6 Things To Ask Artists Instead Of "What Are You Working On?": A Plea
Last week when reports of the death by suicide of Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington broke, I was once again reminded that so many people have no idea what goes on in the minds and hearts of artists. As condolences flooded social media with personal accounts of how Linkin Park's music had talked many a confused teenager of the edge over the last decade, I couldn't help but think what an incredible weight it must have been to carry the load of other people's souls. There is no doubt in my mind that Chester knew how many people depended on his talents to keep them from choosing the same path he ultimately found inescapable---and, maybe, at some point he even depended on the need to fill that void for his fans to keep himself going. You see artists need to be needed. We need to know that our talents mean something more than just pretty dresses on rented red carpets in front of step and repeats. We exist to serve something outside of ourselves. We are creators. Birthers. Deep-thinkers. Over-analyzers. Bleeding hearts. But above all, we are human. We are not just our art. Just our fame or lack thereof. We are not just what you feel from what we offer the world. We need more from you than a posted suicide hotline number when yet another one of our soldiers decides the battle is no longer worth fighting. We exist outside of our creations. Outside of our careers. We want to be reminded that we, too, are flesh and bones. So, I implore you, when you're striking up a conversation with the artist you're sharing space with...try these things on for size:
1) How Are You?
Simple enough, right? Nope. If I had a dollar for every time someone has failed to ask me how I am and instead asked what I am working on or one-of-the-crazy-things-listed-here, I could fund every dream project I've ever had. When asked genuinely, this is one of the most humanizing inquiries. How am I? The amount of times I've spent working diligently on a goal without taking a single second to ask myself that question is innumerable. Artists wear self-negligence like a purple heart beaming with pride at our ability to throw ourselves into the deep end and come up for air seconds before drowning. So throw us this floatation device. Thanks.
2) How Can I Help You?
Just writing that sentence gave me butterflies. I thought of all the little things---shipping books, writing "thank you" cards, answering emails, editing---that help would expunge. I thought of the joy I'd feel being reminded that I don't have to be a one-woman show even though I am capable. I know every artist would agree---knowing that people are there and willing to help along the journey is more important than support when we arrive at our intended destinations.
3) Are You Happy?
I got in the habit of asking this question to my more successful friends a few years ago and I was always surprised at how unsure of the answer they were. It usually led to long conversations about managing their expectations with the daily rigor it takes to just stay above the fray. They were happy to have a safe space to say "no, I'm not, even though I should be". And it didn't end there, we talked about what would make them happy. More work? Less work? Better work? No work for a while? We all need to be reminded that we are allowed to feel however we want for as long as we want. Happiness is not a limited resource but it's also not the only thing we're allowed to feel. It is not the only valid emotion. But we need to be able to connect the dots to our own version of happy and this question allows us the opportunity.
4) Have You Eaten?
If you rolled your eyes at this---you're not a creative. I've spent the majority of a day in front of a computer too many times to count without so much as a chip in my belly until someone asks: have you eaten today? In darker times, the answer has been no because I couldn't afford to---won't he do it?!---but these days, it's because I'm motivated to create my best work. BUT, I cannot kill myself in the process. This is yet another moment for an artist to be reminded of our humanity. We need to feed ourselves, literally and figuratively, in order to do all of the things the ultimate creator has placed on our hearts. And, if the artist happens to be one with financial burdens, offering to buy them lunch can shift their entire day. Being able to nourish yourself seems like a no-brainer but when you're building the life you want, money can be tight---and sometimes you have to choose between submitting a film into a festival, hoping that will be your shot, and buying groceries. The groceries don't always win. Feed an artist today.
5) Do You Want Company?
Now listen here, creepers, this one is to be used in sincerity. Isolation is needed and preferred, at times, but not always. There is a reason why the number of films, songs and art pieces about darkness is plentiful---artists suffer. Far too often, the suffering happens alone and quietly. Haven't heard from your creative friend in a few days? Check on them! Ask them if it's cool to stop by---bring snacks---and show up with good energy for them to feed off of. Creative people tend to be giving souls who very seldom ask for reciprocation so stand in the void for them---your visit could be the one to save a life.
6) I Love You (Not A Question...I Know)
Period. Full stop. With no expectations of or connections to their achievements. Just a genuine reminder that there is love in the world that is independent of what they can do. There's a reason why love is at the crux of every religious or spiritual practice. When nothing else could help, love lifted me, ok? Say this. Early and often.
I say none of these things to make light of the severity of mental illness and completely understand that unless you're a trained professional---you cannot truly prevent a person's suicide. But as someone who once thought that ending my life was a viable response to the pressures I felt to succeed at a certain level, I can say that these 6 things have helped me to be here writing and sharing my truth instead of being the impetus for articles like this one. I understand that asking an artist solely about their work may seem like a genuine way of connecting with them but I assure you that if an artist wants to talk about what they're doing, they will. No prompting necessary.