The Dark Side of Writing

This is about to get really real. Maybe too real. “Over-sharing”. But it’s been inside me for a long time and needs to get out. And maybe someone else needs to hear it. Maybe we aren’t alone, after all.

Sometimes, my dreams of getting published seem hopeless. And not because “so many people are trying, why should I succeed?” or “I’m just not good enough.” Maybe a little of the fear comes from the second, but not for the obvious reason that I think my writing is crap. Semi-objectively, my writing is decent. I’ve written some brilliant things I’m super proud of, and some really awful things that make me cringe just thinking about, but most of my writing falls into the category of “good enough” to be published. I notice weak writing — recognize my own short-comings — in published books all the time, so why not me?

No, I’m hopeless because I hit these blocks that are so much more than “writer’s block” the way I understand it. I don’t know how other writers experience it, so maybe I’m not as alone as it feels. The term “writer’s block” seems so benign. Like “eek, I’m stuck, time to brainstorm” or “wrote myself into a corner” or “let’s take a walk to clear my mind and come back fresh.”

That’s not me.

When I hit a block, words desert me and I tumble face-first into a rock-strewn canyon. It’s dark and frigid and lonely, even walking hand-in-hand with my lover in the sunshine. A revelation smothers me, replacing the marrow in my bones with a certainty that I am nothing and will never amount to much more.

It’s not so much that no one will care what I have to say. That fear is quiet and constant, like a cat sleeping at my feet, occasionally hopping onto the table to flick my nose with its tail.

No, the writing depression is darker, more personal. It assures me that I do have a story worth telling; it encourages me that someone — maybe even just one person — needs what I have inside me, but I’ll never find the words to tell it. I am my own worst enemy and the only thing standing in the way of greatness.

If only I could shed the weaker parts of me. If only my brain could leave my damaged heart and trembling fingers for a stronger body. Or maybe it’s my heart — tender and full — that needs to escape the dictator in my brain, unfeeling and inconsiderate of the words trying to bleed freely. Maybe my skin is trapping the story, pressing it against muscle and bone instead of allowing it to burst into the world. If only I’d been born someone else, I wouldn’t have this problem. My imagination inside a stronger vessel would find its purpose.

In this dark place, I sit on the cold ground, my back pressed to the ravine wall, staring at characters I love more than life. Apologies whisper past my lips: “You should be real,” I tell them, “not me.” It isn’t fair — they have words to share, but a worthless creator who can’t hear them.

The hopeless void stretches in front of me, with no end in sight. I read other people’s words and know I could have said it better, if only my brain worked harder, if only my heart felt more (felt less?), if my hands held the pen with more authority, if my soul didn’t smother my words.

My chest aches, dull and hollow, like an empty mussel on the beach at low tide, picked over and baked. I hunker down to wait it out, desperately clinging to the fragile hope that — someday — words will return, and it will feel as if I could never fail.

I’ll ride that high as long as I can, until, inevitably, I tumble to the ground again. I could walk away from writing, but in the words of Anne Shirley: “I can’t help flying up on the wings of anticipation. It’s as glorious as soaring through a sunset… almost pays for the thud.”

 

The Safety in Art

Some people — my husband among them — turn to art for an escape. They like light-hearted movies, happily ever afters, comical adventures, feel-good music. Life is hard enough and sad enough and real enough that they look for leisure activities that distract from reality.

For me, the best art makes me feel everything. Happiness, joy, hope — but also devastation, loss, fear, rage. Is it strange that I feel most alive when I’m drowning in a good book or being ravaged by good music?

The first time I saw Titanic (at like twelve years old), I wandered around the house, limp and weepy, for days. My parents said that was why I shouldn’t have watched it — I was too young, I couldn’t handle the tragedy. They didn’t understand I was celebrating it. It was the first time my heart had been trampled by a fiction-wrapped truth, and I knew I would never be able to experience true art any other way.

I want my heart clawed from my chest, dragged over broken bottles and ruptured sidewalks, then buried under hot coals before it’s returned to me, encased in scar tissue but beating ever stronger because it has felt what it is to live. Life is the pain as much as it is the triumph. It’s the breaking as well as the growing. The terror and the joy and I want it all.

Maybe it’s (weirdly, inexplicably) safer to feel over art. In life, we have to express a certain measure of toughness. Can’t let them see me cry, can’t scream, can’t swear or rage or beat someone with a baseball bat. But in art, we can. Listening to the right song at the gym gets us running faster, shadow-boxing harder. If I come home with tears on my cheeks, it’s more acceptable to say “a song hit me really hard” than it is to admit “someone honked at me at the end of a long, boring day and it made me cry.”

So maybe art gives us all a safe haven. An excuse to delve beyond the surface, or a chance to hide beneath a blanket of distractions. Maybe for some, it’s enough to pick and choose the happy.

For me, I need it all.