I used to get this thing, when I was really hungover, where I’d have crazy urges to make things. I once spent a whole afternoon ripping up pieces of newspaper and magazines to make a collage, sticking the pieces all over a huge cork board. It was quite weird.
I’m not particularly arty and have never really seen myself as ‘the creative type’, so I put it down to being one of those strange side-effects of a night on the sauce.
But what if it was more than that?
According to a new art app called Bloom, 64% of people feel frustrated by the lack of creativity in their work and personal lives, and this rises to 71% among 18-34 year olds.
Even if you work in a creative industry, it’s rare that we allow ourselves time to create with no brief. It’s an assumed part of growing up – we stop playing and doing things without direction – and start being productive instead.
“In reality being truly creative is seen as very indulgent and almost childlike,” says psychologist Honey Langcaster-James of this transition. “We’re expected to create in response to demand rather than self-expression.”
Self-expression is a fundamental part of being human, but between meeting deadlines, giving time to friends and family, exercising and so on, it’s pretty hard to carve out some time to express yourself in a way that doesn’t involve spending money.
Hattie Stewart is a 29-year old illustrator known for her mischievous re-workings of magazine covers – a method dubbed 'doodlebombing'. When I speak to her upon the launch of her subsequent book, Doodlebomb, she’s fresh off the back of a 10-day stint as Mermaid Ranch’s artist in residence, where she had a rare opportunity to focus on her own work instead of commissions.
For Hattie, who's collaborated with GQ, art isn’t just about enjoying life, it’s about survival. “When I was younger I went through very troubled times,” she says bluntly. “It’s probably the one thing that’s saved my life. It helps me express myself in ways I’m not able to do vocally.”
Caroline Bird is a poet, who, like Hattie, has been creating since she was little. “The word ‘creative’ is sometimes thrown around as if it’s a magical power that only certain people have,” says the 31-year-old. “But I don’t think about it like that. Everyone dreams at night, and in those dreams our imaginations translate our anxieties and hopes and fears into surreal imagery, into strange unwieldy personal movies, into visual poetry.”
So what goes wrong? Why do we grow up and stop thinking it’s OK to mess around with some paints, or write poetry, or play that guitar you bought five years ago that’s sat dusty in the corner of your room ever since? “Sometimes when we get older the ‘real world’ gets its claws into us,” reflects Caroline.
“We start using words like ‘outlet’ instead of ‘right’. Because I think it is a right,” she continues. “Everyone needs to express who they are, and the ways are countless: some people express themselves through movement and muscle, some people knit words together, some people are captivating in the pub… but the important thing, I think, is to know you have the right to be heard and that you have something to share.”
The psychological implications of not being able to be yourself in this way have long been underestimated, says Honey: “I would argue that there is a creative side to all of us. We all have a natural desire to exercise that part of ourselves. It’s a natural form of self-expression.
“When we create we are using our full selves in a way we don’t get to do much in the rest of our lives,” she continues. “It also helps restore our confidence and our self-esteem because it’s so rewarding. It’s good for self-efficacy.”
Those who do enjoy dancing, drawing, painting, singing, acting, weaving, whatever-floats-ya-boat-ing, will be familiar with what psychologists call the ‘flow state’. Where you lose track of time and are fully immersed in what you’re doing.
This, explains Honey, is great for your mental health. “It’s a really good exercise in mindfulness, with really great benefits. For instance, it’s great for alleviating tension. It can also benefit your relationships, both with work and your nearest and dearest.”
Further research from Bloom found that 59% of women have done something creative to help them deal with a challenging situation in their lives. As both Caroline and Hattie attest, creativity is not just a nice-to-have but rather a really amazing way to learn and change your perception of the world around you.
“Most of the time [poetry] lifts me up, clarifies, makes me see my experiences through a new lens,” explains Caroline. “It is liberating to know I can construct something from a destructive emotion. For example, I can write a poem about heartbreak and then hold that poem in my hands and know that from pain I’ve created something good – and that has a strengthening effect.”
Hattie has similar thoughts. “It’s about time, and having time for yourself,” she says. “And to draw for me is a form of meditation. You go from having a blank piece of paper to creating something beautiful in a moment of distress.”
My aforementioned hungover urges led to me moving out of London and starting a new career. I realised very suddenly in this, my 28th year (call it Saturn Returns or whatever you like), that I wanted a big, colourful way to ‘indulge’ in creativity. And that way is through my new side project: learning to be a garden designer. So far, it’s been excellent.
Beyond the psychological benefits, there are other reasons to spend more time working on your creative skills. For one, to bring it back round to money again (sorry), jobs that involve creativity are the ones least likely to disappear to automation, according to a recent publication called 'Developing Creative Education after Brexit: A Plan for Economic Growth'.
Part of the problem is the way that our education system compartmentalises the sciences and the arts. Both are based around thinking in new ways and solving problems, and yet we completely polarise them.
I ask Hattie if she, too, ever feels an inexplicable desire to do something totally different – hungover or not. She laughs and replies without hesitation: “I’ve been wanting to do criminal psychology. I might do an evening course or something." She pauses, and reflects: "I think we’re all a lot more curious than we give ourselves credit for.”