Creativity and Menstruation

How might your menstrual cycle affect your creativity?

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I do enjoy the variety of womanhood. No, honestly, I do. Must be peculiar being a man, stuck with being the same person, with the same predictable feelings and ambitions, every damn day. Having ovaries is like having low-grade bi-polar – well, more than bi: poly-polar. I can’t stop it this side of menopause, so I might as well make use of it. Some days I want to conquer the universe, some days I want to eat crisps and cry, and I do see the value in accepting what I cannot change.

So a few months back I downloaded one of those funky apps that let you track your menstrual cycle and accompanying mood swings. Revelatory. Oh, I’ve always known I’m entirely powered by hormones. I am not a girl to flip and take umbrage when a chap asks if my period is due: more usually I’m grateful for the reminder I may not be going insane. The week before my period I am angry, hate-filled, listless, depressed, sullen, hungry, pessimistic, subject to terrible nightmares, spiteful, lacklustre and an all-round bally nuisance. I can almost feel the oestrogen draining from my being and taking with it every possibility of hope or joy. Happily, a week later, I get an equally perceptible switch-flick in the brain. I start dancing along to the radio, seeking out hugs, looking forward to treats, considering the possibility that not everything in the world is pointless and loathsome.

Anyway. That’s enough oversharing for one essay.

I had no idea how much my menstrual cycle affected my writing, however, from motivation to actual content. I write opinion pieces, which I enjoy; reviews, which I hate; and I write creatively too, my attitude to which varies, seemingly at random.

I decided to keep a rough diary as to how my hormones might affect my writing, because if I can understand it, surely I can utilise it. Pre-menstrual me can hardly find the strength to write anything, beyond self-indulgent journal mutterings of the “why can’t everyone just die” variety, so I know to write that week off my creativity calendar. I did manage to write quite a scathing vicious review of a mediocre poetry collection though, so that’s good, unless you were the poet concerned; oh, and a brutal takedown of the whole of Western civilisation and its every shortcoming, for which I’m struggling now to find a home. But creative work? No.

Days 1-6, however, when the oestrogen tank slowly refills, and the world feels alive with possibility: that’s a fine time to start something new. This is the moment to start making plans for a new novel, sketching out a story, maybe making contact with a different journal or publisher. I get a burst of energy and feel the need to Do Something. In some societies women clear off away from fellas when they’re bleeding to go be creative on their own. I can understand that. Often, however, that burst of energy is short-lived. The inspiration and ideas, born of joy at not being pre-menstrual, turn up quicker than I have strength to make use of them. So: I write them down. Save them for next week.

Days 7-14, ovulating time, I’m unusually sociable, for me – that is, I can stand the presence of humans in short bursts without fantasising about gouging troughs in tender bits. For me this is a good time for networking, sharing work and seeking out feedback. Also, I have the energy and concentration to focus on projects. Words get written in quite a serious, impressive way. Evidently I need to clear my diary of bothersome stuff like work and family commitments during this golden week so I can focus on upping the word count.

Days 15-21, the days start to slide away from energetic and upbeat to sluggish and raging. How can you be both sluggish and raging? Honestly I can’t explain it, but it happens, every month. I don’t have the strength to do anything useful because I’m too busy being angry at how noisily my husband blinks. And on into 22-28, which is solid unremitting torture. That’s the time to put down the pen and pursue projects less dear to my ego and sanity which nonetheless need doing, like earning and cleaning and taking tea with aunts.

In future I shall try to make use of such a discouraging time by seeing it as raw material for art. All those feelings stirred by the hormonal dismantling of my bright, busy self must surely prove useful to creative work. Nothing like creativity to cheer a girl. If you’re feeling worthless, make something happen, and you’ll have concrete proof to the contrary.

Ideas, then work, then forgive myself and wait for it to pass: that’s my cycle, and knowing it and working with it makes me more productive and less stabby. I’m lucky I can schedule work according to my moods, I know, but increasingly, many of us are finding more flexibility in our days. Give it a go. Keep your own journal and discover what your body wants from you. I bet you’ll see a pattern. And enjoy the variety. I’d hate to be stuck with one version of me.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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