I believe that magic is art, whether that be music writing, sculpture or any other form, is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words or images, to achieve changes in consciousness…Indeed to cast a spell is simply to spell, to manipulate words, to change people’s consciousness, and this is why I believe that an artist or writer is the closest thing in the contemporary world to a shaman.
Artists grappling with depression is very common. After all, the tortured artist is virtually a cliche. Part of the core of the artist’s gifts is that their minds operate differently from their mundane peers. There’s a number of reasons for this, ranging from nature vs. nurture, low self-esteem, to being ostracized. As a result, these issues make us prone to a number of mental health issues. For those dealing with depression, art can be both a blessing and a curse. It can cripple and cure. As such, navigating depression as an artist can be quite the odyssey.
A Double-Edged Sword
The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul crushing inadequacy, and that’s on a good day.
An artist’s discipline [music, visual art, writing, etc.] can be most isolating. This is something I know very well from my firsthand experiences as a speculative fiction author. My stories, my mythology, allow me to live in my head for indefinite periods of time. It is my safe space. I’m never bored. My ideas and imagination consume me like a raging inferno. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My published work is evidence of this. But it can be a tightrope to walk. Your art can also place you in a mental solitary confinement. This is especially true if you are an introvert and you find people to be very taxing. Add on top of that, if you suffer from anxiety and ptsd, you must contend with the broken mental record of negative reinforcements: You’re not good enough! What’s wrong with you? No one loves you! You’re a failure! The world would be better off without you. It often takes an act of God (or something close to it) to break the loop. Perhaps, the first and most crucial step is simply being aware of the risks, and so you will know how to proceed when the triggers manifest.
Answering The Call
For many of us, our art is more than our hobby or occupation. It’s an extension of our identity. It is our calling. To not do art is the virtual equivalent of not breathing. Author J.K. Rowling once told Oprah Winfrey in an interview that she has to write every day to stay sane. It is absolutely paramount for artists to answer their calling and spend quality time with their craft, not only to improve their skills but to also practice self-care.
One key way in doing this cultivating the right team.
Whether it’s your editor, publisher, vocal coach, mentor, etc. it is imperative that the people you collaborate with are positive, healthy and supportive. There are many toxic elements and toxic people. Whether it’s racist publishers gaslighting and ripping off black authors or comic book website companies who engage in racial harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.
Many will attempt to derail and sabotage you because of their own hubris, corruption, self-hatred, whatever their baggage may be. It is paramount to remember that is their baggage, not yours and you don’t have to carry it.
“I’ve had a lot of people talking at me the last few days. Everyone just lining up to tell me how unimportant I am. And I’ve finally figured out why. Power. I have it. They don’t. This bothers them.”
-Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Checkpoint
Your gifts must be protected and cultivated. Those who critique your work should not only be able to point out the areas of opportunities but provide solutions to improve your work. They should also inform you on what you’re doing well and encourage you to continue. They should be committed to seeing your art (and by extension you) become the best version it can possibly be.
A Practice In Self-Care
When it comes to battling depression, art is an invaluable mental health resource. For wordsmiths, writing is cathartic. More than that, sharing one’s story through their art can be therapeutic for both the artist and the viewer.
About two years ago, I began an experiment where I took a selfie as a daily photography/visual art exercise. The results? To date, it has become one of the most affirming and cathartic undertakings in recent memory.
In addition to my photography skills improving dramatically, I’ve become more comfortable with my looks and my body overall. I know this because I no longer apologize for it. As an artist, I’m reminded of what I learned in art school. Beauty comes in all colors, ages, shapes, and sizes. By being comfortable with myself, feelings of insecurity and inadequacy no longer plague my thoughts like they once did.
And when I capture that one perfect shot, there is only one word for it.
Despite the fact that I can’t play an instrument to save my life, I love music. In fact, my iTunes is on full blast while writing this article. From Johnny Cash to Michael and Janet Jackson to Kasabian, to Ladytron, to Beethoven to Janelle Monae, to the Prodigy, to Django Django and countless other acts, their art fuels mine. I’ve lost count of the number of pieces I’ve written which was inspired by a song.
For me, listening to music is a form of meditation. I’m able to place my headphones on and allow my mind to wander. Music can often convey ideas, emotional content, and stories when even words fail. Music can also help in times of tragedy.
A very close friend of mine passed away nearly two years ago and I was in a dark place for quite a few months. Listening to music allowed me to grieve in private and while I’ll never fully recover (I don’t think anyone truly does losing a loved one), I have been able to move forward. Some days are better than others but at least now I’m able to cope one day at a time.
One of the greatest gifts I ever received was the epiphany I was blessed with when I was given The Dark Knight DVD as a birthday gift. Throughout the film, Bruce Wayne was seeking a white knight for Gotham. Someone pure of heart who could inspire the masses to be something better (not unlike what Superman does for Metropolis and the rest of the world). With his darkness fueling him as the grim vigilante, Bruce knew he couldn’t be that champion but he hoped someone could do for Gotham in the light of day that he did under the cloak of night.
Bruce finally thought he found that counterpart in Harvey Dent. Beautiful, charismatic and righteous, Dent proved to be a viable candidate. He was a man who seemed to have the fortitude to stand up to Gotham’s underworld without being corrupted himself. After all, you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain. And in having Dent redeem Gotham, Wayne would ultimately redeem himself.
Enter the Joker, a man who simply wants to see the world burn and waged a war on Gotham’s soul. While Batman was incorruptible even in dire straits, sadly the same couldn’t be said for Dent. In order to save the work he and Dent had begun, Batman took the blame for Dent’s murder and allowed himself to become a fugitive.
The irony is that even though he probably never realized it, what lied within Batman was indeed the pure of soul champion he had been searching for, the white knight he thought he found in Dent. For only a man pure of heart would sacrifice himself without hesitation for the greater good. Only a man pure of heart would burden himself with the sins of others. In spite of all of his darkness and brooding, Bruce was the best of them. He always had been. That “Come To Jesus” moment changed my reality. Filled with new purpose and wanting to pay it forward, it wasn’t long before I followed my calling as both an equal rights activist and a speculative fiction author. This goes back to Mr. Moore’s point about art being powerful magick.
Another rule in the art of self-care is being mindful of the media that is consumed. Not all media and “art” is created equal. In fact, much of it is very toxic and worse, mediocre.
As a speculative fiction author and a queer person of color (QPoC), I’m constantly frustrated not only with the lack of diversity, but the nonstop misogyny, racism, and queerphobia that continues to be the status quo in media. More than that, I found the subliminal bigotry taking a toll on my mental health. Not only was I having trouble writing and creating, but some days I found myself physically ill and under the weather. Not one to sit around and do nothing, I decided to take action.
The Upkins Media Litmus Test is a set of questions I’ll pose before I even entertain watching a television series, movie, reading a novel, a comic book or any other form of media.
In short, it must answer yes to at least one of these five questions.
Question 1: Is the lead or a primary protagonist a person of color?
Question 2: Is the lead or a primary protagonist an LGBTQ?
Question 3: Is the writing exceptional?
Question 4: Is there eye candy?
If said media features say Chris Hemsworth, Nick Uhas, David Tennant, or Sean Maher then I may be willing to overlook a lot of shortcomings. Besides, it is my responsibility as a loving partner to support the projects of my future hubbies.
Question 5: Does it feature my fave?
In my case that would be Gina Torres, Perfection Herself.
If the media in question cannot provide an affirmative for any one of these simple questions, then it is simply not worth my time and I will reject it outright.
I thought searching for media that reflected my values would be a chore. Instead. I have found an impressive backlog of movies, books, and comic books. It’s amazing how much my mood, outlook, spirit, and health improves dramatically when I’m not bombarded with nonstop negative subliminal reinforcements that tell me that I am evil and inferior for being who I am. What’s even more amazing, is when the media I consume celebrates who I am, I feel empowered to do the impossible in my day-to-day. My media and my art are once more cathartic and invaluable tools for self-care. Ultimately, my media litmus test is about taking your power back from white supremacy and making it your own.
All of these are examples of how art can impact you and can be invaluable when practicing self-care in a variety of ways.
Dodging The Bullet With Rejection
Nothing will trigger someone’s depression quicker than facing rejection on a personal, artistic and/or professional level. Even on the best of days, rejection can render an artist into an emotional tailspin if they aren’t careful.
As an artist, I’ve come to realize that rejection is part of the artistic process, especially if you’re practicing your chosen medium professionally.
But sometimes rejections can be blessings in disguise.
At the time of writing this article, I emailed a publisher about the status of an anthology for which one of my stories had been accepted. Only the publisher had completely changed her tune stating when she accepted the story, she was actually asking for permission to keep considering it and she didn’t bother to email me to let me know that she had passed on it.
If you’re confused by all of this, don’t worry, I am too. While frustrated over the fact that my time had been wasted, I realized that I may have been fortunate. If this publisher was this incompetent and/or malicious, then it’s best that I know this ahead of time before my work was published and I be owed money or some other shady dealings I’d have to contend with. Knowing this about the publisher, I’ll know to steer clear in the future.
It’s like being rejected by someone you had a crush on. Only to learn later said someone is in trouble with the law and has a history of being abusive While you were rejected, you realized how fortunate you are.
Not all opportunities are good opportunities. Often times being rejected is a blessing in itself.
Remain True To Your Art
“An artist must be free to choose what he does certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.”
As cliched and trite as this may sound many artists forget this basic fundamental. Too often they get swept up in following trends, allowing other voices to drown out theirs. As a result, their work suffers and there is a disconnect with their gift, which of course can lead to anxiety, depression and other issues. Only I can share the stories that I’m meant to share in my distinct style and voice. The same is true for the next artist. In being true to your gift, your gift will remain true to you. At least that’s been my experience.
Paying It Forward
A great visionary by the name of Cindi Mayweather once said, “Embrace what makes you unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable. I didn’t have to become perfect because I’ve learned throughout my journey that perfection is the enemy of greatness.”
A directive I’ve established for myself over the years is that whenever I write, be it about equal rights or speculative fiction such as my latest novel West of Sunset, I have three goals in mind which I refer to as E-Cubed. I write to enlighten, entertain and empower.
I write to enlighten the masses about the issues I’m addressing. I write it in an entertaining fashion so I don’t get bored writing it and you don’t get bored reading it. And keeping it 100, I have to mock and make light of serious topics like racism, homophobia and other bigotries, not because they aren’t serious issues because they are, but otherwise I’d be headed for the nearest ledge. I also write to provide solutions, experiences, and resources to empower my fellow minorities so they can come out on top in their own respective journeys.
And it has been a rewarding experience.
Especially when I see PoCs embrace their power, learn to love themselves and do so many awesome things ranging from (but not limited to) speaking their truths proudly and triumphantly or create online havens where minorities can congregate safely and enjoy themselves and one another. The most awesome thing is when you receive a comment or an email from friends and even strangers saying thank you for being an example, walking the talk, inspiring them to be a force for good.
That more than anything makes you feel like a champion.
When a suicide survivor emails me and tells me “Thank You” for inspiring them to take their power back, to love themselves and to stand tall, that changes you. It’s this shift in your soul where you see the power and wonder there is in helping people and it makes you want to do more, it challenges you to grow, evolve and be a better person so you can help those who are struggling on the journey with you.
I’m a bard, a storyteller, bard, writer, griot. It is my art, it is my blessing, and the curse I’m burdened with. I have to write to stay sane. Whether it’s penning a blog entry, formulating an essay speaking out on the issues of minorities, utilizing visual art to convey a story or share a profound truth, or writing another novel, this is my power.
Like a shaman who uses his gifts, words are my tools to build, to aid, and in certain cases my weapons to protect. I share my story and the stories of others. Whenever I write, I write to enlighten, empower, and entertain. If I manage to do all three, that’s a very good day. I share my truths in an effort to make the world just a little bit better.
Whatever your talents and passions, embrace them and pursue them. Those gifts will not only help you while suffering a deep bout of depression but they can also help others who may also be in serious need. Not only will you be a benefit to others but you’ll evolve into the best version of you in the process.