Snakes, Shame & Silence

I’ve been having a real rough time of it this November. Becoming more and more reclusive, not leaving my room or doing almost anything I enjoy. My schoolwork has gone undone, and now I’m combatting the constant feeling of futility as I battle to get late papers done and handed in, though I know the late marks will decimate my grades regardless. A big part of that struggle is shame. Shame that I’ll have to spend another semester in university, shame that even with meds and being in a better living situation, I can’t get what I need to get done, done, and about 36 other colourful flavours of shame I won’t get into.

One of my favorite writers I’ve been introduced to lately is Brene Brown. A shame and vulnerability researcher, she talks about the power that shame is given when we choose to be silent about it. I talked to a friend last night about what I’d been feeling, and while it wasn’t enough to spur me to work, I felt considerably better. This whole month (and longer) I’ve been totally silent about it, not even writing or daring to say my thoughts out loud. The whole time, the sensation of paralysis from all these dark thoughts felt like a python wrapped around me. Every cycle of rumination was like those coils getting tighter and tighter, to where I could barely move enough to leave my house, let alone attend to my responsibilities and own well-being. When I spoke to my friend over Facebook, I felt that binding loosen a little, so I wanted to write about it a little on here, both for myself, and so that maybe someone who feels something similar can read this and know that they’re not alone.

There’s this odd precipice with this blog, where I always enjoy writing in it and putting up something new, but when I write frequently enough, it’s like a switch gets flipped in my brain, and instead of an enjoyable activity, putting up a new post becomes an obligation. The fear of expectation comes into it. “People are expecting new content!” it says. I imagine (somewhat narcissistically) the followers of my posts impatiently tapping their toes as my page goes un-updated for days, weeks, even months. The whole experience is enough to keep me from writing in here for (surprise, surprise) days, weeks, even months. I feel like it’s the same with my school work. I get a little behind, maybe have a day where I’m feeling out of it, and immediately see the professors judging me for not handing things in or attending class, my mom being disappointed in my inability to apply myself… and the shame python starts to squeeze the life out of me one self-destructive thought at a time.

I don’t know if this will actually help, but I know for my own sanity I have to hit that pressure release valve on my psyche and get this out there. Have any of you guys had the same or similar feelings? What did you do?

What to Write About (When There’s Nothing to Write About)

I want to make writing in here a regular practice, but I have this problem of not knowing what to write about when I’m neither in the middle of a full-blown meltdown and need to do the creative equivalent of venting nuclear gas (bonus points to those of you who, like me, got a mental flash of that episode of the Simpsons where Homer becomes morbidly obese), nor inspired by a particular idea.

Though many people use their blogs as a digital journal, which is totally fine, I kind of want this to be something more than that. Given, a big part of the content is me talking about the emotional comings-and-goings in my head, but I feel like that’s such a huge part of what goes into my creative work that it’s something beyond a simple “Dear yawning abyss of the internet, today I X’ed…”

“What to write about when there’s nothing to write about.” Hm. I mean, that in and of itself is an interesting topic, given how many creators (myself included) have a crippling fear of a blank page. It’d be easy to ascribe that to a human fear of the unknown and be done with it, but I feel like the comfort of unused potential is a particularly artistic flavor of psychosis. It’s like… so long as the page is blank, I lose nothing. But the moment I start putting something down, trying to realize something in my head, or even just noodle around in my sketchbook, I make myself vulnerable by simple fact of engaging in the artistic process.

I feel like that’s a big part of why it’s so difficult to be creative or artistic when you’re intentionally TRYING to be. It’s like TRYING to be happy, in the sense that it’s something that happens out of the corner of your eye when you’re not expecting it, and then suddenly “I accidentally a whole editorial.” I forget the person who said the quote (it occurs to me I could take two seconds and Google it, but I’m on a roll here), but the idea that “the moment you ask yourself if you’re happy, you cease to be.”

I think a similar sentiment could be applied to art. I mean, in some sense you have to make a conscious decision to start drawing, or writing, or filming, or whatever, sure. But when you’re in the middle of the process, the moment you start second-guessing yourself, the whole thing comes to a screeching halt while you erase that eyebrow 50 times because IT DOESN’T LOOK QUIZZICAL ENOUGH, DAMMIT.

A lot has been made of the idea of Flow, the state where you’re utterly lost in the moment of whatever task you’re participating in. I find it a useful concept, and it gels well with the readings on Zen and Taoist philosophy that have informed my current worldview. However, I do find myself having trouble reconciling it with the necessity of conscious practice to develop skill. When we (or… I, I suppose I should just speak from my own experience) feel stuck and unable to create, there’s a good chance that it’s because I’m thinking too much about it, and just need to breathe, go with the flow, and see what happens. The thing about practice, though, is that you NEED that conscious self-reflection to process the new techniques you’re acquiring. To refine them, straighten out any kinks, and to truly connect the dots and gain a deeper understanding.

So how do you Flow enough to get out of your own way, but be present enough to get everything you can out of it?

Anyone?

Seriously, I was asking you, because I’m still swamped by the question as much as anyone.

Well, if I can just spitball here, maybe that letting go is crucial to the INITIALIZING of the creative process. Like, if you’re scared that no matter what you put on the paper, it won’t look as good as in your head, that you don’t have your ideal materials, or workplace, or you don’t have enough time… something will ALWAYS find a way to get in the way. So that’s the point where it might be useful to take a breath, set out your tools, and see what happens. When you’re in the midst of making something and you hit a roadblock, or something isn’t coming out the way you want, maybe then it’s time to put away the artist brain for a moment and ask yourself why. Is it a perspective problem? Plot? Characters? Inking? Deconstruct it into as simple components as you can, try different things, access some resources online or otherwise, whatever. Try looking at it as a puzzle instead of proof that Uncle Gary was right all along and you’ll never amount to nuthin’ tryin’ to draw them funny pictures.

Do I know if it’ll work? Not even slightly, but it sounds at least plausible. At the very least, it’s better than sitting in a steamy stew of existential dread, staring at a blank page.

The quote was John Stuart Mill, by the way.

Vince Smith is an aspiring writer, podcast host, psychology/philosophy student, and dyed-in-the-wool geek of all trades. You can check out articles and Let’s Plays by him over at The Rogues’ Gallery, or drop by his Facebook Page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman for other musings from the catacombs of the Internet.

Creativity and Mental Illness

I think a lot about the number of people I’ve heard, whether on podcasts or in real life how they’re afraid to get medication to help with their anxiety, depression, etc, because they’re afraid without it, they’ll lose the “true” emotional core of who they are that allows them to express themselves creatively. But what if it’s the other way around? What if it’s the capacity, the mind set for creativity that predisposes people to be vulnerable to certain emotional struggles?

A number of different studies have drawn links between the two, but I always wondered that the nature of the relationship was. In particular, when I took a couple of Theatre courses in the past year, I had an interesting talk with one of my professors that led me to think it’s something like this:

If I had to define creativity, I would think of it in basic terms as an ability to take two previously disparate topics, two things you wouldn’t normally connect with one another (be they material things or abstract concepts), and associating/combining them in a way that most people wouldn’t consider. Now, apply that notion to a chronically anxious individual, say someone who’s nervous for their next job interview. They feel like if they can’t get this job, then it’s their last hope, then no one will hire them, then they’ll lose their apartment, end up on the street and live a lonely, forgotten existence. Sounds excessive, but that’s the kind of catastrophizing myself and many people I know do in their heads.

When you then talk to someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety, there’s a good chance they’ll respond with something like, “Isn’t that a bit of a leap? Just because X happens doesn’t mean that it’s going to lead RIGHT to catastrophic conclusion Y!”

Exactly. That’s exactly it. That capacity, that propensity to link two or more only tangentially related things into a cohesive whole is analogous to the kind of thinking that leads us to think that “shitty but manageable thing A will inevitably lead to B, C, D… all the way to life-ruining outcome Z.”

One way of thinking of it is the old “it’s a blessing and a curse” addage, but I think maybe a better way of considering it is like a really awesome, but really specialized piece of software. You have this awesome program for making breathtaking art, revolutionary inventions, and solving dastardly problems, and it does a fantastic job at that. But you feed this machine a question about the true nature of, say, Existential Ethics, and it might just fizz out and explode, setting things ablaze and taking out the printer two rooms over.

That doesn’t necessarily make it defective (though you should probably call someone to see if you can fix the whole exploding thing). It just means that you need to be aware when you’re using a certain tool to try and solve a problem that it simply doesn’t have the capacity to solve. I’m not a big fan of the whole right-brained/left-brained thing (largely because it’s been shown to be vastly oversimplified), but there IS value in thinking of your mental skills as modules in some way.

So next time you find yourself enveloping mentally into “my life is DOOMED” or something like it, maybe consider the possibility that you’ve got the wrong disc in. Take a moment, take a breath, and do your best to engage the linear, procedural reasoning part of your brain, or at least be aware of the possibility that some of the catastrophic thoughts you’re thinking are NOT, in fact, products of the situation, but of your own fears. That way, you can attempt to switch the focus from your perceived “DOOOOOOOOOOM!! (yes, I’m going to keep capitalizing it) and onto the reasoning that fuels that fear. There’s a good chance that digging at that root of the problem will get you a lot further than thinking up new and complex ways of torturing yourself emotionally.

And as always, don’t worry, I know. I should follow my own advice.

Vince Smith is a writer, podcast host, and dyed-in-the-wool geek of all trades. You can check out other articles and videos by him over at The Rogues’ Gallery, or drop by his Facebook Page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman for other musings from the catacombs of the Internet.

A year and a half later…

So yeah, it’s been a while. Like, even longer than usual. I’d list all the things that have happened, but that would take an entire post on its own. Point is, I realized I have to come back to doing this or I’m going to go insane from all of the voices buzzing around in my head (which, given that I just referred to them as ‘voices in my head’, is ironic).

Right now, I can’t sleep for all the catastrophizing thoughts flying around in there. As a context-setter, I have two papers already late and accumulating late marks, and a third that’s due Tuesday I haven’t started yet. I also haven’t been to the gym in over a week. Also, due to the stress of all this i haven’t exactly been keeping my diet where I want it to be either. As a result, my brain feels like a sandstorm of thoughts like:

“Even if you get that Greek/Roman Philosophy paper done, it’s still going to get docked enough marks that you can’t save your mark. And even if it doesn’t, you STILL have the Indian Philosophy paper to do. WHY did you wait so long? You’ve fucked yourself and it’s hopeless.”

“Look at your body, you’re flabby and weak. When was the last time you even did deadlifts? Can you imagine how much your BMI/body fat percentage has gone up by now, and how much your lifts have dropped? No, of course not. Because you haven’t check them in months because you’re afraid of what you’ll see.”

“Oh, but of course, buy that Haagen Daz you weak-willed fuck, because it’s the only thing you CAN actually get yourself to do, you’re too paralyzed with anxiety to work on anything.”

“All your friends who would understand are gone, and anyone you talk to won’t get it because they don’t really know you. You’re all alone.”

And so on.

I keep trying to slow my thoughts down and itemize what I want to do tomorrow to start sorting through the mire, but there just seem to be so many different worries and fears I have to serve as cracks in my armor that every time I do, I get derailed by one of these thoughts. It’s like trying to do calculus while sitting in the middle of a hurricane while debris is flying everywhere.

I’m most afraid that I’ve messed up so bad that I’ll have to stay another year without graduating, and hear another semester of “What year are you in? This has got to be your last, right?” and remember how much longer I’ve been here than I should have.

I’m trying to list out the things I’m proud of, and listen to those voices instead, but part of me is just afraid that if I do I’ll let myself off the hook and just make my life worse. Also, when I do try to do that, that’s the perfect trigger for any of the gremlins who pop in to say, “Hey, just here to remind you not to forget: you’re a lazy, fat, useless, ambitiousless piece of shit who will never live up to his potential. ‘Kay bye!”

I’m hoping that by doing this, it can serve as a bit of a release valve to let off some of the psychic pressure building up in my head so that the crowd in there can at least simmer down enough for me to get a word in edge-wise. Here goes nothing. Again.

Vince Smith is a writer, podcast host, and dyed-in-the-wool geek of all trades. You can check out other articles and videos by him over at The Rogues’ Gallery, or drop by his Facebook Page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman for other musings from the catacombs of the Internet.