Writing in the Dark

Tim Challies recently recently made a statement that immediately set off a series of thoughts in my brain. He said: “I’ve become convinced that I can’t write a book until I first live a book.”

This is how the songwriting process works as well – for me at least. The last 8 months have been a period of darkness like I haven’t experienced in a long time; more than a few weeks in the last months have been more dark than light.

Songwriting has always accompanied these periods.

In the years of 1999-2003 I experienced seasonal depression every (roughly) October to February. During these years I would write 30-40 songs and I bet if I went back and checked the dates they were written, a majority of them would be from that stretch of months each year. It was the way I coped, the way I processed. (I have often borrowed a line from Bill Mallonee whenever I’m asked why I write songs: “Because it’s cheaper than therapy…” And with a bit of effort, not only is it cheaper but you can actually make a bit of money from it.)

As these years of regular seasonal depression made an exit, so did the torrential pace of my songwriting. At first I grieved this (the songwriting that is, not the depression), thinking that the gift had left me. I wondered where it had gone, not making the connection to the depression.

Fast forward to 2011. I’ve just come through an 8-month period of periodic but regular darkness. These are a little different than they used to be; I’m far more functional now during a time of depression. Where depression used to arrive for seemingly no reason at all, now it shows up when more life is happening than I have time to live. But that’s an exploration for another day…

In about a 12-week period from April to June of this year I found myself with about 15 new songs. They were coming regularly and I couldn’t figure out why. In the course of a conversation with a good friend I discovered the reason. I shared with him that I had recently re-found my songwriting groove while also expressing my frustration at having experienced a lot in recent months and not having adequate time to debrief. These seem like pretty obvious matching puzzle pieces in retrospect, but at the time I didn’t see the correlation.

“Maybe the songs ARE the debrief…” he said. Have you ever had the feeling that the cartoon lightbulb just lit up above your head? Yeah, I had that feeling.

Back to the quote that ignited these thoughts… I think in the last 8 months I’ve lived about 3 years worth of life. These have been both tremendously good experiences and excruciatingly bad ones, but they have been many.  And they have all been rich soil for new creative works.

I have nothing against the right kind of therapy, of course. If that’s what’s needed, find a good therapist and go – regularly. But if you have any kind of creative spark – and I believe that everyone does – try using all that darkness as fuel for art. By art I mean more than painting; I mean songwriting and journaling and dancing and singing and whatever else you might find interesting.

Whatever it is that you’re interested in, a period of depression is a good time to give it a try. There are things that can be done on the dark that will help you survive until the light returns.

My light has returned and I’ve got some new songs, a strengthened faith, and some new friends to show for it. And I don’t fear the next period of darkness; I used to, but I don’t anymore. I’ve come to accept the rhythms of life, to stop fighting the dark so much – because often it’s a gift that’s waiting to be opened.


New album “Lovers on the Edges of the Twilight” is almost done! Info here: http://bit.ly/pimCw8

Get the previous album “The Weight of Glory” here: http://bit.ly/pFEhs1

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