If you follow me, you know I’m doing the Women’s Forum in about two hours. I gotta go get dressed, but I want to make sure all you people who give a shit hear what I have to say today, so I don’t care if it’s perfect. I’ll come back and edit it later if I need to. For now, buckle up. Today, shit’s gonna get real.
(“What do we say to Death?”
Download my slides here. (If you use Google Drive, it should work fine for you. No promises if you’re anti-Google, sorry. Ain’t nobody got time for that today, and let’s be real, I probably won’t get back around to this because Life. If you want to see the slides today, just use the damn Google for once. It won’t bite.)
Below is the “script” of my talk. I always write my presentations as blog posts first because Writer. I ad lib as needed from them in person. So, if you want to hear one version of this presentation, you can download the audio here. If you want to hear the live version… well, you should have signed up for the Women’s Forum. Catch you next time, loser. (jk, I love you guys.)
So, with no more ado. Here’s the audio, and I’m off to the Forum. See you soon.
p.s. you’ll find my “stage notes” still embedded in this blog post, so if you pay attention as you read, it will tell you when to progress to the next slide. Some information will be the same on “different” slides. That’s on purpose because Visuals help people not look at little ol’ me while I’m talking. It freaks me out. So pay attention, move the slides when it says, and it’ll make sense. Also, one of those stage notes is sure to make you laugh, which why I decided to leave it here. Have a good one, folks. :D
Creativity and the Authentic Self
Using art as a means of activism and self-discovery.
I have this friend, an old cowboy type, who never asks people how they are. Instead, he saunters over and drawls, “Whatcha know?” I like that because it invites people to connect intellectually, and not on such a visceral level. Most people answer, “How are you?” with, “Fine.” Come on… we know most of the time that’s a lie, or at least an oversimplification. Even if you tell me how you are, there’s no guarantee I’m going to understand your experience. Maybe you have a cancer. Maybe you have three children. Maybe you’re Hindu. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to experience life through any of those lenses, but I’d still like to hear about them. What is it like being you? What have you learned in your time here?
When I was an angsty teenager (oh come on, we’ve all been there), I had the idea to write a list of things I’d learned that year. Mostly because I had no friends and my parents went to be at 9:30, and I wanted to stay up til midnight. But damn, New Years is boring alone! It’s amazing what you can make when you’re bored and lonely. Anyway, I’ve done this every year since I first started in 2001. At first, it was every day things like, “got my learner’s permit, started learning to drive” or “today, I learned the oldest organism on Earth is a colony of quaking aspen named Pando, estimated to be over 80,000 years old.” (That’s true, btw.) Cool information, but anybody could learn those things. Today, most of life’s questions are only a google away. As I got older, I started drifting away from the information, and more toward philosophical observations about the world around me. In 2008, I wrote, (slide) “we’re not as big as we think we are.” (Clearly, I got kicked around a little that year.) In 2010, (slide) “I am beginning to think the meaning of life is infinite. I’m sure there is meaning, but it will manifest itself differently in each individual piece of the whole.”
It was around this time that I started writing things more personal and important to me. That was the point where I started to really come into my voice as an artist. Some of you, I think, have heard me speak before. You may know me as the author of a young adult fantasy series called The Seven Wars. You may recognize Lask– this guy [Vanna White the book cover images, because marketing, and they’re pretty, so they won’t look at you– and your broke ass needs the money. Someone might actually buy one today. Dammit, Elanor. Do it right.].
These are, as the name suggests, fanciful works for young people, but in writing them, I learned something about myself: (slide) I feel distinctly out of place, while simultaneously believing everyone and everything belongs here and is part of a much greater whole. This is the paradox of the creative spirit, I think. Artists are inherently weird people. The ability to produce art stems from an innately warped view of the world, for better or worse, and the practiced skill of being able to share your warped view with others through the use your chosen medium. I also learned you have to ask the right questions. And sometimes those are hard questions to ask… and even harder to answer.
You have to learn to acknowledge, accept, and enjoy your own weird company. This is a challenge for anyone, but especially someone the world thinks is already abnormal– your body is too big, you’re too tall, too short, too pale, too dark, you have social anxiety, you have ptsd, you have an eating disorder. Nobody’s normal; we all spend our lives feeling like freaks.
A lot of people shy away from getting to know themselves altogether. They take more shifts at work. They argue with the people around them. They lose themselves in the mindless scroll of social media. They take their existential anxieties out on the world around them, vent their fears into arenas that feel safe, pin the blame on things that are tangible. We distract ourselves with constant entertainment– our technology puts all the knowledge of humanity at our fingertips, and also offers a font of endless distraction. It’s easy to avoid coming to terms with yourself by never letting your mind wander deeper than the current spectacle at hand.
As artists, life doesn’t always let us sharpen our craft in the ways we think we should. We don’t have time to paint; we have day jobs, and meals to cook. There’s not enough quiet space to write, children make incessant noise, we have people calling us, showing up at our doors, pinging our phones with social media notifications. How can we be creative in a world that demands our attention be spent outside of our own heads?
I think a few of you attended my workshop here last year, so you may already know where this is going. Being an artist, a true artist, colors everything you do. Creativity is a lens through which we view life, and if we practice it regularly, sharpening your craft becomes a way of life. At it’s root, any creative work is simply thinking and feeling– the art produced is just the expression of the thought or feeling. Therefore, even when you’re too busy to put pen to paper, if you’re consciously practicing mental awareness, thinking critically about things around you and in your own head, considering the emotional and universal aspect of an experience you’re part of, you’re practicing the most crucial skill to any art form, and when you do have time to pick up your pen, you’ll be a better artist for it. Any artistic technique takes practice, so if you want to be good with a particular medium, you’ll have to make time to practice the technique eventually, but the technique is worthless if there’s nothing to express with it. Real art takes substance, and you can only learn to produce things of substance if you yourself are substantial. In order to become substantial in a way you can use creatively, you have to first exercise your intelligence and come to understand yourself as an artist, where you stand, and what you actually think about anything. In order to do that, you have to brave the nitty gritty of being honest with yourself.
Many people are afraid of silence. They’ll do anything to avoid it– play music in the background, leave the tv on all the time, turn on noise machines. Why are we afraid of silence? What do we hear echoed in the stillness that so frightens us? Maybe it’s simply the unknown of our own beings. It’s a scary thing to examine what’s in your head. It’s never comfortable to take a thought, pull out your magnifying glass and tweezers, and ask, “Why is this here? How did this come to be in my head? Is this even true? Why do I think that? Should I let it stay? Should I indulge this thought?” This picture here is a self portrait that I took three days after I came home from the hospital; I had been battling numerous infections, and was depressed and anxious about everything I was juggling at the time, I literally went crazy for a night. Police came and dragged me to the hospital in handcuffs. That’s what this crazy world will do to you if you’re not careful. I’d never experience anything like that. It was terrifying. Humiliating. It broke all the relationships in my life that were important to me for a while. Some are still broken. It’s the price we pay for the pain we carry just living here.
When I came home, I took week off work because I was too embarrassed and shaken to face my coworkers. I had sent raving lunatic emails to some of supervisor, sent the most random pictures to people who hardly know me, and myriad other things that will forever being shoved into my Closet of Shame.
But a few days into this shame-ridden vacation, I was looking for ways to take my mind off things. I’m a millennial. We’re big into selfies. I decided I’d see about snapping profile picture for Facebook. So, I picked myself up off the couch, put on real clothes for the first time in days, did my make-up, and took this picture. I just walked over to the window for light, held up the phone and pressed the button. Did a little editing afterward on the lighting and stuff, but overall, this is a fairly candid shot of me on that day. And it startled the hell out of me when I put my phone down to see what kind of shot I had gotten. I didn’t intend to take this picture, but yet… this is a dangerous woman. She’s standing there slightly bowed or cowered, with her arms tucked back, like she’s still feeling the bite of those unforgiving metal cuffs, and yet she’s looking up at the world like, “when I get out of here, I’m gonna kick your ass.” That’s a powerful photo. Especially when you the story of that woman on that day. But it’s also a selfie. It’s also art. There’s nothing wrong with embracing modern culture if you can use it to help yourself or someone else. Even if just taking that selfie helps you better understand what you’re going through, it’s still art, and it’s still productive. It doesn’t matter what you’re creating, even if it’s as vain and vapid as a good selfie. If it helps you think and express yourself, then it’s a good thing.
People are afraid to think. It leads us into uncharted territory, brings up unanswered questions, and people don’t like those. Makes ‘em squirm. Makes ‘em feel threatened. Threatened people get mean. Our amygdalas encounter fear and scream, “Oh god! Puff up! Yell! That’ll scare it off!” Why, though? Why are we afraid to think about things we don’t know and don’t understand? We like to know things. We’re all secretly nosy. Knowledge is power. For some people, knowledge is even moral superiority. Reality, faith, truth, these are things most people base their daily lives on. If you pull a loose thread in one of those, people start worrying the whole thing will unravel, and everything they know and love will come crashing down around their heads.
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t work that way. Thoughts are free. Nobody knows what goes on in your head (put down that tinfoil hat), and the only judgement you’ll get for it is what you give yourself. So don’t judge yourself for the things that go through your head. There’s nothing wrong with you for thinking, for using the brain that God gave you. That’s what it’s for; God will be proud.
History has shown ignorance is far more dangerous than knowledge. By not thinking, by letting ourselves be distracted into complacency, we walk, oblivious, through a world we take no part in, and that’s a sad way to live. By not thinking for ourselves, we give control of our minds to whatever entertainment or resources we consume. Thinking, truly thinking, is a deep and personal activity. Your mind is like any other tool; you have to practice often and diversely if you are to use it well. Mastering any skill requires you to learn about yourself, your abilities, your handicaps, what you can and cannot do. In terms of your mind, this requires you to address your own biases, your influences, your beliefs, what you will compromise, and what you will not. It’s an ugly process, but I promise you’ll be a stronger, more beautiful, more loving, and more creative person because of it. Sometimes you will overstretch yourself, feel too acutely the pain of the world, and come crashing down in a flood of tears and dismay. Sometimes you will disappoint yourself. Sometimes you’ll make people spitting furious. Sometimes your own hostility or prejudice may surprise you. You won’t always like what you find, but you don’t have to.
That’s the part I think people miss: learning who you are, becoming who you’re meant to be, it’s not about becoming perfect, or even better at something. Being yourself just means knowing who you are, all of who you are, and accepting it as part of your life. You don’t have to like it all, but you do have to accept that it’s there. The man who was born without legs has to accept that he won’t move around this world like most people. Likewise, some things in your mind you just have to learn to work around.
For some of us, that means accepting our minds don’t work like other people’s. I would even say it works that way for all of us. Regardless of whether or not your struggle is compounded by things like mental illness or trauma, you’ll still have to accept that you’re never going to be like “most people” because no one is exactly like you. None of us are. None of us can be. Normalcy is a myth perpetuated by people in power to keep you from realizing the power of your own uniqueness.
This picture was taken about eighteen hours before those cops dragged me out of my house last year. Even when I was going crazy, I was snapping pictures, scribbling writing notes, and sketching like mad. It’s like my brain was searching for anything to help it understand what was happening, but that it time it was a biological problem and no amount of soul-searching would save me.
That’s where art comes into our lives. Art touches us most at the moments we are most alone, hurting, and vulnerable. That’s why I personally believe it’s an instrument of God; Art is the one thing that can bring Light to someone no matter where they are or who they are. Art is one of those rare things that serves as a bridge between the single human mind and the vaster horizons of the world. Art gives us a safe way to explore what is within us, and share it with minds outside of us. It allows us to indulge whatever questions, feelings, beliefs, frustrations, or dreams we have. It means that even though we are alone, we don’t have to feel alone. There is no facet of the human experience that cannot be communicated in art. Whether it is through writing, or painting, or music, dance, acting– anything that provides an outlet for the creative mind allows us to share some part of our experience, and part of ourselves, with each other. That’s what makes art so personal and so powerful. The art is unique to the artist, and yet it tolls a familiar chord somewhere in the hearts of others. Art taps into the numinous force connecting us all, (slide) wait, no… (slide) the thing great psychologist Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious,” the shared humanity between people from all places. The ability to communicate through shared emotions, symbols, and experiences is art’s greatest power, and the tool that has the greatest potential to unite us as a community of human beings.
True art can only be made through the exploration of the human mind. Art is, at its a core, a communication. Whether you believe it is divinely inspired or not, art is the medium through which the abstract, the universal, the “form” (to quote Plato) (slide) is transferred into the physical world where others can experience it. If your art makes someone feel or think, then you have successfully created art. It may not be the best rendered art, you may have room to improve your technique, but if you are communicating yourself, the things that you think, then you are an artist, and the world desperately needs you– or if not the world, then the handful of lonely people who think and feel similarly to you.
I don’t think anyone can look around right now and say the world is a place of love and unity. It never has been. Probably never will be, since so many people prefer the comfort of their familiar mental boxes rather than actually getting to know each other, but if the world has any prayer at all of becoming a better place, then art is going to make it happen, because art is the place where we can unite in our shared humanity. It’s also the most effective medium for sharing our own experiences. Only by sharing our individual experiences, listening to what the world looks like to other people, learning from the experiences of others, will we be able to fix the things that divide us. Art is the most efficient and powerful way to spread what you believe and experience.
Art slaps us to attention when we are being complacent, and it soothes us when we ache in our souls. That’s what makes it such a dual force for social change, and self healing. If you can still make art, you’ll be fine. It doesn’t matter what you make. You don’t have to sit down to write a novel. Just write. Write a letter to someone, a few lines of verse, a few hundred words of a scenario you imagined in the shower. Doodle on your meeting notes. Arrange your fridge magnets into silly faces. If you still have the strength to make something, no matter how small, it means your soul is still kicking and you’re going to be ok eventually, even if it takes awhile. Sometimes life gets really complicated, deep, and heavy. The pain becomes immense at times, and some days, you question whether or not you even want to keep living. But it’s going to be ok. All you have to do is survive, and keep reaching for the will to create. Busy yourself with your work, and just live it one day at a time. You will survive, and it won’t suck forever. There’s no way to make life easy, but you will find you are strong enough. You won’t think so going into it. Every day, you’ll wonder if this will be the day that breaks you. But it won’t. Keep breathing, keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep making things that express you, and it will pass. You can cry, you can scream, you can hide or run or sleep, whatever you need to do to pass the emotion of the moment, those things are all ok, but it will pass.
Life won’t always be pretty. That’s what makes art an act of defiance and resilience. Art, for a moment, helps us remember that a bad day, a bad year, a bad stretch of years, doesn’t mean it’s a bad life. With any luck, we’ve got a lot of life left in us. Sometimes, you’ll be in the trenches, and you’ll be fighting. You’re not fighting for your spouse, your kids or your family. You’re not fighting for your career. You’re not even fighting for your art. You’re fighting for yourself, because that’s all you have at the end of the day. It’s the one thing nobody has any right to take from you, and the one thing nobody can. Fight for the life you want, the life that calls you, not the one anyone else thinks you ought to have. Live boldly. Create fearlessly. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, or what skill level you have achieved so far in your craft. Take pride in yourself, know yourself, and live by the things that feel true when it’s silent and you’re alone. Your art is your mirror and your megaphone. For some of us, it’s the only weapon we have, whether we’re fighting the world or what’s in our heads. If we want to stay alive and keep doing good while we’re here, we have to keep it sharp.