I wrote this for the NEA Tell Us Your Story project, a way the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015 -- the anniversary of the signing of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965, which created the NEA and and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
This piece may or may not get posted, as graduate school responsibilities kept me from writing and sending in a timely manner. But with the NEA and NEH under threat, I feel it important to share this story here now.
The arts are not a luxury. They are the lifeblood of our humanity. For many of us, they are a lifesaver. In under 700 words, here's a few details on how how the arts saved my life, and continue to save my life daily. Thanks for reading.
Creating was an integral part of my childhood. Music. Drawing. Imagination games. Stories. Reading. Writing. Dancing. Children are creators. I latched onto that joy.
At 12, I knew I was a writer. I kept at that title, taking flourishing stabs at poems and stories, an individual figuring out her voice.
Things happened to me in adolescence, as happen to many. Suicidal depression. Self-harm – cutting, burning, punching walls. Eating disorders – anorexia, bulimia. Major anxiety. Wild mood swings. Writing was hard those days. I judged what I wrote, editing more than getting words down.
Mental illness pulled me out of school multiple times. I had huge dreams – big college, international travel, overwhelming creative pursuits – but a budding schizo-affective disorder and my disastrous eating disorder took me to a treatment center instead of college after high school.
Once released from the treatment center, I talked my way out of a group home and a psych ward. My family helped me through. So did art.
Those days, I was so medicated I couldn’t read. I all but forgot how. Writing felt impossible. I was afraid to leave the house. But I painted in our kitchen. Nothing great. But it wasn’t about good. It was getting down textures and colors, trying to let go of judgment. I played guitar in the same way, not to find perfection, writing songs about my mood, voices, visions, heaviness and panic. Nothing good or great. Stuff coming out of me.
After months hanging out, painting and strumming, learning how to eat again, my mom saw I needed more pushing. I couldn’t stay at home living off her all my life. She gave me an ultimatum: part time job, college or permanent disability.
First I tried the disability route. The interviews scared me like the interview at the psych ward when I said I changed my mind, I’m not suicidal. Then I tried the job. No one wanted to hire me.
Finally I got into a class at Boise State University, an Intro to Theatre class. I did terribly. Drooling, overmedicated, couldn’t concentrate. I thought I’d fail my first class ever. I’d always been a good student, even when my brain made it hard. Failure seemed a grade of forever hopelessness. Still, I pressed on and did the work. The professor saw something in me. I got an A.
That class led to more, theater classes mostly. I became a Theatre Major, emphasizing in playwriting and design. I wanted to create a new way for me. Going to school, writing, working in props departments at local theaters, I learned how to share again. Sure I was weird, even for a theater kid, but as long as I was contributing and active, it was okay for me to be me.
I still needed meds. Their side effects undid me. I had episodes regularly. But I was writing, learning what playwriting was, what theater was: a life study teaching all of us how to be human. Studying theater saved me from a life of hospitalized nothingness and early death.
After graduating, I got work and projects, but went through downward spirals mentally, weaning off meds. Worse, I found an abusive partner who took me from everything I built up, away from my family and friends, sold everything I had, impoverished me to my worst point ever. But I was writing.
I started writing every day, without thinking or trying to make it good, without editing or judging, filling a notebook a month. Eventually I read what I’d been writing. I saw the choices I was making, the abuse I lived. I built up courage. I left that man.
I started rebuilding my life again. Working creatively in theater and music, writing more than ever. Year by year, I found work as a playwright, as a teaching artist, found the graduate program for me, wrote everything I could get my hands on and found more success than I thought possible.
More importantly, I found health. Self-care. I still get trouble in my brain, but I learn how to cope and how to be. Writing is my lifeline. I can find calm, unmedicated, living by creating, learning and sharing. Art is my stability.
Now, I often feel like a completely different me than the one I was fifteen, ten, or even five years ago. I'm grateful I get to write and make theater and make plays and teach my craft daily. I'm lucky to work with several organizations that benefit from the NEA'S funding, or funding that is bolstered by the NEA. These organizations keep me fed and able to survive as an artist in a country that already spends a laughable amount on arts organizations.
Leaders. Please don't hurt my chances at a thriving life, or those of the many artists, students, thinkers, hopers, dreamers and innovators who make this country and world better every day because of organizations that enrich our understanding of what it means to be human and live on this planet. Save the NEA. The NEH. Public Broadcasting. Save our communities. Protect the arts, don't defund them. They save us more than we can monitor -- and they don't cost much.
Fighters. Humans. Artists. You're not alone. This is not a done deal. We can rise up against this. Here's a few ways. Here's another. And what are you doing to act that I don't know about? Let me know, maybe I can help.
Thank you, NEA and all you organizations I love, for making life better for me and everyone I know all the time. Thank you, artists, for doing what you do. It's important. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. We've got to give each other all the good we can. Your art makes this world better. Keep doing it, please.
XOXO and so much love,
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Process notes on a work in progress (me). This mostly contains raw rough content pulled out of practice notebooks. Occasional posts also invite you into the way I work, with intermittent notes on the hows and whys on the whats I make. Less often you may also find prompts and processes I've brought to workshops, as well as surveys that help me gather material for projects. Similar earlier posts from years ago can be found on: