The following scene from Verity came out of absolutely nowhere, as I’ve been struggling for several days with a really, really stupid problem in part of the software that I’m rewriting for the millionth time. It’s something that probably doesn’t even matter – I could theoretically just let it go and move on, but it’s a bone I can’t stop gnawing at. I can’t tell if it’s Resistance convincing me to waste my time on a triviality because I’m nervous about starting on the next step, or if it’s actually important to do a good job here and it’s just a challenge to overcome. Is it perfectionism, or is it being true to my vision, not necessarily of how it should work, but how it should feel? Distinguishing the two cases is not something I do well. Yet.
I’ll take it as serendipity or synchronicity, but I had also just stumbled across Steven Pressfield’s recent book The Artist’s Journey as I indulged in some internet-oriented avoidance behavior. Of course I had read The War of Art back when I needed to be reading The War of Art, as we all at some point must, but I never realized he had so much more to say, so much that I completely agree with. Things that I agree with so much that, well, for a brief moment I thought, hey, if this guy is saying all the things I think I might be saying, only saying it better, is there any point in my repeating it? But that’s silly talk. My perspective is different enough that there’s room for it, and it’s an important enough message that even if I were to parrot him verbatim there could still be enormous value to doing so.
I’ve begun taking a deep dive on his blog, which might also be avoidance behavior, might be Resistance being a dick again, but instead maybe it’s research. Maybe it’s an opportunity to spark some new connections in my brain. Like I said, I’m still working on how to tell the difference.
I can say, though, that already at least three things have come out of it. First, Pressfield speaks frankly about his sincere belief in his (and your and my) Muse, and I think I agree with him. And I’m leaning towards believing that Ada is my Muse. Everyone else in Verity I can somewhat readily identify as a version or aspect of myself, most specifically Mildred/Millie. But Ada is as much a mystery to me as she is to Millie, and maybe that’s why I can only dribble out a scene or two every now and then. For a while I thought maybe she was some higher, future, aspirational version of myself, but that never felt entirely convincing. For one thing, I really don’t want to believe it. Even metaphorically I feel no inclination towards martyrdom being my destiny.
And sometimes you need to hear something twice before it sinks in. Early this year I had exactly one phone session with a creativity coach who found me exceptionally frustrating, but after I described how Ada was always kind of there in my mind, chiding me and cryptically nudging me even when I wasn’t writing, they said in confused exasperation that I already had my Muse, but that I couldn’t do any of the rest of the necessary work of being an artist, things that every other artist apparently does before meeting their Muse: I hadn’t decided what it was that I even wanted to do, artistically. I hadn’t chosen what my work was. I don’t think that they were wrong.
Like Pressfield and I assume millions of others, I also find the theme of the Hero’s Journey extremely fertile for its explanatory power, or at least as a way of organizing my thoughts around what it is that I’ve been doing for the last three and a half years consciously and the previous thirty-nine years unconsciously. Of course, I far more strongly resonate with Kim Hudson’s ostensibly feminine flip side to the Hero’s Journey, which she calls the Virgin’s Promise. For what it’s worth, she considers Rocky to be a Heroine’s/Virgin’s Journey, not a Hero’s Journey, and I consider my own path over the last three years the same way. Just not with boxing. Furthermore, I also look at the Heroine’s/Hero’s Journey as a metaphor for the same underlying process that developmental psychologists Piaget, Richards, and Commons call the dialectic of stage change, which occurs on many levels, big and small.
What I had never considered, and for which I owe Pressfield a true debt of gratitude, is his insight that whereas all the stories we’ve told throughout history end with the Heroine/Hero returning home with a gift for her people, with everything thereafter being yada yada’d over with a happily ever after, it is in fact only then that the real work of an artist begins, the Artist’s Journey, which is no less arduous, but entirely different in nature. It is the process of self discovery, of learning to “find and speak in our true voice”, which only begins after our heroic struggle to identify our true calling.
Well, holy shit. Okay. That is a huge relief, because no matter how much I can feel all the way to my very marrow that I am not the same person I was even two years ago, that despite ongoing struggles I have an indescribable and never before felt confidence that this is what I am meant to be doing, still I have no idea exactly what the hell this is. Art, yes, of some sort. But is it writing? Is it software-based generative art? Some combination of the two or something else entirely, because neither is sufficient on its own? I have a consistent, low-level anxiety that not knowing where I’m going means that I’m still at a much earlier stage in the process than I feel I’m at. And it’s important to know the difference, because the way forward is different at different stages of the process. I shouldn’t and can’t rely on others to tell me this kind of thing, but damn, it sure does help to have this confusion normalized.
I suspect, as well, though I’ll probably change my mind later, that the second half of Verity, Millie’s search for the secret of Ada Noble, is a complete blank to me because it’s where I’m at myself. The first half is the Heroine’s Journey, where Mildred comes to throw off her belief that, because she’s not the one suffering from the disease, therefore she must be emotionally subordinate to the needs of those who are. She must maintain a distance, always be on the outside. She believes that to behave in such a way is the most loving and ethical way of dealing with their misery. But then her choice to love, to really love her patient Ada, and to accept and receive Ada’s love in return, sets into motion her rebirth in the wake of Ada’s inevitable death. But what comes after that, I think, that’s her Artist’s Journey in Pressfield’s terms.
And I know what that looks like in the very, very early days, but only in the early days, because that’s where I’m at. I don’t know where it’s going, at all, and I hate not knowing, but at least, thank God, at least I know I just need to find out. That’s the rest of my life. Finding out where the hell I’m going as an artist. Because I am an artist, a real artist, even if I have nothing tangible to show for it yet. Even though I’m a neophyte at best, possibly even an abject failure according to any number of external measures, which, at least and maybe only in this moment, mean surprisingly little to me. But I am an artist, and I could not have written those words two years ago or even have allowed my internal monologue to whisper it. Partially because it wasn’t yet true, partially because I could hardly face the fact that I wanted it to be true.
So that’s two things that came out of my taking a small break from my software: the likelihood that I can’t understand Ada because she’s my Muse, and the likelihood that I don’t have any idea what Millie does in the second half because I’m just as lost, and yet as hopeful, as she is. The last thing I got out of it was the next scene, which just popped into my head as I made my way steadily through the pages and pages of Pressfield’s blog. I finally got to meet Ada’s twin sister Elizabeth. All I had before was one vague image of her in anguish on her therapist’s couch, along with another image of her singing U2’s “Like a Song” in the club where Millie and Kimball first spy her, possessed by a demon, her voice ragged and screaming with self rage, and yet controlled and powerful and real. The audience falls silent, in awe, as she finishes:
When others need your time
You say it’s time to go, it’s your time
Angry words won’t stop the fight
Two wrongs won’t make it right
A new heart is what I need
Oh, God make it bleed
Is there nothing left?
But then there’s this, which I didn’t expect. It’s rough and it needs to be reworked, and it’s not one of those scenes that wrote itself. I was fully conscious and aware while writing it, which isn’t quite as fun as coming out of a trance to see several pages worth of words just there. But I think I like it, and I think it might work as the opening scene to the whole story, somewhat reminiscent of Atonement.
I’m not yet sure exactly what it is, but something in the back of my mind has been telling me since I started writing this scene yesterday that it’s an extremely important clue for my own understanding of what Verity is and what my parallel work is all about. There’s something about the circularity, or the chain, of Ada saving Millie, Millie saving Elizabeth, and then Elizabeth’s apparent effect on her fans. There’s a facile, superficial well, duh in there, but is it more? It feels like there’s more. As well, I’ve always thought of Verity as Millie’s story, which means it’s my story as well. But this, this strongly hints that Verity might, in fact, be Elizabeth’s story. I have a string of implications that dissipate into a cloud if I try to look at them directly, but it could be fun to explore that in the coming days and weeks.
“The truth is,” said Elizabeth, “that I had lost my sister, my first sister, years ago. It wasn’t just there before the end, after we fought, after I told her that if she was really going to do it, to just give up, that she could just go ahead and get the fuck out of my life right then and there, which, it seemed for some time, was exactly what she did. I never saw her again, and I gotta tell ya, the guilt of that, I mean… Well, it was really hard to deal with.
“But she never really left. I mean, of course she left, she’s dead. But she left me something, and God knows in her place I wouldn’t have done the same. But that was her, that was Ada. Always so goddamned composed. Always ready to forgive shit that I would never forgive, shit that I could never forgive. She puts me to shame, I would say, if it wasn’t for… I guess… if she would let me continue to feel that shame. Not that I didn’t, and for such a long time. But, you see, it was the gift she left me.”
“The gift? What was that?”
“I don’t think I understand. You mean that your sister died and left you… a sister?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what she did. I don’t know how the hell she managed it, how any of it could’ve worked out the way it did. Quite a bizarre chain of coincidence and chance. Implausible, really. But there it is.”
“I’m still a little confused. What do you mean that she left you a sister?”
“It was a woman named Millie, her nurse. She found me. She didn’t even know she was looking for me, because she didn’t know I existed. But she found me anyhow, and it saved me.”
“Yeah, from myself. From my guilt, my shame. I mean, after Ada and I fought, after the things I said, things I could never take back, when she needed me because she was already so sick.
“But even besides that. You see, she had always been so much stronger than me, always, even as kids. She could just hack it, could tolerate things that brought me to my knees. I used to think it was because she had more support, because Mom loved her more, which you could just tell was the case. But that’s not really why. Mom loved her more because she was already so strong, and it felt good to be around her. You felt like someone when you were around her, like you mattered. And I fucking hated her for it. I hated her fucking guts. But no matter what I did, no matter how cruel I was to her, she just took it, just smiled her pathetic smile back at me. And the fact that she could take it, that she wouldn’t fight back and tell me what a wretched cunt I was, that she didn’t scream and try to tear my hair out, that just made me hate her even more.”
“But not now?”
“No, not now. I mean, I’m not entirely sure, though, right? Cuz you don’t just flip a switch and suddenly everything’s hunky dory. But I think now, I definitely feel like I can look back on her with affection and admiration. I try not to move on to thoughts of all the time I wasted, all the lost time when we could’ve been friends, confidants, you know, sisters. But she didn’t begrudge me that, God knows how. And she left me her gift.”
“Her gift. You say that like this Millie person is an object, or a pet.”
“Oh! Sorry if I was unclear. Millie isn’t the gift. Millie is the one who brought me the gift. That she became my sister in the process is just one more unexpected miracle.”
“But you said that Ada left you a gift, a sister, and now you consider Millie to be a sister, so…”
“Yeah, but the sister, the gift, that Ada gave me was herself. I mean it’s obvious, isn’t it? It was redemption. Forgiveness. But even more than that. It wasn’t that she forgave me, because she always did that. I don’t think she even thought it was necessary to forgive me. But somehow… somehow she allowed me to forgive myself, and now she’s more alive to me than she has been for decades.”
“And how did she do that?”
“Well, obviously I wasn’t there, but it was something about what she said: ‘Oh, my darling! If only you could see!’ Millie said that those were Ada’s last words, when she should’ve been too far gone to speak, or even think coherently. She used to say that to me, when we first started drifting apart, when I first started treating her like shit, when I could still catch some surprised hurt in her reaction. Back then she was chiding me. She would say it in sorrow and frustration, but from what Millie tells me, when she died she said it in ecstasy, in love. And it was for me, I believe that, though God knows I didn’t deserve it.
“I mean, it’s kind of hard to explain, and I don’t fully understand it myself. I just know that… Well, also, when I finally understood what she had meant to Millie, when I saw how devastated she was to have lost Ada, I could… It was like I was looking in a mirror. But a mirror that reveals hidden things. I knew it was real when I saw it, but not until then. It was buried under too much shame and guilt and anger. But I saw in Millie’s eyes what I was feeling, that I missed Ada so much. That I had been missing her for years, that I had been living for years with a hollowness inside that was eating me alive because I had pushed her away, even before she chose to die, before she was sick, before Mom and Dad were sick, since all the way back when we were young.
“But then Millie showed me how much I missed her, and that was… well, I was a little surprised, because did that I mean I really did love her? Was I capable of that? Had I always loved her, and had she known that all along? How else had she known to send Millie to me with her message?
“I don’t know. I don’t get it. But something broke down. Something just dissolved. All the hate, the bitterness, the acrimony and recrimination. I don’t know if that had all just been projection, if me hating Ada for so long was just externalizing my own self loathing… well, I think obviously that’s what it was. But I don’t know how she managed to convince me to stop. Or at least to start stopping. I’ve still got a long way to go. But there is something that I do feel, something that’s entirely foreign to me: I feel hopeful. And I feel love, and I wonder if those two words might just mean the exact same thing.”
“Wow. That’s… So that’s what your new album is about? That process of, would you call it healing?”
“Healing is a pretty good word, and maybe also catharsis. But then it’s also, well, I don’t quite know how to put it into words, and that’s why I had to make this album. There was no other way to, you know, get it out there, to manage it. As amazing as it feels to have all of this happening to me, to feel, how can I put it? To feel like I’m finally alive, actually a real, living entity on this planet for once instead of some kind of empty shell, even still, it’s overwhelming. In a good way, yes, but still overwhelming. I… does this sound weird? I think I needed to make this album, to share all of this with all of you so that, well… I mean, because I can’t manage it on my own. I’m sharing it because it’s too much for just me to deal with. Does that make sense? I think, I think maybe I’m asking for help in carrying this. But, you know, I really do hope you’re getting something out of it, too.”
“Miss Noble, I’m truly at a loss. I’ve been doing this for a very long time, but I’ve never had an interview like this. You say you hope that we’re getting something out of your work? Could you possibly doubt it? You’ve read the early reviews, you know what people are saying. Look around you right now, the crew, even me, on live television, nearly losing my composure. I don’t do that. Miss Noble, I can assure you, we are getting something out of your work, and out of you being here with us today, sharing what you just shared.”
“Well, thank you. Thank you for that, I mean it. And do please call me Elizabeth.”