Writing through the Dark

“If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage.” Cynthia Ozick

I awaken to darkness and, although the sun eventually rises, much of its light is blocked by storm clouds. In order to write, I must turn on lights so I can see my notes. Before dinner, the sun drops below the horizon and again I am blanketed in darkness.

Thirty-five days remain until Winter Solstice. Even though they are growing shorter, they seem to last longer — forever. Darkness rules.

I think of how it must have been hundreds of years ago when my Celtic ancestors kept to their hearths as the year died. As the longest night approached, they cut a Yule log to burn to celebrate the turning of the year. More deeply than the winter chill, my bones know the Yule log was their Plan B — just in case, covered in ice, the year didn’t turn and the darkness lasted forever.

This week my email in-box has been filled with notes from talented and creative friends who suddenly can’t bring themselves to write. Everything’s been said already, and said much better, they write. Why bother? Their worlds and their words appear frozen.

As I put on an extra sweater and turn on another light, I sometimes share those thoughts. Even though we’re well-educated, bright people, the spirits that walk the darkness of winter have us every bit as discouraged as they did those who came before us.

The darkness we face can be the physical absence of light or it can be an emotional or a spiritual one. It was not by accident that St. John of the Cross called the dry, despairing times that all spiritual seekers experience, the dark night of the soul. He wrote that this state is inevitable – part of the human condition. He advised that if those enveloped in that darkness took courage, clung to their faith and continued their spiritual practice, blessings would emerge from the darkness. In fact, the darkness itself might be viewed as a blessing.

Writers are also seekers and the words we set on paper emanate from the deepest parts of ourselves. I suspect our remedy for the winter writing crisis of faith, is much the same as St. John’s advice to believers. Rather than giving up, we need to act as if we believe in ourselves as writers. Even when we have our doubts, we need to courageously keep up our writing practice.

The feelings of hopelessness that dampen our energy and our self confidence as writers will pass and we will be better for it after we’ve written through the dark. Besides, it’s not as if we are alone. Here are some ways the pros have talked themselves out of the doldrums:

“I don’t think that writer’s block exists really. I think that when you’re trying to do something prematurely, it just won’t come. Certain subjects just need time…You’ve got to wait until you write about them.” Joyce Carol Oates

“The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.” John Steinbeck

“The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly is lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” Annie Dillard

“You have to believe. It’s like religion. The priests who don’t have the toughest lives.” Don Carpenter

“Writer’s block, how to overcome it: write something substantial every morning, and while doing so forget entirely the impression you’re creating. That is, overcome ego.” Paul Fussell

“I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.” Joyce Carol Oates

Creative Writes:

Write about a time you endured a crisis of faith – faith in yourself, faith in the world or faith in your Higher Power. What did you do that was helpful to you? What did you do that didn’t work? What was the blessing that came from that dark time? What did you learn from what you endured? How did you change because of it?

Make a list of 50 uses for darkness. Make a list of 50 benefits or blessings that winter brings. Make poems from your lists.

Lighten up. Give yourself permission to do something fun this week, something that will make you laugh. Write about it afterward. Try to capture the experience and the mood in words as accurately as you can.

Writing Markets:

Rosebud, a well-respected literary magazine, is soliciting entries for the X.J. Kennedy Award. A $1,000 prize will be awarded for the top creative non-fiction or memoir piece. The entry fee is $10.00 and the deadline is December 13. Guidelines are on the site www.rsbd.net.

Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir, a new literary publication, seeks autobiographical writing as well as book reviews, oral history and b/w photos. For guidelines, visit their website at www.lifeboatjournal.com.