Breathing in dark spaces

I was talking to a blogger once, and he said what he hates about blogging is the comments. Not that he hates comments in themselves – bloggers love comments. What he hates is the content of comments. Because sometimes, the comments tell you that your readers missed your point. They read, yes, they liked, yes, they responded, yes, but not in the way you wanted them to. They heard what they wanted to hear, not what you were actually saying.

I argued that all writing is like that, even songs. A man writes a song about a dog and his girl decides the song is about her. For example, I know people who are convinced this song is about drugs. And I suppose it could be. Except when I first heard this singer, it was on a gospel station, so I’ve always assumed the song is about God. To that, my blogger pal said sure, but with a blog, people tell you what they think immediately, and sometimes, knowing you haven’t been heard can really hurt.

I bumped into a post over at Biko’s. He starts by introducing his friend, Wanjiru, who has recently resumed writing. In his starting paragraphs, Biko says all good writing comes from dark spaces, just like heartbreak songs. He then includes a pretty good piece by Wanjiru, all about instagram, exercise, and people getting fat.

Manny Ice Age
I’m not fat. It’s all this fur. It makes me look poofy.

In the comments, people rightly praised Wanjiru’s writing, because they could relate to it. It was a light, easy read, and they felt she understood them, that she was one of them. Her story touched people, as good writing should. It made a serious point, but made people laugh in the process. If you haven’t already, go over there and read it.

Something came up in the comments though. A few readers latched onto Biko’s comment about darkness breeding the best prose, and they asked him if he was happy, since he’s such a good writer. One commenter even said if misery was the source of his talent, then she kind of hoped he’d never be happy.

I’ve heard this kind of sentiment before. I was listening to Linkin Park with a friend, and we were comparing their earlier music to the stuff they do today. He said every time he hears ♫ Crawling ♫, he wants to walk up to Chester and ask, ‘Who hurt you?’ And then he wants to find that person and make them re-hurt Chester, so that we can hear that quality of music again.

Ed Sheeran sees it a little differently. He said in an interview that he writes the kind of songs that women listen to while crying and eating ice cream. True. He also says he’s a really happy person, because he pours all his sadness into his songs, and once the mood is out of his system, he feels great.

ed sheeran


I suppose it helps that people love the songs and pay mad money for his concerts – that would lift anybody’s mood. That’s not the only thing though, since lots of rich, successful musicians and rock stars end up drugged, miserable, and dead…

I think both Ed and Biko are onto something. I think that dark space inside us can produce deep, haunting, beautiful pieces of art and writing. But I also think there’s a danger in wallowing in that space. Chimamanda says there’s a certain awe – almost an admiration for depression in art. I recognise that feeling, because for the longest time, I held on to depression. I felt it was vital to my identity, that without it, I would no longer be … me.

But as I begin to heal and acquire coping mechanisms, I realise that you can be in that space for a while, then you can leave. It’s like a room in your house – your writing room maybe. And you can walk into it, do your best work, then lock the door and walk out into the sunshine. Gifted genius(es?) don’t have to be tortured.

So no, you don’t have to be Edgar Allen Poe or Van Gogh to be brilliant. You don’t have to write beautiful books, create haunting paintings, or sing heart-rending songs then shoot yourself or drop dead from sheer misery. Yes, you can pick up a pen or a keyboard when the black dog attacks, and use that hole to inspire sacred works.

Luka Sulic

Then … put down your pencil, lock up your instrument, shut down your computer, close your book, clean your paintbrush, go have some milk-free ice cream. You can use the evil in the world – and the darkness in your soul – to inspire art and gifted writing. You just don’t have to use it to inspire your life … or catalyse your death.

♫ Free ♫ Rudimentals ♫