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the penumbra.

February 7, 2014

i’m sure i’ve written about this topic before: the idea of striking the balance between dark & light. i find that, with my psychology background (sometimes i wish i had followed that degree into a post-grad degree, just to see if i would have been any good at it) i’m often drawn into conversations that revolve around writers’ mental health and how writers closet themselves away and so on and so on. the insinuation is that writers are inherently dark creatures who have a dark side and if you haven’t suffered, then how can you be a writer? i even got a little bit of reverb related to that train of thought when i was in my MFA program – it was insinuated, more than once, that a (then) 22 year old girl from the suburbs of ontario who had a good relationship with her family could not (should not) be writing angsty things, and therefore could not be writing well. (part of that is true, i think, because early writing is never good. but part of that was untrue, thank goodness.)


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pioneer cemetery, sunset.


but i think humans are born with a dark streak – or not. the point is, it can’t all be nurture. there’s some nature at play, too. one of my psych classes used this analogy for nature vs. nurture: if you picture every human being as a cup. some cups have some liquid in them already, some don’t. some have lots of liquid, some very little. that’s nature – that’s what you’re born with, your predisposed tendencies. nature is a ewer, pouring more liquid into us. if we’re genetically predisposed, we can take all the liquid that nature offers, and not overflow. if we already have lots of liquid in us, nature will push us over the edge. (this is the example they use to show how people develop mental disorders.) i think this can apply to the idea of “darkness”, too.

furthermore, what is “darkness”? angst? that’s just angst. evil? i’d hope not. a predilection for the kinky, the deviant, the non-mainstream? too easy. is it just strangeness? is it sadness? or maybe it’s rage. the point is, we haven’t well-defined this word. someone who likes philip pullman’s work might be considered dark. someone who likes leather might be considered dark. someone who has antisocial disorder-like tendencies might be considered dark (or sociopathic). are you dark if you’re quiet, if you’re introverted? if you’re weird?


georgian bay at sunset.

georgian bay at sunset.


the truth is, we might talk of being dark, but society doesn’t want people to often show their darkness. society is comfortable with a gloss, a peppering of darkness but no real injection of it. and that’s fair.

it’s kind of exhausting to constantly balance between light and dark, to walk the fine line. sometimes, i want to write about really screwed-up stuff. in theory, that’s encouraged. in practice, people get weirded out. i know a lot of writers who do this: they write things are are liminal, just strange enough that the public will consume it, but too dark, too deep, and editors/agents/readers shy away. people don’t mirrors being held up to their strangest desires or yuckiest thoughts, and writers can ably provide that mirror. but we don’t always, because it’s tiring to be always mining the deepest parts of yourself.

i should count the amount of times i’ve been told to “be positive”, “embrace the light”, “live laugh love”, “see the light”, “focus on the light at end of the tunnel”, “be lighthearted.” people are always wanting to turn me toward the idea of the light, to push me toward being more light-hearted and less intense and focused on the dark things that humans do to each other. but the truth is, i’ve always gravitated toward writing that exposes the basest, more animal instincts that people have – mccarthy, faulkner, reichs – that it would make sense for me to mimic that in my own writing life. i think all of us have this knife-edge inside of our torso, that we can feel pushing against our chest cavities or at the cusp of our throats. the inability to acknowledge the weirder, darker part of ourselves. maybe we would be healthier – less uptight – if we did so.

what if, for once, society (that broad term to refer to all people who are concerned [probably mostly rightfully so] with keeping up appearances) allowed themselves to, in the middle of that so-called tunnel, to just focus on the darkness? try not to mire in it, but instead, creatively harness it? food for thought.

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