Creativity in all its forms can be therapy. It can bring connection, purpose, reduce stress and allow us to achieve a state of flow. And it can change the world for the better. But many of us don’t see ourselves as creative or give ourselves permission to spend time on creative pursuits.
At the age of 30, at a karaoke bar around the corner from where I was living in Thailand for 18 months, I discovered I can sing. I’d get standing ovations for my rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All”, and I had a distinct feeling I should have been doing it all my life. It took me another decade before I finally joined a band, going on to perform in front of thousands at festivals like the Secret Garden Party and Wilderness Festival in the UK and Burning Man in the US.
It was an incredible experience! But since band life isn’t compatible with parenting solo, it’s on the back burner just now. Don’t worry, though, I sing non-stop in the car and at home, morning, noon and night.
It saddens me that it took me so long to discover I could really sing. But discovering things late has been a common story for me, and not just to do with creativity. I was recently diagnosed with ADHD: one of many things I didn’t know about myself for much of my life.
Along with learning about my interesting brain and the way it works in the last three months, I’ve also learned that as well as the many challenges it causes me, ADHD also brings with it the ability to think more creatively than most. A definite silver lining. I love my creative mind.
Creativity and passion
Despite a very science-based tertiary education in nursing and public health, my passion for the arts, as a doer and consumer, has always been with me. As well as singing and playing the cello as a child, I studied art history and visual culture subjects at uni, and more recently, I’ve found myself spending a great deal of my time writing.
I LOVE it. It makes my heart sing when people comment that they enjoy reading what I write. It makes me laugh though, too. I’m like, really? Who knew! Tell that to my year 12 English teacher! But I’m so glad to think that what I write about might resonate with people.
And then there’s dance. I started dance lessons for the first time in my life this year! Nothing like pushing 50 to motivate you to try new things. I love it so much and was struck once again with the distinct feeling that I should have been dancing my whole life.
As COVID numbers climb here in Melbourne, there is a huge sense of foreboding and despair right now. Having a massive boogie to some very loud dance-music in my living room is proving to be a life-line in lockdown 2.0, as it was during the first.
Creativity to the rescue
During lockdown 1.0 my 6-year-old son and I did craft most days. The moment it started I surrendered to doing a lot of craft activities with him. It was a massive silver lining for us (yes, I’m into silver linings). Spending so much time together making stuff. Just the two of us, day after day after day.
I never imagined I’d be that mum—that was my sister, not me. But I’ve discovered I’m a complete natural at just diving in and using whatever we have at our disposal to make cool stuff. We made SO many things (with the help of the amazing Lucinda Light from the Creative Kids Club).
Craft is one of Harry’s absolute favourite things to do. Being autistic he finds many undertakings difficult, so it’s crazy heart-warming to see him just loving the freedom of creating things. One of his specialities is making jewellery from nature.
Although I wish it wasn’t so, we rarely make things when our usual pace of life is ticking along. It was really clear during the first lockdown that we were not alone in this either. As people shared stories on social media of slowing down and trying new creative hobbies, it felt as though there was a creative revolution going on.
My sister and her adult daughter—who decided to lockdown with her folks instead of her share-house—started painting together. For many people, creative activities are proving to be the perfect way to combat boredom and isolation.
Extraordinary footage of Italians playing beautiful music and singing on their balconies during lockdown went viral, as did a hilarious rendition of One Day More from Les Miserables performed by a family of six in the UK.
More locally, an African guy who lives in an apartment nearby would play drums on his balcony, and we’d join in with Harry’s tambourine and triangle. Creativity was not simply relieving boredom, it was creating connections between people, providing joy and wonder where it was so badly needed.
Also, four doors up in our street, this beautiful dragon, whose scales are CDs was created by our neighbours to give everyone a little light relief during lockdown. The kids beg to visit it most nights just after dark, and who can blame them?
Creativity as madness
Creativity is natural for kids. And, at the other end of the spectrum, creativity is appreciated more and more in the workplace as competitive businesses realise the value of creative thinking to innovation.
Though creativity has not always been seen as a positive trait, particularly for women. In her hugely influential 1985 book The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830 – 1980,
Elaine Showalter says: ‘Biographies and letters of gifted women who suffered mental breakdowns have suggested that madness is the price women artists have had to pay for the exercise of their creativity in a male dominated culture.’
I have no doubt that had I lived in a different time I’d have been deemed insane because I didn’t conform to what was expected of a lady. In the more recent book, Divergent Mind, Jenara Nerenberg recounts the disturbing history of the treatment of people with mental health problems, and particularly of women.
However, Nerenberg also notes that in the late 1700’s there was a short period in which “moral treatment” was provided for people who were insane who lived in residences “with gardens and areas devoted to the practice of art.” So it has long been understood by some that creative endeavours can be therapeutic for mental wellbeing.
While I have done okay for much of my life, I felt like a square peg in a round hole. I spent much of my twenties and thirties with very little self-understanding, in roles that weren’t well suited to me, and battling depression and anxiety on and off.
I spent little time being creative and wasn’t nurturing my strengths for far too long. Thankfully for me that has changed, but for so many others there is still little opportunity to be creative.
Creativity as therapy
The world we live in comes with pervasive pressure. Everyday pressures like time-constraints and competitive workplaces that constantly monitor performance are enough to put strain on anyone’s mental wellbeing.
Throw a global pandemic on top of pre-existing concerns like parenting—especially if your child has special needs—or looking after elderly parents, and you have increased fear, isolation, job insecurity and financial strain. Not to mention, of course, that home-schooling kids while parents also try to work from home has added a huge burden of stress to many of us.
It’s not surprising that mental health problems are rising like never before. Thankfully so are opportunities for creativity. One of the coolest ideas I’ve seen recently is a local Melbourne business called Me Time Inc, which is an at-home ‘wellness through art’ project that combines a product plus a digital experience to improve people’s mental wellbeing.
You order a beautifully curated and very affordable box of art supplies including paints, brushes, easel and more, and then log on to their platform for an art therapy tutorial to get you started. It makes both getting creative and the mental health benefits of getting creative so accessible for those wouldn’t know where to start.
Another way you can get creative is with this gorgeous Courage Colouring Page designed by Andrew Footit that may finish up looking like the beautiful image at the beginning of this post.
Andrew says “I created a colouring page for people to print out for themselves or their kids to have a little fun and be creative during the stay at home lockdowns a lot of us are currently going through. I used the word Courage which I thought is not a word that seems to be used or said a lot during these crazy, and for many people, very difficult times.”
Creativity. The science.
There are so many ways that different creative activities are understood to be good for our wellbeing. Two of my favourite activities—writing and dancing—while so different, are so incredibly therapeutic for me. Writing for processing emotions and personal growth. Dance for abandon and a serious workout.
While there is broad consensus that creative activities are good for us, it’s not very well understood how this works. Regardless, the Australian Government promotes ‘purposeful activities’, many of which are creative, for wellbeing. In the UK doctors are prescribing arts for mental health problems.
There’s plenty of evidence that dancing is incredibly good for you beyond just the benefits of physical activity. While intuitively we may already know this, and probably don’t need science to tell us this stuff, this article looking at the research behind the benefits of dancing is really interesting.
It basically confirms that, yes, dancing does actually make you feel good, both physically and mentally. The science absolutely backs this up. Dance therapy and art therapy are both used to treat all manner of ailments.
There is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence that creativity makes the world a better place. It brings overwhelming joy and pleasure to people the world over, regardless of culture, age and belief systems.
Creativity for social change
Perhaps best of all, creativity can make the world a better place when it is used to bring about social change. Think of the protest songs of Midnight Oil like Beds are Burning about Aboriginal land rights. Or the subversive acts of Russian feminist protest punk rock group Pussy Riot, whose performances saw two members imprisoned for three years.
Creative activism can take many forms and we can all play a small part. For me, writing about my son’s autism and my own mental health is a way of, hopefully, raising awareness about these important issues, and creating more understanding and acceptance of some invisible, but very common challenges.
As opportunities to peacefully gather in protest are made dangerous by Coronavirus, it is more important than ever that we find creative ways to spread powerful messages of hope and strength. Messages that tell governments and others that we will not accept unjust treatment of minority groups and policies that support profit over environmental sustainability.
My latest absolute favourite online repository of inspiration is The Commons Social Change Library which collects, curates and distributes, ‘the key lessons and resources of progressive movements around Australia and across the globe’. This resource has so many awesome examples of ways you can get creative to fight for change.
Parasols of protest was the brain-child of graphic designer Sharon France and was created in the lead up to the Peoples Climate March in Brisbane in 2015. It’s a beautifully simple example of how to create some buzz around a hugely important issue and get others involved, have some fun and send a clear message visually that will be broadcast by the media for a far bigger reach.
And there are dozens of amazing images you can use if you are inspired to join the fight related to the many vital social justice and public health issues that continue to emerge as the Coronavirus pandemic spreads.
Perhaps you will be inspired to create your own images and upload them to one of the platforms designed for this purpose listed in The Commons Social Change Library or to Unsplash, an online source of freely usable images.
Hopelessness can be turned into action and creativity is the tool. Gaining more peace of mind is not the reason we stand up for what’s right but it’s a huge bonus.
As we give ourselves permission to be creative, we return to ourselves—at least that’s how it’s been for me. As one fabulous superhero of creativity, Mykel Dixon, puts it in his recent book Everyday Creative: ‘finding your way back to creativity is itself an act of creativity’. While it can be unpleasant or confronting, squirming out of old identities to find our real selves underneath, the rewards are beyond worth it.