Monday, December 8, 2008

The Labyrinth as Metaphor for the Writing Life

The other night, I walked a labyrinth lit only by candles. If you want my thoughts on this experience as spiritual metaphor, go here (if you want to read the Miami Herald story, go here). But as I was writing that post, I thought of how much the labyrinth also works as a metaphor for the writing life.

A labyrinth is not a maze. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth has one way in and one way back out. All you need to do is follow the path.

Do you look at your creative life as a maze or as a labyrinth?

In some ways, the idea of a labyrinth doesn't work as a metaphor, if we think about it in terms of publication and acclaim. The lust for publication and acclaim is more like a maze. We might follow the path ahead of us and find ourselves coming to dead ends, in a maze, with manuscripts that we can't publish, canvases that no one wants to show or buy, work that interests no one.

Some artists are led astray by the expectations of the world. They try to produce work with an eye to the market, and even then, they find themselves stymied.

On Friday, I walked a labyrinth lit only by candles, outside, several hours after sunset. It was dark, dark, dark. I understood the basic shape of the labyrinth, but still, I couldn't anticipate the twists and turns. I could only follow the flickering light, put one foot in front of another, and trust that the path would take me where I was supposed to go.

Lately, my writer's life feels like that experience of following a candlelit path. When I was younger, I had it all mapped out. I'd get this degree, that teaching job, produce that kind of work, get this publication by that age, that publication by the next age, boom, boom, boom. Then I'd die and graduate students would study my work, and they'd discover I fit into the canon this way and was ahead of my time in that way.

Now that I am older, I look back over my creative life, and I'm amazed at the twists it has taken, the directions it has gone, in ways that my younger self couldn't have anticipated and couldn't have planned for.

In 1983, when I went off to college, it didn't seem impossible that one could support oneself by one's creative efforts. Now, as the traditional publishing industry seems in danger of complete collapse, one would be crazy not to make a back up plan.

Of course, that's only important if we ignore all the other ways that our work can make it into the world. The Internet offers us many options, as does powerful computing, that an artist in 1983 wouldn't have had.

But perhaps we lose our way when we focus on what happens to the work once we've created it. Perhaps we should focus on the creation more than we do.

As I walked the labyrinth at night, I peered off into the distance, trying to remember the shape. I'd almost trip, and I'd remind myself to focus on the task at hand. As long as I focused on the candles and the path before me, I was OK. It was that incessant grasping for information that wasn't available that made me anxious.

Often, when I'm writing a poem, I'm not even done with the poem before I start trying to figure out how I'm going to revise it, how it will fit with my larger body of work, which journal might be interested, which manuscript I can integrate it into most easily.

Why can't I just be present with my poem, delight in it as it emerges?

It's a pressing question for many of us in many aspects of our lives. If we just lived in the present moment, we'd be much happier. Ah, if only I could live as Zen Kristin all the time.

Writing about this reminds me of a poem, "Golden Retrievals," by Mark Doty. I love the idea of the dog's idea of time, that the dog lives in the current moment in a way that humans cannot.

The labyrinth, too, reminds us to live in the present. The experience of walking it reminds us that we'll get to where we need to go, if we just walk step by step. It's a great metaphor for our creative lives, and for life in general.

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