We live in a world where most of our interactions are maintained on a superficial level. We exchange small talk, we share social media updates that range from righteous opinions to thinly-veiled humblebrags, and we write content that skates the surface of most topics. It could be argued that keeping things light is necessary for a society to function, and I agree. But on some points, someone has to go deep a little bit, so the rest of us don't have to think we're crazy for feeling the way we do at times.
So, we turn to art when we need a little more depth. But lately, it seems that much of art is also superficial, just on the other side of the coin. It seems like works of art and literature are rarely deemed worthy if they're not shocking or depressing. But just because something is dark doesn’t mean it’s deep. In fact, focusing on darkness can be every bit as shallow as the generalized affirmations we hear in conversations and see on coffee mugs and throw pillows and memes.
I’d like to make a case for balance. I don’t believe that the only way to make something worthwhile is to divulge in the darkest side of it. Real life is full of an ebb and flow of emotions, not the extremes.
When you look back at art from centuries past, you don't only see darkness. Van Gogh and Monet rendered for us to view forever the beauty in the nature around them. Van Gogh might have be known for his despair, but it didn’t define all that he did. Jane Austen wrote stories about provincial life. Sure, she lived in a time of inequity and didn’t mind adding in subtle nods to what was wrong with society. But that didn’t stop her from ending on happiness when the story called for it.
So what’s changed? Why are books nowadays considered light reads or “fluff” if they have happy endings, while books that plow us into the depths of sadness are considered "important?" Why have we decided that what’s dark is the only thing that’s real?
As you sit down to do your personal writing, I challenge you to think about your own ebbs and flows. What's the whole story in your life? What moments of bliss have you encountered, what sadness have you been dealt, and how do you feel right now? Then, when you think about writing something of value, why not focus on this one, simple act:
Tell the truth.
Here's the truth for me at this exact moment. I've been wrestling with how to write this blog post for several hours. In that time I've gotten up and had a snack, stared out the window, and spent way too much time adding pictures of sparkly objects to my Pinterest board. Today alone I've already had the emotions of happiness (coffee), comfort (Nutella), frustration (writer's block), and self-loathing (writer's block hour two). And now I'm feeling neutral. I could try to make this a more "important" post by focusing on the self-loathing I sometimes feel when struggling through creative work, but that doesn't tell the whole story. The story is this: Creativity is hard, and I struggle with it at times, as do we all. But doing creative work also gives me tremendous joy.
That's all pretty granular, but I hope it shows my point. We are not defined by the emotions we feel at our highest or lowest. We are the whole picture. So, when you work on your writing, why not look at the whole picture of your subject in the same way?
Remember, you don't have to go dark to go deep. If you want to write something valuable, just tell the truth.