23 February 2013

The Dark Night of the Soul

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill

It’s late February, a month which, in our northern climate, seems to stretch on and on. It’s a time when it’s easy to feel down; there are fewer hours of sunlight and there's less social interaction. It's cold, it's slippery, we have to wear way too much clothing. Although I generally like to keep my outward appearances optimistic, it’s not always easy. Us creative types face some particular problems, and this time of year can certainly make things worse.

Everyone feels down from time to time; it is part of being human and part of what helps us appreciate happiness. But for creators, I think these feelings run deeper.

The Fiercest Calm by Milé Murtanovski
As artists we are product-oriented people. I don’t mean any disrespect to whatever you create, but it is a product. Like me, you probably think you are only as good as your last painting/play/ sculpture/show/composition. When your opening is a success and you are the talk of the town, you feel pretty damn good. When no one shows up, you have no sales, and you wonder what the hell you were thinking creating such a piece of garbage... you feel pretty rotten. What we do as our life’s calling is so deeply entwined with our sense of self that it is hard to separate creative failure from personal failure. It is because we take creative risks, and dare to show the world what is inside of us despite of it all, that makes our work meaningful. Of course this is also what leaves us so vulnerable.

A number of years ago I was struggling with writing an opera libretto. I was upset that I couldn't seem to get things right. I spoke with the director; and he called this period of the creation process “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Since that time, I have always thought of these difficult times as part and parcel of the creative process. Of course most of what I do is enjoyable or else I wouldn't do it, but there will always be times when I don’t know the way forward, I can’t see the light, I didn't get the gig/grant/job, I’m broke and tired and I question why I've chosen this life. I know I’m not alone here.

The view from our porch on a snowy day
My solution for this February has been to Make Stuff. I've made puppets, lanterns, and have sat behind my sewing machine for whole days at a time. Over the last few weeks our dining room was totally overtaken with my myriad projects. After a few weeks I thought this mess rather unseemly, so I wrapped up all my projects and filed them away, I dusted and vacuumed and sat back and admired all this tidiness. I was done.

But lo, there came the storm clouds. There was only one solution, and that was to Make More Stuff. Mess be damned, I’m going to keep on making stuff and making stuff until the snow melts and the grass turns green and the birds start singing. Even then, I'll probably just keep on making stuff, because it's what I do and it makes me feel good.

Good Medicine
It may not be rocket science, but that’s how I'm currently banishing The Dark Night of the Soul.

What do you do?

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