Music has always served a purpose beyond theory and sound in my personal life. As an artist, I have the opportunity to use my creative practice in service to the community. As a survivor, I have often looked to art as a vehicle to reclaim power, exercise courage, galvanize support, inspire empathy, and shift paradigms.

But often I face an internal dilemma: must my art as a survivor be in service of others? Is there room for it to also serve me in my healing journey? Is there room for both? How do I approach doing this in a sustainable way? Over the course of my music career, I have found tremendous power in retooling art for personal and collective healing. It is my hope to share some of my journey with you and 10 Commandments I use to sustainably create art for healing myself and others.

A Word of Caution

If you are a survivor, I want to admonish you to consider the ways that art can be used to support your healing journey first. Before you commit yourself to the fight for survivors around the world, before joining the public revolution – pursue the personal revolution in your own heart.

Here is why: you run the risk of never allowing yourself the space you deserve to pursue your own healing and reclamation. When I was assaulted my first time in college, I threw myself immediately into art. I wrote a song called “Nothing Is For Sure” in the wake of my assault, and I performed it around my college campus. As an artist and activist, I wanted to share that art with others immediately. I wanted other survivors to feel comforted since I did not. My heart was so big for the cause that I sang the song as many chances as I could get, and I even became known for it. People began to request it at different events. I could not get away from it. If there had been critical distance from the trauma, if I had already done the work of pursuing my own healing, this would not have been a problem. It would have been a beautiful opportunity.

Instead, I found myself terrorized by my own music, because every time I got onstage I was reliving that trauma. I would find myself feeling empty after performing, and the requests were met with anxiety.

While I recognize that no two survivors will have the same healing journey, I do see an overarching lesson from that experience. That while the collective movement is important; put your mask on first. If I gave myself more time and space to allow my music to sit with me first, I would have likely realized that it caused me to relive my trauma. And perhaps the songs that came later that focused on hope, resilience, and courage would have come in time for the public space. I can attest that there is a fundamental difference between art that heals and art that traumatizes – even for the creator of such art. Sometimes it can be the same song that does both. Sometimes it is not. What is important to know is where you are in your journey. That makes all the difference. I don’t blame myself for that experience, but I have learned how to have a sustainable relationship with art of such a sensitive nature. I hope you will embrace your journey with patience too.

That being said: for survivors, allies, and advocates alike – here are some of the fundamental steps that can help you in your work to retool art for personal and collective healing.

Ask Yourself: Who is Your Primary Audience?

Often, people dismiss this question as simple or cliché when it comes to art, but it is vital to this work. If the art is being used for your own personal healing then it will inevitably look and work differently than if your audience is society at large, or even solely survivors.

For example, once I took time to focus on my own healing journey I wrote some poetry that named my assailants, and then I staged a ceremony with just a few of my closest friends where I burned the list and scattered the ashes. This was art for me, and me alone. The privacy, intimacy, and specificity of it had everything to do with the audience for it. On the other hand, I have a series of songs that are written for fellow survivors. One in particular called, After War, deals with the challenges of finding and facing love after sexual violence. Though it is written from my own perspective, it is written with other survivors in mind. It is performed in public spaces and the lyrics were crafted with the intention of not triggering, but rather inciting hope and tenacity.  

Here is an excerpt:

I see scars on my face, on my back, on my heart
Can’t see what heals when you’re fighting in the dark
I see wars, forts and swords, cuts and wounds
Mundane battles that seemed meant to leave me bruised
This fight told me I lost all the beauty in me
But you see right to the heart of me
So, when you see me, you say I’m more beautiful
Even more beautiful than before
When you smile at me, you know I’m more beautiful
Even more beautiful than before
Every night I thought I lost it all, grandeur lost amidst the fall
But when you look at me you say I’m beautiful after war

There is room for others to be impacted by your work, beyond your “primary audience”. That is ok. But it is good to have a focus, and to center your work in that. There were certainly days when singing “After War” spoke to other survivors in the room but also to me. There were times when it spoke to those that have not faced sexual assault, but who have dealt with a lack of confidence in some area of their lives. There is room for there to be benefit for more than your primary audience. It can be both/and. But I would encourage you to have a primary audience in mind as you create. It is not about hierarchy, but rather clarity.

Choose Your Medium

Once you know who your work is for, allow that fact to guide your practice.

If the art is for your personal healing journey, ask yourself questions like:

  • What kind(s) of art presents the fewest barriers to my creative expression?
  • What practice(s) incites healthy vulnerability?
  • What kind(s) of creative work helps me unearth my unique truths?

If the art is for others, ask yourself questions like:

  • Which practice(s) allows me to communicate my emotions, thoughts, and ideas most clearly to my audience? 
  • Which medium(s) can be adapted to the kinds of spaces, groups, and circumstances in which it may be located?

These are the kinds of differences that distinguish my name burning ceremony from “After War.” If you ask these kinds of steering questions, what you may find as an ally is that you have built into your art a mechanism for always centering the survivors in the room. You have built a creative infrastructure that allows you to always focus on the community you are trying to support. You establish from the beginning a creative posture that will make your art more effective.

For survivors, whether you are looking to support others or yourself in your healing journey, these questions allow you to focus in on your objectives in ways that help clarify your intentions and your mental and psychological status on your own healing journey – BEFORE you share the art. It’s a subconscious check-in with yourself.

The Act of Creation

So, when the time comes for you to create the art, you have asked yourself enough questions to create with intention. That is not to say that there still won’t be barriers: psychological, artistic, or physical barriers to creating the art. Sometimes I have asked these questions, and still when it is time for me to create I just can’t. Or there are so many different paths I could take that I am overwhelmed. Other times, I am frustrated with where I am psychologically in my journey after asking myself these questions: I want to create for others, but I recognize that I am rushing my healing journey. These are all valid. So over time I have created some commandments when creating art for myself and another set of commandments when creating art in service of others. As my parting gift, I hope they will speak to you as they have to me.

The 10 Commandments of Art for Yourself

  1. Nothing is off limits; Let nothing be too sacred.
  2. Dispose of what you want, when you’re ready.
  3. You make the rules, but no policing.
  4. Take whatever time you need.
  5. Unfinished is acceptable.
  6. Give yourself permission.
  7. Phone a Friend, if you need one.
  8. Allow the art to speak and lead you.
  9. Your limits change; get to know them.
  10. Your goals change; allow and embrace them.

The 10 Commandments of Art for Others

  1. People have limits; support them.
  2. Call upon both vulnerability and discretion.
  3. Do not mitigate truth for the sake of hope.
  4. Operate from a space of respect and honor.
  5. Co-create rules of engagement when appropriate.
  6. Embrace the immeasurable, but observe with vigilance.
  7. Density does not always equate to poignancy.
  8. Know when to speak from the “I” vs. “We.”
  9. Strengthen your craft and honor your art form.
  10. Make room for a response.

These commandments have helped me in my journey, and I hope they support you as well. And if something doesn’t fit you just right, tailor it to fit your needs. Add new principles you learn along your way. Your art is here to do the kind of healing work that only creativity can do. It is my hope that you’ll welcome it.