It’s fair to say that this weekend has been a weekend like no other.
Two days spent doing creative exercises with thirty or so men from Stoke-on-Trent, generating ideas and material for the latest project by the brilliant team at Restoke. We shared stories about objects that matter to us, we wrote and spoke and danced, and we learned a Ukrainian folk song (which I reckon should be the springboard for an album…!).
The name of the project is ‘Man Up’, and it’s exploring masculinity and mental health in men. I’m a man and I have mental health, so I’m qualified to take part. No question about that.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel somewhat … underqualified. Some of the stories and experiences shared over the last two days have been eye-opening, heartbreaking, affirming and inspiring - often in the same story. It makes me appreciate how fortunate I’ve been in life; more fortunate than I ever realised.
Growing up, I read a lot of books, watched a lot of television and, at some point, decided writing was my ‘thing’. (It only took another 19 years to find the sort of writing I was best at.) Through school and into college, I was never the sportsman, the lady’s man, the drinker or the guy with the fast car.
Crucially, I never had to be.
That’s not to say I was secure in who I was. Often was the occasion I compared myself to others and wondered why I wasn’t having the same experiences they were. Knowing I wanted to be creative didn’t mean I felt creative; it wasn’t something I was able to share with the world.
But there were just enough people with whom I could share it, and who supported it, for the struggle with identity to never get completely on top of me. And when I say 'just enough', I mean literally one or two people - but often that’s all you need, which is why the size of the Man Up group has been so amazing.
What’s taken me aback through this weekend’s activities is how many people didn’t have that support - and the many many more, not lucky enough to have a project like Man Up to get involved with, who still don’t. People who find themselves, I think it’s fair to say, trapped in families or social groups or communities where outdated stereotypes of ‘manliness’ and masculinity prevail.
Trapped in places where not walking ‘the right way’ or not talking ‘the right way’ mean you get threatened, just because you threaten the insecurities of other people. Trapped in places where having an interest in the arts leaves you open to insults, and where being employed in the arts leaves you open to accusations of not having ‘a proper job’.
In recent years, I began to recognise certain behaviours in the construction industry. They’re probably not unique to construction, but it’s the industry that has employed me for all of my adult life. Unhealthy attitudes to alcohol, outdated attitudes to women, and a preoccupation with the length of time spent at the desk over useful work produced.
I was uncomfortable around those attitudes and behaviours, but finding the self-confidence to decide not to join in for appearance’s sake took a lot of searching.
Fortunately I never got trapped and, even more fortunately, the decisions I've made in the last year have led me to a new lifestyle doing work I enjoy, and experimenting with different ways of being creative (including taking part in Man Up), largely on my own terms.
Our social groups should have a positive effect, not hold us back. We need to share our stories because we are individual. One of the big messages of Man Up is that we share experiences, not opinions. Bottling things up and being someone we’re not is unhealthy. We need to laugh and cry and feel things because we are human beings.
On Sunday morning, I committed to paper words about formative childhood experiences that I have long been aware shaped me, but which I’ve never felt willing or able to explore. Doing so was liberating, and produced half a dozen poems (if you can call them that!) that I might - just might - explore further.
The final act of Sunday afternoon was for everybody to make a pledge. In the past, I’ve tried too hard to sound profound, believing over-thought words would mask a lack of understanding about my own identity. We are never the finished article because we never stop learning, and I’m grateful to the men who have reminded me of that this weekend. With that in mind, I feel compelled to share mine publically:
“I pledge to keep striving to be the best version of myself, and to try and inspire others to do the same.”