The Dark and Light in a Writer’s Life

Why do literary writers so often languish in the dark? And why do I, a Christian writer, find myself tending there, too?
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I think of Sylvia Plath who longed to succeed at writing so badly that it drove her entire life, and who eventually found success–only to kill herself. Her journal is full of amazing writing, by the way—lilting, lyrical writing that wowed me—but by the end, when I had to face the reality of a journal, and a life, prematurely cut short, I had to conclude: It wasn’t worth it.

That said, let me make a confession: I started out in the dark, too. (Oh, that word darkness is so fraught with metaphor, but let me hold off for a moment.)

I merely mean I wrote dark things—when I really started writing (age 14)—because my life had gone dark. There were certain things happening at home that I couldn’t talk about. Dark things. Embarrassing things.

I wrote in the dark, too (again, resisting the full metaphorical connotations). I mean, I wrote at night. Not only did my student schedule make nighttime the best time, but it just seemed fitting. Until after I got married, I remained a night writer, letting the day’s darkness inspire that in me to come out.

From my background in literature, it seems to me that a lot of great writers drew their inspiration from suffering. Some tragedy from childhood—or some shocking turn in adulthood. Why would a person, and how could they, write of darkness without living it? Why would they want to?

ImageMark Twain, commonly dubbed a humor writer, actually turned darkly pessimistic in his later years after losing his daughter.

You remember that highly anthologized story “The Yellow Wallpaper” with the unreliable (read: crazy) narrator? The author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman ended up killing herself, as did the popular Virginia Woolf.

Alcoholism ran in William Faulkner’s family, and Eugene O’Neil’s mother was addicted to morphine (this is depicted in his play Long Day’s Journey into Night).

T.S. Eliot had a nervous breakdown, and Ezra Pound died in an insane asylum.

From my American Literature class, I can remember a slew of writers whose fathers died in their youth or abandoned them, including Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and Tennessee Williams.

And Sylvia. Poor Sylvia lost her father before the tender age of ten. She obviously never recovered, but for a period of years she was able to cover her pain with a slew of academic and literary achievements.

I see a lot of myself in Sylvia. Correction. A lot of my old self.

Poor Sylvia never found light. I did. I recovered a will to live as well as developed a prayer life. I decided my still forthcoming memoirs would not be all doom and gloom and “poor me, pity me,” but rather, “Look what God can bring forth from doom and gloom” and “Learn from me.”

And yet…

And yet…

I just had a conversation with a good friend in which I confessed: “I still find myself wanting to write mainly melancholy—I have to work to write positively. I worry that this blog gets too dark sometimes.”

She reassured me that, although, yes, I get a bit dark sometimes, there’s always hope inherent. “It’s a good mix,” she says. “And maybe it will help someone going through similar things.”

Can I make a spiritual/biblical application here?

My Characteristic Glimmer of Hope

In the past year, I’ve started marking metaphors I find in my Bible. I have a dream of teaching a college literature class that explores the figurative language in the Bible—it is so rich!

One of the recurring metaphors I find is that of light and dark.

This is so meaningful to me because of the darkness I’ve felt in my life—and more so just in me. The Bible tells me that Jesus came to shed light on my darkness. He is the Light of life. But the world did not recognize Him because they loved darkness (See Luke 1:78-79; John 1:3-5, 10; 8:12; 1 John 1:5).

I love the image of my Lord and Savior shining light on me—illuminating my narrow and closed mind, drawing me out of the night’s blackness into the morning light, warming my frigid insides.

Oh, He knows me so well! He knew what I would need—His light! Oh, Lord, more of your light!

But these remaining shadows! What of these mixed blog posts of light and dark? It’s like a struggle is going on in my soul.

The sobering reality is: There is a struggle going on in my soul. The enemy is clearly still fighting for me—he wants me back, that jerk. But I have no intention of going back.

And yet…those shadows.

Sometimes I wonder if going back on depression meds could help brighten my discouragingly-default-like pessimism. And then I remember that over six years, they never helped me as much as inviting Jesus into my heart. And I go back to my Bible to read that no pill could change the real problem (my fallen human nature), not unless it were God-sent manna-Prozac.

So—here’s my real gem of hope for today—maybe my mixed blog posts are churning out of my insides in the way they do to serve as a reminder, to me, to you, that there is a battle going on every day in our souls—and it won’t be over until God comes. 

“Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

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23 thoughts on “The Dark and Light in a Writer’s Life

  1. Mike Crape April 18, 2013 / 1:02 pm

    Great “light” piece, thank you for sharing!

  2. pithywords April 18, 2013 / 2:50 pm

    I love it. It’s difficult being an artist and a Christian, it’s nice to know someone else out there understands the struggle between showing Christ through your actions and being honest in your art. I think more Christian artists need to be honest. Life isn’t pretty, why do we insist on making everyone think ours is the exception?

    • lindseygendke April 19, 2013 / 9:11 am

      Exactly! I could write all about light and roses, but then I feel I would lose credibility with the audience I’m trying to reach, because others who have denied reality have lost credibility with me. Glad to know a fellow Christian artist!

  3. Kim Bultman April 18, 2013 / 6:49 pm

    Lindsey, I like your perspectives on dark and light. (Also your last several posts.) In my experience, denying that dark and shadows exist are an open invitation to more of the same. Wrestle with your thoughts, illuminate them with the Light, and keep writing.

    I tend to keep my blog “light” because that’s what I’m called to do… to be an encourager. However, it’s posts like yours that make me grapple with “the other side of me.” Each one serves a purpose. Thank you.

    • lindseygendke April 19, 2013 / 9:09 am

      Kim, I’ve had the thought that maybe one day I will get the “dark” out of me and will not need to write about it anymore. I would actually love to try my hand at some humor writing–but perhaps there will always be this side to grapple with. So I will keep wrestling with the thoughts and shining light on them. Thanks for reminding me there is a place for each kind of writing.

      • Kim Bultman April 19, 2013 / 12:28 pm

        Lindsey, humor is a terrific foil for darkness — I hope you try your hand at it. Maybe that’s why the traditional “theatre masks” represent comedy & tragedy? Go for it, girl!

      • lindseygendke April 22, 2013 / 4:06 pm

        Kim, an interesting thought about the masks! I think you may be on to something. I know several people who seem to use humor to avoid facing their pain…in everyday conversation, I’d say this is mostly men. In writing, probably anyone who uses it is, to some extent, covering the less lovely subjects they could write knowledgeably about! I look forward to trying my own hand at humor!

  4. Susan Holtan April 19, 2013 / 1:00 pm

    Yes. Seek the light and the shadows will fall behind you. Sometimes, like Jacob from the Old Testament, we wrestle with God. He wants to heal, bless and empower us and we keep insisting on seeking our own dismal paths. I’m reminded of this when I walk the dog. I try to lead him into a funner(?) trot or to greener pastures and he keeps checking his “pee-mail.”
    May God dry all your tears (shed and unshed) and warm you today. Love, Mom.

    • lindseygendke April 22, 2013 / 4:08 pm

      Too true that we want to keep returning to the dark. I like your wordplay–you are so clever! When are you gonna start your own blog? I had a lovely weekend with lots of light! Love you!

  5. lucewriter April 22, 2013 / 9:35 am

    Lindsey, I thought I liked and commented on this post the other day! So well written. Beautiful post.

    • lindseygendke April 22, 2013 / 4:09 pm

      Thanks so much! I’m enjoying our little commenting conversations!

      • lucewriter April 22, 2013 / 4:15 pm

        Me too!

  6. TracieWrites May 8, 2013 / 12:20 pm

    Thank you for the link. The ‘dark vs. light’ connotations of creativity are certainly something that I understand. After all, life should never be one or the other, it should always be both. And thus, that should be reflected in the writing at hand.

    • lindseygendke May 8, 2013 / 1:43 pm

      Yes, life is definitely a mix of both, and to deny one or the other is to be dishonest. I wish someday for an all “light” existence…and I believe it will come. But for now, stuck on planet earth, this is what it is.

      • TracieWrites May 8, 2013 / 1:45 pm

        That is honestly what irritates me with so much writing these days. People either make it all one or the other. Stories which are all light seem to get all the feedback and the praise, because it is sheer fluff and escapism. But that’s never enough for me; I want to see every colour in literature because regardless of how fantastical the universe it is set in may be, that’s what makes it feel real.

  7. Kate July 16, 2013 / 10:01 pm

    Loving your writing, Lindsey. Thanks for your honesty. I am an English teacher, and my students always pick up on the darkness in literature. We always do a quick bio background so they can see where all this darkness came from, a lot of time. I say all that because I love your story – how God rescued you from darkness, even though it’s still a struggle. That’s our fallen world, right? But I appreciate you wrestling with your darkness out in the light, where your struggle can inspire and encourage others to do the same. I am a huge fan of being real – and the ‘most’ real, even more real than our darkness, is God’s ability to redeem anything and everything. And that is the hope people need to discover. So, I love that you are mixing it up. I strive to write as real as I can in my blogs – sometimes light, sometimes serious – but my goal is to always end on an ‘up’ note – because God is the bottom line reality, who always brings hope. OK – done preaching to the choir. Thank you producing a quality blog that is intelligently written, grounded in truth. Love that.

    • lindseygendke July 17, 2013 / 8:47 am

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment, Kate. I appreciate the thoughts about teaching literature. I was there a few years ago, and my high school kids, too, would pick up on the darkness. “Why do we always read such depressing stuff?” they would ask. I appreciate the mainstream’s honesty about the darkness of life, but more and more I am disappointed that so many never seem to climb out. This is where we Christian writers can help fill a need! Best wishes on your own blog, and in your teaching! Glad to have you reading!

      • Kate July 17, 2013 / 9:14 am

        I completely agree. I tell them that this is where the our minds end up without God to bring His light and truth. I teach in a Christian school, so I am fortunate to be able to bring God’s light and truth even to the dark literature we read. So glad people like you are being honest about the darkness- and being honest about the solution to it- Christ’s light and truth!

      • lindseygendke July 17, 2013 / 11:01 am

        That’s a blessing, working in a Christian school. I didn’t have that advantage, so it was always hard for me to know how to broach those topics. I hope my faith came through implicitly, despite the restrictions!

      • Kate July 17, 2013 / 5:13 pm

        I’m sure it did. Kids are savvy. They can tell the real deal, when someone is different, especially in that kind of environment. Light shines best in the dark. 🙂

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