Country music star Taylor Swift sure knows what she's doing by writing about her ex-boyfriends in her Speak Now album released this week. Yes, the album is projected to hit the biggest one-week sales of any release this year, heading for the million mark. But I'm talking about Swift's keen ability to tap into her brain's emotional reservoir, to take all that heartache and create, well, really good music.
Criticized by some for taking inspiration from guys that put her through the wringer—yes, you, Taylor Lautner and you, John Mayer—the 20-year-old Swift told David Letterman on his CBS Late Show Tuesday, "This is the third album that I've been doing this, so they had fair warning at this point." She wrote the songs, she said, "when I'm feeling what it is I'm discussing in the song. It's all kind of done when it's happening."
Turns out, doing something creative when you're going through an emotional crisis is one of the best things you can do to cope, says Harvard psychologist Shelly Carson author of Your Creative Brain, which hits bookstores this month. "It's a stress reducer because it uses parts of the brain that are incompatible with anxiety and fear," she explains. Stirring activity in those "creative" brain regions actually overrides activity in those regions that move you to tears or ice cream binges. What's more, the act of doing something novel activates the brain's reward centers, releasing a cascade of "I-feel-wonderful" chemicals that can lift you out of the doldrums. That may be what fuels us to dive into creative projects when we're grief-stricken. Nancy Brinker invented pink ribbon activism after her sister, Susan G. Komen, died from breast cancer. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan dreamed up the Taj Mahal to memorialize his third wife.
"If you have particular talents in an area, you will gravitate toward that for self-expression," says Carson, whether it's painting, scrapbooking, or poetry. I, myself, started a novel several years back when my marriage hit a rocky point. "Any creative activity can help you work through a traumatic event and find meaning in it," she says. While those first few creative attempts may be revenge fantasies—Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill album was all about bitter breakups—we're ultimately looking for closure, a positive way to frame things so we can put the past behind us. "Taylor Swift's songs may turn out differently than her actual affair or relationship [did]," Carson says. In "Mine," a track on her current album, she croons, "Do you believe it? We're gonna make it now, and I can see it."
Okay, so most of us aren't going to write best-selling hits. My novel is still unfinished. But you can certainly take those negative feelings and launch yourself into a better state by producing something out of nothing. In her book, Carson outlines several "transform" activities you can do to ignite your creative spark when life hasn't been meeting your expectations.
1. Learn about yourself from your purse. Empty the contents of your purse and pick out three items that are representative of your qualities, personality, or character. (Yes, even that chewed piece of gum in the crinkled wrapper.) Write a few sentences about each of these items and how they relate to your personality. See what insights you glean.
2. Write about a fictional character. Choose anyone from a movie, book, or TV show that best depicts who you are, right now at this moment. Write a paragraph about that person's physical appearance, personality, professional and personal circumstances, and aspirations for the future. As a followup, within the next week or so, write a paragraph about the fictional character you would most like to be and describe the similarities you share.
3. Draw your feelings. Armed with a blank sheet of paper and a set of markers or crayons, draw your feelings using whatever colors seem appropriate. The picture can be abstract or representational, as long as it comes from whatever you happen to be feeling at that moment. Stop after five or 10 minutes. Try to do this exercise once a week to see how your drawings change.
4. Listen to your moods. Listen to three tunes from your iPod, mix CD, or laptop that reflect the mood or feelings you're experiencing right now. Next choose three songs that are consistent with the way you'd like to be feeling. See if you're able to alter your mood with the music.
5. Write about your discontent. Set aside 15 minutes for three consecutive days to write about your deepest thoughts and feelings about an extremely important issue that's affected you. It might have to do with a strained relationship, an illness, parenting issues, your job, whatever is taking center stage in your life at present. The exercise is called emotive writing and University of Texas psychologist James Pennebaker has shown in his research that a 3-day stint has beneficial effects on mental and physical health in those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course, you can do it as often as you like after the first three days.
6. Create a story about redemption. Like Swift's redemptive "Mine" song, write a story about a character who has the same dissatisfactions in life that you have. The plot is how the character changes her life so that her problems are alleviated. Don't allow her to win the lottery or meet a foreign prince! Like you, she's got to use her own mettle to find solutions that will change her life in a meaningful way.