I wanted to dove-tail a bit on Tam’s post last week—the weight of the kinds of darkness she described have been tangibly with me these past days despite the extraordinarily lovely weather we have been savoring for most of January here in the Bay Area (many of us feel guilty about enjoying it so much when a great deal of the Northern Hemisphere is steeped in dreariness. Plus we need the rain. Still, it’s hard not to look out the window each morning and cheer; Hooray! Sunshine and blue skies again!)
Yes, light does offer a sense of possibility, of curiosity, of hope and we, as human beings, are drawn to it, even long for it. We wait through the darkest hour for the break of dawn. We feel nourished by light’s myriad of forms and many relative states from sunshine to candle light, from the light promised in the word enlightenment to a lightness of spirit. It also refers to a sense of humor—of not taking ourselves quite so seriously all of the time. Which can be a very good thing, especially when you’re a writer approaching another revision with trepidation. Lighten up! The worst you can do is make a mess!
I have been wondering, then, why I so often find myself drawn to darkness: the darker stories, dark humor, themes of darkness, images that suggest a dark undertone? Perhaps because I move in a landscape filled with light, I sometimes long for the darkness—the yang in the yin. But really, I believe it’s because where light holds possibility, curiosity and hope, darkness cradles mystery, suspense, the unknown. Darkness holds a treasure-trove of riches—secrets live in the shadows, spirits suggest themselves in cool unlit spaces; neither can survive in bright daylight. And transformation most often happens in darkness.
A few days ago, I found myself at SF MOMA, drawn by an image in the newspaper, a photograph by the late Francesca Woodman—a mysterious self-portrait of the artist disappearing between the fireplace mantle and the wall.
The show spans the short life-time of her work, from a teen until she died at age twenty-two. Even if you didn’t know that she had jumped to her death from a Manhattan loft window, you sense that this precocious artist had one foot in another world. Her images are haunted, filled with mystery, mesmerizing. Many defy gravity, evoking a sense of slipping away. Others suggest a melding of the elements. All are infused with a melancholy sense of longing and loneliness that I found recognizable and deeply moving.
As I left the museum and walked back toward my car through the dappled light of the Yerba Buena gardens, I felt changed by the experience. I realized that not only had I been longing for this taste of darkness, but that it needed a stronger presence in the story I have been working on—my story lacked some of the necessary darker tones to balance out the light. Without proper shading, there is no definition, no contrast. Darkness is a rich source of tension, an essential element in all art forms. Without it, we risk a kind of overexposed blindness.
So my assignment over the next few weeks is to seek out pockets of darkness hiding in my story and to mine them for the mysteries and secrets that they horde.