I was listening to the radio this morning after dropping the kids off at school. I landed on a familiar song with an upbeat melody (Clint Eastwood by Gorillaz if you’re interested) to make the three-minute drive home less quite. I was bopping along with the chorus and a verse caught me unprepared. Not because it’s a deep song, but because the lyrics were not quite what I expected. The tone was darker.
I’m sure you’ve experienced the same thing. A song comes on that you’ve heard dozens of times before, but this time you really hear the lyrics and they’re not what you expected.
It got me thinking about how common that dark shadow seems to be with creative folks. It’s not universal, but it does seem to catch my eye more frequently than artists that have the joy turned all the way to eleven. There seem to be a couple of ways of expressing this darkness – hitting it head on, putting it out there for everyone to see in the hope that the light will burn it away and make it insubstantial. Many songs and stories deal with shadow directly and grimly without flinching.
Some of the most brilliantly funny webcomics deal with the darkness of mental illness very directly. If you’ve never seen Hyperbole and a Half you should. Many memes were spawned from Allie’s drawings. My personal favorite is another single-panel comic by Rachel Khan, By Crom. It asks the question, “What if Conan the Barbarian was your spirit guide?” Both comics take an unflinching look at the depression and anxiety, usually through a lens of humor.
The other way I’ve seen the shadow addressed was triggered by the song I mentioned at the start of this piece. It’s oblique. At first glance, the song is bouncy and upbeat and it take a more careful listen to feel the shadow that lives there. Many short stories and poems that have stuck with me over the years have not tried to hit the darkness head-on. There is often a sense of wrongness hidden in the otherwise satisfying conclusion. It usually takes me a second or third reading to find it, pry it out and grimace at it.
Whether the darkness is approached directly or obliquely, it is acknowledged.
I tried to keep mine locked in the coal cellar. I didn’t want anyone to know it was there and, if I starved and refused to acknowledge it, maybe it would die. It wasn’t until I embraced that chubby punk wrapped in an ankle-length trench coat that I was able to break free. The fear and shame and self-loathing are still there, but it’s no longer freezing my fingers into inaction. The darkness has been popping into my writing unbidden, but I can acknowledge it. Welcome it sometimes. Revel in the richness it adds.