Words by performer and poet Cecilia Knapp.
When I was little, I always used to write stories. I’d go and visit my grandma for the summer and sit with bits of scrap paper in the garden, inventing worlds. I’d staple them together and draw pictures on the front page and force her, and basically anyone in the immediate area to sit and read them. Even from a super young age, I was addicted to the feeling of escaping through writing and telling stories. Now, in my twenties, it’s still the same.
About five years ago, I was studying English at University in South London with no real idea what I wanted to do as a job. I liked reading plays and novels and poetry so English seemed like a good enough option. Whilst living in London, I stumbled across a poetry course in Camden, which would turn out to totally change my life. In short, it basically led me to meet some of my best friends, develop as a writer and ultimately begin to have a career in something that I never knew could be a job. Writing for me was always something I did to make me feel better, but to suddenly find myself in a community where people were paid to do it, where people surrounded themselves with it and supported others to do it, that was the dream.
Whenever my heart has been broken, whenever I feel like the world is a horrific place to live in, whenever I have an experience that makes me feel changed in some way, I write about it. Like the writer Joan Didion says in an essay aptly titled Why I Write:
‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.’
I couldn’t put it better myself. For me, writing is a gateway to understanding, a road to myself and an insight into others.
Three years ago, I lost my brother and my best mate. He was an extraordinary human, and, as it turns out, one that was only supposed to burn bright for a short time. He took his life in 2012. Losing my brother is the most prominent example of how creativity helped and healed me. Through writing, I was able to explore how I felt about his absence, all the things I missed about him, and all the questions I asked myself about why he had to go. I was also able to keep him alive by documenting our memories together, writing down our car journeys, our conversations, our cider in the back garden, our arguments. And because of this process, I was able to more effectively reconcile my loss by working through it and trying to only carry the positive things in my heart.
Seeing it written down on the page and not in some mad scramble in my head that kept going round in circles was a massively healing process. It made it more tangible, took it from the abstract to the real. It made me feel powerful, like I had achieved some sort of positive from all the chaos.
In the years after I lost my brother Leo, I wrote a one-woman spoken word show called Finding Home. It’s essentially my story. It’s about loss and grief and our attitudes to mental health. But it’s also a story of a teenage girl growing up and all the madness that comes with that. I wanted to write it, not only because it helped me massively but also because I believe others can find comfort in the stories we choose to tell. I hope that anyone that’s ever been confused, or insecure or bereaved will come and find something there that makes them see the links we all share, the universality of experience that is often hard to find because it’s scary to put your heart out there for people to scrutinize.
I really believe in the power of creativity to help. For me, it’s writing. But equally all forms of creative expression are vital, whether that’s doodling on a napkin or listening to super loud music and singing along at the top of your lungs. It doesn’t have to be some scary, inaccessible practice only reserved for the select ‘arty few’. Sometimes, putting how you feel out into the world via a creative mean is the only real way you can articulate it, the only way you can begin to tackle the enormity of certain subjects. I don’t even need to share what I’ve written sometimes, the process can be enough. And the thing I’ve found about creative communities is that they’re the most supportive, compassionate bunch of weirdos I’ve ever had the pleasure to hang out with. Writing and sharing and being vulnerable with the people I’ve met in my career has been the most enormous blessing.
It’s easy to just be busy and ignore all the stuff we feel. Writing is my time to sit and feel it properly, allow it to come to the surface so I don’t sink into it later. It’s my time to map out everything that’s in my head. I hope that these stories I share will resonate with people, they’ll find their own experience of loss or grief or heartbreak woven into them somewhere. Maybe they won’t write themselves, but they’ll read it and there’ll be some comfort in that. I like to think there will be.
Cecilia Knapp is taking part in a panel discussion on the Creativity of Sadness as part of Changing Minds, our new festival exploring mental health and the arts on Saturday 6 and Sunday 7 February.