Why We Do What We Do (Whatever It Is That We Do)

Photo credit: Green Chameleon

‘How do you find the time?’

It’s a question I get asked frequently, usually when people discover that I’m a writer. I get where they’re coming from, because it’s a question I also ask myself. Between working full-time, studying for professional qualifications, having something resembling a life, and without forgetting sleep (mmmm, sleep), yes: ‘How will I find the time?’

But it’s the wrong question. As with many other writers, artists, musicians, dancers — any creative person — the question is not: ‘How do you find the time?’ The question is: ‘Why do you find the time?’

And the answer is: ‘Because we have to.’ Even if we don’t have to. We don’t need it to live — we usually have other ways of putting food on the table, because we have to eat. But we still do have to, because we also need our art in order to live.

We have to, because otherwise the itch becomes unbearable, whether we are writers or artists or musicians or dancers. The words flutter around our souls, begging to be free. The colours call to us, the as-yet-unheard notes make our fingers twitch, our bodies yearn to break into spontaneous movement.

When I don’t write, I get nightmares. When I don’t write, I don’t sleep. When I don’t write, I become depressed.
Which in itself I find curious, because I started writing seriously while in the grip of clinical depression. The act of creating another world was healing for me, and drove me to continue even after the depression was gone.

Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters — Neil Gaiman.

I recently entered a new phase of editing my third novel. This is the phase where I have to squeeze words into a box that they don’t want to fit in. I have to cut and cut again, and then I have to write new scenes — but not any new scenes. These are new scenes that have to fit in to pre-determined structures. They are not allowed to fly off on mad tangents, while I think ‘I’ll fix that later’. Later has become now, and this is when the tangents have to be fixed.

Two weeks into this editing phase, the bad dreams began. I had forgotten what they felt like. I had forgotten what the tiredness felt like, the sensation of sleep forever pulling on my brain.

So I sit down and I write, because I have to. Through the act of writing, the nightmares recede.

The link between creativity and mental health is much-debated. Is it true that creative people are more likely to suffer from mental illness? What place does creativity have in maintaining emotional health? We don’t know nearly enough about the human brain yet to understand in which direction causation might be flowing, if indeed there is causation at all.

But does it really matter? How do I find the time? I find it by cutting out the things that aren’t as important as writing. Why do I find the time? Because I have to. We all have to.

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