Here's another older post on dealing with creative burn-out: specifically the kind of burn-out that comes during or after a period of trauma (illness, tragedy, grief, etc.). We've all been going through collective trauma since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that journey isn't over yet. What kind of art will come out of it? How might it change (or is it already changing) the kind of work we do? And what about artists (and there are many) who feel unable to work at all, the creative well gone dry under the pressures of all that we've been living through? There are no simple answers, of course, but the discussion is one worth having. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the Comments below.
Information on the pictures here can be found in the picture captions (run your cursor over the images to see them).
In her beautiful Guest Post on this blog, Nomi McLeod discussed the ways "The Handless Maiden" fairy tale spoke to her at a difficult time of life, and how the art she created based on the tale both documented her journey through the dark of the woods and helped her to comprehend it. This is a subject that particularly interests me: the means by which writers, painters, and other artists respond to trauma, crisis, and grief, alchemizing hard experience into story, image, and other creative works.
There are so many different ways this occurs. Sometimes the transformation from life experience to art is immediate and direct: an outpouring of creative energy in the middle of the crisis as it unfolds. Frida Khalo's self-portraits are one example of this, sometimes painted from the confines of her sickbed; another is the "savage creative storm" that caused Rilke to write Sonnets to Orpheus upon hearing the news of a family friend's death. I had a similar experience once myself, after learning that my stepfather had died: working night and day for almost two weeks, I produced, unplanned and almost without conscious thought, my "Surviving Childhood" series of drawings. (These are very large charcoal drawings made on rolls of butcher's paper, and unsuitable for reproducing here.) The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde is another example of work produced in the eye of the storm; as is the art created by Henri Matisse after an operation left him bed- and chair-bound; Angelo Merendino's "The Battle We Didn't Choose," a photographic response to his wife's diagnosis with breast cancer; Hannah Laycock's "Perceiving Identity" series about living with multiple sclerosis; the final essays of Oliver Sacks, written in the last months of his terminal illness; and the work of Mohammed Al-Amari and other Syrian artists documenting the ongoing refugee crisis....to name just a few.
It is rare, however, that a serious illness or other crisis allows the time, space, and temper of mind required for art-making, and so the second category is a larger one: art in response to a crisis that has ended, but that still feels somehow unresolved. Through this kind of work, we return to the dark parts of our lives and transform our muddles of emotion and reaction into something more ordered, more comprehensible, more universal...perhaps even beautiful, if painfully so. Nomi's "Handless Maiden" falls in this category, as does the unflinching work of German artist Käthe Kollwitz in response to World War I, or the devastating "Hiroshima Panels" of Japanese artists Iri & Toshi Maruki. More recent example include Beckie Kravetz's powerful "Witness" sculpture installation; Meg Zivahl-Fox's "Nettles and Deliverance" collages (using fairy tale imagery in response to childhood trauma); Richard Johnson's heart-breaking "Weapon of Choice," a photographic series on verbal abuse and bullying (in response to his own childhood experiences); and CELL, a puppetry project exploring Motor Neurone Disease. (Two of the puppeteers behind the project lost family members to MND.)
There are many fine examples of art born from hard experience in literature too, especially in the genre of personal essay and memoir, including If This is a Man by Primo Levi, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Early Spring by Tove Ditlevsen, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Dideon, One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman, Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro, Hillbilly Gothic by Adrienne Martini, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Wintersen, The Color of Water by James M. McBride, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, I Want to Be Left Behind by Brenda Peterson, The Woman Who Watches Over the World by Linda Hogan, Education by Tara Westover, My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay, In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O'Farrell, The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, Tristimania by Jay Griffiths, Heavy Light by Horatio Clare, A Still Life by Josie George, and numerous others. When we turn to the field of poetry, there are almost too many examples to list, but I'll mention two that have touched me deeply: Jane Kenyon's poems on her battle with depression (found in Constance and Otherwise), and Jane Yolen's The Radiation Sonnets, written during her husband's treatment for cancer, and after his death. I also recommend "Finding Poetry in Illness," a moving article by Jennifer Nix.
Personal experience is often used in the creation of fiction too, of course, although here the alchemical magic is so strong that we're not always aware (nor should we be aware) of the ways in which strands of the author's own life may be woven with other material to create the tapestry of a novel or story. One interesting example is Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, in which the main character shares the author's name and some of the details of her life -- and yet this is a work of fiction, not memoir, with autobiographical elements skillfully juggled and altered in the service of art. Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina is another excellent book of this type, as is Heinz Insu Fenkl's gorgeous Memories of my Ghost Brother: published as a novel in one edition and as a "magical realist memoir" in another, but actually falling into the interstices between those two literary forms. A fourth example is Jo Walton's wonderful fantasy novel Among Others -- which, she is clear to note, is not straight autobiography with magical trimmings but a "mythologization" of her Welsh childhood and family dynamics, written (to use Rilke's phrase) in a "savage create storm" of 36 writing days.
Although powerful work can be born of hard life experience, there are also times when calamity silences us: when shock, or grief, or sheer emotional exhaustion serves to snuff out one's creativity altogether. For those of us used to moving through life by breathing in the world and breathing out art, this silence is an unsettling, even terrifying thing. It is not quite the same thing as depression; it's more like finding the inner room where we go to create is now shuttered and bolted against us. It's like trying to speak without language. It's like living without breathing. It's not living at all.
Perhaps the alchemical process of creativity has not stopped altogether at such times; perhaps it's still moving, but moving so slowly it does not appear to be moving at all. Our creative daemon has gone underground: not hibernating but germinating, like a seed buried deep in the frozen earth, gathering strength and preparing to break through the soil when the proper time comes. Meanwhile, the winter drags on and we move through our days unaware of things stirring below. Winter is bleak, and endless, and we worry: What if this time the spring doesn't come?
I think of trauma as cold, and sharp, with edges that hurt when you bump up against it. It's the sliver of glass from the Snow Queen fairy tale, and the kiss that turns Kay's heart to ice, making him numb to love, to passion, to everything that he once held dear. And yet, even numbness has its use. In a crisis, sometimes we just have to keep moving, putting one foot in front of another, weighted with burdens too heavy to carry but which we must not put down. At such times, it can feel like a mercy to leave the weight and heat of emotion behind us. There are decisions to make and things to be done and miles to cross before we can sleep; there's no time for emotion, no room for it in the basket of boulders we carry.
The problem here is that inspiration arises from an inner fire that feeds on all the stuff our lives: both the dark and the bright, our emotions included. Take emotion away and the fire diminishes. It sputters. It goes out altogether. Numb, like Kay, we may think we are fine, we may think we are coping magnificently... but we sit down to work and the fire just isn't there. And that's hardly surprising.
What is a surprise (or so it was to me) is that the end of a crisis and the thawing of the heart are two things that don't always happen in tandem. A long illness has ended, or a painful problem resolved, or grief has finally loosened its grip and we've emerged from the deep dark forest at last, ready to live Happily Every After...or at least to enjoy a hard-won period of calm and creative renewal. Instead, we just sit there, frozen and numb, not even moving forward now, creativity gone (and our sense of self with it), smiling tightly when dear friends say: At last it's all over! We're glad that you're back!
But in fact, we're not back, at least not fully. Spring is here, but our souls are still clenched underground. We must call them back up to the light.
In an earlier series of posts, we looked at illness as a mythic/metaphoric journey to the Underworld and back -- and I'd like to propose that the journey through crisis or grief might be viewed in a similar manner. The process unfolds in mythic time, or wild time, not on clock time, on schedule, on human demand. It's a journey as perilous as it is profound and it needs to be acknowledged. It needs to be honored. We cannot return from the mythic Underworld as precisely the person we were when we started, and we do not return as the same artist either. Coaxing the soul back up to the sun involves learning just who it is we've become, and what fairy tale gifts we have brought from below. This post-crisis process cannot be rushed; it needs quiet reflection, solitude, time. And yet time, in our pressured and fast-paced world, is precisely what we rarely have.
For those of us working professionally in the arts, the strictures of the marketplace require that work be produced in a regular manner. We spend years mastering the discipline required to create works of art to schedule and deadline -- and when that discipline fails us, when the fire's been dampened and the work just will not come, what on earth does one do?
I wish I had an easy answer to that question...or even a difficult one. But every artist is different, every journey is different, and each of us must discover our personal way of re-kindling the fire (though in a perfect world, a charitable foundation aimed at giving working artists the time and resources to do so would not go amiss). What does help, I think, is to recognize the process occurring; to be patient (both with yourself and with others' reactions); and to accept, without shame, the problems that arise when deep healing processes conflict with careers run on clock-time, not soul-time. It also helps to know that other creative artists have gone into the dark before us, and returned, and then burned brighter than ever -- often using the Underworld's painful gifts to enable their very best work.
One book I keep returning to lately is "An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms" by Elizabeth Knox: a slim volume containing an essay composed for the 2014 Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture. In this powerful piece, Elizabeth weaves the story of her mother's final illness and several other hard life experiences into reflections on writing, on the nature of genre, and on the work of her friend Margaret Mahy. The essay has been a touchstone for me not because it gives me concrete answers or instructions to follow in times of hardship, but because it shows how another writer, and one I respect, has grappled with such issues too. I've re-read my copy so many times now -- usually on coffee breaks in the woods -- that it's worn, leaf-strewn, coffee-stained, and dog-eared at favorite passages...such as this one, in which Elizabeth relates a conversation with her husband, Fergus:
"A few weeks back I was trying to explain to Fergus how I see things differently now. How my world view has changed. It had been heroic, by which I mean that everything, obligingly, had a shapeliness -- everything fell into story -- and revealed itself that way, becoming beautiful, and habitable for heroes. Then I got sad; sad for such a sustainable period of time that my world view became an abject one.
"The context of the conversation was this: what the hell could I say in my Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture, with the tectonic plates of my world view still in motion? What could I say when, as I saw it, it was my job to be inspiring? How was I ever to find inspiration in my discouraged soul?
"In trying to communicate this to Fergus, I began thinking about what I learned from my mother -- and not from her death. What she tried, from my infancy, to consciously impart: the vital goodness of kindness and civility in life."
Kindness and civility, yes. Potent magic for the thawing of hearts.
Everyone goes through the deep dark woods at some point in life; artists are not unique in this. But the impact of the journey on the work we do, and even on our ability to do it, makes the questions we ask in trauma's wake somewhat different than in other professions. After a searing experience, how do we re-open ourselves to inspiration? How can we bear such vulnerability? And yet, if we stay protectively closed, how will we bear the alternative: living our lives with our fires banked and the door to art locked against us?
With these thoughts in mind, I came across the following passage by M.C. Richards, from her book Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. She's talking about love, but her words seem to me to apply to creativity as well. (For some of us -- and Richards is one, I think -- they are two sides of the same coin.) She asks:
"How are we to love [and how are we to create] when we are stiff and numb and distinterested? How are we to transform ourselves into limber and soft organisms lying open the world at the quick? By what process and what agency do we perform the Great Work, transforming lowly materials into gold? Love, like its counterpoint, Death, is a yielding at the center...figured forth in intelligent cooperation, sensitive congeniality, physical warmth. At the center the love must live.
"One gives up all one has for this. This is the love that resides in the self, the self-love, out of which all love pours. The fountain, the source. At the center. One gives up all the treasured sorrow and self-mistrust, all the precious loathing and suspicion, all the secret triumphs of withdrawal. One bends in the wind. There are many disciplines that strengthen one's athleticism for love [and creativity]. It takes all one's strength. And yet it takes all one's weakness too. Sometimes it is only by having one's so-called strengths pulverized that one is weak enough, strong enough, to yield. It takes the power of nature in one which is neither strength nor weakness but closer perhaps to virtu, person, personalized energy. Do not speak about strength and weakness, manliness and womanliness, aggressiveness and submissiveness. Look at this flower. Look at this child. Look at this rock with lichen growing on it. Listen to this gull scream as he drops through the air to gobble the bread I throw and clumsily rights himself in the wind. Bear ye another's burdens, the Lord said, and he was talking law.
"Love is not a doctrine, Peace is not an international agreement. Love and Peace are beings who live as possibilities in us."
During periods when I've been unable to cross through the doorway into the room of creation, I've taken courage in knowing that others have also stood at that threshold and found a way in. Their entrance might not be one I can use, but I've learned I am capable of finding my own.
If you've been on that journey, if you are on it now, then this is the thing that I want most to tell you: You have my compassion, and you have my respect. The winter does end. Hearts thaw. Seeds grow. A spark hits dry tinder, and the fire roars.
Pictures: (from top to bottom) "The Two Fridas" & "Tree of Hope, Remain Strong" by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), and a photograph of Kahlo painting while recovering from one of her many operations. "The Sorrow of the King" by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) , and a photograph of Matisse at work even though confined to bed."Hunger: Mother & Sleeping Children" and "Survivors: Widows & Orphans" by Käthe Kollwitz' (1867-1945). "Rescue," one of the Hiroshima panels of Iri & Toshi Maruki. Recommended works of memoir, poetry, & fiction. Figures from "Witness," a sculptural installation by Beckie Kravetz. A photograph by Angelo Merendino from The Battle We Didn't Choose project. "Stray" by Jeanie Tomanek. "The Angel of Moving Safely Through the Darkness" from my Angel series of paintings. "Life Vs. Death" and "Cradle" by Nomi McLeod. "Bunny maiden with scars," from one of my hospital sketchbooks. "The Tree of Doors" from Nettles and Deliverance by Meg Zivahl-Fox. The Victoria University Press edition of the Inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture by Elizabeth Knox. "Crumbs" by Jeanie Tomanek. "Crossing an Iced-Over Stream" and "After the Deluge" by Gina Litherland. "Coyote Woman" from my Desert Spirits series.
Words: The passage by Elizabeth Knox is from An Unreal House Filled With Real Storms (Victoria University Press, 2014). The passage by M.C. Richards (1916-1999) is from Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (Wesleyan, 1989). All rights by Elizabeth Knox and the estate of M.C. Richards. All rights to the words and pictures above reserved by the authors and artists or their estates.