Over the past 10 years, I’ve watched myself shift modes of self expression, from artistic and metaphorical to literary and literal. Am I less creative than I used to be, or do I just not have any patience for obfuscation?
When I started high school, my plan was to become an art teacher. Or to be involved in some kind of reliable career that would allow me to do art on a regular basis. And I pretty much followed through in my preparations for this plan – I kept working on my art even while I got more serious about school. When I applied to colleges, I made sure they had good art, art history, and education programs. Art for me was an obsessive habit, an addiction. I needed to draw constantly – I used to draw all over the backs of my notebooks, my arms, even my jeans. I spent a few hours a day painting, preparing drawings for painting, scanning my work and editing it on the computer, and interacting with other artists on DeviantArt. I saw the world in sketches and imagined how I could recreate it. I practiced other kinds of art, too – I was usually singing while I painted, or when I got together with friends or my brother; I did a lot of theater, both as an actor and a tech, and I was involved in a show almost every semester of middle school and high school; I danced, mostly at home by myself, but I took a couple of classes in high school and did a bellydance performance as part of a senior project; and I sewed, especially making period costumes. I also occasionally wrote things – poetry that was more like song lyrics, some creative writing including a one-act play, and, very infrequently, essays about politics or social issues.
When I got to college, I completely stopped doing almost all of these things. I didn’t get involved in any theater or dance, even though there were plenty of opportunities, and after a few weeks I had only done about 5 drawings and then didn’t try again for months. In my sophomore year I did start singing again, and that became my main artistic output throughout college and grad school. And I got more interested in cooking, which is a kind of self-expression. Very gradually, I started writing more outside of class, but less fiction and poetry and more essays. After college, my singing has really slowed down too, partially because there are fewer opportunities to join a music group, and partially because I simply feel less compelled to sing.
That lack of feeling is a big part of why I stopped most of these activities – I just don’t have the drive anymore. I still enjoy the feeling of the activity itself, but I don’t have any particular vision of what I want to create, and my emotional engagement with it is so much weaker. I don’t have that same obsessive need to make things or to perform. The only thing I really feel compelled to do anymore is write or read essays.
When I got to college and started to notice my artistic drive slowing down, at first I thought it was just the transition. And then when I became less and less interested in making art, I started to think that maybe the emotional problem my art had been trying to solve was gone. I’d mostly overcome my severe depression and I’d finally left the environments that had been causing it. But when I went through further depressive phases later on, I thought that maybe my continued lack of interest in art was itself a symptom of depression.
These days, I’m working through a new theory. I always thought of art in terms of expression, not creativity – in fact, I was pretty sure that I wasn’t very creative, and that I was just being very dramatic and literal. I’m still interested in expressing myself, but now I do it even more literally. I almost exclusively write. I wouldn’t have been able to maintain the steady pace of writing that I do now on this blog 10 years ago. I couldn’t formulate my feelings into such clear articulations of my problems. When I go back now and read the fiction I wrote then, I see really obvious themes – clinging to friendship, wishing for intimate romance, struggling with how other people saw me, and a preoccupation with organized violence and abuse. But at the time, I don’t think I would have said that’s what I was trying to write about. The violence certainly was not something I even realized was in there. Similarly, my art was primarily an expression of my body image issues, as I tried to reconcile the way I saw myself with the way other people reacted to me. But, again, it wasn’t something that I was doing intentionally at the time. Part of what makes art good or genuine is the degree to which its creator makes it accidentally. Often, art that is too self aware feels empty or thin – entirely aesthetic and no meaning. Nonfiction writing, on the other hand, is all meaning and almost no aesthetic (except for comedy, which is maybe 50-50). So maybe as I’ve gotten older, and my issues have gotten clearer to me, I’ve abandoned all the pretense of aesthetic and embraced an expressive form that is direct.
What makes sense to me about this theory is that it fits with how I’ve grown in the past 10 years. I’ve learned a lot about myself in terms of the way I interact with other people – I’m pretty sure I knew myself better as a teenager than I do now, but I didn’t spend a lot of time dissecting how I interacted with other people. I was relatively un-self-conscious, but I was also fairly reserved and sensitive. I was who I was and I didn’t feel the need to prove it or spend a lot of energy fitting myself to other people’s expectations. As far as I was concerned, my main issue with other people was that they were mean or inconsiderate, and I was pretty content to avoid people who treated me that way. But, and this is probably obvious to most people, that’s some pretty antisocial behavior, and in my 20s I discovered how lonely it makes me feel. I think that over that period, I became more interested in expressing myself in order for other people to understand me, rather than making things for myself and using them as a litmus test for whether other people were trustworthy.
What doesn’t make sense about this theory, though, is why I stopped creating things in the first place. I don’t think my shift from “I’m 100% me and this is what I like” to “I need to tell people who I am so they don’t mistreat me” happened overnight, but my shift in art production basically did. It’s like a switch was flipped in my brain – it’s just not how I process my feelings anymore. And it’s not that I can’t be moved by art. If anything, I have more of an emotional reaction now to other people’s art than I did before. So I have to wonder, where did my aesthetic creativity go?
It’s especially relevant to ask why I feel I can’t make art anymore when making art would probably be a more effective way to attract people. When I was a teenager, I never wanted to start relationships based on my art, never wanted to use art as a way to be noticed, because I felt it would lead to superficial relationships. I thought that someone might find my aesthetic pleasing without understanding what it meant to me, and I think I was more afraid of having insincere relationships than being alone. But now I think I’m more open to a range of relationships, and moreover that I’m more willing to share my personal feelings, and having aesthetically pleasing ways to do that would make me more appealing to people I’d like to know. Instead, I find that I don’t have many light conversation starters and I have trouble engaging with the more superficial (aesthetic) aspects of interpersonal communication. In short, yes, I’m as exhausting in person as I sound in my writing. So where is this creative expression to bolster me in my new efforts?
I find it hard to believe that I’ve just moved past art. Not only do I still love art, but I still enjoy the process of making it. And I’ve been able to keep making art in very small, very occasional ways in the past 10 years. I still paint, probably once a year. The last painting I did was in February. And it built on exactly the same themes as my old art – body image, gender roles, feelings of isolation. It was an image in my head, I put it on paper, and it was done. Before that, the only paintings I’ve done in the past 10 years are of plants and birds. Most of them have been a chore – I get into a rhythm while I’m painting, but I can’t push myself to do all the ones I set out to and if they don’t turn out right the first time I just stop without any particular sense of remorse. But while I was still in college, I took an art class called “Field Drawing” where we learned to do nature illustrations from life. This came at just the right time for me – I was angry and depressed after a huge upset with a close friend and a major issue with my boyfriend. Careful, meticulous illustrations of birds and trees were extremely soothing, as was spending a lot of time outside. And the resulting drawings and paintings got me a lot of positive attention from my boyfriend and various other people in my life, so that helped too. But once the class ended, I stopped again, as if I’d never started. And this on and off with my art makes me think that it’s not that I’m done with this form of expression, but that I’m completely out of touch with what I really need to be dealing with.
Maybe it’s a fundamental issue with my personality that I’ve buried so deep I haven’t hit it yet. Maybe it’s my tendency to keep picking at my issues until I reach a nihilist state of being. Maybe I’m too concerned with meaning and I need to rediscover aesthetic. I’m considering more and more the likelihood that I need a more serious mental health regimen – that writing about my thoughts and trying to be honest with people just isn’t enough to make me happy and content. And so I wonder whether, contrary to most people’s experiences, my desire to create will come back to me when I receive serious treatment. I used to think that I couldn’t make art if I was happy, but now I wonder whether being dissatisfied for so long is actually blocking things up. I think this prolonged period of intense anxiety, depression, anger, loneliness, and confusion has gotten me too into my own head to allow myself to just make something beautiful. I think I get too caught up in the meaning of it or the perfectionism. I think I need to learn to let go more and react in the moment (something I’ve been saying a lot), and do things without a plan. It’s going to waste something until I get used to it, but I think it will help in the long run.