The Writing Forums are a series of closed industry events that have been taking place since 2014, bringing together clever people to look at problems facing the writing community. Described by one participant as “a secret tree house of brain storming” the forums look at concrete ways we can work toward change.
The 2016 forums focused on self-care in the arts and emerging at any age, and each of the events produced a series of recommendations, resolutions and ultimatums.
EWF is committed to continuing to work with the writing community to see real change in these areas.
Self-Care in the Arts Manifesto
Compiled by: Anna Spargo-Ryan
This document reflects discussion that took place at a closed forum on mental health issues facing writers and artists, held at the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne on 21 June 2016.
KEY ISSUES IDENTIFIED
Ongoing process of rejection
Rejection in the arts is not something that stops after you receive the first acceptance letter. Rejection is an ongoing process; even when a piece is finally accepted for publication, the editing process often involves some degree of rejection. Reviews and criticism from the wider public discourse play into this rejection aspect. The ever-present reality of rejection can be incredibly detrimental to writers and their sense of self-worth, especially those with conditions such as depression, which already distort self-worth.
Many of us began writing as a form of catharsis, and a way of escaping reality. It’s difficult to learn that in order to be a published writer, we must re-assimilate into this reality.
The industry can work towards managing peoples’ expectations of being published or rejected. The harshness of the publishing industry is tough to navigate, but becoming aware of how exactly you as a writer fit into the bigger scheme of things can help to provide perspective.
The processes of publishing companies, etc. should be made more transparent, so that writers can help themselves to be more aware of where they fit in, and learn and reaffirm in themselves that rejection is not personal, but usually a matter of how possible it is for an editor to process the amount of submissions they receive.
We can encourage writers to take responsibility for emotions felt as a reaction to rejection. Australia tends to foster a culture of ‘toughening up’ and repressing emotion, but this is particularly unhealthy. We need to allow writers facing rejection permission to feel upset. We can work to normalize the emotional responses to rejection, and allow writers a space to voice these emotions, without the fear that this will affect their professional writing career.
We can work towards providing more resources and self-care strategies for coping with rejection. Writers need to take responsibility for their own self-care following a rejection. But they also need to recognise that it is not the fault or the responsibility of the editor or publisher to provide comfort or guilt as a salve if they have rejected them. As editors, sending numerous rejections and receiving emotional retaliation afterwards, this can be damaging too.
Isolation and community
Supportive environments and groups for writers are incredibly vital; isolation (whether it is mental, physical, etc.) is dangerous. People with mental illness often isolate themselves out of exhaustion, making it more difficult to reach out for help and support when needed. Festivals, writers groups, and workshops are vital to the construction of a supportive community for writers.
Within this community we need to work towards destigmatising mental illness, and encourage more open discussion and awareness.
Often it can be difficult to know where to start finding a way into a group or community; where does one look? Organisations such as EWF and Writers Victoria can provide platforms for writers groups to advertise themselves, so as to reach more people.
Alcoholism and the arts
The tortured writer trope is still influencing the wider psyche and the representations of the arts. Australia’s relationship to alcohol and binge-drinking is a problem that is beginning to be addressed in the wider discourse, but the arts also need to re-evaluate its relationship to the alocohol. Socialising is almost synonymous with drinking, and festivals, magazine launches, readings, all include consumption of alcohol, and also frequently cigarettes or other substances. Most of these are depressants, which are usually further detrimental to someone with depression/other mental illness. We need to start discussion within our community about our alcohol consumption. Romanticised alcoholism and substance abuse as a given of the creative lifestyle should be challenged. It does also need to be recognised that substance abuse is strongly linked to trauma and stress, which in the arts can be linked to financial stress and the unpredictability of income.
Make more events less focused on alcohol consumption.
Have more alternatives available for social bonding.
Promote discussions on alcohol within the arts community.
Provide and promote resources for individuals struggling with mood-altering substances.
Unpredictability of paid work and income
The devaluing of the arts in Australia has severely impacted the amount of funding for the arts, meaning that most, if not everyone, working within the industry is struggling financially; it’s difficult for writers to be paid when the publications or organisations they work for don’t have the funds necessary to pay them. There is a great need for more financial opportunities within the arts, but it is difficult to form them without funding.
We must continue to fight for adequate funding from the government, and also foster a community in which everyone supports one another. The recent federal budget cuts to Express Media showed us how supportive our community already is, financially through donations and subscriptions, and emotionally through the essays, op-eds and messages people penned in support.
Crowdsourcing, grants and approaching more potential patrons and partners are strategies that may be successful until funding from government bodies increases to a stable point.
Low income for arts workers severely impacts the kind of psychiatric/psychological treatment and medication available.
In trying to balance paid work, self-care (exercise, social activities, etc.) and art, art is often the first thing to fall by the wayside, which often leads to feeling a lack of purpose and connectedness. Overworking/lack of leisure time causes exhaustion and stress. All these consequences are triggers and causes of many mental health problems.
Whenever and wherever possible, pay arts workers (writers, editors, producers, etc.) as much as possible.
Form more fellowships, residencies, mentorships and grants for writers, especially those who identify as having mental illness/es.
Create, provide and promote more resources for those trying to balance work, art and self-care, as well as more realistic methods of balance. The idea that one can ‘have it all’ is damaging, and in trying to achieve it many reach burn-out. Put together resources and reading materials (how-to’s, examples of how other people balance work, art and self-care, advice from arts workers with mental illnesses on how they practice self-care) that are easily and freely accessible.
Promote realistic expectations and representations of working in the arts, i.e.: make industry workings more transparent; provide information on standard rates of pay.
Freelance writing poses the problem of the writer needing to be willing and able to work at all times, and under all physical or mental conditions. There is a pressure to be ‘always on’ for work, whether by phone, email, or working overtime in an office. This work-centric lifestyle severely impacts on the time a person has available to spend with family, to practice self-care. This ‘off’ time is vital to wellbeing.
The type of work arts workers often do involves spending large chunks of time indoors, sitting and staring at a computer screen, away from natural light. The work is mental, and usually physically and emotionally isolating. This impacts both physical and mental health.
Discourage workplaces (employers and employees) from contacting others about work-related topics outside of work hours, and discourage individuals from checking work emails outside of work hours. Foster a work environment and community where ‘off’ time is seen as vital for wellbeing. Protect leisure time. Work towards valuing individual wellbeing as much as, if not more than, their work performance.
Workplaces should encourage and remind employees to take breaks from working, to eat food and snacks, drink water, stretch and walk around. Should also encourage taking walks and spending time outside.
Fun ideas: office charts for breaks taken, amount of water and fruit/veg consumed, introducing scheduled office-wide breaks for lunch, keeping a general-use fruit bowl in office. There are self-care check-in programs you can install on computers to pop-up every few hours – recommend for freelancers/people who work from home, also offices.
Those with mental illnesses will often not speak up about their specific needs out of the fear of stigma (though the arts is slightly better at talking about these issues than other industries).
Within a workplace it can be detrimental for an employee to discuss their conditions and specific needs with an employer/potential employer, as it may influence their perception of the individual in a negative way. The stigma of mental illness within a workplace raises ‘concerns’ on an individual’s reliability, performance, and accessibility requirements, which may prevent their employability.
All employers must ensure that they provide flexible and accessible working arrangements for all employees. All employers must provide a work environment where employees feel safe and comfortable to discuss their mental health and specific needs that stem from any mental health problems. Encourage open discussion on mental health to aid de-stigmatisation.
It is important that employees are given the space to communicate their needs, and equally important that they take responsibly to communicate these needs.