Casting Words in the Void
Writing, art, and fishing the inner depths
Dear Living Dark readers,
Today’s post is divided into two brief sections. The first lays out a moving and potentially clarifying metaphor for the discipline of collaborating with your creativity. The second, which comes from my still developing proposal for a book on the writer’s daemon, lays out a vision of the value of writing and creativity in an age of apocalyptic breakdown. I hope one or the other may give you something to deepen your practice and increase your enjoyment of it this week. I also think the first provides a soulful way to think about practicing our art in the context of the second.
On writing as fishing in the void with your daemon
Rudyard Kipling famously said that when you are in the grip of your daemon, your task as a writer is to “drift, wait, obey.” But what does this look like in actual practice? If you’re like me, you find that specific descriptions of writers in the very act of following Kipling’s advice—writers who are tuned into their creativity and following its spontaneous flow—are fascinating, clarifying, and deeply reassuring.
Just such a thing is provided by the Italian novelist and poet Andrea Bajani in an essay published last year at Literary Hub. What’s more, Bajani wraps it in a memorable metaphor that is, for me at least, one of the more useful ways of describing the writing process that I have ever come across.
Bajani describes in intimate detail his daily habit, which he says he has practiced for many years, of walking seven minutes across town, away from his home, to do his writing in a small, solitary office. Once there, he says his work takes the form of fishing in an inner void. He sits there “on the bank of this void, staring into it, hoping for a ripple, waiting for the line to grow taut, for a word to take the bait.” When something does strike at last, he says that if he is lucky enough to find a sentence or even a whole story, “then we have a meal.” However, sometimes as he seeks to reel the thing in “from the nothing where it swam,” what he finds is just an empty hook. When this happens, he simply “toss[es] everything back into the void” and continues waiting until nightfall, which marks the end of his workday. At that point, “I close my laptop, not a single word added, and leave for home.”
Friends, I find this neat. More than that, I find it lovely. The image of writing as fishing in an inner void, casting a line into a psychic ocean, speaks to me powerfully.
It also links up in interesting ways with the idea of inner collaboration with the daemon muse, which, as you know, is the presiding metaphor for the creative process around here. Tell me: Am I stretching things, making an unwarranted or arbitrary leap, if I frame both Bajani’s daily walk and his act of “fishing in the void” as being motivated by and performed in the service of his daemon? And if I see his daemon reflected at all points in his process?
As I see it, he has successfully divined his daemon’s preferred mode and external environment for working: alone, isolated from his home and wife, situated a short but definite remove from his domestic environment. (For more on divining your daemon’s preferred practical method of working, see chapter 5 of my A Course in Demonic Creativity.)
His daemon accompanies him as he makes his daily seven-minute pilgrimage to his private writing monastery, brooding with him and anticipating the creative encounter that will take place there.
It watches over his shoulder and looks out through his eyes with him as he casts a line into that void. It sits with him at his keyboard, waiting.
Moreover, it is the very thing he is fishing for. As he waits for a strike on the line, for some tangible form to coalesce from the inner deep and take the bait, it’s as if he is fishing for his own daemon in the guise of Proteus, the ancient Greek sea god who perpetually metamorphosed into an infinitude of different shapes.
In other words, Bajani’s daemon is searching for itself through him. It is the motivating force behind his creative ritual, even as it is also the elusive presence swimming in those psychic depths, the idea that strikes on the other end of the line and then reveals itself in some specific form when reeled in by his typing. It is also what sometime slips the hook and leaves him with nothing.
Nothing, that is, except itself, still perched there with him in that silent, solitary office, urging him to complete the ritual, to put in his time, and then to do it all again tomorrow.
You can read Bajani’s complete essay at Literary Hub: “Love Is Space: Notes on Marriage and Creativity.”
On the value of writing and art in an age of apocalyptic collapse
It’s a question that inevitably suggests itself in an age like ours: What good are things like writing and art? Don’t they stand revealed as comparatively frivolous in a world that is coming apart at the seams?
Civilization is flinging itself to pieces. This is the felt and lived experience of millions, even billions, around the globe in the early decades of the twenty-first century. Since the turn of the millennium, human societies all over the planet have entered a period of intense collective crisis marked by seismic cultural convulsions of a pointedly apocalyptic cast. In such a circumstance, aren’t we being a little too precious, aren’t we acting heedless and self-absorbed, if we give attention to our little creative projects and desires? Don’t bigger and more important things call for our attention instead?
In a word: no. Quite the opposite, in fact. In a world of apocalyptic breakdown, creative artistic pursuits become all the more important. This is especially true right now, when the centripetal forces that have turned contemporary life into a dystopian dark age threaten to smother the creative artistic impulse under the collective weight of a dying civilization. Far from being a time to abandon writing and art, this is a time to seek clarity on what they are for and how they can help us.
Enter the daemon. At this cultural moment, the old concept of the writer’s daemon, the artist’s muse, the thinker’s inner genius, returns with an offer to help us find and fulfill our individual and collective creative destinies in a way that is healing and constructive. To adopt the discipline of the daemon muse by relating to creative energy and calling as a separate, collaborative intelligence is to embark on a kind of monastic path, a way of life that is devoted to sheltering, nurturing, and bringing forth each person’s unique gifts so that they can meet the world’s specific needs at a crucial inflection point in history. Such a discipline may even enable the laying of cultural seeds that will come to fruition on the other side of the apocalypse, in some far-future renaissance.
Moreover, this approach to writing and creativity directly confronts the deep nature of the crisis itself, since one way to understand what’s happening is to recognize it as the inevitable result of a collective daimon run amok and turned monstrous because of fateful decisions, reaching back to the eighteenth century and the birth of modern science and social structures, that excluded the daimon muse and the visionary powers it represents from our collective map of reality.
In sum, as the world grows weirder and more disturbed, the discipline of the daemon muse can enable us to heal that fateful rupture and find a life of meaning and purpose by fulfilling our unique callings right in the midst of a new dark age.
I will share more on this developing line of thought as it shapes up in the book proposal that I’m currently creating.
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