When I dance, the rush of healing endorphins rarely lets me down. Whether it’s a sassy musical theatre audition, an upbeat class combo, or a surprise burst of freestyle in my own kitchen; feelings of relief, wonder, and joy flood my chest and seem to radiate outward, leaving me glowing and revived. It’s a natural kind of art therapy that I’ve been chasing since age three, when I first learned to spin around on my parents’ shag carpet with the Beach Boys on blast.
Dancers and artists of all ages and walks of life can relate to that inner glow. Some get the same rush after a few minutes of plucking a guitar, painting a sunset, or spitting a rhyme. Some get it from cooking a meal, singing in the shower, or crafting an imaginary world with their kid in the yard. I call that feeling creative alignment, and I see it as a limitless healing tool for the mental health of each and every human, especially in vulnerable and difficult times.
Maybe you’ve heard people say: “I’m just not creative,” before. Maybe you're like me and you grew up in farm and oil country, where well-meaning pragmatists mislabelled the importance of art as ‘childish’ or ‘distracting’, even though art entertained, fueled, and revived them in myriad ways. Maybe you’ve been scoffed at, yourself, for pursuing dance or another art form past the ‘well meaning hobby’ phase. Perhaps you’ve also felt the odd, often arbitrary restrictions placed on your own creative expression by bitter naysayers, or art ‘snobs’. These are examples of creative blocks, and they are generally rooted in insecurity, not truth. Art is both healing and ubiquitous. Art provides us with a process for better understanding the world and our place in it.
“There’s no such thing as a non-creative person.” - Julia Cameron
I first became aware of my own creative alignment by way of a book and 12-week spiritual deep dive called The Artist’s Way. Written by Julia Cameron: an award winning poet, playright, composer, filmmaker, and author of forty books, The Artist’s Way has provided fresh insight on the universal healing effects of creativity since its initial release nearly three decades ago. Its pages are hallowed by artists, hobbyists, and dreamers of global renown. Jenna Fischer wrote about its game changing personal impact in “The Actor’s Life”. Steven Spielberg, Alicia Keys, and Elizabeth Gilbert have admitted its powerful influence on their work, and Russell Brand recently unveiled his own Artist’s Way journey in an ‘Under The Skin’ podcast interview featuring Julia Cameron last month.
The Artist’s Way, and its subsequent follow-up books offer a healing ‘recovery’ of the creative self. They are written, not just for established and emerging professional artists, but for everyone, because we all have an inner artist and a unique story to tell. Cameron’s guidance and self discovery techniques unfold gently through the weeks and are supplemented by unfiltered daily journaling, weekly walks on which creative answers tend to float to the surface, and ordinary solo adventures that ‘fill the creative well’. The results were deeply healing for me: industry expectations and old beliefs like ‘I’m too late’, and ‘I’m not good enough’ gradually fell away, replaced with practical tools for self acceptance, artistic courage, and daily habitual inspiration.
"Art acknowledges that feelings are mutable and that we contain the power to mutate the dross of our wounds into the ore of art. In this sense, art gives us the ability to always move out of the victim position. Therapy adjusts us to the world. Art adjusts the world itself." -Julia Cameron
In the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, most of us are uncovering unprecedented trauma, grief, confusion, and fear. Our dependable routines have been shaken. Our goal-oriented timelines have abruptly changed course for the gaping unknown. Everywhere we see daily reports of unfathomable loss, and our mental and physical well being, which was tenuous at best for some already, suffer in isolation. Still, a tide of resilience, compassion, and heart can be seen—in beautiful personal stories, in an explosion of creative activity, in humble acts of generosity, and in the hilarious TikToks we can't stop appreciating. Humans the world over are finding creative ways to help their neighbors, spread kind awareness, and express their unique personal experiences.
Which brings me back to the healing power of art. This is an important moment in our lifetime and our history as humans. It is an opportunity to embrace art in new forms and express the feelings this momentous pandemic is bringing about. It is a beautiful moment for creatively healing our wounds.
You don’t have to embark on a 12-week spiritual course to reap the therapeutic benefits of creativity (although Julia Cameron’s online course option makes it easier than ever). You don’t have to choreograph a feature-length piece, or take a masterclass every day, or come out of lockdown having authored your first book, to process and heal some of the trauma of this pandemic. You get to decide what will be healing for you, from day to day. As you open up to the little nooks of creativity all around you, you may discover that your options are, simply put, limitless.
In our isolated, quarantined days, we are in as good a position as ever to embrace our personal creative journey. That means releasing the ‘need’ to compare ourselves to others, and opening up to the little passions that call us. A dancer friend of mine sews soft, durable masks in an array of fabrics, roping them off her first floor balcony to buyers in baggies with Japanese candy and paper cranes. Another friend splurged on a unique streetwear design course and studies diligently from home. Yet another dance friend Facetimes me to rehearse her newest spoken word poem, in preparation for her performance on the Zoom app later today. My own evolving quarantine journey has actually seen less dance training and more of the things I was always too busy to try: color drawings I can mail to friends, a few daily chords on a ukulele that went untouched in my apartment all year, a used book on companion gardening, and a gaggle of plant-based meals to complement today’s fridge findings. Sometimes the most unexpected creative moments are the most effective: inventing new word play games with my partner to break up the day, making myself laugh with an overly committed Russian accent, cozying up the couch with extra blankets and cushions, rearranging my bathroom drawers, and taking daydreamy, sundress-clad walks through suburban streets have all helped me honor the day, and come back to myself in times of stress.
Art provides us with a process for better understanding the world and our place in it.
The point is to be gentle and open in your creative expression. Even a stack of freshly pressed laundry or an hour spent looking through old memories can assemble the bit of joy you need to forge ahead with empathy and optimism. Lean in the direction of your most accessible inspirations, and don’t let your healing creative journey get too wrapped up in what everyone else is doing. We are all experiencing different complex emotions and creative callings. Only you can intuitively feel what’s best for your art therapy and mental health.
The depth and power of art as a healing tool does not have to be limited by our well-practiced norms, categorized artistic paths, or social media feeds. There is infinite creative potential in the small corners of our ordinary every day, and opening ourselves to that potential can help us process each new day with a compassionate heart and, little by little, heal ourselves.
top photo: Lucia Joyce © Shane Carrigan