The Dark Forest
This month, I slammed hard into a wall of despair with writing this graphic novel. (Surprise, surprise). I naively thought, “hey I’ve got creative chops, I’ve been making art for years. I know that it can be hard, terrifying - a tedious slog. But I can handle the pressure of the creative process. I’m a professional. No problem!”
Little did I realise that this whole long-form writing thing, which I’ve never done before - woah - it’s next level hard. I’m there. Putting in the hours. My butt is sore from sitting, and I have wrist calluses from typing. But the writing, it sucks. It’s word salad. The structure, of weaving diverse subject matter and perspectives together, now seems futile. How did I ever think this would work? In addition, I still have mountains of books on my desk plus links I have to wade through to check quotes and facts.
This creative stress quickly tipped over into extreme self-doubt and anxiety. (These have always been loud companions, but under stress like this they’ve been taking over.)
In utter desperation I shared this drawing from my visual diary with my Comic Art Workshop buddies. It was a call for help, a call for community, for collaborators, an attempt at shedding light on my predicament. And it was met with a loud “ME TOO” followed by “YOU ARE AWESOME, WE LOVE YOU AND YOUR WORK; PLEASE KEEP GOING”.
I was so heartened by the encouragement and level of “ME TOO” that I decided to share it publicly. The response was heart-opening. I was amazed by the number of professional artists and writers I know who are publicly adored, and seem totally powerful and confident in their work, but are struggling with exactly the same crippling terror and doubts. Why is this not talked about more often?
Maybe I've been partially brainwashed by the creative trend that’s everywhere at the moment - particularly in advertising, business and self-help spaces - encouraging people to write books, do intuitive mandala painting retreats, buy colouring books, take sabbaticals, start a band; heck even at McDonald's you can design your own burger. We receive these messages - that creativity is sexy, fun, accessible, the key to your self-expression, your business innovation, your relaxation, your happiness. We're told everyone is creative and you too can unlock your creative potential.
Certainly from the outside, when we look at other people’s art and see creative folks in the studio - it looks alluring and exciting. We want to do that. Look, they are working and drinking wine. They are so inspired. We love the delicious idea that the creative person is a divine channel to a fertile unknown. We want to be that too.
Despite my years of art making experience, I've somehow been hijacked by these seductive myths of creativity. I do not mean to discourage anyone who is on a fledgling path of creative exploration. Rather, I'm reminding myself, and you dear reader, that there needs to be more depth to the conversation. As creative endeavor deepens, as you extend yourself into uncomfortable new territory; you need to develop resilient creative confidence. Finding your voice is hard, and takes a lot of time and work, that people rarely see. It's not glamorous. As Jessica Abel says "If what you're doing is deep, if it's worth doing, it's going to be hard."
The wonderful Joshua Santospirito recently reminded me of Jessica Abel, with my current creative struggles, and put me onto this fantastic podcast, about dealing with what she calls the Dark Forest.
In the revelatory podcast, she suggests that the way out of the emotional turmoil of the Dark Forest is to totally commit. To go further, and deeper into the woods. To get well and truly lost, and then transcend it. Then find/fight your way back. In her opinion, this is most often what it feels like to make art. It can feel like you’re flailing, like you’re completely incapable of getting your mind all the way around the subject at hand. The feeling of “I have bitten off way more than I can chew”.
Ira Glass chimes in with, just put “one foot in front of the other. Slog through and execute. That’s the job of making something. Creativity involves struggle. Jed Abumrad says wisely that , “somewhere in the middle of that trauma, I think I found my voice. There is a real correlation between time spent in the Dark Forest and these moments of emergence”.
So, if like me you are currently fighting your way through the Dark Forest, I hope that Kazu Kibuishi’s words are encouraging to you; the more you go to the Dark Forest the more “the terror gets reframed, because you know you’ve made it out a few times...You recognise the forest for what it is - a tool to hear the next version of yourself...You’ll get through it. You’ll be fine. This will help you progress. Over time you get used to this stuff coming up. Remind yourself that it means the next step is coming. When you feel terrible, it means something good is going to come.”