The Dark Night of a Writer by Alexandra Panic

Updated: Apr 24, 2019

Photo by Guzmán Barquín on Unsplash

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest Souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”

Khalil Gibran

In storytelling, there is an inevitable moment on hero’s or heroine’s journey when they descend to darkness.

Christopher Vogler in his explanation of Joseph Campbell’s mythical structure of Hero’s Journey calls this story point “Approach to the Innermost Cave.”

If we looked at a usual three-act story structure, the descent to darkness would be at the half-way mark of the story and before the hero’s great battle. In stories, this is the time when heroes doubt, question, analyze, make plans, purge, reorganize, recalibrate, and even give up before moving on.

Sadly, the concept of the hero’s journey has been overly exploited in the western storytelling, augmenting and over-dramatizing ever so more this subtle and profound moment of one’s self-reassessment. A few stories are indeed about heroes slaying dragons, and their dark cave is apparent and tangible. But in all stories, heroines and heroes descend to darkness. In the darkness, throb the questions: Who I am? What is my purpose? And the answers to these harrowing questions ultimately carry the light.

In a writer’s life, the descent to darkness happens rather often. Sometimes it lasts just for the one dark night of the soul, but more likely, for days, weeks, or even months.

The Dark Night of the Soul is the spiritual term dating from 16th century Spain when the friar and mystic San Juan de la Cruz (Saint John of the Cross) wrote a religious poem La noche oscura del alma, which described the journey of one’s soul from the darkness of the unknowing to the joyful union with God. Today, if not mentioned in storytelling, The Dark Night of the Soul usually defines a period of the spiritual desolation and emptiness, in which one feels alienated from the Divine.

In a writer’s life, the Divine is often the mere act of Writing. The Dark Night of the Soul in the life of a writer represents the writer’s disconnection with her own talents. During this period of absolute darkness, from the cave throb the same questions: Who am I as a writer? What is my purpose?

Photo by José Ignacio García Zajaczkowski on Unsplash

Alas, ours is an ego-centric world where the most asked questions are: What do I have? What can I do? And this ego-centric doing always seeks material rewards. For any artist, but especially a writer, these are the soul-crushing questions. It might take years to write a book, to be able to say, “Look, I have a book!” I did it, and I can do this again!” In the meantime, living as a writer means perpetually descending into the darkness of doubts and unknowing and resentment and fear.

As a writer, I have experienced a cavernous sense of sadness, that sometimes verges on despair. Rarely, this despair that to me is quite sonorous has to do with my own life, but with the world I live in. With inhumanity, ignorance, injustice, the aching nature.

However, the past week I touched the layer of my darkness that before I haven’t acknowledged. As I am on the half-way mark of my 200 hours Yoga Teacher Training, for which I believed would challenge my body, it turned out that arriving at the midpoint questioned my heart.

The darkness I caved into echoed the questions:

What do I have? What can I do? Am I worthy?

What do I have? What can I do? Do I have the right to be here?

For years I have been experiencing a chronic and acute sense of being “less than.”

My writing cannot feed my kids, so I’m doing less than my husband.

My pieces are getting rejected, so I’m doing less than my fellow writers.

My kids seem to be less obedient than their friends, making my days difficult, so I am less good of a mother than the mothers I know.

I cannot do inverted asanas, so my body is still less able than of other yogis I practice with.

What do I have? What can I do? Am I worthy?

What do I have? What can I do? Do I have the right to be here?

Two things I did to fight this mind-shattering feeling: I kept returning to my yoga mat, and I kept repeating, like mantras, some other questions:

Who am I? What and whom do I love? What do I want? What makes me happy?

Last weekend, the middle of December, I turned into liquid. Tears were gushing out my eyes uncontrollably and in public spaces; I sweated, which I never do, and I menstruated. I felt I couldn’t gather myself into a solid form. I was made of water and blood. I was liquid.

Photo by Vanessa Ives on Unsplash

Sunday morning, liquified and desperate, I went to a yoga class. Sharon, my teacher, talked about the upcoming winter Solstice that celebrates the longest hours of darkness, the time when we gather ourselves in cocoons and travel inwardly, introspecting our minds, bodies, and hearts. It is believed that the winter Solstice signifies the rebirth of the sun and holds powerful energy for regeneration and renewal. Darkness gives birth to light.

Darkness gives birth to light.

The flow practice we did that morning was charged with the intention to light the light within us. The only way out from the inmost cave is through, and the only way out from the Dark Night is seeing a lighthouse.

Thursday morning, I felt better and more substantial, but I was still in my cave. I made a list of the things I want to do in 2019, I wrote down titles of the pieces and books I want to write, of the projects I want to accomplish. I spent time hunkering in the Goddess pose, trying to connect with the energy of the Moon, my hands in front of my heart shaping into a blooming lotus flower. When my knees hurt, I would stretch into a Star Fish and breathe audibly, then squat back into Goddess. I was in need of a word of confirmation that what I dream of makes sense, that my writing has a purpose, that I am worthy of taking up space.

Then, my mom called worried about the wind storm. She heard on a different continent that there was a tornado in my surrounding. As I was telling her that we are safe, the patio furniture behind the glass door of my living room turned upside down, the wind banged against the windows, and I postponed my plan of going to my co-working space to write. Instead, I talked to my mother for an hour. And only when I told her I had to go pick up the kids, she told me the story I needed to hear. A few days before, she ran across a woman who used to be our seamstress. Twenty years ago, she made me dresses from the unused fabric I found at my grandmother’s house, looking at the pictures I clipped from magazines. When my first book of poetry was published, I remember giving her a signed copy. I moved away, then she moved to a different neighborhood, and I haven’t seen her since. When she recognized my mother, she asked about me. “I had everything I ever wanted in life,” she said. “Everything but happiness in love. Your daughter’s book is my life story. I carry it everywhere I go, I read it all the time. Please send her my love.”

Their encounter took place the day when I saw myself as a liquid. The day when the darkness was boulder firm.

But it’s always been the water that was stronger than fire. The fire has its momentum, water owns eternity. It’s water that can find the way through the mountain, the fire just burns trees.

The knowing that my little book of sonnets meant so much to this woman rebuilt my form. I was no longer liquid, I was no longer dripping the parts of myself with no aim.

With her words, it all made sense again. It doesn’t matter if and what I have out of my writing as long as I touch someone’s heart. One heart at a time.

I am. I love. I dream. I write. I am happy.

And this is also why I go back to my mat: to breathe, to feel, to take up space, to be.

Tonight, at the time of the Winter Solstice, the full moon will light up the sky, and the meteor shower from the Little Dipper will add celebratory sprinkles. And even more, in the constellation of Sagittarius, Jupiter and Mercury will conjunct, appearing as if they’re about to collide in space, despite being hundreds of millions of miles apart. The conjunction of these planets will help expand our minds offering us the illumination, bringing meaning and structure to our lives.

This morning, I woke up to an email from the author of the book I wrote about in my last published piece. His book fell into my hands in my local library the week I was thinking of writing about the meaning of colors in my life and helped me finish the piece. Somehow, although published in an online magazine with a modest circulation, this piece reached him. And he reached out to thank me for writing kindly about his book and to compliment me on my writing.

In the Chakra system, our arms, hands, fingers, and fingertips belong to Anahata, the heart chakra. When I write, when my fingertips touch the letters on the keyboard or when my fingers squeeze and guide a pen across the paper, I give my heart to the world. There is light in words, the right words always reach the intended audience. From one writer to another, this simple email of gratification was as bright as a torch.

I am. I love. I dream. I write. I am happy.

Something will happen again, I know, that will push me into another descent, shove me into a different cave. But I will know what to do to find my way out. A long time ago, Oscar Wild said, “Hearts are made to be broken, that is why God sends sorrow in the world.”

Falling and failing is nothing to be afraid of as long as you return: to the breath, to the light, to the heart.

Photo by William Bout on Unsplash

The Dark Night is a herald of change, of growth, of awakening, of rebirth. In the concept of Hero’s Journey, when a hero finally finds light, they arm for the great battle, for the last ordeal. They are to face their enemies and their inner demons. The journey onward (not to be found on any GPS system) is sudden, frightening, and it requires enormous courage and faith. But many have already been there and through. So can I; so can you. And not because we’ve got something special, but because we are.

We love. We dream. We write. We are happy.

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