The Dark Woods

This story begins in the middle. I wonder if every creative person experiences that moment when they realize they’ve not, for whatever reason, stayed true to their original vision. I mean the big vision, perhaps the very vision that called them to create in the first place. “I’m going to do THIS,” says the artist, and they do it, and then one day — maybe years later, maybe months — they wake up and notice they’re doing something else. “Hang on a minute,” says the artist. “What does this have to do with THAT?” Maybe they got sidetracked, or sideswiped, by external or even internal forces. Maybe they were lured away by promises of gold, or some other tempting thing, or maybe they don’t even know how they wandered off the path, because they didn’t notice it happening in the first place.

They took a wrong turn, followed the wrong fork in the river, or maybe they were daydreaming and missed a turn altogether. This is one of the dark woods of creative life, of the creative process. I call it the Forest of No Returns, because it does not offer yields on one’s investment of time and energy, and all of those other things creative people put into their work. The artist might be getting paid a great deal, but their spirit is not being nourished, is what I mean. Something crucial is missing, and the vision that initially inspired them has become obscured by thick branches overhead, or on the path itself.

This is where I found myself in 2011. I thought, “Hang on a minute. What’s happened here?” Of all the work I had piled onto myself, very little of it had anything to do with my original vision. And the little that did was overwhelmed by the lot that didn’t. I wasn’t sideswiped or anything like that. I never even noticed it happening. I was possibly too busy building spreadsheets, or calculating royalties, or maybe I was just trying new things and distracted myself with the shiny new things to the point of excluding the trusted old things. It was difficult to admit that I had lost sight of my vision. It was difficult to admit that if I took a few more steps in the wrong direction, I’d be lost. It was even more difficult to admit that I could not immediately turn around and embrace that vision again. I had to face the fact that it was going to be a long, slow process of clearing the path I had inadvertently set myself upon.

Disappointing as all of this is, I think the “a ha!” (or in this case “oh no!”) moment is good for the artist. It forces us to evaluate our work, to re-evaluate it in light of the circumstances. It even forces us to re-evaluate the vision itself. It asks us to grow as artists, and offers us the opportunity to do just that. It asks us to make a choice about ourselves. We can ignore this moment, sure, but we do so at our own peril. The dark woods can be a nasty place. We could spend our whole lives in there chasing fireflies, mistaking them for the sun.

This post was inspired by “On Artistic Inspiration” which discusses the line between inspiration and madness. That got me thinking about the madness — that zone artists get into where consensual reality blurs and the artist is muse-ridden to the exclusion of all else. I realized it had been ages since I’d been in that zone. I began to wonder if there could be a connection between that zone and one’s creative vision, and if being false to one’s vision can affect one’s ability to experience that zone. Does the grand muse vanish if we don’t stay true to our grand vision? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that once the artist realizes they’ve lost sight of their vision, the only viable course of action is to get it back.

I’ve heard people say that once you lose sight of your vision, you never get it back. That is absolutely not true. Wavering is acceptable. We are human, after all. We get distracted, we get lured away, but we can also always say “Enough! I’m doing THIS” and do our best to hold to it by using everything we learned while we were wandering in the dark woods. It may not seem like it at first, but eventually we’ll come out into daylight again.

“In the mid–path of my life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood,” writes Dante, in The Divine Comedy, beginning a quest that will lead to transformation and redemption. A journey through the dark of the woods is a motif common to fairy tales: young heroes set off through the perilous forest in order to reach their destiny, or they find themselves abandoned there, cast off and left for dead. The road is long and treacherous, prowled by wolves, ghosts, and wizards — but helpers also appear along the way, good fairies and animal guides, often cloaked in unlikely disguises. The hero’s task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward. — Terri Windling, from The Dark of the Woods, on the Endicott Studio website.