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).

The Boston Marathon and the Pain You Can’t See

Again this week my writing was interrupted by tragedy. I mean to say not that the tragedy inconvenienced me, but that I was so wrapped up in my own writing that I almost missed it. I was sitting in my home office, a little “cubicle” in our dining room, when my husband texted, “Bombing in Boston. Turn on the TV.”

Since the bombing yesterday, I don’t know how many times I have seen the video replayed, how many interviews with eyewitnesses, how many commentaries on what it all means for our country.

This morning I again turned on the TV and saw a psychologist giving advice about how to talk to your children about such tragedies. I saw that support centers had been set up, hotlines put in place. And I knew we would be hearing about this for a long time.

However, rather than thinking about the losses the victims suffered yesterday, I found myself thinking mostly about the difference between dealing with physical versus emotional tragedies, or losses. And how one is more acceptable to acknowledge than the other.

And now I’m trying to work up to some poignant point about how it’s not fair—it’s not fair that people who have been wounded physically get to air their pain so much more freely than those who are wounded emotionally…but even as I think about writing that, the naysayers in my head start: “This is not the time to air your agenda.” “Show some compassion!” “How can you be so heartless!” “Did you really just say that?!”

Yes, I did.

In no way do I want to diminish the pain of yesterday’s victims (who will no doubt also suffer emotional scars), but when things like this happen, I must admit, I get certain thoughts…and certain questions that make me feel I must be a monster.

Readers, can you tell me, do you ever have these thoughts, too?

When these heinous crimes are committed, and it creates a media aftershock as sweeping as the Boston blasts, do you ever wonder how your life would have been different had it been a physical wound you’d suffered, rather than an emotional one?

Do you wonder: Had your wounds come from a public, graphic, physical injury, would you have healed sooner? Would you have had more support? Would it have been easier to survive, because you had so many at your side? Would it be easier to talk about just because there was no way to hide? Here I want to make a distinction between those who lost limbs and those who lost loved ones—I believe there is an important categorical difference between the two types of tragedies. (Or is there?)

What if I put it like this: Would you rather suffer from a physical malady than from an emotional or a mental one? Finally (and I may regret asking this), am I a monster for even raising such questions at a time like this? Please share your thoughts! (And yes, mine go out to the victims of yesterday, along with my prayers.)

My Role Model Committed Suicide

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(This photo belongs to Jay Tilston and can be found here.)

She wasn’t exactly my role model, but Mindy Mccready’s suicide yesterday got me thinking about an actual role model of mine who did recently kill himself. I’ve thought about writing about him many times since I heard the news in December, but until now, the pain was too fresh to face.

Mindy’s death came quickly and tragically for me, too; but it’s easier to write about her because I only remember her as a marginal figure in my youth. After her hit “Guys Do It All the Time,” which played on the radio during our school bus route in 1996, she kinda dropped off the radar for me. Aside from admiring her twangy statement against male chauvinism, I never counted her among my personal heroes.

Not like Leo Schreven.

A motivational speaker and evangelist, Leo was much lesser known than Mindy. At least in the secular world. But in both the secular and religious worlds, I’d have to say his impact was far greater than hers. That’s because Leo’s work was not just to entertain, but to inspire, even to save souls by leading them to Christ.

What I Learned from Leo Schreven

In 2009, a complex of factors brought me to my knees in search of divine intervention. Our family was in a state of crisis, I was beginning my second year of teaching, and I knew I couldn’t get through the stress of this time alone. As a result, I was open to God in a way I had never been open before. And He delivered.

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(This photo can be found here.)

Among the many ways God provided for my spiritual growth that year, He placed recordings of one of Leo’s Bible seminars within earshot. It was a twenty-plus-part seminar on Bible prophecy that also touched on how Christians should live in a secular world. The material moved me deeply, to the point that I changed a number of personal habits I’d had for years. Christianity was not about the weekly church visit, I learned that year, it is about the daily walk—and Leo had a huge hand in teaching me that.

In 2010, I was floored to learn that Leo would be coming to my church to present one of his newer seminars, this one called “All Power.” Unlike his previously Bible-based presentations, these were more secular, dealing with self-improvement in five areas of life (religion and spirituality being relegated to one-fifth of the seminar). Even though these presentations weren’t as “godly” as what I formerly remembered, I found this material helpful, too, so much so that I used it to build a series of lessons for my public school seniors the next fall.

Too Good to Be True?

As you can imagine, when I found out that Leo had committed suicide in December of 2012, I felt devastated. I also couldn’t help feeling a little betrayed. What had happened to his promise of finding “all power” in all the major areas of life? I didn’t want to be bitter, but I did feel bitter, especially because I felt Leo had let down not only me, but also my students.

More than feeling sorry for myself, though, I felt sorry for Leo’s wife and daughter. This was sure to sink the ministry, I thought, and it did. All Power Ministries folded just this month, with Leo’s poor widow announcing that it was just too much to maintain. The irony of the situation (motivational speaker commits suicide) was too obvious, or shameful, to receive comment.

As I thought back to Leo’s weekend-long seminar at my church, I remembered watching his energetic gait and mile-a-minute speech and thinking that his success seemed too good to be true…I remember hearing him rave about his vegan diet and how he only needed four hours of sleep per night…how he traveled for over two-thirds of the year to bring these life-giving principles to others…and the pace of his life seemed insupportable.

After his early days of evangelism in the nineties (which produced the audio recordings that partially led me back to God), He told us he, with his wife, had decided to place other priorities above family—just for a few years, so he could build up his ministry and his wealth (which he used for much good, I must say). And that was one of his recommendations in the All Power seminar: that you sacrifice some things now in order to set yourself up for success later. From what I understood, his plan was to build up his career and ministry first, then come back to his family life later.

But he never got the chance.

Leo died with millions of dollars, a thriving ministry, and what must have been thousands of followers (including yours truly). But, as it came out later, his wife had left him prior to the suicide, taking their daughter with them. His personal life was a shambles.

They had tried to work it out, his wife explained, but unbeknownst to the public, he had been suffering with a debilitating mental illness for many years, and finally, it got to be too much to bear. They urged Leo to get help, she said, but he would not.

Making Sense of Tragedy

What do you say when things like this happen? My husband and I mulled it over in shock for days. Leo seemed so happy, so healthy, when we’d last seen him. He seemed so in control and confident. He almost seemed larger than life.

But maybe that was the problem. I hate to speculate, but I can only imagine that the pressure of having to maintain an “all powerful” life must have been crushing. He must have felt the pressure that many Christians feel—although to a much greater extent—when others look to you to fill shoes you were never meant to fill—when you become a “God” figure for others.

I won’t fully understand what happened until I get to ask God in heaven, but in trying to understand my role model’s suicide, I have come to resolution in several ways.

  • Leo’s death reminds me that we should never put anyone in the place of God. We are all only humans—even the “best” of us—and we must remember that no accomplishments come from our own strength.
  • Though immediately I felt bitter that Leo had let me down, I eventually came to feel thankful for how the Lord had used him to bring me back to my true role model, Jesus Christ. Though it’s sad Leo won’t be able to convert any more hearts, I am thankful for the thousands of hearts that he did convert.
  • In the end, I just have to trust God’s wisdom and leading. He knows things we don’t, and although I don’t believe God caused this suicide, or Mindy Mccready’s, or anyone one else’s, I have to trust that He allowed it to happen. Though it won’t make it any easier for the survivors, I know that God works miracles through tragedies. Perhaps Leo’s death will be a call to other public figures, role models, and ministers to remember that only by the grace of God can they be successful, or remain that way.
  • Both Leo’s and Mindy’s deaths should spur the humility in us all. No matter how secure we seem, or even feel, we cannot be too confident in our own abilities. It is because of God that we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) and for no other reason. Once we forget that, becoming too prideful to admit we have problems or to seek the help we need, we are on Satan’s playground—and he will stop at nothing to destroy us (John 10:10).
  • Life is short and fleeting. What is your life? It is but a mist that appears for awhile and then disappears (James 4:14). Leo’s life and death reminds me that no matter how much good I intend to do (even in the name of the Lord), I can’t get so busy that I neglect my health or my family. I’ll take success more slowly if it means I get to keep my life, my health, and my family.
  • God has already used Leo’s death to teach me.

Though there is no easy way to end this post, I would like to close by offering my sincerest condolences to Leo’s family, to Mindy’s family, and to all families of suicide victims. I pray that the “God of all comfort” with become very real to you in these inscrutable times, smoothing over the unanswered questions until that day when He will make all things plain, letting us judge for ourselves the tragedies of this life (1 Cor. 6:3; Rev: 20:12).