[Essay] The Brightening Room
On Struggling + Letting Go
I just finished reading the book Map of My Heart, by John Porcellino, and was surprised by how much it resonated with me. King Cat is a self-published autobiographical zine series that John has been creating for over 30 years, and Map of My Heart is the collection of those comics from 1996-2002. It’s a somewhat indescribable mix of comics, drawings, and journal entries from John’s life. But common threads throughout the book include major life changes, mental health, Zen Buddhism, and creativity. So, you can see why connected so easily with it.
I’ve been trying to write this month’s essay for some time now. I thought changing the frequency of my “essays on creativity” to monthly rather than weekly, would allow me to loosen up a bit with them. I’ve been writing these essays for over five years now, but they’ve recently begun to stir up a lot of stress and anxiety in me, and have become quite difficult to write. I thought creating and delivering them monthly might allow me to relax a bit and feel less anxious about making them “good.”
But instead, the shift has had the opposite effect. As I began writing this month’s essay, I thought, “There’s only going to be one essay for readers this month—so it needs to be good. Really good.”
And, as you know, when you try really hard to make something really good… it hardly ever is.
One thing studying Buddhism has taught me is to be more aware (and accepting) of how everything is always changing. Nothing is ever one way or the other. No essay is at its essence good or bad. Each essay takes on different qualities depending on limitless factors, totally unique to each person who reads it.
And similarly, our creativity is always changing—constantly ebbing and flowing, coming and going. But we resist those changes. We try to hold on to our creativity and we suffer when we realize we can’t fully command and control the outcome of creating. Why can’t I just sit down and write a beautiful, brilliant, insightful essay every Tuesday at 9am?
Our moods and thoughts are also constantly changing. One day I’ll be laid out on the floor, mentally paralyzed, not able to create (or do) much of anything. And the next day, I’ll feel more patient and content and happy than I have in months.
This portion from Map of My Heart where John was trying to create an iteration of his King Cat zine explains it well:
“Part of the problem was that I felt blocked by the OCD—I’d come up with ideas, but my mixed-up brain would tear them apart, finding “reasons” why I couldn’t use them: too sad, too funny, too angry, dangerous, inept, etc. It was becoming a struggle to get anything done. ‘Sit on the couch, thinking of how to fill up three pages of KCat—writing, revising, trashing, delicately picking words up out of the trash. What’s with this that I can’t decide, or decide/second guess—third guess—throw my hands up, nothing, leave it, change it—Confused hand-wringing. So I sat on the couch instead of doing anything ‘practical’ and I can only hope that someday somehow I’ve found that I’m somewhere, something.’ –Journal Entry: January 7, 2001” –John Porcellino, Map of My Heart
Buddhism says that the only way to avoid suffering is to let go of trying to maintain control. To let go of the resisting and the thinking and the liking and the not liking, until all that’s left is the raw energy of the thing we are feeling.
In this case: the doubt, the judgment, the anxiety, the wish for permanence and predictability.
And to just sit with those qualities. To realize that those things are useable too. That we can use everything to help us let go. And that, if anything, it is the things we struggle with and the times we struggle that are most helpful in having insight. And what is creating—writing or drawing or making art—if not having insight? If not finding and having something to say to ourselves and others?
We just have to stop trying so hard to force things to turn out the way we want them to, thinking we know what’s best, and wishing this feeling, this essay, this drawing, or this moment was something different than it is.
When we can stop resisting what is right in front of our faces, and instead let whatever is here right now flow through us, out of our heads and onto the page—that’s when we can create more easily.
And that feeling of looseness that is cultivated in our creating art carries through to the rest of our lives. You’re in the dark, you sit with it, you create with it, you have insight, the room brightens, and you’re able to go on living your life.
It’s an ebb and a flow and it goes on and on. All we have to do is remember to relax into it and create.