How to Work in the Dark

It’s been a while since you’ve heard from me.

I could say that I’ve been busy with other projects. But that’s not really true.

The truth is I got scared.


Over the summer I wrote every day. I posted on my blog three times a week, published an ebook, and started two other writing projects for my website.  I wrote some posts that really helped people, and I got excited that my writing was actually making a difference.

But then I hit a wall. The words wouldn’t come. My vision didn’t crystallize. Everything sounded flat.  And subconsciously, I was scared I couldn’t find the right note again.

Hope in the Darkness

But one night I read some of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. Heaney spent a lifetime wrestling to craft words into light-giving forms for his reader. And one of his poems addressed my fear perfectly.

In “North” Heaney shares his experience with the pains of writing, but also shares his hope:

From “North”
“Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.

Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
Trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.”

These lines contain two important truths about all human acts of creativity:

  1. You will fall short of your vision. Pursue it anyway. The poet must compose in darkness. He must commit to a long foray in the dark, trusting that light will come.  His vision promises a cascade of light, an epiphany of glorious truth. But what appears in his writing notebook is only a glimmer of light in the dark, a momentary aurora borealis.  He has to be content with that.
  2. Use what you know. It is enough. The poet must trust the “nubbed treasure” that she knows already. If she does this, then her mind remains clear and she can find the words she needs. When she doubts what she has been given, fear begins. Heaney seems to be arguing that gratitude is the beginning of every act of human creativity. Gratitude comes from love, and love desires to share the beauty it has known.

These two lessons apply to all human endeavor, not just to poetry. We yearn to make something good and glorious in the world, but fail constantly. We must learn to compose in the dark for a long time and be content with only flashes of truth.

What will keep us going in the dark is gratitude and love. If we wish to bring beauty into the world, we must first be grateful for the beauty we have known. Gratitude will feed our love, and love will keep us going until we find the right words, the right notes, the right steps.

Your Turn

If you’re human, you have some project or idea that you’ve abandoned out of fear or frustration.  Here are some steps for you to take:

  1. Figure out what project or idea you need to return to.  If you’re human, you should have several options.
  2. Commit to spending time with this project.  Commit yourself to a “long foray in the dark.”
  3. Trust that what you know will lead you to a solution.  Cultivate gratitude and persevere.
  4. Leave a comment below to tell me what project you’re committing to.