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Creating Under Stressful Conditions: Make What You Can; Make What Helps

Logo of Fox Coffeehouse in Long Beach, CaliforniaOn Saturday, May 16, 2015, I played and sang in public for the first time since Sunday, March 28, 2010.

It was an open mic at Fox Coffeehouse. I was able to do two little mini-sets:

Set One:

  1. Make-Over
  2. Darlin’ (first public performance ever)
  3. Elvis C.
  4. Second “Sister”

Set Two:

  1. About A Girl (Nirvana)
  2. A Message To Pretty (Love)
  3. Powderfinger (Neil Young)
  4. Burning House of Love (X)

At the end, everybody (a bassist, a blues guitarist, me faking along on my acoustic, and led by husband and wife ukulele duo The Geriatrics) joined together for “Love Potion #9,” “The Letter” (I was excited to jam on a song sung first by Alex Chilton!!) and… was there one other..? I can’t remember.

It was a nice time, and something I’ve been building toward doing since this past March 23, when I wrote my first song in almost exactly five years.

I wrote that song, “Paint the Air,” on bass, but since then, I’ve focused more on acoustic guitar.

Then, on May 3, I wrote my first poem since January 2010.

Then, I wrote another song, “Darlin’,” on May 12, just a few days ago.

I’ve been under a great deal of stress this Spring—the most I’ve dealt with since the end of my second marriage in the first half of 2010. In fact, it’s far worse than then.

I talk about it a little—especially how life-altering changes and stress make it so hard to create “shippable” creative works—in episode eighty six of The DIY Endeavors Podcast.

There, as now, I’m not going to go into details. Maybe once things have settled down a little. It’s not important in the context of this post, anyway.

What’s important: I think I have an answer to the question I ask in that podcast episode. If I’d previously thought to look at my creative output from the first half of 2010… well, I would have realized it faster.

Creations Appropriate To Available Energy

I haven’t been able to write prose fiction since late February.

I just don’t have the energy to get into the virtual heads of a bunch of fictional people. I’m too occupied with my own head.

Given that all of my creative output for the last five years has been works of fiction and non-fiction, being cut off has intensified my stress and anxiety.

Apparently, though, given the right emotional fuel, I’m capable of creating smaller works. Things that can go from concept to tangible art in an hour, or ninety minutes.

Songs. And poetry.

Forms of expression that, for me, at least, draw much more on spontaneity and feelings that do fiction and non-fiction.

That’s what I need right now.

That’s what I’m capable of.

It’s Good For Me, Too

Stress, anxiety, depression… I’m dealing with all of it right now. Frankly, I’m a little concerned about the long term effects of this period of my life. I don’t want my brain and body to get too accustomed to this flight-or-fight, high adrenaline, cortisol-imbalanced time.

I don’t want to deaden my experience through prescribed, blunt-force chemical hammers, either. There’s an appropriate time and place for pharmaceuticals, but I don’t think I’m quite in that place, as bad as it’s been.

Writing music, and to a lesser degree, poetry (and what are song lyrics but a form of poetry?) has become part of my strategy to manage my stress, stave off the depression, and help loosen the cinching band of anxiety around my chest.

Scan Of A Brain Experiencing MusicAs it turns out, experiencing both music and poetry helps trigger similar areas of the brain. Music and poetry have a direct line to our emotions, help with self reflection, and help reinforce neural pathways.

And actually writing poetry?

Similar to any kind of written focus on our own emotions, writing poetry increases the activity of our pre-frontal cortex, the brain’s regulator, while decreasing activity in the amygala, where much of our fear response originates.

In other words: when we put pen to paper (literally: typing doesn’t have the same impact, perhaps because it gets those words out of the skull too quickly) in a reflective way, we regulate disassociated fear and other stressful emotions.

Writing poetry changes our brain and body chemistry, for the better.

When you add actually playing an instrument? Taking poetry one step farther by writing songs?

Music brings all kinds of benefits to the brain, the body, and even to our capacity for empathy.

Playing an instrument makes you a better human!

But Is It Shippable?

Fine. I created a couple of songs and a single poem in the two months since my life was turned upside down and inside out.

But in episode 86 of The DIY Endeavors Podcast, I specifically asked how to continue producing shippable creative works in the face of life-changing stress.

Stuff I can sell. Because a statistically significant portion of my monthly income comes from people trading money for the things I make, and they tend to do more of that very generous thing when I release something new.

I’m not going to sell a single poem to my community of friends, patrons, and fans. That’s silly.

video card from the bookcase sessions seriesThe two songs? They’ll show up as videos in The Bookcase Sessions collection as patron-supported creations, and my patrons will get digital audio versions, plus lyrics, of both tunes.

The poem will be distributed to my patrons as a free bonus. Eventually, perhaps, it’ll end up in a collection, if I ever write enough to merit such a thing.

So. Not shippable creative works, per se.

I’m cool with that.

The Right Work For The Time

2015 Is a Production Year for Author and Creator Matthew Wayne Selznick? Not So MuchIn December of 2014, I boldly proclaimed that 2015 would be a “production year.” I’ve had an index card taped under my monitor for months to help me focus on that.

Reading that blog post now, five months later, I could cry.

“Things have not turned out as I planned, hoped, or dreamed,” he under-stated hysterically.

Even though I did ship something since Shit Went Down (the eighteen-song album Test Pressing, recorded in 2002), I now know I must not concern myself with shipping anything I create… or even with creating anything with the intention to ship.

Shipping can’t matter right now. What matters is Keeping It Together.

Short, more immediately gratifying creative endeavors—writing poems; writing, and especially performing, music—help me.

I need the help!

So I’m making things for me.

It’s Not Rocket Science

You might be reading this and thinking, “well, duh, Matt.”

That’s fair.

See, I wanted to hew to the idea of my “production year” because letting it go meant really understanding that nothing was going to go how I thought it would. Nothing. And everything was changing. Everything.

Concerning myself with sticking to the plan? That was denial.

A little denial in the face of shocking change is acceptable; natural. It’s how we pad ourselves against the high speed impact of forced emotional and cognitive dissonance.

Eventually, though, ya gotta face…

…the music!

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