Mind and matter: creative mental health is a thing
Maiah Stewardson is an actor and storyteller, moving between Adelaide and Melbourne to make things with people. At 20, she works between screen and stage, and has recently wrapped Katie Found’s debut queer coming-of-age feature film My First Summer, and is preparing for a season of View From A Bridge with the State Theatre Company of South Australia.
When not telling stories via word, Maiah likes to write about the intersection between art, humanity and identity. For more of her work, you can visit www.mindofmaiah.com or her instagram @maiahstewardson. She also thinks that everyone should tell someone that they love them today.
BRAINS are quite literally the most interesting, human, creative, sexy and lovely things to exist. But this doesn’t mean that they are easy things.
I am going to be bold for a second here and say that I think it is a straight out lie, and moreso, irresponsible, as an artist to portray the idea that self love and maintaining your creative mental health is always a walk in the park. It is so very easy to do so, with the rise of social media, paired with our growing habit as a species to compare and critique. But self love and creative mental health can be hard. Fucking tough. Artists - humans - have their moments. We have our trials, our setbacks, our heartache, loss, conflict and doubts. We have times where our creative and personal worlds intertwine in a way that makes it difficult to keep ourselves healthy and happy, and we have times where this interferes in our making of things.
Creative wellbeing is something that I’ve struggled with; I have found it so hard for so long to balance a healthy personal life with a healthy creative life - and there’s a common misconception that it’s impossible to have the two in harmony at once (you’ve probably heard something along the lines of “what’s bad for your heart, is good for your art”). The romanticisation of poor mental health, damaging relationships and emotional distress equalling to Good Art is totally faulty. You do not need to suffer for your art in this way, nor should we be encouraged to.
Last year, I had a profound experience with someone during the Adelaide Fringe Festival. After seeing shows all evening and over a drink, I was sitting with a dear friend of mine, a fellow filmmaker, and she gave me some really tough love. I talked about being grateful for having the busiest past five months, and for being constantly making things, working frantically on lining new projects up and collaborating with some brilliant artists and performers. On the surface, I was doing just fine. And she said to me:
“Yeah. I get that you’re making stuff, and that your work is good. But how, actually, is your head?”
“haha! A total abomination! Mental health is a joke but who cares because my work is looking good”
You know you have great people in your corner, when you have friends who can look you in the eye, while you’re on a total Artistic-Bullshit-I’m-So-Clever-And-Original high, and give you some honest feedback.
“Yeah. So. That’s not cool, Maiah. Being in a terrible place doesn’t make your work any better”
It took me months to process this. I wasn’t being noble - at all - by neglecting my emotional wellbeing in order to make art. I learnt over that year that there’s a great skill in being able be kind to your head. And being able to sit with yourself, and all your stuff, and not actually hate yourself. I’m still learning. I probably always will. But it’s aided hugely by the people I keep close; particularly the women who are the first to call out toxic internal thoughts and are the first to support my work when its made at no cost to my head.
This being said, mental quirks and art (for me, anyway) will always be intrinsically linked.
The first reason, and this is the first time I am publicly discussing this (eep!), is that my manic anxiety and panic are the other side of my creative coin. It is with the same energy with which I tell stories, that I also convince myself of terrible things (we all know those thoughts) and spiral myself down into a wave of distress. It is with the the same energy that I harm my mind, but also do the very thing that keeps me going. It’s about feeding one and managing the other. In knowing this, I’ve come to love (hm, maybe ‘tolerate’. We’re not quite that ready yet) the trickier, inner workings of my mind - for if I abolished my mental quirks completely, perhaps I’d lose the perspective, empathy and imagination that are my lifelines in acting?
The second reason: most artists have intrusive self-doubt, and this is often inescapable. Note, however, that this doesn’t mean it cannot be managed. Just because we have (sometimes frequent) poor recurring thoughts about ourselves as artists (or heaven forbid, as humans), it doesn’t mean they're excused from critique. Critique is important. It forces us to test our theories and believes and give reasons as to why we hold them. How strongly can you actually hold the belief that “these creative opportunities only happen to me because people feel sorry for me?”
That last statement is, still, my biggest barrier as an artist. I am convinced, like CONVINCED, that the only reason why I get roles, or people read my work, is because people feel burdened to. Or like they should - because who else will? Or because I’m kinda a bit pathetic. How odd. Where is the real-life evidence to support this? I am all for holding a belief about yourself, but it warrants evidence. And furthermore, what are my reasons for holding this as a big ol true belief? Ask yourself those two questions the next time you get hit with the Imposter Syndrome - the idea that you ultimately don’t know what you are doing, or are in someway undeserving of your successes and opportunities.
Some unsolicited advice
Perhaps fear plays a large role in your creative mental health. Maybe it’s the fear of being outgrown, or no longer relevant. Or maybe you fear that you’re only capable of telling very particular kinds of stories. I know this fear all too well myself - so here’s my totally unsolicited advice:
Audiences and artists change and grow, and we don’t always do it in conjunction with each other. And that’s okay. Once you accept that the people engaging in your performances or work are only ever here for now, you can just get on with doing the damn thing. If people no longer like your work, that’s okay. If they think your acting ability has decreased - eh, so be it. If they want something more from your writing - then know they are entitled to that desire and wish them the best. I’ve found that as long as I'm personally and creatively fulfilled by my work, and that I’m playing to the truth of the ideas, that is all that matters. People come and go, and you need to let them.
A writing coach told me; write about what you know. She knew I was feverishly trying to tell stories I had no experience in, and no opinions on, and urged me to write about what I knew right now. The advice concerned me, for wouldn’t that make my work all the same? If I keep writing about finding my voice, won’t everyone get bored? If I keep auditioning for 16 year old girls on the cusp of their sexual awakening, surely that’ll get old? The answer: see the first sentence of my hot tip above. People and audiences change. Eventually, I realised, I will know more and be able to write about more. But for now, enjoying the stories I can tell, and telling them to the best of my ability, is the way to settle my mind.
I suppose what you can take from my unsolicited advice, and my complex relationship with my brain and my art, is that it is perfectly okay to struggle with your own self-worth as an artist/storyteller/performer - as much as it is when you struggle with yourself as a person. This doesn’t mean it’s encouraged, but it’s important that we accept our “successful” (in whichever way this resonates with you) creative selves, as much as we do the struggling ones. It’s also worth noting that creative doubt can actually be indicative of something great.
The positive side of doubt is that you are critically questioning the one thing you really love.
And what happens when we question parts of ourselves or our beliefs? They get stronger. And our insight deepens. Touching base with your sense of creative self (am I good enough? Am I pushing myself enough? What makes this story worth telling?), followed by affirming and validating that same self is magic. It forces you to check back in, validate your beliefs and provide strong reasons as to why you’re doing what you do. Hold tight to the positive side of creative self doubt. It is only testing you to see how bad you want it.
As an audience, we don’t want to see an actor come out onto stage and revel and grovel in their own emotional turmoil for the sake of a performance. It makes us uncomfortable, it’s self indulgent and it doesn’t serve the story. Not taking care of yourself because you believe it creates a powerful Higher Art is the same crap. Not good enough. It seems harsh, but it was the same lesson I learnt from my friend, from acting teachers, from my father and other artists. Take care of your heart, your brain and your art. They work in conjunction and neglecting either of the three will not lead to a happier life. And trust, that the complexities of your brain will sort themselves out, and even when they imbue themselves in your work, trust that it can all be managed. Get help, don’t be a douchebag to your brain - and eyeball yourself in the mirror and make the damn thing even if it terrifies you.
From your local storyteller, who’s just trying to like her brain and make things,
and with all my love and empathy,