that dark place

natalie portman will scare your pants off.

so i just saw black swan, and it did something to my head.  i left the movie theater last night feeling distinctly uncomfortable, without really being able to put a finger on why.  natalie portman’s performance was absolutely terrific.  but the story wasn’t exactly covering foreign territory; anyone familiar with method actors knows what some artists will do to get emotionally in touch with their work.  i mean, you’ve seen what christian bale did to himself for the machinist, right?

walking home, and feeling slightly out of whack, i felt compelled to try to write something, to try tapping into that weird/unsettling feeling.  but i kinda lost touch with it before i was able to get any words down.  and, “unfortunately,” i wasn’t able to force myself back into that weird headspace again.  i felt frustrated because i couldn’t shake the idea that i’d never be able to write a truly great story until i was somehow able to not only explore dark places like that (almost on command, upon sitting down at a desk)—but i’d also have to find a way to describe that, communicate that feeling through language.

being in the process of a pretty painful breakup right now, i’ve been listening to a lot of classic breakup records.  or, more accurately, blood on the tracks and sea changepretty much on repeat.  with 12 angry months tossed in occasionally.  i don’t know if that helps in the least bit, but it does make me feel like i should be able to make something—cathartic or interesting or emotionally resonant—out of a what is essentially a big fucking mess.  but i also know that great art doesn’t necessarily have to come from a place of personal pain or discomfort.  so i’m interesting in hearing if there are writer-type equivalents of method acting.  laura had a good post a while back about carrying a character around in your head with you.  but what do you do to get into headspace, especially if it’s an uncomfortable one?


  • Laura says:

    Sometimes I borrow feelings from movies/books/etc (the whole hour-and-a-half drive home, I was trying to formulate something out of Black Swan, and failed) but whenever I try to write something about current, personal pain, I fail. And when I was an actor and I tapped into too much personal pain, I might get a good performance out of it, but it was unsustainable. I think maybe poetry is the best writerly equivalent of that one stage performance–something quick that doesn’t have to be repeated or endlessly combed through. The poets probably think I’m ignorant right now, and yes I know you edit poetry, but I also think that poetry is the most visceral of the literary arts and has the shortest form, so it’s easier to get the feeling blasted onto the page, and then when the feelings have cooled off, you can go back and move your line breaks around.

  • Jason says:

    I sometimes wonder if being in pain at the time of the artistic process is all that helpful. I would argue that relative emotional calm and clear-headedness is actually more conducive to the process. One example that illustrates that is the difference between two of the records you’ve mentioned above Sea Change and Blood on the Tracks. I went through a rather difficult break-up when I was 23 (about eight years ago now) and I listened to both of them a lot at the time, and I spent a lot of time comparing and contrasting their approaches.

    Thing is, I think the better album is Blood on the Tracks, and I’d argue that the reason for this is that when Dylan recorded it, he was coming through the pain and could see the light of day at the end while Beck recorded Sea Change while he was mired in it. The end result is though Sea Change has some wonderful songs, it’s a murky depressing record with some throwaways.

    Blood on the Tracks, on the other hand, is solid through and through and offers a more varied perspective on love and loss. Sure, it has pain and desperation, but as you get toward the end, things start to seem better. He’s come to grips by the time we hit “If You See Her, Say Hello” enough to wish his ex well and let go of any hard feelings. Then “Buckets of Rain” is the resolution…in life, there’s pain, you’ve got to get through it and you probably will.

    It reminds me of something Thom Yorke had said in an interview. To paraphrase: when I was young, I thought I had to induce pain to be an artist, force myself to feel pain to produce something of worth. As I got older I realized pain comes with life whether you like it or not. You don’t have to court it.

    Regardless, I think most artists or writers do their best work when they’re lucid. From what I understand most of the notoriously alcoholic writers we laud these days-Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald-actual did their best work during periods of sobriety and drank when the pain of life or being unable to create was at its height. I tend to believe that while a great many of our masterworks come from pain, they’re produced in the quiet periods of reflection on that pain rather than in the midst of it. I think pain or any other intense emotion tends to make the mind a muddle, and it takes clarity and calm to write and capture those feelings well. But obviously, there’s no exact formula and I’m sure that some great works have been produced in periods of intensive pain as well.

    As for method acting, allow me to close with a cutting and pasting from a google search that seems fairly apropos: “There’s that famous, but likely apocryphal, story about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman when they were working together on Marathon Man. To prepare for a scene, Hoffman had gone for a few days without sleep and looked pretty rough. Olivier asked him why he was putting himself through such an ordeal and Hoffman replied that he was trying to be convincing in the role. Olivier replied, ‘Try acting dear boy'”

    • Laura says:

      I think I heard that story at least once a week when I was in the theater and I’ve never been sure who to side with, because Olivier was from a much different school of acting than Hoffman, and personally I’ve never been as electrified by Olivier as I have by Hoffman or his method acting ilk–his performances are always pretty cerebral. And I do agree that the best work is done by writers when they’ve got some perspective, but in that sense, acting and writing are completely different animals, especially film acting, which is cobbled together, not pushed straight through. I think the thing is, the need to write feels more urgent when you’re going through the pain, so I say, go ahead and write–but don’t expect to produce anything necessarily publishable. What you write while you’re in pain might serve as notes, for later, and in some ways I think it’s helpful to write down how you’re feeling, even just in a journal, so that you can remember your feelings more exactly later. Because time and perspective are valuable, but they tend to dilute things.

  • Leyna Krow says:

    I agree that you have to be pretty lucid to do any real writing. I don’t know anyone who claims to do their best work while in an altered state (I guess by this I mean drunk, high, in a K hole, etc.) and emotional upheaval definitely counts as an altered state. Pain can definitely be a creative catalyst, but if you aren’t in a place where you’re thinking clearly, the expression of that pain-spawned creativity probably won’t end up looking like anything you want to bring in to workshop.
    That said, I think a little agony (is there such a thing as ‘a little agony’?) can sometimes be what’s needed to jump start a project. I certainly don’t have a good enough handle on myself to write prose about actual emotions that I’m actually having at any given time. But if I’m feeling something strongly, it often gets me to a place where I can write about other people who are feeling other things strongly.

  • Monet Thomas says:

    Sorry _ have to speak as a Poet,capital P. I write THE best when I am distraught or in “a little agony”. Of course editing is needed later but the ideas and thoughts that I get out in the moment of pain are still more powerful than what I write on a day-to-day basis. As to whether or not there’s a way to tap into that place…I think there is…have I learned how to do it…not at all.

  • Kathryn Houghton Kathryn says:

    I’ve essentially stopped trying, at least for the moment. I found that, for me, to write when I was incredibly upset (especially when I was feeling hurt), that I thought I was producing amazing stuff, but that when I came back to it later, I didn’t like it. This could be because once I’m no longer in touch with those emotions I don’t want to re-enter that space, so I resist the work. Or, more likely, I tend to write therapy pieces like that. (Now, none of that means that I don’t try my hardest to identify with my characters, but these two things feel distinct, to me at least.)

    Now, it might not be like that for all people. In fact, I’m sure it isn’t. But for me, I need the sort of emotional distance, or I lose control, as it were.

    And all of the above is one reason that I will not go see Black Swan, despite the fact that the story seems very intriguing. Psychologists/psychiatrists could probably have some fun with all of this, but really, it works for me, so I’m sticking with it.

  • Tiffany says:

    It’s probably personal to everyone and to different experiences of pain. Unfortunately, all I’ve had to do so far to get into that uncomfortable space is wait. When it was heartbreak, I was proliferate- and surprisingly it wasn’t all complete crap, just mostly ;) When I was job hunting, I struggled with writing, because, as much as I wanted to write, I felt like I needed to be constantly focused on the work hunt. I only escaped the guilt through escapist lit and tv. Turmoil in the home, I am discovering now, also muddles the mind past focusing. Pain comes; what needs work is the calm, and security to express. I was an actress first; in workshop the first thing you have to build before you can access and express and experiment with other actors is that safety and security. If you’ve been around actors a lot, you might notice they can be a very touchy feely group. Group back-rubs were a norm at parties with my fellow theatre students. It’s so they can build that comfort and trust. Maybe it has to be a balance- comfort with the pain. For me the comfortable part is the bigger struggle. (This is a statement of personal fact not a cry for pity- I picked acting, then writing for my career choices; Drama is my just desserts. Compared to the lives of some that I work with now, my world has always been peachy)

  • I find it hard to create from pain and usually need ALOT of distance from the period before I can write something worthwile about what I experienced. However, the journals I keep while in the middle of the mess are absolutely necessary to be able to tap back into the moment when I finally do write about it.

    I’ve been thinking alot about this since I read Geneva’s post on grief a few months ago ( and have been trying to figure out why I can’t write about hard stuff while it’s actually happening.

    Poets do it all the time as does people like Didion and McCracken. What have they figured out that I can’t?

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