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Living, Writing, and Faith in the Creative Source
In which I gratefully acknowledge the origin of this newsletter's title
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
[NOTE: When I wrote this post to launch this newsletter, I had given the project the title “Living into the Dark.” In April 2023 I changed the title to “The Living Dark.” However, the principles laid out in this post still fully apply.]
In connection with the previous entry’s explanation of this newsletter’s theme and intent, I really need to say something about the phrase and concept of “living into the dark” and its connection with a good or even great book, and also a video, that I think many readers here would find well worth checking out.
The book is by Dean Wesley Smith, the vastly prolific science fiction, fantasy, and mystery writer. Three years ago when I was finishing up my Ph.D. at the same time that my To Rouse Leviathan was about to be published, I found myself thinking a lot about my writing career, my future in academia, and my life’s general direction. I was also doing a lot of meditating and spiritual reading. I had long been a proponent of something like divine guidance, particularly via the experience of communing with and listening to the inner genius/daemon muse. And I was strongly intuiting the parallels and overlaps between this approach to both creative work and life at large. As I tried to express the matter to myself, I found words and phrases like “blind guidance” and “walking forward into the darkness” coalescing in my mind.
Being a long-time initiate into life’s School of Synchronicities, I should have recognized that I was in precisely that fertile state of mind and soul in which the inner and outer worlds tend to spontaneously, meaningfully align. But this did not prevent me from feeling a jolt of real surprise one day when an Internet search whose terms I have long since forgotten yielded the phrase “writing into the dark.” And it wasn’t just a phrase. It was the title of a book. After investigating it for about 30 seconds, I knew I had to read it.
Smith’s thesis in Writing into the Dark is that writers can dispense with outlining and instead rely on their creative mind to envision a complete story and produce a book. Contrary to widespread opinion, he says an outline is not necessary. You can simply start writing, establish the initial circumstances, and from there continue to write from the edge of the present moment, trusting that what happens next will emerge naturally. Yes, there’s a bit more to it than that. Smith develops his idea with additional advice about such things as “creative cycling,” what to do if you get stuck, and how to create a “reverse outline” by looking back over the latest section of a draft and making notes about the pattern it reveals, which can then spur you forward into the next part. Still, in essence, his overall counsel really is that simple: Trust your creative mind. Abandon the attempt to plan things ahead of time. Let the vision emerge as you write. Write into the dark.
In late 2019 when I absorbed all of this, it resonated so perfectly with what I was thinking and feeling that I knew I was really onto something. I recognized I was in that familiar position of being deeply influenced by seeing/hearing someone skillfully articulate what I was already trying to state for myself.
In addition to purchasing and reading Smith’s book, I read many online articles and blog posts about it, some by Smith himself. I also watched several videos about it on YouTube, including a recording of an excellent talk Smith gave at a conference in Las Vegas where he pretty much laid out the entire approach.
Then I came across another video, and this is what made the full connection to my broader set of concerns. Like I’ve said, for me the idea of proceeding without knowledge, without a preconceived plan, is wider than just the question of writing and creative artistic work. It expands to encompass life as a whole, linking writing to my world. So, that’s why this next video, which I encountered right as I was digesting and appreciating Smith’s advice, drove home the impact of his core concept even more deeply:
The video features fantasy and horror novelist Michael La Ronn at his “Author Level Up” YouTube channel explaining how Writing into the Dark was “the foundational book that changed everything” for him. He says his adoption of Smith’s approach marked a turning point in his writing career, helping him not only to write with greater speed and volume but to write better by producing more compelling and fully realized novels.
At one point he offers an effective summary of Smith’s advice on trusting the creative mind, what Smith calls the creative voice:
Creativity comes from the back of the brain. . . . Others might call it a muse or your subconscious.
La Ronn points out that Smith contrasts the creative voice with the critical voice, which comes from the front of the brain and has the job of keeping you safe. Outlining is an activity we perform with with this voice and this region of the brain. Since the job of the critical voice is to protect you, it has a tendency to stomp all over its tender, sensitive sibling, heaping criticisms on its spontaneous attempts at storytelling, which represent vulnerability and therefore feel dangerous to the self. Hence, the wisdom of working without an outline, of writing into the dark, which sidesteps the critical voice and lets the creative voice speak freely.
La Ronn identifies the following passage in Smith’s book as his favorite:
Writing into the dark takes a belief system in story. It takes a trust that your creative voice knows what it is doing. And it takes a vast amount of mental fight [to] let the fine work your creative voice has done alone and not ruin it with your critical voice.
Like La Ronn, I appreciate this passage. And, being who I am, I was already brooding on the wider, life-level applications of embracing this attitude of trust toward one’s deep creative core — something I had spoken about myself in A Course in Demonic Creativity — when La Ronn took a turn into this very thing and dramatically broadened the scope of Smith’s advice:
Writing as a belief system. That got me thinking about my relationship with religion. I believe in a higher power. I can’t prove it, though. For example, I could tell you about an emotional experience I had that gives me faith, but you can’t see it. I can’t really convince you that a God exists. Yet I still choose to have my own belief system because of faith. Faith is believing in something even if you can’t see it, even if you can’t prove it. Without faith, you don’t have a belief system. It’s the cornerstone on which any belief on anything intangible rests.
I’m going to get philosophical for a minute, but for me, writing is sacred. It’s as sacred as prayer. When I sit down and write, and simply trust my creative voice and have full faith in it, I’m connecting with something higher than myself, for reasons beyond myself. Because I don’t outline, I never know where my story is going to go, but I trust my creative voice. And it always, always, always comes through for me. It has not failed me, not even once. But that, like belief in any major religion, takes an incredible amount of faith.
Borrowing a metaphor from Smith, La Ronn compares the experience of using this intuitive approach to write a book — or potentially anything else — to entering a deep, dark cave without knowing where the exit lies. It’s dark. It’s frightening. You can sense unseen shapes in the gloom that envelops you. A feeling of dread arises. But eventually, if you continue crawling through the darkness with absolute faith that a hidden intelligence is guiding and accompanying you, you’ll emerge into the sunlight on the other side, filled with a euphoric sense of freedom and fulfillment. And the story of your journey through the cave will be rich and rewarding.
“As I tried to express the matter to myself, I found words and phrases like ‘blind guidance’ and ‘walking forward into the darkness’ coalescing in my mind.”
As I say, when I encountered all of this, it dovetailed perfectly and powerfully with the thoughts that were already precolating within me about trusting inner intuitive guidance. So it’s surely no surprise that right then, back in October 2019 when I first read Dean Wesley Smith’s book and watched Michael La Ronn’s marvelous video, my thoughts seized upon the idea of “writing into the dark” and modified it to “living into the dark.” I have used it ever since. Though the launch of this newsletter with this title represents the first time I have talked about it publicly (or at least I don’t remember having mentioned it to anybody before), the idea has been with me for a while.
So, I didn’t want to get very far into this project without acknowledging Smith’s and La Ronn’s influence, and without thanking them for sharing their insights. It probably goes without saying that I heartily recommend both Writing into the Dark and La Ronn’s YouTube channel. Since you’re someone who is interested enough in these things to have stayed with me all the way to the end of this entry, I’m confident you would find something of value in them.
In next week’s entry, I’ll delve more deeply into the phrase “living into the dark,” both the living and the dark part, to uncover a wealth of numinous meanings and connotations. Until then, I would love to hear your thoughts on any or all of the above. Use the buttons below to leave a comment, to share this post, and to subscribe so that you’ll receive future entries.
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