I like to think artists are all about making beauty, but they aren’t really. They’re about seeing. Creating through the dark times requires a willingness to face what you see and to give voice and shape to it. This flies in the face of being likable, popular and inspiring, although capturing felt experience so your audience feels it and relates to it as if their own is its own kind of beauty. And closing the distance between you and your audience, creating intimacy with your work, being vulnerable and fearless–These are inspiring acts.
Therefore, it would do us well to embrace the dark times.
Embracing the dark times brings to bear all the discipline, fortitude, trust and courage we’ve honed in our daily practice of creating something every day, no matter what. The sheer stubbornness that’s carried us through times of no time and no space and no ideas and cardboard-flat experience shows up as the commitment we need to face the empty page, canvas, room or camera and tell it like it is, now.
It pays to hone the skill of being the last one standing, or the one to whom it all comes down, the keeper of the stopped buck, passed from hand to hand of well-mean-ers and not-quite-readies. And to then plant that thing right in the ground, knowing it will bear fruit. Willing it to bear fruit, even as we surrender to the timing, the form and all the particulars.
There is a word for the intersection of discipline, fortitude, trust and courage: Grit. Sandpaper has grit. Its roughness makes it king to anything it rubs against, except, perhaps, steel or air. We become masters of the dark times and show our audience the way through by being the grit that rubs the darkness smooth.
One way I stay on the creativity train is by writing something down just before I turn out the light at night. It’s often a poem or a prayer. It’s my last-ditch effort to connect with what’s in my heart before surrendering to sleep, the place where the alchemy of dreams can have its chance at healing my anguish. There’s something about that moment before sleep when I always have the impulse to tell it like it is in a way that I might not in mid-afternoon or first thing in the morning. It’s as if I’m writing to a wiser part of myself and saying, “Yes, I’m aware of this, I can finally own it. Let’s see what you can do with this.” And with just a hint of, “Please.”
Here is a poem that I wrote before bed while still reeling from the shock of a close friend’s diagnosis.
I am waiting for mortality
To shear me of my denial
And lead me to an edge
I have been dancing toward
But have not seen,
To startle me with candor
As cold as finality and
As hot as shame at having been
Complacent and in denial.
I am petitioning mortality
To take from me everything fake
And true, so that I can
Finally be here, unashamed
And bare, blazing with a passion
Of which I am sure.
I am waiting for mortality to bring
Me certainty before it’s too late,
Because I feel mortality’s slap,
My whole being a reddened cheek
That hopes to fade before
Someone sees, yet desperately
Feels this may be the one chance
To face the refiner’s fire,
And be forged into something
Lasting and strong.
I am waiting for mortality
To shear me of my denial
And wondering why
I can’t offer it up
As a matter of course,
A daily practice,
Until mortality takes me.
And I wonder if we aren’t still infinite beings,
But that we need mortality
To take us that last leg of our becoming
Or we might be tempted to
To avoid the acute discomfort
Of having left behind
Every tiny familiar thing
We carefully crafted to confirm
And celebrate our misguided story
Of who we are.
Another creative act in dark personal times is to faithfully record our dreams. This means being faithful to things we avoid in waking life: illogic, loose ends, irrational alliances, walking around naked and pooping in public, being in dark places, flying.
I am thinking if I were in the army I’d keep my partial plate at the barracks so it wouldn’t get broken in combat.
I am walking along thinking this and around a bend I am on a familiar grey shore where long dark oblongs bob in the water. Ebony whales, logs, piano keys bob in grey water, while the tan cliffs rise up before me, and circling a little closer with each hesitation, black panther-like, uneasy animals pace underneath the cliff head.
I have climbed up before but now I can’t get a foothold and you have shimmied up before me, you and another, and I want to call for you to come back and stick your hand down for me, but I don’t want the circling, sniffing beasts to see I am stranded down below with them.
It crosses my mind they might be friendly. I wake with a start.
3:37 a.m. Your side of the bed is empty. Some time later I heave myself out of bed and slip on my crocs and head to the guest room to make sure you are there.
The door is closed. I’m sure you are sleeping. I go back to bed and shoulder my way tensely back into sleep.
At 7:30 it’s daylight. I have a dream to tell.
When we create fearlessly and simply from what we are witness to, perhaps the most powerful thing we model is not knowing. Presenting the truth without tying it up in a neat package, drawing handy conclusions and useful how-to’s takes courage, but also gives courage. Our audience knows when we are full of it and needs us to be the ones to not flinch when the darkness comes to be written down, danced, or sung.
Finally, I leave you with a song, the darkest love song I’ve ever written. I can’t tell you what it’s about, really, except it was my truth at the time. And the lyrics kept running in my head the whole time I was working on today’s edition. It’s not a studio recording, but it will do. I wrote it back in 1996 and recorded it today, head cold and all. I hope you enjoy it.