The (Other) Little Death

May 24 2012

Painting by Helene Steele © Helen Steele

Painting © Helene Steele

My fourteen-year-old interviewed an artist yesterday for Fastforward, the local kids’ newspaper: a wonderful painter by the name of Helen Steele. I went along as chauffeur and photographer.

Julia asked some great questions, which got Ms. Steele talking eloquently about the most interesting thing of all: her process as an artist. She talked about how she starts a painting–not the way that I’d have thought, with an image in mind, but by working with texture and color until she sees something on the canvas and then begins to work to bring it out. Fascinating.

“There comes a point in every painting, though,” Steele said, “where I have to take what I thought I was doing–the thing that I’ve been so focused on–and kill it off, let it die. And that’s usually when the painting really takes off.”

Her comment hit me between the eyes like one of the diamond pickaxes from the games of Minecraft that Julia’s friends are always talking about.

I realized that the same thing was true of just about every writing or editing project that I’ve been involved with: that at some point, I have to take the part of the book that I’ve been fussing at and obsessing over for hours or weeks or months (or, in the case of a book I finished writing recently, for four years) and kill it. Let it die.

And that made me think of the schema of the Hero’s Journey mapped out in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. There’s a point in most hero tales where the hero (or heroine) has to face a death–either real or metaphoric. Harry Potter allows himself to be killed. Luke Skywalker cuts off his own head (though he thinks it’s Darth Vader’s at the time). Odysseus goes down with his ship before washing up naked on the beach to be found by Nausicaa.

It’s only after this death that the hero can reach his or her potential–can become truly a hero. The old self has to perish in order for the true self to be born.

In every creative project, there’s that moment: the pinnacle of frustration and the abyss of despair. And it’s only by letting go of the thing that we think is so important–the sequence or passage or sentence or character or scene or chapter that we’ve been banging up against that we can discover what the heart of the piece we’re working on truly is.

So, hard as it is, we have to learn to welcome that little death and learn to see it as the narrow, dark passage to the unknown, glorious fulfillment of our own creative work.

One response so far

  1. [...] This post was first published on the Stillpoint Digital Press author blogs. [...]