Challenge at the Sacred Gate: The Power of Negative Creative Space

I spent the last few days in something of a creative funk.  As you may have noted, earlier I struggled with a small dog named The Universe and discovered that Writer’s Block is a substance that misbehaves by using your best efforts against you. Eventually I gave up trying to formulate a single functional sentence, and instead simply wallowed on the floor surrounded by Nature Valley granola bar wrappers.  Also, crumbs, they were there, too.  It has been a week filled with tests of my commitment to my craft, doubts about the relative merit of my own narrative voice, and some rather explosive bouts of frustration.


The Value of Stillness

The generally smart thing to do if you happen to be snared in a net–literal or metaphorical–is to stop moving.  Struggling tightens the bonds of your prison.  So, long about Thursday, I decided to be still.  I often note that these sorts of counterbalance warnings crop up in my life.  Have you ever been driving somewhere, late for work or school, and it seems you catch every red light? While this could just be a mechanism of poorly timed traffic signals, I often feel it is a message that I need to slow down and breathe. Speeding and not giving my full attention to the road will result in an accident or a traffic ticket, both of which will only succeed in making me even later than I already was.

Naturally, I connected my fruitless struggles and mounting frustration to such a sign. The more I pushed, the more resistance I encountered to any act of creation.  This was a time for stillness, a space of life in which I should stop and look around, leaving the pen alone for however long this need existed.  In hindsight, my writer’s block was a Challenge.  Those of you familiar with the structure of myth will recognize this as a pivotal point in any story and as a vital narrative mechanism to introduce change.  Giving Mr. Campbell his due, this maelstrom of broken and half-formed thoughts was just such a crux.

It’s important to note that when I talk about being still I do not mean idleness.  I have been anything but idle.  Rather, I speak to a quality of mindful awareness, and that goes with a shift in perspective.  I turned my gaze outward, leaving the creative kettle to boil in my Soul Kitchen whenever it felt so inclined.  In doing so, I’ve been granted the opportunity to appreciate the work of others, to notice it, and to absorb with gratitude the goodness of those around me.  This, I think, has value I’m not capable of measuring just now, but measure isn’t the point.  Active participation and full-value appreciation of others needs no justification, and is the opposite of the self-involved snare of closed creativity.  It is a joyful sonder, rich with the soup of human passions and peculiarities.


Sacred Spaces and the Role of Restriction Vs. Inclusion

Pueblo Alto, Chaco Canyon


     Earlier this week, I made a reference to sacred spaces, places saturated with the intent of human action and thought.  The need to elaborate on this line of thinking was so intense as to be almost a physical pain, but I was rebuffed by the non-Newtonian fluid of writer’s block, no matter how I approached it.  Sacred places fall into two types, generally.  You have the communal space, the visible, the massive–Mount Taylor and Chaco Canyon are two excellent examples of this.  Then you have the secret, the reserved place, the unobtrusive–passages in the Canyonlands of Utah or ATM Cave in Belize are two examples of this type, existing in nature, as opposed to the built landscape.  In both cases, effort is required to access these places, but it is not necessarily of a single form.

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon


In the case of communal sacred space, effort may be represented in physical travel, a journey taken as a community, and a certain level of contribution from each member of the community is expected at the end.  Chaco is located in a landscape where resources were not necessarily abundant enough to justify it as an ordinary settlement.  The presence of imported macro-remains of flora and fauna at various points of the site indicate that communities traveled to the site from other regions, bringing with them locally available animals and plants.  They may have gathered to trade, visit, or celebrate important events in their shared calendar round.  What is also clear is that prestige items from as far away as Mesoamerica are present in the record.  That indicates that people of considerable social importance were present, enough to draw trade from a distance, not in practical items but expensive luxuries and ritual goods.

Ritually ‘killed’ sacrificial pots, painstakingly arranged. Created solely to be broken. Maya.

When we turn to a consideration of reserved or restricted sacred space, the record shifts slightly in the emphasis of remains presented.  Objects are almost always of an exclusive, ritual nature–prestige goods, in many cultures.  You might find corn pollen mixed in with stingray barbs or exotic shells–which take on a significance when the nearest ocean is several hundred miles and several culture groups distant.  In the reserved sacred space, you are permitted a glimpse at the deepest desires and values of a culture, you see their secret narrative played out. But these places were not for the masses.  They were invested with a terrifying mystique, enshrouded by taboos stronger than any law we can today imagine.


Entrance to ATM Cave, Belize

Caves and tight box canyons are favorite locations for these reserved activity spaces.  Difficulty of access requires both knowledge and dedication to reach the sacred site, but while the activities were often secluded from the public gaze, the places were known features in the general landscape.  The other component of effort is in the purification and testing rituals that may have accompanied access to these places.  Even Epidaurus, a healing sanctuary, required supplicant patients to wait beyond high gates and purify their thoughts before they could gain admittance.  The intention you carry within you matters in these contexts.


The Price Beyond Gold

Why have I gone into all of that? When I consider my personal writing, I tend to think of it as my art form.  I’ve spoken of the sacred nature of creation on various occasions in the past, but recently, I crossed a threshold.  How do we differentiate–as writers, musicians, or artists–the sacred from the salable?  Generally speaking, I talk about “pay copy” when referring to the pieces I write for money.  They are almost always of little importance to me personally, and I couldn’t care less about them once my fee is in the bank.  They are a means to the end of survival.

However, when I write for myself, when I create a piece that has no clearly established salable value, I consider it art.  The threshold I stepped across a few weeks ago constitutes a critical shift in how I consider and treat both the process of creation and the presentation of that art.  I have put my work in the marketplace, the pieces that are meaningful to me. That constitutes a rather grave violation of my personal philosophies.  I do not mean to suggest that working writers cannot find a balance between these two concepts–marketing that which is precious.  However, the import of this move for me was that I began focusing on writing for others, and my link to the creative cosmos was damaged.

It was a question of motives, which were not pure.  How could I draw from that well of inspired thought  when my hands were dirty with intent?  It may be some time before I can come to an agreement with myself, to write purely and without regard to the opinions of others, even while I desire to draw a profit from those others. And still, the question stands: If I had not been halted in my tracks, subject to the negative space of creative impulse, would I have fully grasped the need to reevaluate my course?


Jaguar, Belize


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