Writing in Darkness


Have you ever felt darkness descend when you were midway through a creative endeavor.  One book which is helpful in understanding this is:

The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life
This is a thick and thorough book which encompasses all aspects of creative expression but primarily focuses on writing. Each chapter contains a guide to help you integrate what is presented.  I found the book to be a useful tool in reentering the creative life.  Chapter 8, in particular, answered many questions I was being asked and also asking for myself. Here is my redaction of its major points along with some of my comments.

Chapter 8. The beauty and Danger of a Creative Life: Why the Wonder Brings Darkness with It

1. The Darkness that Accompanies Revelation

a. There is a shadow side to your gifts. Truth always has a cutting edge. Every revelation brings some darkness with it. It’s important that you learn how that darkness affects you.

b. Nothing can be more dark and frightening than what the soul discovers when yet another layer of the self is pulled back.

2. Do Artists Have to Suffer In Order to Produce Good Art?

a. You are bound to suffer and the only question is how to deal with it. When you create art, you are fighting spiritual battles. And as you fight spiritual battles, you may find creative gifts that you did not know you have. One nourishes the other.

b. You need creative formation: An intentional working with your creative gifts so that your entire being is nourished.

c. Some people who are brave enough and compelled enough to explore their creativity get into trouble and don’t have the help they need. Others who are spiritually centered and understand what their gifts might stir up, don’t develop their gifts because they are afraid of facing the shadows.

d. When we allow God to cradle us as we grow, we can become the creative people we were meant to be. We can follow our gifts to the center of our soul, and we can face the difficult things that wait for us there. We can navigate the darkness and we can nourish our gifts.

3. Common Sources of Darkness

a. Isolation—we need it, but it can drain us. Make a point to spend time with people who are good for you and good for your work. It may be a weekly coffee break or an afternoon walk once a month. Or you and your friend might check in by email before you start work. Think creatively. I see a counselor when needed and have another friend who I can say anything to. We can be a support for each other with emails and meetings between the time the group meets. Or if there’s something we can do on that one Saturday that will nourish us more, let me know.

b. Rejection—You will get it and it will cause you pain. Remember that the person who rejects something about your work, is not rejecting the entire work, nor is that person rejecting past or future works. You need to learn to accept that some people simply will not like what you are doing. You aren’t writing for them; You are writing for the people it helps and enlightens.

c. Energy Depletion—Writing takes a lot of energy. Many full-time writers write for only 4 hours each day. You might spend other time during the day in writing-related activities, but most don’t write for more than 4 hours. If you have another job, then you will have less energy to write. Accept that the healthy creative life takes a lot of energy and that you will need to rest. Just expect to get tired, because you are working hard. Get tired, rest, and then work some more.

d. Anxiety—Most artists greatly underestimate how much anxiety affects them. Anxiety is an important component of creativity because it provides tension and energy and sharpens your senses. Just as you should welcome healthy fear, welcome healthy anxiety. It’s an indication that some unfinished business or an unnamed fear is lurking. Figure it out. Write it out in your journal. (Mine are notes to my counselor—some I give him, some I don’t). Talk to a friend. Pray.

e. Exploration—when your work pushes boundaries and reworks standard definitions, you encounter tension and discomfort. Sometimes you just want to do something cliché and dull rather than enter the discomfort. Sometimes you’d rather not have to think and struggle. Play with exploration and learn to shift out of it. Write something simple: outline your story, write a plot synopsis, etc.

f. Occupational Wear and Tear—Your writing will wear you down like any work does. It will wear down your soul. When you feel worn, that is usually an indication that you have been working and something good should come of it. Take time to care for yourself, whatever brings you joy and energy. I hike and rest and pray and read novels and short stories and essays and go to art shows and watch movies. . . pick what makes you feel energized.

g. Increased sensitivity—You will become super-sensitive to life in order to notice what others miss and to develop what other may ignore or consider unimportant. The longer you work at your creative gifts, the more sensitive you become. This is good for you and your writing. Pay attention to the things that really disturb and bother you and allow appropriate recovery time.

4. The Balance that is Illusion

a. Balance is generally impossible. The spiritual creative life has its seasons and they are often sloppy and unpredictable.

b. Imbalance Results from Neglected Relationships. You are going to have to neglect people because writing is done in solitude. Others will neglect you, also. Don’t sweat the occasional neglect. However, when you neglect someone important consistently, you relegate an important relationship to a place of unimportance. You need to determine your commitment levels. I have 3 important commitments: My husband, my business, and my writing. Sometimes one of the gets neglected for the other, but I try to set boundaries and not make a habit of neglect. I neglected my writing for about 1.5 months due to Christmas. I could not work, spend time with my husband and get the Christmas stuff done and still write. That was OK, because I could come back to it in January. You need to figure out who you are and what is important to you and set boundaries accordingly.

c. Imbalance results from impulsive shifts. An example: If I had quit working to work full-time on my novel, that would be an impulsive shift. You need to not follow your callings haphazardly. Don’t try to do too much, too fast. Because you are changing one aspect of your life, don’t assume that the other aspects need to change also. Don’t dispose of other parts of your life because of the tension caused within yourself.

d. Balance is not necessarily safety. Sometimes you will take risks and sometimes you will play it safe. In the grand scheme of your life, if you are making wise decisions, acting out of love and vision, the balance will be there. But the balance often looks like imbalance in the day-to-day life that we live.

e. Balance is not necessarily consistency. It doesn’t mean we will be calm. When you write, you become a hero to someone and heroes deal with depression, oppression, poverty and failure.

I hope this summary has been helpful for fellow artists who must contend with and embrace their creative darkness.

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What Do You Read?

As a writer, I read to write, to learn, to be inspired by other writers.  It is the rare author who can make me laugh or capture my emotions.  Sometimes a year will pass before I find a single book that will move me.  Here are a few of those that that I have read recently (in no particular order):

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

This book is filled with case studies of how individuals brought about change in business and medical environments and schools.  Although it is geared toward the business reader, the principles are applicable to any situation.  The authors describe how to effect change by using the symbols of an Elephant, its Rider, and their Path.  I dislike using symbolism and found it easier to understand if I thought of the Elephant as emotion and intuition, the Rider as intellect and reason, and the Path as the environment.  The authors challenge us to use all three areas to effect change.  I found many of the illustrations helpful in understanding the psychological process, but others were too “big business,” too far outside of my personal framework, to have meaning for me.  I was ready to dismiss this book as simplistic self-help after reading the first two chapters, but as the author’s rational expanded, I found myself intrigued by all the elements that played a part in change.  The case studies were mostly interesting and made the book worth reading simply for the stories of institutional and personal change.  The psychological references were easy to understand even for someone like me who hates psychology.  And by the end, I felt inspired to write which made the book well worth the time I spent reading it.

The Mountain Between Us: A Novel

This book is another that inspired me.  It was one of those I could not put down so I was reading it long after my bedtime.  The end confused me, so I reread it in the morning.  It still confused me in the morning, but ending aside, the book is worth reading.  I don’t want to give the plot away, so this is a very general review. A man and a woman with different backgrounds and desires are stuck in a debilitating and challenging situation.  Charles Martin’s writing is always good, but as excellent as in his first two books (which should have always been one): 

Down Where My Love Lives: The Dead Don't Dance/Maggie (The Awakening Series 2-in-1)

As these two people work through the life and death situation in which they are placed, hope is almost lost but never fully extinguished.  This is a book about hope and I hope that someone out there can explain my problem with the ending!

Next, I am reading two books on the craft of writing:

Letters to a Young Novelist

This is a year-long, chapter-a-month, project for the creative writing workshop I lead.  As the title indicates, it is a book of letters covering aspects of fiction writing such as persuasion, style, narration, time, and reality.  The book challenges us to think deeply about how and why we write.  In the first chapter, the author uses the tapeworm to explain the need to write and he does so in such depth, that I will always associate my need to write with that worm.

The second book:

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers

This book came from John Gardner’s college and writing conference lectures and covers the aesthetics of writing in the first part and then goes on to cover such practical areas as common errors, technique, and plotting.  At the end are a few pages of exercises.  I rarely exercise based on the suggestions in books, but these look as though they may be helpful.  I am currently reading the first part of the book and have discovered that a thorough background in literature is imperative for complete understanding.  If you haven’t yet read the classics, especially the classics of American literature, you should read those before opening this book.  The author uses of both ancient and modern literature to illustrate his points from Aristotle to Dostoevsky to Sherwood Anderson and both as  simple illustrations and as studies of the point being conveyed.  So read your literature before reading The Art of Fiction.

I may have more to say about both of these books after I finish reading them.

Just to throw in an unusual book for me, here’s a book of poetry.  I rarely read poetry and have never bought a book, but I read one poem online and I was smitten.  Some of the poems disturbed me because they reflect a dark period in the poet’s life.  Several of them inspired me and I cannot stop thinking about the one that motivated me to purchase the book.

Here’s a link to that poem:  Every Riven Thing

Every Riven Thing: Poems

Finally, I am reading a slew of detective stories.  I don’t know why, but this is the year of the detective for me.  Here’s the list.  Some are better than others, but they’re all good for a summer read.

Shoofly Pie & Chop Shop: 2 Bugman Novels in 1

This is a continuing series which the main character is a forensic entomologist who solves crimes based on insect evidence and has trouble relating to the human species.  This series has turned me into an insect observer.  The only book I didn’t like one was one in which the protagonist was forced to choose between two women.  The author wrote two different endings on his website and made the readers choose.  The result was revealed in the next novel.  I’m all for interaction, but let the writer write a complete novel.  I would have gladly accepted that the man could not make a decision at that time and that it would be resolved in a subsequent offering. 

Empire of Lies (Otto Penzler Book)

This is an odd sort of detective story with a protagonist who is confused, at the very least.  I found that it forced me to think about how men think and process information.  However, as an action detective story, it was sorely lacking.  The plot was not believable, the protagonist too introspective, and I was glad when the book ended.  I read one of his other books last year and it was a gritty crime novel; This book has to be an aberration.  Read his other novels, but skip this one.

Bad Things Happen

This is a fast-paced novel where the prime suspect/investigator is a literary editor who once had a different profession.  In fact, everything you think is one way, turns out to be another in this novel.   An easy summer read.

The Hidden Assassins
This is a true detective novel set in Spain.  The chief detective is presented with a body and then a bomb goes off.  How are they related?  Is it a terrorist threat?  Just who is the terrorist.  Wilson explores with workings of the detective department as well as the politics attached to a major investigation.  The book gives us an inside view to the red herrings when turn out to be actual clues to the unlikely and untouchable suspect.  This is a long (464 pages) story which needs every page to cover such an intricate investigation.  I loaned it to a friend and he found the Spanish environment difficult to navigate, but I had no problem with it and am eager to read the other books in the series.

That’s it for now.  There are more books on my pile and I’ll blog about them later.  Meanwhile, why don’t you let me know what you are reading?  I’m always eager to find new books.

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Digital Photography

As someone with a degree in Photography and Cinema, I was leery of digital photography.  The first efforts produced less than stellar quality; I was determined to wait until digital photos were close to non-digital camera and film quality.  As digital cameras became affordable, I saw the product diluted; Everyone who used a digital camera believed  they could be a photographer. 

The problem with my thinking is that the same thing has happened with any tool that is sold inexpensively.  Anyone possessing the tool believes they can use it correctly.  During those times when photography was expensive, someone who wanted to be a photographer would sacrifice for the sake of their craft as I did at one time.  Now the digital camera makes it all so easy.  Or does it?

My first digital camera does not even deserve mention in this space.  I purchased my next one on Ebay on the basis of its quality lens and multiple settings.  The camera I am using today, with quality lens and multiple settings, a Nikon S5100, still causes me to miss the simplicity of my old Minolta and Nikon cameras.  With those cameras, once the film was loaded and the correct lens was on, all I needed to think about was focal length, shutter speed and F-stop.   Some things needed no thought.  Stopping speed, use high shutter speed.  Limiting depth of field, use lens wide open.  And focus was simply a twist.  Now, I have to choose these settings from a menu instead of simply turning dials and focus seems to be wherever the camera wants it to be.  Yes, I know there’s a learning curve and I haven’t rounded it yet.  I bought the Nikon to do what my Kodak wouldn’t: take macro shots.  And that it does well.

When I purchased the Nikon, I had to make a choice.  I chose in favor of small form, good lens, macro ability, and price.  I decided to sacrifice everything else because only an SLR would really satisfy me.  And that would come with a big price.

So enough about the camera.  Here’s a cool tool to remove unwanted objects from your digital photos: Inpaint.  Free today only (Tuesday, 7/19/2011) by clicking this link.

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Have You Missed the Trees?

There’s an old saying that goes something like this:  You can’t see the forest for the trees.  It means that you are so caught up in the details that you miss the big picture.  That’s not me!  I have always been a forest-type of person.  When I am hiking, I tend to photograph the big scenes, the big view, the treetops.  To me, if I can see the forest, the big picture, the details will take care of themselves.  If I know how something works (the big picture) I can reason my way to the details of how it works. That’s what makes me a good computer troubleshooter.  I know how they work, so I can easily drill down and find the problem by methodically sifting the details.

I think part of this has to do with perspective:  the ability to see objects in three dimensions.  I don’t have perspective (my eyes just don’t work that way), so to define an object’s movement and position, I have to compare it to other objects nearby.  Hence, my forest view.  I see one tree in comparison to others and my brain somehow works out which trees are closer and which are farther away.  If you come to my home, you will see that almost all the art work has a heightened perspective that draws you into the distance.  It’s my way of compensating for my lack of perspective.

This year, something changed.  No, I haven’t gained perspective and burned my paintings, but I realized that I was missing the small things.  In nature, those small things are insects and small flowers and plants.  In my writing, those small things are descriptions.  Perhaps, I first realized this when I noticed that I was writing plot and dialogue fairly quickly, but every time I went back to revise I was adding description.  I was writing forest, but missing trees.  You may not have a problem with perspective, but are you missing the details?  Or have the details become so burdensome that you miss the forest?  Neither position is the best.  They both must operate if we want to see clearly.  In future posts, I’ll be writing more about my efforts to walk the path between the forest and the trees, to balance the big picture with the details.  Come with me and let’s walk together.

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Vacation with an Unhappy Guest

We recently took a week-long working vacation with plans to sleep in and enjoy life around the cabin while working on needed projects.  Our previous vacations resulted in sleepless nights afterward because our alpha male cat, Sam, refused to let us sleep for several days after we returned home.  This year we invited Sam to stay with us so we could sleep well. 

Sam  would not call it an invitation.  He considered it an affront to his dignity and his calling.  We were optimistic that time would change his attitude.  After all, he liked being with us and did not like us leaving, so he would be happy to be with us.  That is what we thought.  But Sam had other ideas.  He relentlessly voiced his opposition to the plan from the time we left to the time we arrived and after about 20 miles, to punctuate his message, he emitted a malodorous stench which filled the car and almost made us gag.  We were tempted to turn back, but determined to soldier still clinging to the hope of restful sleep.  On that hot, humid summer’s day, we slid down the windows and popped open the sunroof.  The odor subsided but never left and every stoplight made it worse.  When we were about fifteen minutes from our destination, Sam managed to open the door of his hard plastic carrier with metal bars.  I reached back and blocked him into the back seat area. He crouched behind my seat and continued crying. 

We couldn’t wait to get him through the cabin door and finally enjoy some needed peace.  But peace was not for us.  Sam huddled next to the toilet and refused to move for food, water, anything.  By the end of the day, we decided to move him and carried him to the bed.  But he cared nothing for our intentions and he moved to the back of the bedroom closet.  We were worried about how me might exhibit his displeasure so we put the litter box and food in our bathroom, next to the closet entrance.  Sam is a fastidious cat.  During the night he dug and dug and dug in the litter.  We kept waking up in order to coax him back to sleep. By morning, we were tired but we hauled ourselves out of bed to start our day.  Sam was ready to sleep.  He spent the next few days in the back of the closet and the next few nights digging in the litter, keeping us awake.

We had come on vacation to sleep and it was worse than coming home to Sam after vacation.  Finally, we decided the only remedy was to keep Sam up all day so he would sleep at night.  Sam is not a normal young cat.  He does not play.  He watches.  So our time was spent observing Sam and waking him from his naps.  When we successfully got him to open his eyes, we would lift him to his feet and make him walk.  This was in between painting and electrical work and all the other things we had scheduled to do.  One of us was stationed on Sam alert at all times.  We threw balls back and forth for his amusement (and to keep him awake) and wiggled a packing strap to keep him occupied.  And finally, by the end of the week, Sam almost slept through the night with only a couple of digging sessions.   We had planned to put him on a diet (Sam is one fat cat), but the Sam plan turned into “let’s do whatever it takes to keep him happy and awake.” 

We survived that week, completed most of our projects, and almost caught up on sleep by the end.  The ride back home was the same as the trip down, without the odor.  We arrived home and let Sam out of the carrier.  He walked out growling.  We tried to pet him and he growled some more.  And that was his story for the next couple of days.  He was very pleasant toward the dog and the other cats, but he growled at us.  He kindly allowed us to sleep through the night at home, so we were able to capture some of the sleep we missed during vacation.was recaptured at home.  But we have learned our lesson.  Sam is king and you do not remove a king from his kingdom without consequences.  Sam will never again be invited to vacation with us.  A few sleepless days at home is a small price to pay for a full week of sleep. 

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