‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’ George Orwell, Why I Write158
The Writer’s Quest begins in uncertainty. As writers about to embark upon our journey (although we do not know it yet) we are often ‘benighted’ – feeling ill-at-ease with life, or maybe outwardly content … except for that little niggle that won’t go away (Tolkien personified this in his charming parable of displacement activity, ‘Leaf by Niggle’). You might not be able to put it into words (yet), but it is the ‘voice that won’t go away’ – even if you cannot quite make out what it is saying, or wants to say at this stage. All you know is – there is something in your life that isn’t being expressed, acknowledged or celebrated. You might be suffering from low spirits, possibly depression – because a part of you is ‘buried’ somewhere. If we want to get shamanic about this (and the creative process shares some intriguing parallels as we’ll discover) then you could be said to suffering from ‘soul-loss’. An essential part of you is missing and needs to be sung back home. That long denied voice – the real you, who has been put to one side while you have got on with the business of life (education; career; family). Parts of you might be engaged in these essential things – but not all of you. And your quality of life might be being affected as a result – manifesting in a certain lingering sadness, malcontent, ennui, or even anger. Something is definitely rotten in the state of Denmark.
But all of that is about to change.
The Anglo-Saxon epic of Beowulf starts in a surprisingly upbeat mood. To summarise the opening section:
After Halfdane, Hrothgar stepped forward to rule the Danes. Under Hrothgar, the kingdom prospered and enjoyed great military success, and Hrothgar decided to construct a monument to his success–a mead-hall where he would distribute booty to his retainers. The hall was called Heorot, and there the men gathered with their lord to drink mead and listen to the songs of the bards.
For a time, the kingdom enjoyed peace and prosperity.
Even if things seem ‘functional’, even successful on the surface, all is not what it appears. There is a ‘long denied voice’ waiting to burst through. William Faulkner describes how: ‘an artist is a creature driven by demons… He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it.’159 In the saga of Beowulf, this is personified as the deformed and tortured figure of Grendel – the very embodiment of a strangled cry.
But, one night, Grendel, a demon descended from Cain (who, according to the Bible, slew his brother Abel), emerged from the swampy lowlands, to listen to the nightly entertainment at Heorot. The bards’ songs about God’s creation of the Earth angered the monster. Once the men in the mead-hall fell asleep, Grendel lumbered inside and slaughtered thirty of them. Hrothgar’s warriors were powerless against him.
The very fact that the songs of the scops, the Danish bards, seemed to enrage Grendel is telling – their eloquence mocks the lack of his own. It rubs salt into the wound of his broken tongue. The voice of the dispossessed (as Grendel possibly is – was he an original inhabitant of the land Hrothgar’s ancestors claimed?); of the marginalised, the disenfranchised, can be fierce. Who likes to be ignored? Or worse – ridiculed, loathed, demonised? You have been so busy with your life you haven’t allowed yourself to listen to this voice. But now it is making itself heard. The monster in the night has come calling, and will not leave you alone.
The following night, Grendel struck again, and continued to wreak havoc on the Danes for twelve years. He took over Heorot, and Hrothgar and his men remain unable to challenge him.
The voice in the shadows has made itself known – terrifying at first, as inevitably it is when the lid is taken off the Id. The subconscious has burst through into waking consciousness – symbolised by golden-gabled Heorot. When our soul-life is repressed, the consequence is often disease, injury, unexpected trauma – our world is turned ‘upside-down’. Our life becomes a ‘nightmare’. We find ourselves captives in a hellish prison – our home has become a charnel house (arguments; bruised silences; divorce; dysfunctional relationships; trouble at work; bills piling up…). We might be driven to drink or other vices, and find ourselves exacerbating the problem – sliding headfirst down a slippery slope. We can feel powerless to stop it – like Hrothgar’s men. It is like watching a car-crash in slow motion. Don’t. Look. This. Is. My. Life. Going. Down. The. Tubes. Whatever we do to attempt to ‘fix it’ fails: talking to friends, therapy, expensive courses, self-help books, holidays, new toys, new partners – the problem does not go away.
All of this can be expressed through the medium of the written word. There is certainly a therapeutic aspect to writing, although one has to be careful. Our catharsis does not easily become the readers unless it is well-crafted. Critical distance is essential to achieve this – otherwise it becomes the mere venting of spleen.
They make offerings at pagan shrines in hopes of harming Grendel, but their efforts are fruitless.
The monster in the night has struck – the idea that won’t let you go, grabbing you with its claws and breathing its hot, foetid breath in your face until you write it down, tell its story. You have been hit by inspiration – although it might not feel it at this stage. No one knows when it will strike. That ‘monster’ – however apparently repugnant – is trying to tell you a message, and it will not go away until you listen. It will continue to manifest in dysfunctional ways unless you give it a voice. Unless you name your demon.
Such beasts raise their frightful heads in myths and legends across the world – often acting as a ‘call to adventure’ for the hero or heroine. In the Welsh collection of ancient tales, Y Mabinogi, a monstrous arm reaches into a stable every night and steals a new born foal until Pwyll, Lord of Dyfed, deals with it. In the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, it is the monster Humbaba – laying waste to the land, which forces the King into action. In the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda, it is the Kraken who was causing havoc. In George and the Dragon, a realm is threatened with a dragon which devastates the livestock and land, and is offered a regular human sacrifice to appease it – until the hero rides into town. In the tale of Theseus, it is the half-man/half-bull minotaur who is exacting its deadly tithe on the young men and women of Athens – like an austerity measure of a modern King Minos made incarnate. In other stories, the monster might be less obvious, but equally as terrible. A spell cast over a kingdom. A wicked stepmother or father. The death of one or both parents. A sickening land – The Wasteland. A cruel or ailing king. Tyrants and despots, dragons all. So is the ‘boss from Hell’. Everyone of these ‘dragons’ make life unbearable and forces us to act.
The Danes endure constant terror, and their suffering is so extreme that the news of it travels far and wide.
In the writer’s case, when the ‘monster in the night’ strikes, it is time to pick up the pen – and start writing. Your pen (or qwerty keyboard) is the only thing that will slay the beast. Here, the pen really is mightier than the sword – it is your Weapon of Magic. With it, you begin the Writer’s Quest – plucking up your courage to face this fearsome foe (you wouldn’t be the hero or heroine otherwise). It takes a certain fearlessness to be a writer. To show up to the page. Remember, fortune favours the bold! We have to be like the Fool in the Tarot and step off the cliff, even if the dog of doubt is pulling out our trouser leg. It is a leap of faith, a leap into the dark – but you have no choice.
As with all great works of art – you didn’t ‘choose it’, it ‘chose’ you. It came calling, unexpectedly: trick or treating in your brain. You have gone down with what novelist Michael Chabon calls (after Coleridge) ‘the midnight disease’: ‘The midnight disease is a kind of emotional insomnia; at every conscious moment its victim – even if he or she writes at dawn, or in the middle of the afternoon – feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom, with the window thrown open, looking up at a sky filled with stars and airplanes, listening to the narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly trapped in a Coke bottle, while all around the neighbours soundly sleep.’ 160
The condition is almost incurable. The only remedy is … to write it out of your system. This might take sometime (possibly years…). It is a daunting prospect that makes most wannabe scribblers break out into a cold sweat and stop dead in their tracks – placing their unwritten book of dreams back in the ‘Might-Have-Been’ Box. You are going to need some true mettle to overcome this particularly beastie – someone with strength, stamina, conviction and unwavering nerve.
Time to summon the hero.
(Extract from Desiring Dragons: Creativity, Imagination and the Writer’s Quest, from Compass Books 2014