Blog: Curious Creatures

Luke Oram

Creatives are curious creatures. We’re driven to explore, to ask questions and push boundaries. The artist travels down the road less travelled. That’s what makes songwriters such powerful tools for social and political change. That’s also what makes us so internally complicated.

In the words of Julie and Jeff Crabtree:

“The creative mind is complex. No matter how much we might like them to be just like everybody else, they can’t be, because the qualities that enable them to engage with the creative process also make their experience of life different.”

At the risk of perpetuating an uncreative trope, the creative mind is a two-edged sword. On one hand, we’re wired to search for uncharted depths of beauty and meaning, on the other, that openness makes us prone to higher levels of mental illness and isolation than many others.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week – a chance to reflect on the inner complexities of the creative mind, and an opportunity to remind ourselves that, in this country, artists have a long way to go in terms of self-care. A couple of years ago, the New Zealand Music Foundation undertook a wellness survey within our music community, and the results were confronting. The stats revealed a bleak picture of the creative sector, showing over twice the national average in problem drinking stats, a 39% rate in suicidal thoughts, and an over 30% instance of mental health problems, compared to the national average of 17%.

The good news is, the survey birthed the NZMF’s phenomenal Wellbeing Service, a resource for local musicians struggling with mental health.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, we want to let you know that you’re not alone – here are a few tips we’ve put together to help you navigate that beautiful, complex, creative life you live.

Be Good to Yourself.
Artists are their own harshest critics. We’re often stopped at the gate by our high expectations. Don’t get me wrong, high expectations are important, but they’re often not the starting point. Judging yourself too harshly and too soon can be a death-blow to your mental process, and the beginning of a downward spiral. Relax. Let yourself be terrible. Honour the awkward, first draft (Anne Lamott has some great things to say about this process in her book Bird by Bird). Creative work is just that – work. But it’s also a dynamic process of ebbs and flows. Many creatives stop themselves before they begin, by heading into the internal world of comparison, self-censorship and depression. Keep all that stuff at the door – make friends with that terrible first draft. You’re doing great.

Plug In, Tune Out.
You could easily argue that we’re living in one of the noisiest times in history. Technology gave us a lot of great things, but it also crowded our world with neon billboards, the dystopian hum of traffic and the hyperconnectivity of mobile technology. In a perfect world, we could all regularly escape to the sensory deprivation of a quiet field for an hour each day, but for a lot of us, this just isn’t a possibility.

An added problem is that, for a lot of people struggling with mental health, silence can be deafening. For an unquiet mind, the absence of noise can create an opportunity for an echo chamber of unhelpful thoughts.

Learning the art of a quick body scan can be a good exercise to help with this, but there’s also a lot to be said for finding some ambient, meditative music to listen to. Search for wordless, spacious music that’s not intrusive; something that’s more of an open atmosphere than a structured song – not musical wallpaper, but something that doesn’t demand too much attention. Make a playlist for your commute, or for stressful times during the day. Music definitely soothes the soul; just make sure it’s the right stuff.

Here’s a playlist we prepared earlier, with some references to get you started:

Also, have trouble sleeping? German composer Max Richter worked with scientists to create an 8-hour album designed for the perfect sleep cycle.

Ask for Help.
Creatives have a strange relationship with being alone. Many people need solitude to create – but aloneness has a painful cousin: isolation. As American writer Jeanne Marie Laskas puts it; “Solitude is aloneness you choose and embrace...Isolation is aloneness that feels forced upon you, like a punishment.”

Working alone is a reality for many creatives, whether they’re hunched over Pro-Tools in their bedroom, or laying down tracks in a studio – but that aloneness can often turn into something unhealthy, especially for people who struggle with their internal health. Recent studies are even going as far as to suggest that people who feel a lack of social connectedness have a higher rate of premature death; some psychologists put social isolation above smoking, stress, diet, and drugs as a health concern. At the worst of times, isolation can trap us in a deep, dark, world – and that can (literally) be a killer.

Make social interaction a discipline. Invite friends into your 18-hour studio sessions. Make lunch appointments that regularly drag you out of your home studio and into daylight. Most of all, don’t suffer alone. If you’re in a bad place, tell someone, lean on your friends – call NZMF's Wellbeing service 24/7 on 0508 MUSICHELP, or a local support line.

Here’s the thing: us Kiwi are useless at this. It’s this whole provincial, macho, tall poppy stuff; a cultural barrier to healthy vulnerability. But keep this in mind – when you go to a dark place, it’s the isolation that will kill you; it’s the overwhelming feeling that you are alone that will drive you to spiral deeper – and that’s a chain you can break by picking up the phone.