My Contributory Verse

My brain is being an asshole. I don’t mind admitting that at all. Sometimes it does this, and I know it will pass, but while I’m floundering in that deep, dark hole, everything pretty much sucks.

On the positive side, I’ve used it as a catalyst for some extremely dark new stories, which I absolutely love. They’re much more bleak than my usual style, and I was initially worried if perhaps I was dragging myself down; immersing myself unnecessarily in misery and despair.

A friend said to me, and I sincerely hope he won’t mind me quoting him here: “My superstition has long been that confronting the black dog in fiction keeps it from sniffing too close at your heels.” and I know exactly what he means. The reaction of creating in response to hardship, helps to not only distract us from the pain, but to focus on our talents and abilities. It gives us something to cling to, a life raft of hope. More than that, it helps us make sense of ourselves, even if our art is not directly related to those dark thoughts.

One of my absolute favourite movies is “Dead Poets Society”, and I will never not sob at the ending. There are many quotes I could use here, but I feel perhaps this one is the most appropriate. It refers explicitly to poetry, but it applies itself just as equally to any body of creative work:

John Keating: We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play *goes on* and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

I suspect a lot of my general unease lately has been influenced by the feeling, perhaps some peculiar peer pressure, that I somehow have to explain why and what I do. That my art has to have a meaning. 

I don’t.

My first collection of short stories was a passion project, I did it for so many reasons, but first and foremost was for love. It is a snapshot of where I was in my life. I never expected it to be revolutionary or groundbreaking. It’s not. That doesn’t mean it’s bad or has no worth, it means it has a fixed place in my creative journey. It’s my contributory verse.

On Twitter this morning, another friend shared a short video of David Bowie responding to the question of why you should never play to the gallery.

“Always remember that the reason that you initially started working, was that there was something inside yourself that you felt if you could manifest in someway, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society. I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfil other people’s expectations, I think they generally produce their worst work when they do that. The only thing I would say is, if you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

Whenever I need to quieten my mind, or just get a sense of myself again, I go to the sea. The sea doesn’t care who you are or what you do — it can be beautiful and calm, or mighty and terrifying. It just does as it wants, it needs no validation. I admire that.

Last year, I wrote and published a piece focusing on belonging, and finding where you are in the world. I’ve since edited and amended it, returning to it when I need to. A large part of it needed no changes. I believe it still rings true.

Here, in Wellington, the two loudest sounds are quite frequently the wind and the sea. While the sea is only truly loud when you are standing close to it, the wind comes bustling around your house, knocking on windows and rattling doors, demanding to be acknowledged. Wind is obnoxious; even on a calm day it has many forms, but it always feels like the most intrusive of the elements. With other forms of weather there are ways to avoid it or hide from it, but wind seems absolutely determined to find you.

“Hi! Hello! I’m here again!” It seems to say, as it grabs you by the ears with both hands and leans into your face. It can be like a demanding toddler, or a sedate old man. It can run and whoop and swirl, or it can meander and caress. Either way it seems impossible to hide from it completely. In that way it is the partner of the sea. Both are unstoppable and will do exactly as they wish. Both have great power and strength, the ability to ravage and destroy, but can be equally calm and restful. They do exactly as they like and nothing gets in their way. You must learn to accept them and work with them, or accept that you will always be fighting against them. A fight you will never win.

“Why fight us when we are so much greater than you? That’s simply how we are.”

I feel like too many people fight the wind and the sea in their lives, perhaps without realising it. I know I did. They still believe that they can tame the elements without appreciating or understanding their immensity. They see the wind as a nuisance to be overcome, the sea a force to be tamed. That’s not true. To wilfully ignore or challenge the guiding forces of your life ultimately never ends well.

I am not afraid these elements, even though I am fully aware of the destruction they can cause. I prefer, instead, to celebrate how impressive they both are. You can keep your calm days, give me instead the power of the ocean, the roar of a storm in my ears. A calm day may be beautiful; the sea, gentle, the wind, a mere kiss on the cheeks, but at any point the weather may change, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Embrace the power and the wildness, or spend your days always railing against a force that does not care about your emotions and can flatten you without a thought.

I write because I must. When I don’t, I feel incomplete. Sometimes I slip into the desperate trap of seeking validation, and then I tip the rancid sawdust from my ears, and go about my day.

My brain, right now, is being an asshole, but it will pass. And in the meantime, I’m quite curious to see what stories might emerge.

I’ll let the Dead Poets boys – using the words of poet and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau – conclude this post:

“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.”

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