By Deborah Dobbs
Something weird was happening. For months, I’d awaken around 2am with a strange sensation in my chest, like something within me was pouring hot liquid over my heart.
It wasn’t acid reflux. I didn’t have any pain, shortness of breath or other symptoms of a heart attack, but I saw my cardiologist, anyway. My EKG, echo-cardiogram, and stress test results were normal. There was nothing physically wrong with me, but night after night, an unnerving, uncomfortable heat around my heart pulled me out of my slumber. I felt like a little goblin was in there, cackling away while dousing my heart with its hot goblin potion. (Clearly, with no medical explanation, my imagination ran wild.)
I mentioned this baffling happening to a dear friend, who was a therapist and mindfulness expert.
He shrugged and said, “You’re meant to create, so do something creative, and it’ll go away.”
He spoke with such certainty, and I was so desperate to cast the malicious phantom from my body, that I rushed home and sketched something in my journal and tinkered a little bit on the piano. I kid you not, that night I slept without interruption for the first time in months. I was astonished that the sensation vanished so quickly and effortlessly, without medication or having to give up fried chicken or Irish whiskey or heaven forbid, start an exercise regimen. I was rid of it, and the unnerving phenomenon returns only when I get too immersed in tedious tasks and mindless, not mindful, activities. I’ve kept it away by tying flies, growing tomatoes, journaling, sketching, and seeking other opportunities to create or enjoy others’ creations, including Mother Nature’s. I also dusted off my manuscript and finished it. Then, I started another novel.
Shortly after heeding my therapist friend’s advice, I felt an inexplicable urge to read a book from my graduate school days: Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, PhD.
I didn’t actually remember anything from the book but felt compelled to dive into it. I went on a fruitless search, scouring our bookshelves and boxed items in the garage, and then I turned to Amazon and downloaded the audio version. Dr. Estés’ voice was intoxicating, and I felt like she was sharing with me, her audience of one, treasured stories passed down by her elders. My twenty-something self had been too young to appreciate wholeheartedly the messages, but the words warmed and lifted the spirit of my decades older, slightly bruised and battered self. I yearned for more time with Dr. Estés, so I downloaded more of her books, and one of them brought me several ah-ha moments. In The Late Bloomer, Dr. Estés wrote about el duende, the creative fire burning within all of us, the moment of inexplicable, mysterious passion for something. El duende is the way that art, in the form of a musical performance or a painting, brings us joy, tears, smiles, or chills. I believe it also fuels our desire to create things ourselves.
Rather than something out of a Tolkien story, perhaps el duende was responsible for the burning sensation in my chest. Perhaps el duende works in cahoots with the Almighty, speaking to us softly, increasing in volume if we don’t respond. Maybe it’s a little fire burning within us that, if left unattended, gets out of control enough to wake us from a deep sleep. Then, it has our attention.
There appears to be both spiritual and scientific components to our drive to make things. While el duende seems abstract or mystical, the human need to create is concrete and undeniable. Trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk emphasizes this in his book The Body Keeps the Score. “We are designed to create,” he argues, “without imagination, there’s no hope.” Creating, whether it comes through making music or building a birdhouse, supports the healing process and mental health overall. Sometimes, though, we hesitate to engage in artsy activities. We tend to judge our products, rather than enjoy the process. Our culture also tends to communicate, you’re too old or you’re too busy to learn new things, throw clay, or write a novel. Here’s the thing: the paint and canvas, the ink and paper, the clay and wheel, the hammer and nail neither know nor care about your age or your schedule. Neither do they care what you do with the result. The tools are simply waiting for you to put them to use. If and when you decide to pick them up, remember that 1) perfection is creativity’s nemesis and 2) you don’t have to do anything with whatever it is you make. It’s yours to treasure or smash to bits.
Tossing an unfinished dollhouse out of a second story window (with no one in harm’s way) is oddly satisfying, but that’s another story.
Writing is my constant companion, and occasionally I sketch. Sometimes I do them badly. Other times, I produce something impressive. Regardless, together we tend the fire of el duende and honor the human design.
Editor’s Note: Deborah Dobbs is the author of thrillers and creepy crime fiction. Look for her debut novel Vile in Spring 2022. Join her journey at DeborahDobbs.com.