Creating in Chaos Series-Interview with Daniel Tidwell!

On this cool and overcast Thursday, I have the honor of introducing one of my favorite people in the ENTIRE WORLD to you. And this is not just because I used to annoy him ruthlessly in the back seat on long road trips (and still have a vague sense of lingering guilt about it). Mostly it’s because he’s something of a creative midwife and an exceptionally gifted communicator. Welcome, Daniel Tidwell!

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Image of Daniel taking selfie while his sister uses her cell phone in the background.

Tell us a little about what you do: 

Well . . . To pay my bills, I work in higher education. I design co-curricular programming for graduate students who are going into helping professions. The focus is helping people steward their own vocational development and sustainability. Basically, I help people practice checking-in with themselves and making sure they know how to get what they need in order to thrive and not burn out in fields of work designed for burn-out.

In addition to that, I work as a Spiritual Director–in my context, that means accompanying artists and LGBTIQA folks pursuing spirituality, especially when they don’t find a good fit in organized religion. I offer group classes geared toward the writing arts on understanding your own creative practice.

I’m doing my doctoral research on Spirituality and Self-care of long-term artists. This work grew out of my own work as an artist and writer. I’ve struggled personally with depression and I came across several decades of research that show vocational artists have around 150% the suicide completion rate found in the general population. Intuitively, I knew there was a connection between the arts and mental health, so I wanted to figure out how other artists have sustained themselves in creative work while battling their own demons and social justice issues.

What are some ways that marginalized writers specifically are affected by negative cultural climate? What advice do you have for them? 

I think that the writing arts can be one of the more frustrating forms to work in during these times. As a visual artist and a writer, I know that in the visual form, my work is always a Rorschach Test for the viewer. I can instinctively let go of the idea that I’ll be communicating specificity and nuance of meaning. All the specificity is subservient to what the viewer chooses to see. The same thing happens with writing, but as a writer, I don’t want to believe that’s the case.

I want to believe that if I just choose the right words, I’ll be able to turn the pins in the lock of my reader’s mind, and they’ll be set free from something that I see as culturally destructive. Which, I guess is a way of saying that those of us who write are used to being world-makers, and it’s a blow to the ego when your god-like powers don’t magically change the world.

But, on the bright side, I think we’ve all experience how stories change us–how they invite us into a new way of seeing, and in so doing, they reshape our way of seeing our own worlds. So, in the end, when writers hone the practice of world-making, we relinquish control and partner with our readers to allow their perspective to enter the story and make something new. This surrendering is more difficult in a negative cultural climate.

The invitation in times of authoritarianism and oppression is to become heavy-handed. In response to twisted moralism or gas-lighting, we sometimes feel the pull away from nuanced world-creation and into the propaganda that promotes our own alternative perspective. And no matter how socially just that propaganda is, it’s never going to be the kind of real art that draws people in and transforms their imaginations.

For marginalized writers, many of us already feel like we are writing for our lives. We write to create spaces in which we can exist because in the narrative of society we’ve been written out–pressed into the margins. When that’s the baseline from which we start, it’s easy to see how added layers of social oppression, increased micro-aggressions, and the sense of ever-present danger takes its toll. It’s hard to be creative through anxiety. It’s hard to be imaginative and productive when our bodies and brains are constantly flooded with cortisol.

My best advice for marginalized writers is to care for yourself. For me that looks like drinking lots of water, exposure to sunlight, sleep, eating well, limiting my weekly exposure to social media and news, and charging my phone outside my bedroom. Creativity helps us when times are desperate, but we shouldn’t expect that to mean that our best work comes out of desperation. Instead, its the ongoing practice of care and creativity that make us resilient for the hard times.

What does your own personal creative rhythm look like? 

My creative process almost always starts when I am discussing ideas with other people. This might be because I have spent so much of my life in the classroom. For this reason, I’m always doodling in meetings. I write or record phrases on my phone. I’d love to be one of those cool kids with the moleskines, but I was born in ’84 so most of my writing happens on a computer these days.

Those seeds of ideas will then roll around in my head for days, months, or years. If I’m writing on a deadline, I’ll be consciously and unconsciously plugging away on a thought for about two weeks. Typically, I will have one or two conversations about the idea with a couple of close friends–this is my equivalent of writing a first and second draft. After the conversations, I’ll think for another day, and then I pretty much sit down and write my final draft in one sitting for shorter pieces.

Before that writing can happen, I have to have a good meal, coffee, comfortable clothes, be sitting–usually cross-legged, and have relative quiet. And I often say the words out loud as I’m writing.

At the point that I finish writing, I have to walk away. I find this is really important whenever I’m writing about something related to social justice. I need to give myself space to breathe, thank myself for doing the work, get some more food and water, and remind myself what I believe about humanity and goodness.

With that frame (often a day or two later), I come back and re-read. Sometimes at this point, the fire I had while I was writing has died and I can see that what I really needed to write was just the last paragraph, and so I keep that. Other times, I do a few revisions, copy-edit, and I’m done.

But, because I don’t write unless it’s something I feel deeply, I almost always get what Brene Brown calls a vulnerability hangover. I know that I write on the intersections of several identities that draw readers from very divergent communities, and life has taught me to brace for pushback. But to be honest, I’m more rocked by praise than critique. Like many people who grew up marginalized under authoritarian religion, I don’t automatically celebrate my own beauty or the goodness of my work. I don’t trust progress and I wait for the other shoe to drop.

This is the part of my process that I am still growing in how to engage. I think it’s really important to celebrate when we do something hard. Even if it doesn’t get recognized by others. And part of that is letting others who care see us and celebrate our good work.

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“Go Deep”-pen and ink drawing of a carrot in soil

“It’s incredibly hard to not fall in while you do this work. It’s easy to feel desperate and feel like setting yourself on fire in order to draw attention.”

 

In your observation, what are some common obstacles to creativity? 

 

I think desperation is a big one. In my experience artists are the ones who see something in the world that needs showing and so we point at it in whatever way we can in hopes that the world will pay attention.

For artists who are marginalized and for artists writing in the middle of chaos and oppression, it’s like looking down into the abyss. You stand on the crumbling edge and lean in and look. With one arm you are pointing into the chaos and with the other you are waving others over. It’s incredibly hard to not fall in while you do this work. It’s easy to feel desperate and feel like setting yourself on fire in order to draw attention. It’s very hard to be disciplined and do the work to plan for and build a viewing platform over the abyss so that others can actually come over and see what needs to be seen.

Despair is another obstacle. Even if you can keep yourself doing the slow work of building up a body of creative work, it’s really hard to create beauty and complexity in a world that shits on both of those things. I think it’s important to know where you find joy and life outside of your art.

We often confuse the creative process with the time spent actively creating. But really, creativity is a process of the mind and the body. It’s biologically based, and thus it cycles. Sleep, food, play, rest, latency, boredom, inspiration, false starts–they’re all a part of your creative process.

The creative cycle is a lot like an arousal or addiction cycle. There are predictable things that happen mentally, bodily, socially, temporally, and spatially that allow for the next step in the dance to occur. If you want to woo your own creativity, you’ve got to pay attention and set the mood. I know one person who needs to run in order to feel inspired. I know another who needs to wear a hoodie and go into the garage before they can paint. Similarly, if you’re dealing with higher baseline levels of stress, you’re going to need to build in extra self-care into your process in order to be able to create.

Do you feel there are positive ways to channel personal and cultural grief into art? Can this be done on a community level?

I think so. And I think it is best done on a community level.

Several years ago, I realized that I saw a lot of people doing great therapeutic work using the tools of art. Through art, people were able to express deep wounds and bring them to light in a way that allows for community witness, grief, lament, and healing. But these folks weren’t making art. It wasn’t able to speak beyond that one specific moment. It was too personal.

About the same time, I was a part of a Queer writing group and I experienced a group of lovely thoughtful people coming together to help each other make art. And like many social justice conversations, we were tearing each other to shreds. We had guidelines around respect and positive feedback, but there was this sense of “we’re here to make art, dammit!” and that felt too disconnected from the realities of pain and struggle that many of us felt and that was actually at the heart of our artistic work. The art got in the way of the community, and the community dissolved, which negatively impacted all of our art.

So, I needed a third way between these two extremes. There’s a need for spaces where writers and artists can be honest is sharing the weight of grief and struggle with one another. That’s why I focus on understanding your own process and inviting others to witness you in that process. Your own creative process is going to account for the grief and struggles you face. When you can let your fellow creatives see you wrestle with anxiety and depression–rather than just showing up with pages to peer edit, then it normalizes the struggle and empowers everyone to be human and create from where we are in our own messy lives.

Writers know that writing isn’t just about the book. But we live in a world that wants to put the focus there. If you keep the focus on being human in the process, it may take longer to write the book, but it will be a book worth reading. There is great power in simply being present with another person and witnessing their struggle, pain, and grief. We can do things to change and address the problems in the world, but we can’t take away other people’s pain. What we can do is be there, alongside one another. And somehow, that’s really healing.

Much in the way that books or stories can come alongside us as children and shine a light into our own struggles, helping us feel less alone, I think that marginalized artists can empathize and bear witness for one another. And I think we do this in ways that are different than therapists or families because we do it with the wild imagination that can enter and feel the wounds while also seeing the light that comes through them. So, as artists, we have the capacity to not turn away from one another’s grief, because we have the capacity to dream in those spaces. No one has that capacity all alone–it’s something we take turns holding for one another.

What role do you think self-care plays in art? 

Well, I’ve spoken a bit to that already. We’re all responsible for knowing and taking care of ourselves. However, I think there’s too much emphasis placed on self-care. It’s a very single, childless, white male on Walden Pond kind of notion. I think that the key for creativity and art is community-care. We need communities that support artists. And we need artists who support one another as whole people.

I may not always need a copy-editor, but I desperately need someone who will water my garden so it doesn’t die while I write an important article about police brutality. And we all need other people who see us, not just at a book signing, but while we’re buried under a pile of laundry and rejection letters on the same day when our state legislature signed away a crucial protection. Self-care can only get you so far on those days. And then somebody needs to schedule a play-date where we all can throw rocks in the woods together.

Ultimately, self-care and community-care are about kindness. They’re about respecting our humanity when the world doesn’t. These things give us roots, they hold us close to the ground so we can keep our balance as we continue to look and point at the things that need attention in the world.

The last thing that I’ll say is this–and it comes back to that question about grief and art: I think there’s a crucial step that often gets missed in the creative process. Somewhere between inspiration, motivation, research, planning, drafting, writing, reviving, editing, and publishing, there’s a deep need to surrender. We have to surrender to what the work is becoming and grieve the fact that we can dream of a better world than the one we currently live in.

But alongside that grief, there’s space for awe–precisely because we can dream of a better world than the one we currently live in.

Bio: Daniel Tidwell is a Gay son of the Pentecostal Deep South. He lives in Seattle, WA–for all the reasons you would assume. Daniel is a writer, gardener, and artist who likes to help people learn and create. You can find him on Facebook, his Spiritual Direction website www.danielctidwell.com, his outdated blog www.didwell.wordpress.com, and his art shop www.etsy.com/shop/BoxwoodFables. He’s also Ashley’s dearest, Queerest brother.
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