something being produced, and to support the work of others as it comes out, rather than making it all about me.
2) OK, but isn’t it wrong to have fun whilst doing it?
So, I accept the argument that there will always be suffering in the world, and I let myself try to create, but, out of guilt, I don’t let myself admit that I enjoy it, and I try to make ‘worthy work’ or I over work, or be a martyr, and it doesn’t go very well at all and the work is rather flat or generic and I feel more and more worn out and miserable.
I think the advice to count our blessings is a good thing. It’s so easy for me to worry about being smug or selfish, but I am realising that not appreciating what I have doesn’t help anyone. If I am honest, I am having some very happy times in lockdown. I am loving listening to birds, I live near beautiful countryside, and after a worrying time, I now have my husband and all my children and our two dogs with me and I love their company. I am so lucky. I have been having fun, and that makes me feel a bit like Marie Antionette, and so I then feel guilty and rush off to write serious things and after a bit, I discover I have made myself more and more overwhelmed and unhappy and anxious and not written anything good.
What I need to do as a creative person is to let myself play and have fun. I need to remind myself that I am lucky that it cheers me up to be creative – that is nothing to be ashamed of. (I hope that lots of people reading this do NOT feel ashamed of being happy being creative – this is for those mixed up people, like me, who sometimes do!)
I have a very wise Spiritual Director, and a very kind and wise agent, and they have both advised me recently to let myself play. It works. Yesterday I let myself write a picture book story I had wanted to do for ages, and had lots of fun writing it, and when I had finished I realised it did celebrate love and tenderness and all the things I think our society needs to value, BUT I didn’t set out to write a story about love and tenderness in order to make my work worthwhile – I set out to play and have fun, to write a story about two little characters I was very fond of, and I really enjoyed writing it. It was my happiness in writing which made it come alive. I need to learn not to be ashamed of enjoying my work, just as I need not to be ashamed of being happy when others are suffering. Somehow I absorbed the message when I was a child that being happy when other people weren’t, was selfish – but that really isn’t right, and I just have to look at other people to see the truth of this:
As a practical example, a lovely professional singer in our village is videoing herself singing a different song at home every day, and sharing on it on our village facebook page. She is having a great time doing something she loves and has spent years becoming very good at, and in doing so and sharing songs and taking requests, she is really cheering people up.
Grayson Perry has a wonderful weekly programme where he is actively encouraging people to play and make Art through lockdown. It is WONDERFUL.
The Great British Sewing Bee and The Repair Shop show examples of people who have let themselves spend hours having fun learning to be very good at things they love doing, and then their skill means they create lovely things , or repair lovely things, and this makes other people happy.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03myqj2 (The Great British Sewing Bee)
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08l581p (The Repair Shop)
I have just signed up with a lovely online Illustration course, and their message to all the illustrators is to have fun too! It is surprisingly difficult to let myself do it – but when I do, I feel so happy!
Lastly – even though I am lucky, I do often still feel sad because it IS sad that so many people are suffering. I don’t think it is wrong to feel sad – just wrong to make myself feel sad out of misplaced guilt.
And this is something which made me cry and comforted me and inspired me the other day – it reminded me that everyone, in good times and bad, always needs tenderness. It was made by creative people – musicians – who allowed themselves years learning their craft and who obviously really enjoyed making this video – and it is gorgeous and I hope will inspire you all. You can watch it with English or French subtitles if you like.