Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Power of the Dark for the Fiction Writer

I sent my Soul through the Invisible
And by and by my Soul returned to me
And answer’d ‘I myself am Heav’n and Hell.’
—Omar Khayyam, Sufi poet 

The Power of the Dark for the Fiction WriterThe Shadowland of the human psyche is grist for the writer's mill. 
 As the poem by Omar Khayyam suggests, our power as human beings comes from the blending of the light and dark, the gentle and powerful. Power can  be used to create or destroy. Destruction can be seen as positive or negative. Darkness can be terrifying or magnificent.

Your Inner Writer knows that creating is a constant dance between heaven and hell, yin and yang, intuitive and rational, head and gut and heart, and in that dance there is no right and wrong, no like and dislike; there is simply being and dancing the passionate dance. It is this shadow world of the human psyche that becomes the grist for the artist’s mill.

The Task of the Artist Is to Bring the Dark into the Light

If you have doubts, go to an art museum and look at the great works of art. The image of the brutally beaten, crucified Christ has captured artists’ imaginations for two thousand years. There is the severed head of John the Baptist and the agonies of the saints. There is great secular art: Poussin’s Rape of the Sabine Women, Goya’s Disasters of War, and Picasso’s Guernica are but a few that come to mind.

Turn to literature: Macbeth is probably one of the bloodiest plays written. If you haven’t seen Roman Polanski’s movie version, rent it and have yourself a walk on the darkside equal to any Stephen King movie. Oedipus gouges out his eyes. Othello murders Desdemona and then commits suicide. Raskolnikov splits open his landlady’s head with an axe. War and Peace—the very title combines the polar opposites that must unite in the dance.

Myths and Fairy Tales Are Mirrors for Life’s Journeys

Turn to fairy tales and myths where the dark, fertile, churning underworld of the unconscious drives the stories and is home to its heroes and heroines; this is the archetypal Wonderland where all is birth, death and rebirth and the impossible is always possible. In the myth of Persephone, for example, Persephone is the young girl whom Clarissa Estes compares to our uninitiated creative self. Persephone must, if her creativity is to go beyond innocence, descend to the Underworld. In the myth, she is picking daisies and the earth literally opens and she is stolen by Hades, King of the Underworld, who is entranced by her beauty. Hades is the darkside rising up to give passion to the innocence of creativity itself.

Demeter, earth mother, Persephone’s mother and a powerful goddess in her own right, goes to Zeus and begs him to get her daughter back. Zeus says yes, but there’s a catch: If Persephone has not eaten anything in the Underworld, she can return to her mother. By mistake, however, Persephone eats three pomegranate seeds. Mistake? Let’s put it this way—would you want to go back to mamma’s house once you’ve tasted the joys of passion and reigned as Queen of the Underworld?

The Underworld is not a place of retribution, and Hades is not a fallen angel

It is important to the understanding of this story not to mistake the mythical underworld for the Christian hell. The Underworld is not a place of retribution, and Hades is not a fallen angel. Rather he is God of the Underworld, the powerful place of death and birth. But Hades needs a queen; he needs the moist power of the creative feminine. So Persephone “mistakenly” eats three pomegranate seeds and must return to Hades for six months out of the year. Although Demeter mourns and the earth falls into the cold, barren days of winter, you can bet there are all kinds of happenings going on in the inner core of the earth where Persephone reigns as queen beside her dark, seductive lover. Need proof? Just look at the wild fertility of Spring, the product of their months together. 

For a deeper exploration into the power of the darkside, order Emily's book, in softback or ebook, The Art of Fiction Writing or How to Fall Down the Rabbit Hole Without Really Trying.

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  1. This is a great article thanks!

  2. What a wonderful reading of the Persephone myth! It had never occurred to me that the pomegranate seeds weren't really a mistake. I would love to read a novel based on this version of the story.


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