Changing Minds: How Writing Can Heal

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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.

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Changing Minds festival: Q&A with Brian Dow

Before our new festival about art and the workings of the mind, we speak to Brian Dow, the Director of External Affairs for Rethink Mental Illness.

Why is a festival like Changing Minds a good idea?

Too often we think of mental health as a threatening concept and that is certainly true for mental illness. So bringing the public together to understand and celebrate the incredible artistic contribution that has been made by people who have been mentally unwell and seeking to improve understanding is an inspiring idea for a festival.

What the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
In my last year at university I had a meeting with a careers’ adviser. I arrived late and generally dishevelled so I didn’t notice that my flatmate had sabotaged the form I’d been asked to fill in, adding at the bottom ‘but what I really, really, really want to do is play for Dundee United’. Though the meeting was generally excruciating the adviser asked me at the end ‘What’s stopping you?’  It was a question more than advice but it’s stayed with me ever since and reminds me it’s always worth asking ‘what is the advice I am giving myself’.

How do you relax when feeling stressed?
I run.  In a circle.  For as long as I can.  It doesn’t taste as good as beer but the effect is better. By the way the circle is usually quite big.

What book, song or performance changed your life?
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  Fundamentally, it’s taught me the value and honesty in saying ‘I don’t know’.  So often we take what we are given by our own minds, performing mental shortcuts which are essential in much of day to life but can equally lead you down the garden path if you’re not alert to it.  We’re conditioned to pretend we know more than we do but it’s actually liberating to acknowledge when you are not certain about something.

If you could have one super power what would it be?
Singing beautifully.  Not a conventional super power I know but when I think how I have been mesmerised…

Which living person do you most admire and why?
I try not to lionise anyone.  Everyone has virtues and vices but I admire lots of people for lots of reasons.  Above all I admire acts of generosity when it is easier to do the opposite.  Neil Laybourn and Jonny Benjamin, the two men involved in the Find Mike campaign are both irresistibly good people.

What are your top tips for improving mental health?
Talk about it.  Talk about it.  Talk about it.

Brian Dow takes part in the opening talk of Changing Minds festival on Saturday 6 February More information is here.

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Changing Minds festival: Q&A with Heidi O’Loughlin

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Get to know comedian Heidi O’Loughlin, who joins us for our brand new weekend festival about mental health and the arts on Saturday 6 and Sunday 7 February.

Why is a festival like Changing Minds a good idea?
It feels like we’re all more aware of mental health issues, but sometimes still aren’t sure how to talk about it. Changing Minds is a great way to uncover the relationship between mental health and the arts. It’s also a  great reminder for everyone that they really are not alone.

What the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
A friend once said to me, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light”, which really made me think about trying to focus on the good things/people in my life when I’m the most down. The friend’s name was Albus Dumbledore, he also said some other great things like “Alas, earwax!” and “Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”

What book, song or performance changed your life?
I’m a first generation Harry Potter kid. If I have met you then I have mentally sorted you into a Hogwarts house. I also coined the phrase “they’re Hufflepuff as ****!”.

If you could have one super power what would it be?
Teleportation. Or the ability to always be the person chosen for the random free coffees at Pret.

Which living person do you most admire and why?
This is a difficult one, as it changes on a daily basis. Also it’s not fair to pit your mum, or your educators against the likes of Justin Trudeau or Malala Yousafzai! I guess, creatively, at the moment, I really admire the Belgian musician, Stromae. I think he approaches his work with an uncontrived originality that is very beautiful, modern and exciting.

What are your top tips for improving mental health?
Keep your life as tidy as possible. Put your clothes in the laundry basket, make your bed. Go outside, no matter how much you don’t feel like it. Remember that you are loved.

Heidi O’Loughlin is chairing the Laughter’s the Best Medicine talk at Changing Minds on Saturday 6 February. Day and Weekend Passes for the festival have now sold out. However, there are free activities to take part in throughout the weekend, including yoga, singing and dance workshops. More information is here.

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Changing Minds festival: Q&A with Yomi Sode

 

 

Before speaking at Changing Minds, writer and performance poet Yomi Sode talks to us about the festival, the book that changed his life, and the person he most admires.

Why is a festival like Changing Minds a good idea?

Mental Health is a topic that is taboo to some, misunderstood to many and tends to be that elephant in the room you try to take no notice of. And for this weekend, the festival is in our face in discussion & performance. A space that is safe to explore key issues, aiding in support for others; be it friends and family members or even a stranger.

If this weekend touches just one person, changes their perception of mental health in a more positive light, I would be happy. But just the one is too small, I want more!  It’s also a good idea because Southbank Centre strives to engage, educate and entertain people from all walks of life.

What the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

To not be afraid of failure.

How do you relax when feeling stressed?

I like silence.

I read.

I listen to music.

I take the bus home rather than the train, there’s something about people watching, escaping through others that’s quite relaxing.

What book, song or performance changed your life?

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe really touched me. I was disappointed in myself because I read it at a very late stage in my life and it’s always been around me. Taught me a lesson to not really waste time with things when it comes to information/ learning.

If you could have one super power what would it be?

It would be between invincibility or flying. Both for the same reason really (to get away from it all for an hour or so) but being that I am a father, I can’t be as selfish :-)

Which living person do you most admire and why?

My mother. I don’t think she understands just how much I admire her; and the older I get, the more anxious I become.

I chose a profession that wasn’t what she had in mind.

The day I told her I would be seeing a counsellor, she kept her thoughts in as best as she could but she believed I was doing what was right for me at the time; and I appreciated her for that.

What are your top tips for improving mental health?

Keeping things bottled up never ends well. It’s a habit that I at times still fall into, still struggle with.

I’ve learned to talk and lean on others for support. I would advise the same for anyone that thinks along the same lines. A problem shared might not guarantee a solution, but at least it’s not just you carrying its weight.

Yomi Sode is a speaker at the Young People Talk at Changing Minds. Day and Weekend Passes for the festival have now sold out. However, there are free activities to take part in throughout the weekend, including yoga, singing and dance workshops. More information is here.

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10 Questions with Being A Man Festival Speaker Hervé Goffings

Before performing his Fringe First Award-nominated show Hervé at this weekend’s Being A Man festival, we asked actor Hervé Goffings a few questions for our BAM Q&A.

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Why is a festival like BAM a good idea?
I think BAM festival is a great idea! It is not often that subjects and issues around men and masculinity are openly discussed. It is a great opportunity for men to debate and share experiences, knowledge, fears and many other important subjects in a supportive and safe environment.

What motto do you live your life by?
I have just adopted a new motto in my life: ‘Everything you want is on the other side of fear’. My fears were holding me back and preventing me from achieving my true potential and getting what I want in life. I decided to face my fears with courage, in all aspects of my life. The extraordinary thing is that I am discovering that most of my fears are the fruits of my imagination!

What would be your speciality pub quiz subject?
I am French-African, born in Mali of Malian parents. I was adopted at birth by a white Belgian couple who met after the revolution in Cuba in the late sixties and who then travelled the world. After Mali, I lived in Chad, Belgium, Cannes, Paris, Manchester, Glasgow and now London. My adoptive parents currently live in Mexico. So, because of all the travelling I did with my family and all of the places I lived in and visited, my speciality pub quiz subject would be, without hesitation, geography!

What makes you feel most like a man?
I usually feel most like a man when a woman falls fast asleep in my arms. It means that I am providing her with a space where she can feel protected and secure.

If you could have a super power what would it be?
After much thought… if I had a super power, it would probably be the power to travel in time. I would appear at crucial moments in people’s lives and advise them on the decisions they would need to make to ensure themselves a bright and happy future. Having said that, seeing the stress that Marty McFly goes through in Back to the Future… I would probably need another super power that would prevent me from dying from exhaustion!

When did you last cry?
The last time I cried was two weeks ago. I never used to cry, but now I do. I now make sure that I cry every time I feel I need to. I came to realise that crying is not only a healthy thing to do (cathartic), but it also reminds me that I am human and therefore a man, not a superman.

Who’s the hero or role model in your life?
My role model has always been my white father – Indiana Jones has nothing on my dad! His adventures took him to Africa, the United States, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Brazil… In 1969 he was involved in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. His passionate idealism drove him there. Although he is now 72 and not quite as able as he used to be, I still admire him. He has lived life to the full.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
Undoubtedly, my guilty pleasure is cake and puddings! I could easily be won over with a sticky toffee pudding, an apple crumble, an almond cake or an éclair au chocolat!

What book, film or performance changed your life?
In 1983 Michael Jackson did a live performance of ‘Billie Jean’ for Motown’s 25th anniversary. I was 12 years old when I watched the performance on TV. Seeing him sing, dance and do the moonwalk for the first time simply blew me away. “Mummy”, I said. “I want to do that – can I do that?” If I am a performer today, it is thanks to Michael Jackson and his stunning performances. Also around the same age, I discovered the world of Jules Vernes. His books not only developed my love for reading, but also for traveling.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I vividly remember my enlightened Belgian granny saying to me (a little black boy kneeling at her feet): “Always work with your brains, not the colour of your skin.”

As part of Being A Man festival, actor Hervé Goffings performs his show Hervé on Sat 28 & Sun 29 Nov. Book a Saturday Day Pass, Sunday Day Pass or a Weekend Pass to attend.

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10 Questions with Being A Man Festival Speaker Matt Cain

Before speaking at this weekend’s Being A Man festival, author, columnist for Attitude magazine and former Culture Editor for Channel 4 News Matt Cain takes part in our BAM Q&A.

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Why is a festival like BAM a good idea?
To be honest, I’m not someone who has problems opening up and discussing his feelings so I’m normally dismissive of any initiatives aimed at encouraging other men to do so. ‘Oh come on!’ I just want to scream in their faces. ‘How difficult can it be? You just open your mouth and say what you’re thinking!’ But Southbank Centre’s festivals are always excellent and I can see that this one is tapping into a genuine difficulty a lot of men have, offering them a much-needed opportunity to explore what it means to be male today. And I might think I’m a really self-expressive, self-aware man but I’m sure I’ll learn a lot too!

What motto do you live your life by?
‘Never, never, never give up.’ I’ve been through so many knock-backs and disappointments in my personal, professional, romantic and creative lives that I have to say these words to myself on a regular basis. If I hadn’t learned to do that a long time ago I’ve no doubt I’d still be living in my hometown of Bolton, too afraid to pursue my dreams. I think a lot of men are frightened of failure because vulnerability and fragility aren’t thought to be very masculine qualities whereas strength and success are. But a fear of failure can only lead to disappointment and unfulfilled ambition – and how can that be a good thing, whether you’re a man or a woman?

What would be your speciality pub quiz subject?
I’d love to say something really intelligent like French and Spanish literature, which I studied for my degree. But to be honest, it would probably be Madonna. I’m sorry to play straight into gay stereotypes, especially for someone of my age, but I reckon I could totally nail that subject!

What makes you feel most like a man?
Well, it’s interesting for me to be speaking at this event because I’m not the most masculine of men and when I was growing up was always bullied for being effeminate. Perhaps, as a result of this, I used to feel more at home in female company than I did amongst other boys and, as an adult, I’ve never really experienced as much of a rigid division between the genders as I imagine most straight people do. So I’m rarely aware of feeling ‘like a man’ and usually feel like a bit of a fraud if I do. But I think this is a trap a lot of gay men fall into and I can now see that yes, gay men might have certain things in common with women, but we have a lot more in common with men, however masculine or effeminate we are. And this is a subject I’m looking forward to exploring more at the festival.

If you could have a super power what would it be?
It’s a bit of a boring one but I’d love to fly. I still have dreams about that all the time. Oh, and it isn’t a super power but I’d love to be able to sing too. I absolutely adore singing and the fact that I’ve got a terrible voice has never stopped me – but it would be nice to open my mouth and produce a sound people actually like rather than what currently comes out, which sounds like that horrible wailing noise that foxes make while they’re having sex.

When did you last cry?
I didn’t cry from the age of about 21, when my granddad died, to the age of about 30. I had lots of stuff going on in my life around then and think that the only way I survived was by strapping on my armour and soldiering through. But then in my early 30s I had a bit of an emotional crash and the floodgates opened and now I cry all the time. So it doesn’t take much these days; I can get over-emotional when someone is kicked off The X Factor or hearing the national anthem always gets me going, although that’s not a very cool thing to admit.

Who’s the hero or role model in your life?
I’d probably say my Nana, who’s 93 now and still going strong. She made big sacrifices in her life to be with the man she loved and experienced a lot of criticism for it. So that’s why I dedicated my debut novel, Shot Through the Heart, to her.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
I’m a big fan of pop culture, from the novels of Jackie Collins to films about Marvel superheros and music by One Direction. But I refuse to call these guilty pleasures because, to be honest, I don’t experience any guilt at all when I enjoy them. I’m a perfectly intelligent person and I love reading the Man Booker Prize shortlist, watching the best arthouse cinema and listening to the finest classical music. But sometimes I want a different emotional experience or I just want to relax and have some fun. Why on earth should I feel guilty about that?

What book, film or performance changed your life?
When my mum read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to me and my brother and sister, it totally blew me away. I wasn’t very happy at school or in the outside world in general at the time and this book offered me an escape – and it’s probably why I now write my own novels. I should also mention the time I saw Madonna play her first ever UK gig at Roundhay Park in Leeds in 1987, when I was just 11. It opened up the world to me and inspired me to get out of a hometown where I didn’t fit in and find my own voice.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
‘Nobody else’s map will work for you.’ A friend of mine who began directing theatre in his mid-30s told me this and I often repeat it to myself when I look at other writers who are the same age as me and seem much more advanced in their careers. It’s a little reminder that everything I’ve experienced in my life has led me to where I am now and if I changed any of it I might be a very different person. And I’m quite happy with where I am and what I’m doing – so it can be good to remember this!

As part of Being A Man festival, Matt Cain speaks at the ‘Crash and Burn’ talk on Sun 29 Nov, which looks at the impact of depression, alcoholism, drug abuse and stress. Book a Sunday Day Pass or a Weekend Pass to attend.

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10 Questions with Being A Man Festival Speaker Paul Lyalls

Before speaking at this weekend’s Being A Man festival, poet, performer and writer Paul Lyalls takes part in our BAM Q&A.

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Why is a festival like BAM a good idea?
It creates a chance to show another side to being a man – a deeper side.

What motto do you live your life by?
Carpe post meridian – seize the afternoon

What would be your speciality pub quiz subject?
Disney Princesses

What makes you feel most like a man?
The memories of carrying my daughters when they were little

If you could have a super power what would it be?
The ability to convert old sports socks into doll dresses in seconds

When did you last cry?
At the very end of The Book Thief

Who’s the hero or role model in your life?
My Gran

What’s your guilty pleasure?
Re-watching Leeds United win the title 91/92 season on an old VHS I found in a charity shop

What book, film or performance changed your life?
Seeing performance poetry live for the first time at Apples and Snakes in Covent Garden

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Always face your deckchair towards the sea

As part of Being A Man festival, Paul Lyalls speaks at ‘The Beautiful Game’ talk on Sun 29 Nov, which explores the positive and negative aspects of the forms of masculinity created by football. Book a Sunday Day Pass or a Weekend Pass to attend.

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