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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Rethinking Black Moments

Two sources I've run across recently have talked about the book The Dark Night of the Soul by psychologist Gerald May. Dr. May expounded on the thoughts and works of St. Theresa and St. John of the Cross, both of whom talk about the "dark night of the soul."

The concept of the "dark night" in John's original writing wasn't something evil, sinister, or bad. The Spanish word he used was oscura: obscure. According to May, it's the same way things are difficult to see at night. It's mysterious, unknown.
In speaking of la nocha oscura, the dark night of the soul, John is addressing something mysterious and unknown, but by no means sinister or evil…. John says it is one thing to be in oscuras and quite another to be in tinieblas (the sinister kind of darkness). In oscuras things are hidden; in tinieblas one is blind. In fact, it is the very blindness of tinieblas, our slavery to attachment and delusion, that the dark night of the soul is working to heal.
This is a profound theory, and much debate could come from trying to make sense of all of it. As an author I’ve always thought I had to bring my characters to the brink of some sort of death—emotional, physical, psychological—in order for them to have their "black moment." Tinieblas all the way.

But that's just not the case. 

I'm not advocating for writers of thrillers to suddenly throw their character into a field of poppies instead of put them at the end of gunpoint. But the dark moment for our characters doesn't have to be so extreme. This liberated me a bit in how I've thought about dark moments.

As a cognitive therapy practitioner, I appreciated the following quote from May, as it intellectually reframes the very idea of a dark night (read: black moment). He wrote:
The dark night is a profoundly good thing. It is an ongoing spiritual process in which we are liberated from attachments and compulsions and empowered to live and love more freely. Sometimes this letting go of old ways is painful, occasionally even devastating. But this is not why the night is called 'dark.' The darkness of the night implies nothing sinister, only that the liberation takes place in hidden ways, beneath our knowledge and understanding. It happens mysteriously, in secret, and beyond our conscious control. For that reason it can be disturbing or even scary, but in the end it always works to our benefit.
One internet reviewer said that the dark night isn’t a one-time event. It’s also not just for spiritual people. When we write a book, the dark moment is the dark moment for that book, not for the character as a whole. And when we think of how bad things happen to everyone, we can remember that this is a universal experience, infinitely relatable to all readers.

While we might throw all manner of evils our characters’ ways, their perseverance through them will ultimately be for their good. Because of this, we have to reframe the negativity associated with the black moment. I like how Martha Alderson, the Plot Whisperer, described it on Twitter: “a breakdown for an ultimate breakthrough."

This is our opportunity to take them to a healthier place, to detach them from preconceived notions of how the world must work in order for them to be happy. To call into question things that have never been called into question before, to break a sickly dependence on dreams, expectations, objects, or people who have brought the character comfort but also have held them back from knowing true freedom. 

Q4U: What are your thoughts on black moments?


Anonymous said...

"to detach them from preconceived notions of how the world must work"
I love this! Because it's the basis of what the Black Moment is.
There's something recurring in my writing about the chains of the past. We all have a past that can hold us back. We have pre-conceived notions of how to do things. So when a character is faced with dilemma after dilemma they're forced to try and fix things along the way in their journey. I love a black moment where all man's efforts have failed, where we reach the point when there's no possible way (in our human understanding) that this can succeed.
Because that's when we'll admit we need God to be in control.

McKenzie McCann said...

I really like stories that have very minor problems. One short story I read comes to mind about. It was about a girl named Jenny who needed a new shirt, so she goes to buy a shirt from a vendor, and the vendor takes her back to his place, she doesn't leave for seven days, then on the eighth day, she leaves.

And that's the story of how Jenny got her shirt.

It's not complicated. It's not sinister. It's just a good story.

Edward said...

I find it interesting that my childhood black moments have actually had some profound effects on how I deal with my adulthood black moments.

Jeff King said...

Without the blackness, light wouldn't be so bright.

Cecilia Marie Pulliam said...

Black moments lead us through rough areas where we do strip off old baggage, old belief systems that aren't true or working, and we (as well as our characters) emerge as new beings equipped with new strengths and insights. All the better to face future challenges.

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.