In this first episode of The Art of Doing Life, I share my vision for the podcast and what you can expect from our time together. Consider this your official invitation to hang out with me while I imperfectly explore the intersection of creativity, art, mental health, and chronic illness.
To access show notes and other information relevant to this episode, visit: msdaniellesmith.com/creating-things-while-falling-apart
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You can connect with me at msdaniellesmith.com or by email at email@example.com
I have a love-hate situationship with Instagram: @writedaniellesmith
Hi, everyone. Welcome to “The Art of Doing Life.” I’m your host, Danielle Shontae Smith.
I am so excited that this podcast is finally coming to life. It’s been on my mind and heart for quite a while, so it feels really good to press “record” and to bring this work into the world.
I’d like to start today’s episode with an invitation.
One of my favorite compliments I’ve ever received has come from people who have said to me that when they’re talking to me, they can tell I’m present, engaged in what they’re saying, and that I’m really listening to them. They feel seen, they feel heard, and they feel validated.
And I remember, in particular, one conversation with a woman. She started to tell a story, but then she briefly paused. After a bit, she continued and said, “No, you know what? I can tell you this because I know you won’t judge me.” And when she said that to me, in that moment, I almost started crying. I felt really honored that she would trust me with her story.
As a person who has felt judged my entire life, I know how it feels to be judged for simply being who I am naturally in the world. It can feel really refreshing when you encounter someone that you do feel is really listening to you and won’t judge you for what you’re about to share—especially if it’s something difficult that you have to work up a lot of courage to share.
I’ve been judged for experiences that I’ve had or choices that I’ve made even that maybe had results that were negative, and I was experiencing the consequences of my actions. But having people judge me at that time was not a good feeling, and what I needed at that moment instead of judgment was someone to listen and show compassion.
So when she said, “I can tell you this because I know you won’t judge me,” I felt really honored, and I realized how important it is to me to make people feel that way.
So that feeling is what I hope to create with this podcast. I invite you to this space where I hope that the community I am building here will be that welcoming presence for you, as well. A space where, instead of feeling judged for your experiences, for the things you’ve thought, or what you’re going through, you feel seen, feel heard, and feel validated. I hope that you find kinship here and feel that we celebrate you and your story.
In this first episode of The Art of Doing Life, I’d like to tell you a little bit about me, my vision for this podcast, and what you can expect from our time together.
I am an educator, writer, storyteller, recovering perfectionist, and full-time introvert (not necessarily in that order). I am currently recording in the one closet I have in my apartment in Southern California that is way too expensive and costs like 52% of my take-home pay. I live with an adorable puppy who claims the other 48% of my take-home pay. Her name is Lulu Taylor Alison Swift (and yes, that is her government name). But to her friends, she is known, simply, as Lulu. Now, while I won’t judge you, I can’t make that same promise for my dog, as Lulu is known for having strong opinions. For one, she doesn’t think my jokes are funny. Lulu is much more outgoing and active than I am, and she definitely forces me to interact with more people than I’m comfortable with. You know, I honestly didn’t realize how social I would be forced to be after I adopted a dog. But despite my protests, I credit Lulu with essentially saving my life, and, without her, I would not be able to manage nearly as well as I have been—especially the past few years as I have navigated living with major depressive disorder, social anxiety, chronic illness, PTSD, and grief.
Which leads me to why I created this podcast.
The short answer for what this podcast is about is that The Art of Doing Life explores the intersection of art, creativity, mental health, and chronic illness. But this wasn’t my original plan…
Actually, this podcast idea came while I was obsessed with an entirely different project. I was interested in profiling and celebrating women aged 30 and above who had—for whatever reason—never pursued their creative aspirations. My hope for that project was to make my audience and participants feel less alone, feel seen, and to identify barriers to their creativity and learn strategies to create in the messiness of life.
One thing that you will learn if you stick around is that a special power of mine is my ability to overcomplicate absolutely everything. It really is a gift. And in typical Danielle fashion, that project quickly became overwhelming.
So, this is the fun part. I wanted to bring this project to life, you know—this project about women 30 and up who were struggling with perfectionism, overachieving, striving, and burnout who didn’t prioritize play, rest, and wellness and whose creativity suffered because of it all.
The problem? I was one of those women. I kept feeling as though I was drowning in life. And my creative projects kept getting pushed further and further, which just led to guilt and psychological weight.
Then one day not long ago, I thought, “Why not just create things about how hard it is to create things?” How very meta.
So that’s what I decided to do. I figure I will never lack in content related to feeling overwhelmed.
So, welcome to this experiment, this project.
I have never hosted a podcast before. I know, I know. I’m not supposed to say things like that. And here, I’ve already broken an important rule.
One piece of advice I have heard often—or warning, really, I see often—is to not let anyone know that you’re a beginner or novice. Make people believe you’ve been doing this work for years. To project confidence.
I don’t know where this advice originates, but that kind of advice never sat well with me. I have spent most of my life as a spectator, afraid to start anything because I was afraid of failing. I wanted to be as polished as the experts.
But something I’ve learned over the years is that what’s often true is that those people we perceive as “experts” are in fact faking it until they make it—many of them, anyway. And what’s always true is that every expert was once a beginner. And if we’re going to start, we need to start somewhere.
I mentioned briefly that I’m an educator. I’ve worked in higher education for more than 13 years (which I’ve just realized is one third of my life. I have complicated feelings about that. Anyway…). Thirteen years in higher ed as both staff and faculty. In that time, I’ve taught and advised hundreds of students—possibly even thousands at this point. For a time, I was an academic advisor. And in that role, I would often encounter students who were experiencing shame for being in a beginner’s position (or to use a different word, for being learners).
And in these conversations, I would say to my students, “Let me ask you a question. When a baby is born, does it know how to walk?” They’d say, “No” and usually chuckle a little bit. “Right. They don’t. So, would you be disappointed with a baby because it doesn’t know how to walk?” They’d laugh and they’d say, “No.” “No! Exactly. That’s ridiculous, right? You’d understand that it will take time for that baby to learn to walk. So why are you disappointed in yourself because you’re having a hard time in calculus? You just don’t know calculus yet. So maybe we get you some help.”
So many of us have been conditioned to believe that we are supposed to be skilled in tasks or subjects that are new to us.
We have to allow ourselves to be learners. We have to allow others to be learners.
I could pretend to know what I’m doing in hosting this podcast, but I’d be able to keep up that façade for about 3 whole minutes. So, I’m showing up as my messy self from the very beginning.
I am learning out loud, in real time, how to be a creative person in the midst of truly difficult times. I honestly just don’t have the energy or desire to try to pretend anything anymore.
In September of last year, in 2022, I wrote an Instagram post about that. In it, I posted 10 pictures (a carousel, I believe it’s called) of some things I had been dealing with, some struggles I’d been having with my physical and mental health. Here’s a part of that caption:
recently, i have begun to answer the question “how are you?” with “doing the best i can.” folks really don’t know how to respond to anything other than “i’m fine” or “i’m good.” my response catches them off guard, and they feel like they need to offer a solution or they say, “i’m sorry to hear that. hope you feel better soon.”
sometimes there is no “getting better.” not with chronic illness. not with grief.
you just somehow are expected to live with it. to coexist with it.
somedays, i look around me and remember i am blessed.
other days, i look around me and cry with my entire body for 5 minutes then resume watching scrubs and eating cheddar jalapeño cheetos.
sometimes i shift from feeling gratitude to ugly crying within the same hour. and then back again.
i really am just showing up every day doing the best i can.
i don’t have it in me to pretend to be anything other than i am.— September 16, 2022 Instagram post
Dear Listener, I really don’t have it in me to pretend to be anything other than I am. So, I won’t.
Here’s the thing: In any work that we aim to make public, there’s often the question of how to present ourselves, and some may argue that even in the attempt to remain authentic, we are still performing—at least, somewhat.
What I can promise is to show up here and be as honest about myself and my process as I can. Anything I can’t be honest about or don’t want to share with you, I just won’t share with you.
Simple as that.
Earlier, I said that this podcast is about exploring how art and creativity interact with mental health and chronic illness. Later episodes will unpack each of these subjects in more detail. Like what exactly do I mean when I say “art” or “creativity” or even “mental health” or “chronic illness”?
Well, to begin, let’s talk about my specific art.
In most online spaces and biographies, I describe myself as a writer and storyteller. I’ve written my whole life, and, in the past decade or so, I discovered a love of live storytelling by participating in open mics and storytelling shows. In fact, I see this podcast as a form of audio storytelling.
While these days, I primarily write nonfiction essays and poetry, my work tends to blend genres. But I am less concerned with what to call what I write or how to describe what I do than I am with what that process of creation does—for both me and any audience it reaches.
Storytelling—either written or verbal— is the particular art form that I engage most with, but this podcast will, I hope, reach people who aren’t writers and who engage with a different form of art. I think of different art forms as simply different means to tell a story. Because I know how incredibly transformative story sharing can be, if there was but one message I could convey it would be this:
We matter. Our stories matter. What does not matter is how we choose to tell them.
When I encounter a person in any creative venture, I’m always curious how they earn money. In part, it’s because I’m nosy. But also because I always wonder how these people I admire support themselves while they pursue their art. It makes me consider if it’s possible for me to live a similarly creative path. So, in case you’re also nosy (or curious) like that, I won’t leave you hanging. I pay my bills (including my incredibly expensive apartment rent) by working a full-time job in higher education. That I work full time impacts how much time and energy I have to devote to my creativity, so that’s not an unimportant detail.
For many of us, pursuing art or creativity can feel like it’s only for the privileged few who have the money and time privilege to do it. And so, one topic of this show is to explore how to make art and creativity work for you in your specific set of circumstances. (Those are some sexy “s” sounds: “specific set of circumstances” Anyway…)
So now would be a fantastic time to talk more about why I created this podcast and what it’s about.
Something I’ve learned recently (out of necessity) is to not work harder than I need to. In thinking of what I wanted to convey to you in this first episode, and what might be a fitting introduction to both me and this podcast, I realized that I kind of already wrote about it. So I’m going to share this piece that I wrote last year.
In March 2022, I independently published a book (my first book). It’s called A Map You Cannot Refold, and it’s a mixed-genre memoir of stories told through vignettes (which is like a fancy word for short little scenes), letters, poetry, medical records…there are even some academic records in here. I’ll talk more about my book and the creative process around it in future episodes. But, for now, I want to read this part because it provides some context and gives a bit of insight into how I’ve navigated the world. This excerpt I am about to read comes from a chapter called “Critical Personal Narrative,” and is about 90% into the book.
For most of my life, I haven’t had much of a life. Rather, I have had a series of projects. I made a lot of promises to myself along the way, saying, “I will be happy when…”
No. I wouldn’t.
I thought living in California was making me miserable, so I moved. Then I was miserable, cold, and vitamin D deficient in Washington for 10 years. If I thought a job was just the worst, I got a new job. Then I was miserable but with a new job title and a different office. I was miserable being single, so I entered a relationship. I was miserable in a relationship, so I left it.
Different weight? Different weather? Different boss? No, no, and no.
I get it! I see what I did wrong. Life feels unmanageable because I have the wrong organizational system. I need a new strategy.
So, I attended the webinars, read the articles, learned the strategies, downloaded the productivity apps, bought the planners and the right pens, the action-oriented notepads, sticky notes, and journals. Unlined journals, dotted journals. The 0.7 mm gel pens in a rainbow of colors. Took an assessment to understand my time perspective.
Then I looked around me. I have all of the proper tools and strategies. Why does everything still feel so impossible?
I have learned that I can be miserable anywhere, at any weight, in any state, in any weather, and with any organizational system or productivity strategy.
I had believed there was an answer somewhere. I just needed to find it. I hadn’t found the right formula or strategy, hadn’t tried hard enough, hadn’t thought hard enough. I believed there was a point when I would…arrive. I’d be a fully-optimized human. My life would run so effortlessly because I had created all of the necessary systems for it to do so and had accounted for everything, all contingencies. My life would run like my bills operate on autopay: seamless.
But all of these annoying obstacles kept getting in the way: Sleep. Each successive job that would be perfect “if only….” Romantic partners whose imperfect human selves disrupt the carefully crafted storyline. The conversations with dear friends and family that force an acknowledgement of the impermanence of life. Medical conditions that are idiopathic, with no cure and no answers beyond “we’ll keep an eye on it.”
I was today years old when I realized that what I have been calling “obstacles,” other people call…life.
I never questioned if the fully-optimized human that I sought to be was actually achievable. All that mattered was that I believed it was, and therefore, I was a failure for not being so. I never stopped to consider that my belief might be flawed. No. I was flawed.
Not only did I believe there was a finish line, but my problem was I assumed the perfection I sought was at the end of it.— Excerpt from “Critical Personal Narrative,” A Map You Cannot Refold
So, consider: If I can be miserable anywhere, at any weight, in any state, in any weather, and with any organizational system or productivity strategy, then maybe I can also create in those states of being, too.
Enter: The Art of Doing Life podcast. A show about creating while falling apart.
So, what does that mean, exactly?
Well, maybe what I shared in my excerpt sounds familiar to you. Maybe your life too has felt like simply a series of projects.
Maybe you dream of living a creative life, but something always gets in the way, and you feel as if the creative outlet that makes you come alive is just out of your reach. Maybe, like me, you have your own list of the perfect conditions that need to exist before you can pursue your craft (whatever it is). Maybe you’ve even said, “I’ll write the book when I get settled and buy a house,” “I’ll begin painting again when I get a new job,” or “I’ll resume photography when I get a grip on my mental health.”
Can I challenge you a little bit? What if that point never comes?
Maybe, like me, you always figured you’d have more time. I understand that impulse. But recent events in my life have not so gently reminded me that this life we are given is short. I have missed so much of my life. And I don’t want to miss any more of it. You’ll hear more about that, too.
So, what topics will this podcast cover? Here are some topics I’m interested in that I hope to explore in the podcast:
And lastly, if you’re saying, “That all sounds great, but I don’t consider myself an artist” or “I don’t know what my thing is.” Maybe hang out with us, and then, after a while, see if you still describe yourself that way?
And finally, a word on the format. This podcast will include a mix of solo episodes (like this one) and conversations with guests.
On this podcast, I want to talk to everyday people. Look, I think experts are great. I listen to many podcasts. I listen to podcasts every day of my life. But most of them feature people who are already famous, have large social media followings, have published books, and established platforms. That is fantastic, and I love that for them. And maybe one day, Taylor Swift herself will want to talk to me. Because I would love to talk to Taylor about what her creative process was like when she created her latest album, Midnights. Listen, I am not going to say no to Taylor. But until then…
Who I identify with most are the everyday people. I want to talk to the painter who is so overwhelmed with daily life that they don’t have the energy to even look at a paintbrush. The photographer who hasn’t picked up a camera since their son was born and doesn’t know how to balance being a good parent while also pursuing their craft. I wanna tell the story of the 78-year-old great grandmother who has longed to write a book for her whole life, but dammit, life keeps life-ing. Specifically? I want to talk to my 78-year-old grandmother if she ever agrees to come on my show (hi, Nana!).
So, I have no answers. I mostly walk this world with a whole lot of questions. Nothing covered on this show should be considered advice. And to quote Taylor Swift (which is a phrase my family and friends hear me say a lot), “Never take advice from someone who’s falling apart.” I am not a mental health professional. I have accessed several mental health professionals (and still see a counselor every other week). In fact, at the time of recording, I have an appointment tomorrow, which is oh so timely… I have no medical background; I am simply a person who lives with a slew of mental and chronic illnesses that make my life a whole lot more exciting than I really need it to be.
All I know is that I am here, and I started. This podcast is an experiment. I started this episode sharing that I live with major depression, social anxiety, chronic illness, PTSD, and grief. That’s…kind of a lot. So I have to make this podcast something achievable for me. Otherwise, I would never do it.
I feel my best when I’m writing and creating things, and I kept waiting to feel better before I created again. But I just never began to feel any better.
So, I figured I had two options: 1) I could continue to feel horrible and not create anything ever again, which just made me feel worse, or 2) I could figure out a way to create while I am ill and deeply in grief and exhausted.
What I am learning is that those of us who wish to create amidst these hard things need to make processes that work for our specific situation. We need to give ourselves grace to show up for the work we want to do in the specific, unique way we need to show up. So if that means that we need to disregard or disobey best practices or rules that we’ve always been taught when it comes to creating, then we disobey.
I already broke a rule by telling you that I’m an amateur podcaster. Google could’ve told you that. But that way, I don’t feel as much pressure to present to you a fully polished, produced show. Of course, I want what I create to be the best work I am capable of creating at this time. But perfection is not what I’m going for.
Every bit of advice I read about creating a podcast said to have a consistent publishing frequency. Well, I will tell you that this podcast will not have a regular publishing schedule.
Broke that rule, too.
I aim to publish a new episode on a weekly-ish basis. Strong emphasis on ish. When an episode drops, it’ll be a fun surprise for all of us. I invite you to subscribe or follow the show to learn when new episodes do drop.
I have a loose idea of where I want to take this show, but I’m also learning to be comfortable with what can’t possibly be known (shoutout to years of therapy for that growth!). So, I may deviate from my original plan.
But for now, for however long my interest, curiosity, and health permit, I will be right here creating things and talking about creating things while being a complete mess.
If you’re into or comfortable with authenticity, vulnerability, and learning out loud, then you’ll fit right in around here.
If this doesn’t sound like your thing, and you’re looking for a more polished person who’s all professional and knows what they’re doing, that’s fine. I feel like you have a few options here: Maybe you can try a new thing and consider that polish and perfection don’t always have to be goals. That meaningful things can come in an imperfect fashion and you can derive value from something that lies outside of what you have always been taught to value. Or…not. In that case, might I, respectfully, direct you to the search bar on your favorite podcast app where I, again, respectfully, suggest you maybe look for a different podcast.
But if this imperfect, slight chaos sounds good to you, welcome.
I created this podcast for you. And me.
Those of us trying to do life and also make art.
Thanks so much for tuning into The Art of Doing Life with me, your host, Danielle Shontae Smith. If you enjoyed this episode, and you’re interested in hanging out with me while I imperfectly explore the intersection of creativity, art, mental health, and chronic illness, please follow the show or subscribe on your favorite podcast platform.
You can connect with me at msdaniellesmith.com or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org (I feel so official). I also have an irregular presence on Instagram @writedaniellesmith—if you’re into that sort of thing.