Facing myself- Thoughts on mental health and art.

In a few months, we are travelling to America to tour with a great friend and songwriter, Zach Winters. The anticipation of returning to the country I was born in, seeing my extended family for the first time in years and filling my senses with new landscapes, long roads and rooms full of people gathered to hear our songs, is almost overwhelming (In the best possible way!) For the last week I have been scouring maps and reading up on different sights, national parks and villages all over the USA, trying to fit in as much as we can, without fitting in too much. In my searching, I found you can visit the house of my favourite poet- Longfellow, where he lived and wrote much of his work in Cambridge Massachusetts. This little discovery has surprisingly opened a new door, facing some issues I have come against in the world of art. As I got excited about the prospect of looking out a window on the same scene that inspired this wonderful writer, or walking around his garden- I decided to do some more research on his life. 

It is said that William Longfellow’s personality veered towards depressive and brooding, but that he fought very hard to keep his mental health afloat. He was remembered as faithful, kind and warm despite many very difficult events throughout his life, including the death of his wife in a fire when he was 54. In reflection of his healthy character, in a recent biography it was said that William Longfellow ‘Was everything a writer should not be.’

Perhaps what I find most engaging and beautiful in Longfellow’s poetry is the one thing many critics have dismissed him for- Hope. It has been said that his work is ‘Too comforting and confirming.’ Labelling something as such- I find a little pretentious. I am not too fussed with the critical opinion of art. I believe art should effect everyone differently, and our opinion of a song or a painting should not be tainted because one well educated person doesn’t find it ‘provoking enough’. If it makes you feel something, if you connect with that art- then it is serving its purpose! When the critic says Longfellow cannot even be compared to Tennyson or Frost, he does not realise how true that is. You cannot compare one artist to another. When you take into account the intricate fabric that makes up a person, mind body and soul, whatever flows forth from that is utterly unique. Unfortunately I have encountered a contrived idea in the art world that to be brilliant, you must be unhealthy

Mental health is a very deep and complicated subject, and I am only speaking out of my limited experience - but in the music industry, I have found it a very common problem that many artists face. Creative people tend to be deep thinkers, and at times a busy mind can pull a person to a very low place, with the added pressures artists feel under the public eye. For someone to say that Longfellow’s positive characteristics encompassed ‘Everything a writer should not be’, is a statement I find very interesting. I have come across this time and time again, when people seem to expect artists to have bad mental health, and I have even felt pressure that for me to be a respected artist, it is necessary. 

Of course brilliant art comes from many places- depression and sorrow, but equally love, joy, hope, and beauty as well-  And I for one, love art that reflects these positive sources, even if it is seen by critics as less profound in some way!  

There is a definite stereotype around artists. We are brooding, depressive, anxious, unorganised and late- Traits that admittedly appear in my character from time to time, but by no means constantly. In fact, I would say that on the most part I am organised, efficient, find lateness very annoying and try hard to keep good mental health, despite natural rises and falls. I know plenty of fantastic writers who are the same! In no way am I dismissing the struggle of an artist with mental health battles (which for many is much more complicated than what I am speaking of) but asking- Is there an added expectation on us by other artists and critics, that we must embrace our darkness, and if we don’t, then we are not capable of creating something profound? I don’t believe that is true at all- With the exception that creating out of a period of darkness in our lives can be a very healing, healthy experience. 

It is no wonder many artists face metal health challenges, this profession can be very mentally & emotionally exhausting:

- Writing deeply personal, revealing and emotional content.

- Sharing that content with anybody who cares to listen.

- Standing on a platform while hundreds watch, listen and analyse what you are saying.

- Opening yourself to public and sometimes needlessly cruel criticism. (Thoughtless reviewers I am looking at you.) 

- On the most part being paid poorly, and inconsistently.

- Struggling to become recognised above millions of artists trying to do the same thing.

- A sense of having no home, constantly packing your things to play in the next city with little stability and community in a permanent place. 

But in turn, it can be such a beautiful vocation:

- When someone approaches you after the show to tell you how much your music impacted them.

- When people want to support your art by buying your music and paying to watch you play.

- The innate sense of doing something you believe in and love.

- The incredible people you meet and share meals and conversation with on the road. 

- The hospitality you receive from strangers. 

As a creative person who is naturally inclined towards brooding, I find Longfellow’s legacy which reflects his capacity for hope and foresight such an encouragement. I too want to be ‘Everything a writer should not be’.

I believe you can be both a great artist and a healthy individual with healthy relationships, and I don’t ever want to sacrifice health for art. If there came a time when my art was causing great compromise to my own health, and the health of my relationships, I would hope that my friends and family would encourage me to step away from it until a balance was recovered- Not to draw deeper and deeper into that space, until I could hardly crawl out again- even if I was producing brilliant art. 

Artists need to support one another towards better mental health, and need to be reassured that brilliant art takes many forms- To write a song from a place of sorrow, that helps someone else process their grief, or to turn hope and beauty into something tangible, are equally important! 

This world desperately needs both.

 

A Psalm of Life

BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

"Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

   Life is but an empty dream!

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

   And things are not what they seem.

 

Life is real! Life is earnest!

   And the grave is not its goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

   Was not spoken of the soul.

 

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

   Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

   Find us farther than to-day.

 

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

   And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

   Funeral marches to the grave.

 

In the world’s broad field of battle,

   In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

   Be a hero in the strife!

 

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

   Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act,— act in the living Present!

   Heart within, and God o’erhead!

 

Lives of great men all remind us

   We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

   Footprints on the sands of time;

 

Footprints, that perhaps another,

   Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

   Seeing, shall take heart again.

 

Let us, then, be up and doing,

   With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

   Learn to labor and to wait."