So many people come to me terrified of the writing process. They are so terrified their creativity is a block of ice. Their artist’s soul is a petrified forest. Even after we start working together, even after they’ve been writing for a few months, the old terror re-appears and they stop writing; they make excuses; they take up partying as a way to forget their fear. And the writing suffers.
How do we get around this fear? I took up visual art, when I already had been writing for about 10 years (20 if you include my journalism career). I have the same problem with visual art — I love it, and have a great flow of inspiration and creativity when I’m in the flow, but have such fear at times that I can go weeks and even months on the verge of panic around picking up a paintbrush.
I love to look situations in the face, whatever they are. So, what is this fear? I’m not sure I have the answer, but would certainly like to explore it. I know that when I do visual art I become a different person. I am in a different psychological/spiritual/metaphysical realm from my normal life. I leave the linear world. There is no longer up and down, back and forth, inner and outer — my entire body becomes color and shape. I am not painting blue; I am blue. How do I put this into words? Blue is my blood. Blue is my gut, ingested and digested. Blue swarms my fingers like some snapshot of my aura.
Is it the fear of the loss of self? The fear of the merging of the self with the art form?
When I was a little girl, I could never discern between myself and a blade of grass, between myself and a robin perched on a branch. I grew up on a farm, where butchering was done weekly, so having that sort of sensitivity was quite brutal. I write about this in my first novel Earth. Here’s a snippet (please note that the following is fiction — although it is thematically about how I felt as a child, all characters are made up — to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”):
For the longest time I could not discern the difference between the earth and myself. Every dog, deer, calf. Every sassafras, cottonweed, elm. Every stream, brook, river. Everything was me. Every brutalized dog, every boot entering dog flesh entered my flesh. Every knife slashing a joint. Every bloody entrail piled into a beat up bucket. I would feel myself dismembered. I couldn’t help it. I’d look up at my mother, as she slashed a small creature from crotch to breast bone, my eyes wide open. She’d look at me. With love. With the only love she knew. Pearl, she’d say, you’re going to have to toughen up if you’re going to make it in this world, her hands cupping intestines. Maybe what she was saying was: You can’t love like that. There aint no room in the world for that kind of love. It’ll crush you.
So writing this particular blog, I am trying to understand my own fear as a way to perhaps segue into universal fear. Perhaps we all feel this loving communion with nature, with the world, with a world that is butchered daily in front of our eyes; and through our art, whether it be writing or visual art, we come closer and closer to it. And this scares us. The world is so far away from love — we are taught from an early age to distance ourselves from the great love we feel for the planet, for other people, for nature, that the writing process, the color blue, joins us to this truth.
So, maybe we are talking about a universal fear of self expression. A great book for this is Alan Watts: The Book – On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Maybe it’s not our own fear we’re picking up, but everyone’s. Maybe we need to understand that by picking up paintbrush or pen, we are creating a worldwide revolution. We’re daring to say: You’ve told me to shut up and be a good girl for more than 40 years and I’m not taking it anymore! Maybe, we’re artist/soldiers. And maybe, just maybe, the soul knows it’s a battle to the death. And we may have a right to be scared.
So, let’s say that we decide to feel the fear and do it anyway — as they say. How do we deal with this fear, whether it be personal or universal or both? When I was fed up with journalism, I spent months feeling completely anchorless. I was so depressed. At the age of 18, I had gone to the best journalism school in the United States. I’d traveled the world as a journalist, Tokyo, throughout Asia, London, and I’d led an almost fairytale life. When my soul was no longer interested in journalism, I was devastated. I spent months, maybe even years in a funk.
Finally, a therapist said to me: you have to write, every day. (For many people who are not in journalism, it’s important to understand that being a writer and being a journalist are two very different things. As a journalist, you are taught a formulaic way of writing, you are told what to write by the editor, and the word count is often so limited that you can express only the barest facts of the story.) When the therapist said I needed to write, she meant creatively. She meant fiction. She meant I needed to express my soul’s truth. Every day. I burst into sobs in her office. I was hysterical. I was inconsolable.
Our need to do our art is so intense. It often feels like life or death.
So, I made a commitment to writing from 8 a.m. until noon every day. For the first week or two, I sobbed desperately onto the keyboard as I typed. To deal with the fact that I entered such a different world when I wrote, to deal with the fact that I felt such a loss of self when I entered my art, I did two things, both of which were processed in therapy.
First, I lit a candle at 8 a.m. to start the writing session and blew out the candle at noon. Every day. Second, my biggest fear seemed to be around monsters that would be evoked in the writing. So much had been pressed down, so much sadness and anger, that I worried the emotions would take form and become giant ogres and overwhelm me. So, my therapist suggested I build a cage. I know it sounds odd. But, she suggested I put the cage beneath my writing desk and open it to do the writing and close it as soon as the writing was over. And so, I went to the hardware store and bought chicken wire and wood, and built the thing. And for three years it sat beneath my desk, like an installation piece. (In fact, I used some of the same chicken wire and wood to build a giant mask for a parade float a few years later. You see, it’s all art. It’s all poetry.)
Thirteen years later, I still write from 8 a.m. until noon every day, although the cage is gone. One of the first pieces I wrote became a section of my just finished novel Earth. I certainly do not feel the fear around my writing anymore. I know that there have been women before me, as there are women around me, who express their truth, who have the courage to express themselves freely and passionately. I am proud to assist some of these women and men right now in getting to their core truth and putting it out there in the world. I am proud to be doing it myself.
As for the fear around visual art, that’s another story altogether…