Ways to Embrace Darkness For Creative Work

“Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar.”

– Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

It’s getting dark out early. Have you noticed? Have you adjusted your creative rhythm this final month of 2010? This is the only time 2010 comes around, you know?

Gray shrouds the December sky this morning like the inside of a tortoise shell, and, really, you have no recourse but to resist or embrace the gray, that space between white and black, light and dark.

Rather than plugging along like you have to meet some mortal deadline by December 31, spinning your way past family holiday baggage and the clamor of consumption, consider this: Maybe December is a month to feel darkness nudge up against you and to find your way with it, embrace it like a wild, moody lover. At least that’s what I’m thinking.

I’m wondering this: How can darkness this time of year be sacred and how can that sacred darkness be a way for creatives – the writers and artists and designers, the inventors and scientists and scholars, the entrepreneurs among us – to hone in on some oft-neglected aspects of creative inspiration, innovation, and motivation (Sorry, Orwell, for all the ‘tions.)?

Here are some thoughts:
1. Shift the mind’s mood to match the atmosphere’s mood. We often begrudge the weather as if it’s supposed to meet our sunny 74-degree expectations 24/7. How stifling for earth and how limiting for our human emotional range. What if mind, mood, and weather were all part of the same continuum? Wonder tracker David Abram considers, in his essay “The Air Aware” published in Orion this year, that what we call mind might not even be “ours” – something I’ve dared to muse on for year:

It may be far more parsimonious, today, to suggest that mind is not at all a human possession, but is rather a property of the earthly biosphere—a property in which we, along with the other animals and the plants, all participate. The apparent interiority that we ascribe to the mind would then have less to do with the notion that there is a separate mind located inside me, and another, distinct mind that resides inside you, and more to do with a sense that you and I are both situated inside it—a recognition that we are bodily immersed in an awareness that is not ours, but is rather the Earth’s.

A little “heady” about mind, maybe, but if the sky is moody, try to flow with your creative mind’s moods in tandem. If clouds are low, try to hang low.  If it gets dark early where you call home, hunker down, turn off the computer early, and worm your way into a sketchbook, book, or something else that will shift your mind from daytime activity.

And if gloom or melancholy or grief arise this month – as they often do for creatives – engage those feelings with movement. At the very least, rough sketching or body language movements or writing or tinkering with crafts or collage gets the body making something. Creative activity engages mood with making.

2. Focus on the body’s downward flow. Give in to gravity. Feel energy drop like rain and snow. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. Slow down off and on for the month of December.

Take a day or two or three off. From December 8 to 15, I will be away on retreat to work concertedly and alone on my book. From December 22 to January 2, I won’t see clients or work on clients’ material. I will spend less time at my desk and on social media. I will be on my back reading and tickling my daughter and putting my legs up against the wall. I will be on my chaise lounge handwriting pages for my book and burrowing into the skin of the book’s language, the texture of its voice. And, yes, I will be spreading out notebooks and sketchbooks on my studio floor to meditate and move through some workshop material for 2011. Gwen Bell takes periodic digital sabbaticals – a practice I applaud.

3. Contemplate space. If I didn’t lose you with the Abram quotation, then you might entertain this one. Years ago, I visited the premiere McDonald Observatory in far stars-at-night-are-big-and-bright West Texas. A film called Powers of 10 showed. The camera starts on a couple having a picnic in Central Park one sunny afternoon then lifts off into like a rocket until you’re in vast outer space of soundlessness and utter darkness. (This program mimics the film’s premise.) Had the camera started on the space inside one of the couple’s bodies, the film also would’ve began in utter darkness. It’s dark out there, and it’s dark in here.

Designers, sculptors, and artists must love space. Their work is all about arrangement and relationship and observing the space between. For the rest of us, contemplating space before us, above us, and within us is simply a way to feel more spacious in mind and body. Seriously.

I focus on the space between breaths. After several exhalations throughout a day, I observe a natural pause of a few seconds. That practice slows down my spinning mind. It also calms down the fight-or-flight response when my typing fingers and talking mouth get busy. Something in the practice lets a day stretch out wide even though early sunsets truncate daylight.

You can notice the space between objects in your workspace. That fleeting space between one action and another. The space right after someone speaks. The space before eating a meal. And after. The space after completing a good day’s creative work.

4. Fold inside the self. I don’t mean you should cut yourself off from the world. There’s a reason we have holidays to hang out together in the season of cold and dark: We need each other. Still, this natural cycle of the earth’s rotation around the sun offers us a natural rhythm to reflect. How has your business helped you grow as a person this year? How has your creative work changed or expanded your best self? What’s shifting in your creative work? In your business? What’s calling your best self to act well in the world in 2011? These are questions worth hanging out with, worth living in at least once a year.

If you need a physical attitude to facilitate the questions, try Tortoise Attitude. Appropriate, right? Go in your shell. “In the dark the eyes begin to see,” Theodore Roethke writes. And listen. Stay there for a few breaths if this sort of thing is new to you.

5. Stop knowing so much. When someone offers an idea, do you complete their sentence or try to predict what they’re going to say or interrupt with, “Right, right, right. I’ve already thought of that”? Egad. That irritating Know-it-All within will shut down your inner innovator more quickly than a Trojan will shut down your Mac. For this month, try to live in more questions than answers. When someone speaks, listen. Consider. Be open. And, as Solnit writes, open the door to the unknown.

Drop in the Hut
What about you? How do you stay optimally creative during the month of least light (at least in this part of the globe)? How do you finagle dark emotions to the canvas, the design board, the board room, the classroom, or the page?

Other Resources:
How to Grow Your Imagination In Secret by Mike Kammerling at Lateral Action
The Procrastinators series by the Dutch designers Lernert & Sander
What Happened to Down Time? by Scott Belsky at The99Percent.com

See you in the woods,

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    1. Taqiyyah: Thanks for your comment. I agree. We take for granted the most pervasive, obvious, and influential element of air and space on the mind.