This weekend at FaerieCon West in Seattle I had the privilege of listening to fantasy artist Stephanie Pui-Mun Law discuss her work and her process. This image, titled Dream Sign, struck me in particular as a powerful metaphor for the creative life. According to Stephanie, Muhru, the owl in the painting, is “the guardian of the thin line that separates the knowing from the unknowing.” In my interpretation, the owl represents darkness, wisdom and movement, the mask represents mystery and the unknown, and the key represents the answer, the truth, or possibly the entrance or escape through whatever locked door one is currently facing. I’m going to get this all wrong I’m sure, but as she discussed how she created a raw, free-form background on which to sketch whatever image decided to emerge, I was left with a sense of the importance of trusting the subconscious to guide you, of letting go of expectations and allowing whatever needs to come to the surface to arise, without analysis or restriction.
In life and art, taking risks can be scary – should be scary, if you’re pushing yourself and abandoning your comfort zone, much like taking flight into a dark, unknown sky. So far my risks have been small ones as I edge closer to the abyss. To risk exposing my heart to an indifferent world is frightening. To expose my inner truth, terrifying. To let go of control, liberating, empowering, and horrifying.
The result of flying blind is that I often don’t know what I’m writing about until I’m nearly finished, or maybe never. Some stories remain forever open to interpretation and I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, but it’s how my creative mind works. If I try to impose a theme or grand idea too early, the story withers beneath the weight of my expectations. What I hope for is a sign, like Muhru the owl here, to fly through my life and tell me what my story is about.
One thing for sure is that there is never only one mask, one layer, one persona or voice or meaning. We build worlds so we can open doors, not close them, lock them and throw away the key. In the early days, my writing often served as an escape from the real world, but now I feel I’m writing my way back to more authentic ground. After writing hundreds of thousands, and yes, a million plus words, we as writers inevitably work our way around to the truth. And the message that Muhru here represents is that even we, as the creators, don’t know what that truth will look like. There are two ways of interpreting this image; either we don the many masks of creating characters and spinning stories from the ether, weaving webs of bright colors and shadows to disguise the truth, or we remove the masks, one after the other, with every story we tell or picture we paint, until every bit of us lies exposed on the forest floor.
And of course, when we think we’ve finally snatched the key from Muhru’s talons, we find out there are so many more.
So back to the blank canvas we go, the empty page, the silent harp, to delve even deeper, take even bolder risks, remove another mask, discover another key.