The Dark Night of a Writer’s Soul

Second prelude:  Outside my window the apartment parking lot and cars are dusted with snow.  I was going to sit down and write an essay about my current state of mind, and was going to refer to the stunningly poetic ambiance in Jack London’s brilliant story “The White Silence”; however, mundane household business intruded, took my time, and broke my train of thought.  Interestingly enough, I have been reading a new biography of Jack London, about which I will write soon, and early this morning when I first woke up I was reading about the dark night of the soul.  I realized that what I was going to write now would be almost identical to the essay below which I wrote many months ago.

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First prelude:  I wrote this in San Diego before my sons and I moved up north to Yakima.  I did not publish it then because I felt it was too negative.  It is, however, realistic.  In it I refer to the expression “the dark night of the soul” which I think originated with the Christian mystic Saint John of the Cross.  He makes it clear that this dark time is necessary to hone the soul; it is a part of the journey towards the ultimate light.  Anyone who is sincere in his calling, no matter what that calling is, has to go through it.

I also refer to the hack work of writing Internet articles.  I am still doing that, still hanging on by my fingernails.  But the reason I am publishing this now is that though I have my ups and downs, I do not feel I am in that dark valley anymore.  We are getting by; we are surviving, and I realize more and more that millions of others in this vast American landscape are going through similar experiences, barely hanging on and wondering what the hell happened and how they arrived at such an impasse.  Reading “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” by George Packer helped me see that. Things are tough, there’s no doubt about it.  Perseverance is the name of the game.  There are no easy answers, easy solutions.  So I keep doing what I can do, day by day.

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I am reminded of the story of Jack London from “Jack London: Sailor on Horseback”.  I was drawn to it again and again in my first exhilarating, terrifying fever of enthusiasm as a young writer.  When he returned from the Klondike he had the responsibility of a household and mounting debts, but the burden of his calling as a writer burned in his heart.  He longed to express himself, to use his talent; however, he soon found out that no one was lining up to publish his work, that it was a seemingly impossible mountain to climb.  He dove into the task, wrote stories, sent them out, but the money evaporated, the pantry emptied, he pawned everything of value he owned, and there was still no glimmer of victory in sight.  Then he received a letter from the post office, an offer of steady employment.  If he took the job he could adequately provide for those dependent upon him, he could wear new clothes, he could eat well, he could buy the magazines and books he devoured.  But he would have no time to write.  He would have to give up on his dream.  He would, in fact, have to admit defeat.  His mother stood by him and told him to persevere no matter how long it took.  He tackled the writing with new energy, and soon his fortunes took a turn for the better.

Recently I applied at a well-known delivery company for a part-time job at minimum wage.  After agonizing depression and soul-searching I decided to turn down the job, and furthermore, to start growing the beard again that I had shaved off before I went to the interview.  I thought it would be a turning point, that from that moment things would look up.  I started writing two thousand words or more daily.  I updated and streamlined my website.  I worked on books that were in various stages of pre-publication.  I have kept it all up day seven days a week, stopping only to exercise, to go shopping, to cook, to clean the house.  I thought that my resolve would be enough to keep me in a buoyant mood, to keep my momentum going.

I was wrong.

Every day I am beset with doubts.  Every day I have to remind myself who I am and what I should be doing.  Every day I wonder if I am delusional, if I am in fact a failure who is no good for anything but a minimum wage job.

Yes, every day.

It reminds me of what I have heard many times, that courage is not the absence of fear, but persevering in doing the right thing in spite of fear.

It also reminds me of what I have read of the great monks and mystics of the past, that all of them, at some stage of their search for God, went through what is known as the dark night of the soul, a time when they felt abandoned, alone, without answers, without solace, without hope.  Even Jesus had to wander in the desert before he began his ministry.

But I am speaking of writers, not of religion.  This time, the time I am going through now, is exacerbated by the fact that so many people depend on me, and I want more than anything to help them.  Yet I know that if I take that minimum wage job, if I accept the dregs that society is offering me, that it will not be the best either for them or for me.  I want to give them more.

Several nights ago I got together with some other writers from the San Diego area to sip some wine and talk about writing, and the subject came up of why writers do it.  I am speaking here of writers who consider what they do a calling, not just a way to make money; I am not speaking of hacks.  Hacks have their place, to be sure, and some people considered hacks are in fact artists.  But writers are no better human beings than anyone else; if you read a few biographies you will find they usually have more than their share of problems both internal and external.  What writers have is an undeniable, indefatigable urge to express themselves with words, whether it is in science fiction stories or literary novels or memoirs or essays or whatever.  A writer must write.  That is his or her purpose, and if that purpose is not fulfilled the unrequited writer will end up as less than complete, dissatisfied in a profound way with a dissatisfaction for which there is no cure but the expression itself.

The problem is, writers also have to eat and drink and live someplace and often support others.  Many accomplish this by taking jobs with ample income to pursue their writing in their free time.  I myself have done that for many years.  But now I find  myself unable to find any decent work, and I am in a quandary.  When do I make my stand?  Who is to say anything will come of it if I apply myself all day seven days a week to my writing?  What if I fail?  If I do I will have failed not only myself but my loved ones.

This is what I wrestle with daily.

I search for freelance jobs in the meantime, like ones I had before writing blog articles.  This, I feel, is a reasonable compromise.  But even these are few and far between, and the listings are replete with scams and starvation wages.

I will continue to struggle, continue to write through my despair.  But I am tired of discouragement, tired of rejection, tired of despair.  I could sure use some good news.

In the meantime, tomorrow I will be at it again, working on that story, hope or no hope on the horizon.  The only way a writer truly fails is to stop writing.

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1 Response to The Dark Night of a Writer’s Soul

  1. Pingback: The Dark Night of a Writer’s Soul (Revisited in Light of the Pandemic) | John Walters

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