The Work at Hand

“I find myself most drawn to art that has arisen from a deeply personal conversation between the artist and the work at hand. It is art that walks perilously close to the Edge, that crosses the river of blood into the Faerie, that flies so high it is scorched by the sun, and then returns to tell the tale to us.  It is art that needed to be written, or painted, or sung, or woven, or otherwise shaped.  It is art gifted by the Mystery to the maker, and then in turn, gifted to us.”

— Terri Winding

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. Writing is nothing.  You just sit at the typewriter and bleed.”

— Ernest Hemingway

Using Hemingway’s metaphor, we know that open wounds bleed and so do open souls:  creating works of art that flow from the deepest parts of ourselves and of life.  Whether our creating begins with “writing the truest sentence we know,” as Hemingway so brilliantly instructs us to do,”or walking over the river of blood” as Winding describes in her beautiful metaphors, we write our truth.

There have been times in my life when I wrote from those places of despair.  As I have said before, they could also be portals of inspiration and healing despite their rigor.  Other times I wrote from the opposite end of the spectrum: happy, joyous, celebratory times, which also inspired me to write.  There were also rare and special times when inspiration would seemingly come from nowhere, like the rush of an incoming tide, leaving in its wake a flood of words on paper that flowed easily and almost effortlessly.

These are the times when, as mystical as it may seem, I feel as if I am being guided from a Source outside myself: yet its voice and medium are my own experience and understanding, like the liturgical metaphor of the connection between bone and marrow.  During these times I feel as if the creative process is almost like an act of worship, but not in the traditional sense of the word.  Rather, it is a journey, where I travel the outermost reaches of my soul and find God there waiting. Others will call their creative experience something entirely different, and it is right that they do: there is no single definition for the creative process, unique as it is to each writer or artist.  Perhaps we all draw from the same Source, I don’t know; but each time we create we give ourselves a glimpse of what is possible.

I wish I could have these mystical experiences every day, but of course I don’t.  Those times are wonderful, absolutely, but much more common is the simple day-to-day discipline of writing, the choice to create as an act of will and heart.  I struggle a lot — writing this particular post being one of those times.  I felt like I couldn’t put two cohesive thoughts together.  My Inner Bitch was urging me to skip writing this week and “apologize to the entire Blogosphere for having the audacity to post this piece of crap.”  :)   Life is messy; writing sometimes is too.  And so I write from this particular part of my own shadow, stare that Bitch down and write … anyway.  As Jack London once said, “You can’t always wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.”

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Many bestselling authors admit they still struggle with self doubt despite their success.  I found that comforting. In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King mentions how he will work feverishly for as long as it takes to get everything out that he wants to say before he will go back and edit.  He said if he stops before he gets all of it out, his self-doubt will kick in and he then finds it hard to finish.  In the closing paragraph of his book, he wrote of the hope that what he wrote will give his readers the “permission slip” to go out there and just do it:

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art.  The water is free.  So drink.  Drink and be filled up.”  

Stephen King’s encouragement reminded me of a similar quote from Goethe, written over two hundred years ago:

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

As writers and artists, we can wait for those splendid divine moments or we can write our way into them.  Either way is a gift.  Hemingway’s timelessly beautiful advice on “writing the truest sentence we know,” is a writer’s best first step.  That truest thought begins the conversation that Winding says is “between the artist and the work at hand.”  Begin: write from the shadow, “walk the Edge,” “cross over the river of blood into the Faerie,” or “fly so high you are scorched by the sun;” –but however you do it,  just begin.  And wherever that first step of truth may take you, please “return to tell the story” of that Divine conversation you found along the way.  We are as hungry to participate in that conversation as you are to create it.

Photo Sources (in order of appearance):

Photographer: Glores.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Computer_keyboard.gif

Photographer: Zaui/Scott Catron.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaui/4455991107/in/photostream/

Photographer: Weinstock.  http://pixabay.com/en/hand-child-paint-play-colorful-93168/

Artist:  Winslow Homer. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Incoming_Tide,_Scarboro_Maine_by_Winslow_Homer,_1883.png

Photographer: Katara. katara1439.deviantart.com

Artist: Sarah Klockers-Clauser. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarabbit/4549185468/

Photographer: Chandra Spitzer. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:M82_Chandra_HST_Spitzer.jpg

 

Viktor Frankl

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What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.  – Viktor Frankl

Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurosurgeon who had barely begun his professional career when he was condemned to die, along with millions of other Jews at the onset of World War II.  During that time, Dr. Frankl was imprisoned in no less than four Nazi concentration camps, one of which was the most horrific and notorious: Auschwitz, where over 1,500,000 people alone died in its gas chambers.

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WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR II/WAR IN THE WEST/THE HOLOCAUST

During the War, Dr. Frankl also lost his wife, his parents, and most of his family.  He miraculously survived this horror and afterward wrote a book about his experience (written in just under 9 days), entitled Man’s Search for Meaning.  To date, this influential book has sold over 14,000,000 copies and has been translated into twenty-four languages.  By many accounts it is one of the most important books of our time, and I agree.  This book was completely life changing for me and continues to deeply influence me.

In the forward to the 1992 edition of his book, Dr. Frankl reveals what drove him to write his book in the first place:

I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.  And I thought that if the point were demonstrated in a situation as extreme as that in a concentration camp, my book might gain a hearing.  I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.

In summary, Dr. Frankl believed this search for meaning and purpose is the most important task we have in life and described three primary ways in which we find it:  (1) by creating a body of work or doing something we feel is important or relevant; (2) through love (a deep connection to someone or something other than ourselves); and 3) by finding meaning in our suffering.  While Dr. Frankl is quick to point out that suffering in and of itself is meaningless (and to be avoided if possible), if we do find we cannot escape our suffering, we attempt to find meaning in it. He writes that this act of choice will not only help transform the experience, but ultimately will give us the courage and strength to rise above it.

So how does this specifically apply to the act of writing?   Undoubtedly, Dr. Frankl was a brilliant doctor and clinician, and while he wrote many books from this point of view, his most powerful and influential book came from his own personal experience. Through the act of writing about his suffering, he exemplified for us his own guidance in how we find meaning in our own lives:  (1) he found meaning in his suffering (in his case, to help others, which also was an act of love); (2) through love (one example of which he relates in the book: how during a particularly terrible time in his imprisonment, his despair made him want to give up; but he found a mystical yet very real and present strength when recalling the love of his wife); and (3) he wrote a seminal book and created a professional practice and school of psychotherapy around what he learned from his experiences[1].

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There is so much more to Dr. Frankl’s book and life’s work than I can adequately relate here, so please try and read Man’s Search for Meaning if you can.  It is an inspiring and beautifully written book, and one that I can promise you will touch, inspire, and encourage you no matter what your background or circumstance.  And of course, do “give voice and effort” to your own quest for meaning, whatever path yours may take.  Perhaps you will find that a life or two (or more) gets changed in the process: most notably, of course, your own.

With that, I will close with Dr. Frankl’s own closing words at the end of his book:

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining.  What he becomes—within the limits of his endowment and environment—he has made out of himself.  In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints.  Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is.  After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.

For those who have read the book, please leave your own thoughts and reflections in the comments.  I would love your help in honoring this beautiful man and his work.


[1] One Note: Dr. Frankl emphasized that even prior to his experiences in the concentration camps he deeply believed in these ideas.  His experiences in the camps only strengthened his original core beliefs and thereafter crucially shaped his clinical practice for the rest of his life.

Photo Sources (in order of appearance):

Photo by Dr. Franz Vesely. http://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dosya:Viktor_Frankl2.jpg

Photo by Mariusz Cieszewski.  https://www.flickr.com/photos/polandmfa/8736839849/

Photo by Private Ralph Forney (Army). http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:At_the_German_concentration_camp_at_Wobbelin.jpg

Book Cover. Galicia Musuem Publications. http://www.shop.galiciajewishmuseum.org//produkty/mans-search-for-meaning.html

Photo by Michael Schaffner. https://www.flickr.com/photos/

Photo by Travis Forsyth. https://www.flickr.com/photos/forsytht/5844157752

Photographer unknown.  Viktor Frankl Institute. www.viktorfrankl.org/

Photographer “CAHairyBear.”  https://www.flickr.com/photos/91173606@N00/5766331983/

The Artistic Temperament

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“The artistic temperament sometimes seems a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling.”   ~ Madeline L’Engle

Depression or some other related mood disorder afflicts about 1 in 10 Americans.[1]  While this is worth noting statistically to show that it is a growing and common problem in our culture, there has always been a disproportionate number of writers and artists who suffer from some type of mood disorder.  There are many theories that are still being debated as to why this might be, but the cause is still not completely understood.

Some say there is a genetic or biological predisposition to mood disorders, which can also produce an extraordinary creative talent or genius.  Others debate that the same sensitivity and awareness required to produce great works of imagination also make one sensitive to the shadow side of life, inflicting a higher tendency toward melancholy, depression, anxiety, or addictions.  Others conclude that abuse or other trauma is the cause, while others claim a more utilitarian approach: art is often simply the result of individuals trying to express or create meaning out of their experiences, whether celebrating life or simply trying to rise above its wounds.  Perhaps it is a combination of some or all of these factors: an alchemy unique to each individual, and therefore not easily defined.  This latter position is the one I prefer to take.

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In her book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament[2], Kay Redfield Jamison (a physician who also writes from personal experience) explores a more clinical approach to this subject.  She writes:

 The fiery aspects of thought and feeling that initially compel the artistic voyage—fierce energy, high mood, and quick intelligence; a sense of the visionary and the grand; a restless and feverish temperament—commonly carry with them the capacity for vastly darker moods and grimmer energies, and occasionally, bouts of “madness.”  These opposite moods and energies, often interlaced, can appear to the world as mercurial, intemperate, volatile, brooding, troubled, or stormy.  In short, they form the common view of the artistic temperament, and, as we shall see, they also form the basis of the manic-depressive temperament.  Poetic or artistic genius, when infused with these fitful and constant moods, can become a powerful crucible for imagination and experience.

Dr. Jamison also makes the point that there is much more to the artistic temperament than that which falls into a “biological or diagnostic grid.”  Obviously, not all writers and artists suffer from the effects of a mood disorder or other mental illness.  I mention her work here as but one factor of the shadow experience.  Whether we as writers and artists fall within her grid of experience or not, the focus of this blog is how to harness our shadow experiences– in whatever form, substance, or circumstance–into an act of creation and healing.

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Next week I will post about an extraordinary man, Victor Frankl, who has much to say on this subject from a slightly different perspective.  For those of you not familiar, Dr. Frankl was a Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist in Vienna during the 1930s, and was eventually condemned to die in Auschwitz during World War II.   He miraculously survived the notorious death camp and afterward wrote a book about his experience:  Man’s Search for Meaning.  One of the three primary ways Dr. Frankl believes human beings find meaning is through the act of creation–whether artistic or some other body of work.  He believes that finding such meaning is essential to our mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  Please tune in next week for that discussion.


[1] Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2011 Statistics)

[2] Jamison, Kay Redfield. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 1993 (pp. 2-3)

Photo Sources (in order of appearance):

Shesterrni. http://shesterrni.deviantart.com/art/Light-and-Darkness-fight-194881981

Lucio Torre, Photographer. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bright_Darkness.JPG

Raven Raith.  http://www.deviantart.com/art/A-Spirit-s-Bond-Light-and-Darkness-269164755

The Spectre of the Inner Critic

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We all have an inner critic, and if that critic helps us improve as writers, so much the better.  But when does the internal critic become toxic?  There are times when my inner critic is the first kind:  a rather exacting professor who can be difficult and even irritating, but at the end of the day, I improve as a writer under its oversight.  Far more common, however, is the other kind: coming at me more like the dementors do in the Harry Potter stories, sucking all the creative life out of me.  (For those not familiar, the dementors are terrifying spirits who literally take out all the good in the world, including the souls of people, which ultimately drives their victims insane.)  All humorous dramatization aside, this is the kind of toxic inner critic I am talking about.

In her classic book, If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland devotes much of her instruction on managing criticism, both internal and external, and how the wrong kind of criticism actually hinders rather than helps.  According to Ueland, criticism taken too far actually destroys “the fire of imagination and inspiration,” and if not managed well, can keep someone from writing altogether.   Ueland feels that writing is crucial to our well-being, and when we write, we are happier and healthier people.  In her words:

All people who try to write (and all people long to, which is natural and right) become anxious, timid, contracted, become perfectionists, so terribly afraid that they may put something down that is not as good as Shakespeare.  And so no wonder you don’t write and put it off month after month, decade after decade.  For when you write, if it is to be any good at all, you must feel free,–free and not anxious.

Ueland goes on to say that the remedy for such anxiety is as follows:

The best teachers for you are those friends who love you, who think you are interesting, or very important, or wonderfully funny; whose attitude is:  ‘Tell me more.  Tell me all you can.  I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you.  Let more come out.” And if you have no such friend,–and you want to write,–well then you must imagine one.

While I agree with Ueland — her book is one of my favorite books on writing — I want to expand on her concept of the importance of love and self-trust as qualities that are crucial to the writer.  I found out much later in life the importance of self-acceptance as a key piece of the equation.  While some might think they are one and the same thing,  let me explain what I don’t mean:  I am not talking about the warm and fuzzy world of positive affirmations but something much deeper and grittier than that.  What I do mean is the act of embracing your shadow, which is essentially accepting the parts of yourself you don’t like and not just the parts that you do.  The truth is, the parts we don’t like and often repress have a lot to say and teach us  if we allow them a voice.  There is a lot of creativity and inspiration that comes only when we unify these disparate parts of ourselves.  Paradoxically, writing is often how we do that:  the end is also the means.

Let me illustrate what I mean by that from my own experience.  In my younger years, I was diagnosed with clinical depression.  While I had suffered from depression off and on for most of my life at the time, in my early 30s I had to be hospitalized.  I wrote a lot in that time, volumes and volumes. Some things were very dark, but for the first time, I allowed myself to write without later destroying what I had written (a common occurrence before then).  Without my inner critic running the show, I simply wrote.  In tunneling through all of my shadow (as much as I was aware of at the time, since it is an ongoing process), I paradoxically found the light and goodness in me as well.  Rather than being separate, it was all one.

After I was released from the hospital, I shoved all those painful experiences deep down in my psyche and eventually felt I had finally moved on from the past, and in many ways, I had.  I raised my family and built a successful career negotiating and writing contracts.  Life had its ups and downs as it always does, but the debilitating depression was in the past.  However, an interesting fact emerged:  my best writing came from those dark and painful years.

I didn’t make the connection as to why until recently, that my toxic inner critic was still at play, but in more subtle ways. It would still bully my shadow-self when it would crop up, but it was no longer as successful as it had once been in keeping it all at bay. Our soul is wise, and it knows when we are ready to face certain things and grow. I began to realize my shadow-self was not something to be ashamed of or that needed to be excised like some cancerous tumor, but that it — all of it — was me, and it had something important to say.

The first step was seeing myself outside the familiar lens of judgment. Any act of creating (writing or otherwise) involves making the invisible, visible. The invisible is our imagination, our soul, or our spirit: the purest and deepest truth of who we are, and showing that takes courage.  Bottom line:  If I can’t be fully visible to myself, how can I ever be to anyone else?  From a half-hidden state, my writing is thus reduced to a carefully edited mask rather than something viable and alive.

As James Baldwin said, “We must learn to make love with whatever it is that frightens us.”  It may seem counter-intuitive, but the shadow is only “tamed” or “transformed” through love, through art, through finding our voice.  At the bottom of the feared abyss is who we really are, which is the true source of our genius and inspiration.  In short, there really is no separation between what we don’t like about ourselves and what we do, but rather it is a chiaroscuro effect.  As every painter knows from the use of that term, light and shadow play together and are actually inseparable: we would have no shadow without light, and no depth without shadow.

In conclusion, we may not have a magic wand like Harry Potter did to vanquish his dementors, but as we know from the story his true weapons were actually courage and love, the same things we need to vanquish our own.

Please share anything you have to add; I’d love to hear from you.……………

Image Source:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/chocoholiccynic/12354948094/

 

James Baldwin

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“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.”  — James Baldwin

James Baldwin is one of my favorite writers.  As a gay black man coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s, he experienced discrimination from two fronts and thus shaped his lifetime activism. He was ruthless in his pursuit and expression of the truth–his truth certainly, but also the truth of the human condition: good and evil and all inbetween.  He is an amazing writer, able to slice right through any illusion or mask I might hold dear and yet somehow at the same time lift me up out of the depths of the shadow and into the light.  He urges us to have the courage to face every dark thing and turn it into love — in all its many forms.   There is much more to say about this brilliant man than I can write in one post, but I urge anyone who has not read his work to do so.  He is one of the best examples of someone who wrote from the shadows of fear, racism, and prejudice of almost every kind.  In writing about it, he found the strength and clarity to overcome those things.  He found his voice, the light of truth as he saw it, and the transforming power of love, art, and simply having the courage to speak the truth and do the right thing.

He believed that love was the ultimate goal of human existence, and the only way to survive, transform, and overcome all that brings itself against love.  He describes it in this way:

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth… You must learn to make love with whatever it is that frightens you.”

James Baldwin not only wrote of how to transform the shadow within a person, but the shadows of society as well–including the ones that oppressed and attempted to silence his own voice.  Perhaps most of us have not faced the obstacles he did; however, he doesn’t differentiate between his struggles and someone else’s.  I find this remarkable in itself.  In writing of how he fought to be who he is and overcome all that came against him, he left a legacy for every human being, writer or not, to do the same thing with what we fight against or what fights against us.

He wrote his mind and in that process he certainly found personal healing of course, although he would have used a different definition for it than that.  For him, the healing path took the course of an often fierce adherence to truth:  personal or otherwise–no matter how painful, difficult, or even dangerous that may be.  His legacy is a brilliant body of work and an example of a life that transformed his pain into something that brought light, love, and truth into the most darkened recesses of racism and intolerance.   To be able to face hatred and stand unflinchingly truthful and strong in self respect and love for others is inherent in his writing and his life.

Two short bios on James Baldwin:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Baldwin

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/10427.James_Baldwin

Image Source:

Photo of James Baldwin from Wikipedia Commons, a freely licensed media file repository.