A Creature on My Shoulder


I was driving to the airport the first time it happened. It was about ten o’clock on a spring night of 2009. I was going to pick up a friend and Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible was playing in my car, but I was paying it very little attention. The road, too, was something I was navigating on autopilot, entrusting my speed to cruise control. I live about an hour from the airport, and I noticed very little at all on the drive until I began to near my exit, when a strange mental resistance began to interrupt my thoughts. It was only then that I acknowledged, like emerging from an exquisite dream, what a magical state of mind I had inhabited for the last seventy miles. I was irritated that I was nearing my destination because there was something—images, bits and pieces of characters, flashes of vivid emotion—unfolding in my mind. I was enveloped in a sort of creative spell right up to the moment that I became aware the spell existed, when it promptly began to crumble around me and return me to my daily life, the steering wheel, the freeway, the airport exit. The spell had been one of such intensely blissful fascination that I would have gladly driven all night in a sort of trance. I did not want to arrive.

People ask me sometimes where the story of Asphodel came from. I think it is, in some ways, a greater mystery to me than to anyone. That first night I saw very little: a small group of young people—children in many ways, though past the age of children—who were using all their pluck, ingenuity, and desperate desire to find a way to cross a seemingly impenetrable wall. The essence of what I saw was how each of them was changed by what they found on the other side. I began to see a tremendous impact on them, yet I did not yet know who they were. But the feeling of it all, like a secret inside me, was possibly the most compelling thing I have ever experienced.

I did not know what it was. Over the next months, I would sometimes have similar experiences, when the curtain would seem to rise on some scene and I would get little pieces of information, or a character would come just slightly more into focus, but the vast majority of it all was shrouded in mystery. It was maddening. I began to talk to it, in my mind. If I could focus on one question for long enough, sometimes I would get an answer back. Who is she? What are they doing? How? Why? Where is that? I would get crumbs. It was an incredibly slow process, and yet, immensely rewarding, for my passion for it seemed boundless. But what was it? I began to ask it that as well. After six months I started to feel haunted, like it was a presence sitting on my shoulder. One thing was clear, it was a creature that was rising from the deepest places in me.

I was an artist. I had completed my BA in Studio Art and taken a few years after that to develop my practice as a graphite artist in a style some were calling magical realism. I had completed a solo show at a gallery on Canyon Road. I was trying to develop my career. I asked the creature on my shoulder, can I draw you? The answer, though not audible, was loud and clear. Yes, of course, you must draw me. But you know what I am and I’m not only a drawing.

It was a book. A novel. I knew it and I was utterly terrified to admit it. I had no idea how to write a book. Let’s use the present tense: I HAVE no idea how to write a book! But this, I felt, was the promise of art and the power of myth. There was a possibility, a potential, of bringing something forth into the physical plane—something that could be held and touched and experienced by not just me but by anyone—that was the essence of me, of my sacred heart and my secret vision. The paradox of realizing and expressing one’s own unique truth only to find it is also universal—is that not the nectar of fulfillment? Is that not the means of contribution?

“This, I believe, is the great Western truth: that each of us is a completely unique creature and that, if we are ever to give any gift to the world, it will have to come out of our own experience and fulfillment of our own potentialities, not someone else’s." -Joseph Campbell

My art thus far had begun to teach me the path of my contribution in the world. I had witnessed a sort of alchemy that happened when I drew and painted from the inner sanctum of my experience, from the most honest, most vulnerable part of me. It happened in the viewer. A friend, a peer, a stranger would look, and somehow, just by looking, something would open. They would be moved. Something would ease, something would tremble and shift, a face would unlock, a voice would change. It was like magic, and it was not of my making. Then, as now, it is to the altar of that alchemy that I wish to offer my work.

In the book, I felt the pulsing possibility of that alchemy on a whole new level. I also felt like an ant at the base of a mountain. Terror. Doubt. Certainty of failure. But when that formless creature on my shoulder looked me in the eye and demanded I take responsibility for its creation, I felt I had no choice.

I said yes.

It feels sometimes like we plumb the depths of our courage just to say yes to what is asked of us and what we ask of ourselves. All the while we know that yes is only the beginning, that yes is the minimum of courage that will be required. That even in the next moment we may need more than we have, more than our hearts are capable of generating. That demand, or so I tell myself, is how the heart is made to grow.

The book has not come piece by piece, in a linear, decipherable manner. It has come like a jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of pieces appearing in the most nonsensical order imaginable. This cannot be how the professionals do it, can it? Even now, there are solitary pieces hovering in spaces whose contents I can only guess at. I would have hours at a stretch where I could only stare into space while new pieces were materializing, or “downloading,” as I came to think of it, and trying to arrange themselves with the others I already had. It was clear that there was a whole picture of which these pieces were a part, so I began to wonder, what intelligence was in possession of the entire story? The most deliciously eerie feeling comes over me when I pause to wonder this. For I assume no one else is making up this story, so clearly it must be mine. But is it? Do all artists experience this feeling, that your work already exists and that, like archaeologists of the future rather than the past, we extract into the present what has yet to exist?

I am creating this journal, primarily, for my own sanity, a self-soothing forum of one. I have also sought out articles, interviews, any place in which writers that inspire me have shared the wisdom, habits, tricks, demons, and unrestrained love with which they approach their work. It is difficult to overstate how much they have served me. They cannot solve my creative dilemmas, however. We can only do that for ourselves. There again the paradox recurs. Our uniqueness is essential to our connectedness.

“The personal life deeply lived always expands into truths beyond itself.” -Anaïs Nin

My creative solitude is fertile, instinctual, essential. I am reaching a hand out beyond the safety of my aloneness, however. Solitude may be necessary, but so, too, is the impulse to serve and be served. A prayer is said inwardly, yes, but it is also tossed to the sky. And answers come from everywhere. I am that archaeologist of future completions and my prayer sounds like this:

Please! Help me to know how to make this thing.