Creative writing grad on creating connection through catharsis

By

Emily Balli

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Since Austin Davis was young, he’s found comfort in words. Whether reading the work of some of his favorite authors or writing his own poems, Davis has always used words as a way to process his feelings, connect with others and understand the world around him. 

Growing up, he spent time on Arizona State University’s Tempe campus because his mom worked in the Department of Psychology. When it came time for him to decide what college he wanted to attend, he knew ASU was where he wanted to go to explore his passion for creative writing.

“I’ve kind of been around ASU since I was a kid,” Davis said. “It just felt natural. One thing that I really loved was that it felt like this really big college atmosphere, but I got a small college experience being in the creative writing program, because my classes were small and it was very intimate. So I got to experience both of those, and that was what I was looking for.”

During his time at ASU, Davis has published four books, “Cloudy Days, Still Nights,” “Second Civil War,” “Celestial Night Light,” and most recently, “Lotus & The Apocalypse,” a poetry novella about the last day on Earth that was released in March. Inspired by some of the challenges he faced during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Davis said that writing “Lotus & The Apocalypse” helped him to make it through some of his darkest moments.

“I started writing these poems at the beginning of the pandemic. It was a pretty rough time for me. My anxiety was really terrible and I really wasn't taking care of myself. I felt like I was climbing this mountain with my mental health. I knew that if I kept climbing and putting in the work, I'd get to a place where I could rest. But I just got too exhausted and I just let go and was free falling for a little bit,” he said. “Then I started writing these poems and it helped me turn around and grab a rock and keep climbing and write this book. I think it saved my life, so I'm really grateful to have had the opportunity and the privilege to write and share my writing with others.”

Austin Davis reading from his book "Lotus & the Apocalypse" in New Jersey.

As he’s been wrapping up his last semester of his undergraduate degree, Davis has been touring the country promoting his book.

“We went to the Midwest, New York, New Jersey, and Los Angeles is next. We've all gone through some rough times. The last couple of years have been really hard on our collective mental health as a community and as a society. I think that talking about these things and being open, candid and authentic about the bad parts is liberating in a way. One of my favorite parts of this whole experience has been the response from readers and people at the shows.”

When Davis wasn’t working on his next book, he was leading the charge at AZ HUGS for the Houseless, a program he founded in January 2021 that provides unsheltered community members in the metro Phoenix area with essential items. The organization’s mission is to spread dignity, respect, understanding, friendship, solidarity, empathy and love to those experiencing homelessness. Davis continues to be heavily involved with AZ HUGS for the Houseless, and is eager to grow the program after graduation.

This spring, Davis will graduate from The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. Here, he shares more about his experiences at ASU and what’s next for him.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I've been writing since I was a kid. Ever since I was five or six years old, I knew this is what I wanted to do. I have OCD and Tourettes and other mental health issues. When I was a kid I started writing as a way to process these feelings and as I got older I learned more about how poetry can not only be this tool to help us with whatever we’re going through, but also to help us connect with others and show others that they're not alone in what they're going through.

Q: Did you encounter any challenges? If so, how have you overcome them?

A: Mental health is a constant struggle for me, it's a part of what I’ve lived through my whole life. For me, it was just understanding that and understanding the tools that I need to help myself. Therapy is really important for me, mindfulness is huge for me, getting on the right medication was really big for me. I think that setting these boundaries with myself with unhealthy habits and boundaries with work and just reminding myself that it's OK to prioritize sleep, it's OK to prioritize family time, it's OK to prioritize you time.

Writing is a huge tool for my mental health, and that's one of my main goals — to create connection through catharsis. When you write something that's really honest about yourself, it might be uncomfortable in the moment or it might feel kind of weird. But for me, at least it feels like you're ringing out your brain like a dirty sponge and you're letting all that bad stuff out of your head and putting it onto something that's tangible that you can hold in your hands, you can look through, you can crumple it up, you can share it, you can set it on fire, you can do whatever. I think that's beautiful.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Enjoy every day and take it slow. For everyone right now it's been a really messed up couple of years. I think it's important to think about the future, but one thing I've learned is when I'm with someone that I love or my friends, I really try to put all of my attention into them and just live in the moment. So I think that having a balance between those two — working hard and thinking about your future and planning — but also just enjoying the moment and being with the people that you love because you don't know how long you’ve got or what's going to happen in life. The only thing that's certain is the uncertainty, so you just have to do the best you can every day. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I'm going to keep running AZ HUGS for the Houseless for sure. It's become this statewide movement of love and I want to grow it so that it's a national movement of love and then a worldwide movement of love. But along with that I'm going to keep touring. I have a summer tour planned and I’m going to do some shows in the fall and keep writing books. I'm just going to keep following my passions and try to spark change and make an impact in whatever ways I can.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in 10 years?

A: My goal every day when I wake up is to be a little bit better of a person than I was yesterday. Ten years from now, I hope that I still wake up every day with that goal. I'm not really sure what the future is going to hold. I know that I'm going to continue doing this work with the homeless for the rest of my life. And I know I'm going to keep writing for the rest of my life. But who knows, maybe I'll do something else as well. Overall, I want to spread this philosophy that kindness is healing and kindness is one of the most valuable things that you can give another person. I want to keep changing and growing and going through this crazy thing we call life.

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