Art, Guilt, Depression, and Self-Care.

One of the reasons my journey into puppetry has been so rewarding is because it lends itself to scratching multiple creative itches. I perform in local puppet slams, which scratch my theatrical and occasionally musical itches. I sometimes write scripts (though mine are rarely as good as the ones that come from TreeLobsters), which scratches the writing itch. I also design and build almost all of our puppets, which scratches the multi-media art and engineering itches. So, with all of these aspects to choose from, how have I done so little this year?

The obvious answer is that this year started with my creative endeavors in a bit of a jumble:

  • My primary collaborators had fled to the west coast. So, we haven’t filmed in months.
  • My physical ability to perform live was in question due to some bone spurs in my elbow and bursitis in my shoulders. So, I didn’t get on stage for any of the local puppet slams.
  • My spring got wrapped up in family activities and new job responsibilities, and then the summer went sideways with much more pressing personal matters. So, I didn’t build any new puppets.

I did start the year with doing a doodle a day at least, and a few times throughout the year attempting to start a drawing habit has been the extent of the artistic endeavors I can claim. I did also write/adapt almost all of a piece to perform at DragonCon, but in the end it didn’t come together in time to perform (somewhat because it would require over a dozen new puppets). If I pull something together for the Christmas themed puppet slam it will be my first performance since the last Christmas slam, and even that seems pretty unlikely at this point. The drawing exercises have been more learning and practice than creation, from my perspective, and the writing project was yet another “not quite done” project.

I don’t know how anybody else faces not “doing the work”, but it makes me feel guilty when I don’t make the time for it. Which in some ways is odd, as I don’t think my artistic work has any great value to society, and it isn’t how I make sure my family is fed. In other ways it does make sense, as it is how I identify myself far more than my “day job”. All through the year I’ve struggled with guilt about not getting things finished; a writer writes, a puppeteer puppets, a builder builds… and I was doing none of those things. I was also trying to figure out if the depression I was fighting was causing the lack of output, or caused by it.

One of the things discussed around depression, is self-care. It is discussed both in the context of the depressed person themselves, as well as those caring for them. For the caretaker it’s described in the same terms as “putting on your own oxygen mask before helping somebody else with theirs”. For me there are two parts of the equation.

1) creating art is a form of self care: It refills my emotional tank as it were.
2) the work isn’t easy, and because of that the cycle of depression/fighting to ‘start making’ (to go from zero to one), is especially problematic.

I know that sitting down to draw or sew or build will help me feel better in the long run. But I also know that it’s a fight to carve out the time and the space to do so. I spend so much time fighting to keep my building/creative space free from other things so that I can use it to just show up and work, that often I don’t have the physical energy to do anything when I get done cleaning it up. It’s at that point where I have to fight the urge to binge watch something on netflix, because that will give me a little dopamine hit too, though it probably won’t refill my emotional tank.

In the book Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card there is a thing that the character Alvin Maker does to stave off “the unmaker” and it is to weave little baskets out of grass. It’s not actually useful, it’s just a small act of creating something, anything, that helps him feel like he’s pushing back the chaos/entropy. For me, this year, that has been doodling and drawing and the like. I’m not good enough at it to be making anything of note, but it’s good practice, and it can feel good to make even something simple and small and have that recharge the tank, even if it is just a little bit.

It is the second part of that equation that I struggle with most. Once I stopped doing my drawing every day, even though they were simple and usually just aping a drawing of somebody with actual ability, it became harder to do them. Every time something keeps me from creating every day, it becomes even harder the next day to do anything. I don’t know how to tell anybody else to fight this tendency, for I don’t know exactly how to overcome it myself. Of course like most good members of a capitalist society I sometimes try and buy my way out of the rut; “oh look, new pens!”, “I’d probably draw more if I had some great pose reference books.”, “The thing I want to make is beyond my current ability, so if I just buy a couple more how-to books I bet I’ll figure it out and then I can start working”… but it all rings hollow if you’re not actually making something doesn’t it?

The reality is that part of what I’m hoping I will get out of writing this down, is a psychological nudge from zero to one so the weight in my chest about creating anything isn’t so heavy.

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1 Comment

  1. November 6, 2015 at 9:43 am

    I hear you.

    I had about seven months earlier this year where I didn’t write anything, made no videos, wrote no music, nothing. I felt like I had all the time in the world, but it was never quite enough for that. I still feel guilty about it.

    It’s easy for other people to give advice like “Do X every day,” or “Make sure you make time for X,” but when bedtime rolls around and there just wasn’t room, it’s sort of hollow. I remember thinking that maybe I wasn’t a person who made stuff anymore, like every day when bedtime came around I got a little farther from that.

    But I want to see your cool puppet shit, man. I’ve watched Death by Puppets, and it’s rad. You are a for real kickass puppeteer and designer.

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