Laralyn McWilliams on rediscovering creativity following trauma

“When you are in times of distress you feel lost and broken, because you can’t set aside fear and anger," she said. "And if you feel broken your creative work is broken.”

Emotional distress caused by uncontrollable life events robs us of our creative power. This was the message from Laralyn McWilliams, chief creative officer at Skydance Interactive who, at an emotional talk at GDC 2018, recounted her experience struggling to make games after being diagnosed with incurable lung cancer.

“I could not be creative or do my job,” said McWilliams. “I sat on the couch and said to my husband: ‘I am a talentless hack.’ I thought in that moment that I would never create again. And I meant it.”

McWilliams, who has worked on games such as Full Spectrum Warrior, Sid Meier's Pirates!, and The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall, said that, while chemotherapy treatment is known to cause cognitive impairments, trauma caused by divorce, the death of a parent or child, and sexual abuse can all have major negative effects on our creativity.

“When you are in times of distress you feel lost and broken, because you can’t set aside fear and anger," she said. "And if you feel broken your creative work is broken.” Everyone reacts differently to these sorts of stress, she said, but there's one thing everyone has in common: it makes creativity almost impossible.

The effects of emotional distress include, McWilliams said, feeling unusually disorientated, a loss of concentration, experiencing a “general feeling that thoughts don’t flow.” Not only are these effects frustrating for anyone who works in a creative field, they can also leave you feeling unsure of your essential identity.

Studies have found, McWilliams said, that regular sleep aids creativity and problem-solving. “And everybody knows,” said McWilliams, that sleep is “the first thing to go” following a traumatic or difficult life event. Similarly, emotional distress skewers the act of daydreaming, another activity shown to be crucial to creativity and problem-solving. Likewise, McWilliams said, emotional distress affects one’s capacity to work with others, to trust one own’s decisions and to form and keep habits related to creativity are all impaired by emotional distress.

McWilliams suggested a series of steps and tips to help guide those experiencing emotional distress toward creative recovery. The first and most important step, she said, is to recognize and acknowledge what is happening to you.

Denying the situation, or cause of your trauma, will cause a psychological block, she said, that frustrates creativity. “The nature of the situation you’re in robs you of your objectivity,” she said.

Then, McWilliams said, you have to find ways to center your thoughts in order to shut off the incessant chatter in your mind. McWilliams found that meditation techniques, particularly using guided online relaxation audio tools, was a hugely effective way to quiet the mind, and create the space for creative thoughts to re-enter her life.

It is crucial, McWilliams said, to find a way to go beyond yourself. She suggested that engaging in therapy and speaking about what you’re going through can be like releasing a valve; vulnerability helps you, helps others, and in turn helps you again. “I talked about cancer on Twitter, and kept a blog,” she said, while admitting that she was concerned that speaking publicly about living with incurable cancer would harm her chances at finding work.

McWilliams suggested that finding low-pressure creative outlets is an effective way to begin to reclaim creativity. She gave the example of playing Rock Band as a way to fool your brain into thinking you’re doing something creative while following guided play.

Sitting by windows in order to absorb sunlight, and journaling are effective ways, she said, to start the process of rebuilding creative habits in small ways as a way to kickstart “the creative assembly line” to provide a “way to get back to yourself again.”

"No matter what's happening to you," she said, "you're not broken. You're growing."

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