The Cave

On Facebook this week, I found the following quotation from Joseph Campbell:

The Cave

Now, you should never trust a Facebook quotation, and of course I checked to see if Campbell had ever said this. He probably hadn’t, in exactly that form. What he may have said is something like this, in a lecture: “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for. The damned thing in the cave, that was so dreaded, has become the center.”

So you’re afraid to enter the cave, you enter, you stumble in the darkness because the ground is rocky. But somewhere in that cave is the treasure, the thing you are looking for. To find it, you have to enter the cave in the first place.

I could write a blog post on overcoming fear and venturing into the cave. Except that’s not my problem. I always go into the cave. I’m not even sure why. I think I do it on principle, because I know that if you give in to fear once, you are more likely to give in to fear twice. You are more likely to hold back the next time, to say no, the cave is too dark, the ground too rocky. The things I’m afraid of are the same things I think we’re all afraid of. We often think of bravery as jumping out of airplanes, but seriously, who’s afraid of jumping out of an airplane? No, the things we’re afraid of are failure, loneliness, poverty. Being lost, facing rejection. Ultimately, death.

Being a writer means that you confront all of these. The path itself is a lonely one, and you face a continual possibility of rejection and failure. (You may remember that some time ago I wrote about how I deal with negative reviews? Everyone gets negative reviews. Well, to deal with mine, I read James Joyce’s negative reviews. I scroll through his one-star reviews on Goodreads. Seriously.) A book may be rejected by every publisher, a book may be published and fail. Poverty is a very real possibility. It’s easy to become lost. You can’t be a writer without going into the cave. I go into the cave so I can get used to being afraid. When I started going to conventions, I would always volunteer to moderate panels, in part so I would be put on panels, because there was always a need for moderators. You see, for some reason people are afraid to moderate. So I would find myself in front of two hundred people, moderating a panel that consisted of writers such as Samuel Delaney and Barry Malzberg and John Clute. When you do the things you fear, over and over again, you lose your fear of them. And you become used to the feeling of being afraid, so when you have to do the next thing you fear, you’re already accustomed to it. You know what it feels like. Eventually, you begin to want it, the feeling of being at least a little afraid, of moving past your comfort zone. You start to realize that if you’re not, to at least a certain extent, staring into the abyss, you’re not really living. You’re not even really writing.

So my problem isn’t going into the cave. My problem is that I always go into the cave, and then I stumble and fall. Not always of course, but sometimes. Then I feel stupid, and blame myself for having stumbled. For having failed to live up to expectations. That’s what I need to work on. Because I’ve met so many people who never even venture inside. People who tell me they have traveled the world, but when I ask them about it, reveal that all the trips were planned, were comfortable. People who call themselves romantics, but are afraid to fall in love — deeply, passionately in love with another person. Writers who are afraid to work on longer projects because of the fundamental fear that they will fail — that they will not finish, or the book will not find a publisher, or once published it will not sell.

What I need to do is pick myself up, mend anything that’s been broken, and say to myself, but I ventured into the cave. Of course I failed — that’s the sign of having tried. And then I need to look around for that treasure.

We should wear our failures as badges of honor, I think. Show off our scars, as soldiers used to show off the scars they gained in duels . . .

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13 thoughts on “The Cave

  1. It’s close to what he said:

    “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for. The damned thing in the cave, that was so dreaded, has become the center.”

    It’s quoted in the first chapter in Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion by Diane K. Osbon, 1991.

  2. Wise words. Yours, as well as those in the quote. I read a similar quote once: where your heart is, there also your treasure will be. Maybe that’s why failure is scary? Because when we display our treasure in written form, we reveal our heart, and don’t want it rejected. Anyway, I really loved what you wrote here.

  3. Thanks for sharing this post. It gave me strength. Just last night, I cried and didn’t write at all because I was scared. Scared that if I finish my book I’ll never get published. But this morning I woke up, gave myself some dose of inspiration and got to work. I typed some three pages and went to shower, came back and my computer was off. when it came on again, the extra three pages were gone. I swore because I can’t rewrite those sentences exactly, but I started writing again. I think the sentences this time around are even better.
    And then I read your blog, and it gave me amazing strength. Thanks a lot.

    • You’re welcome! And just so you know, about a month ago I lost half a chapter because I saved an old version over a new one. I had to retype what I had written, but I do think the new version is better. It’s not about whether you fall, but whether you get up again. And while you write a book, don’t think about whether you’ll get published. You’re not writing for the love of getting published, right? You’re writing for the love of writing. So just write. You can think about publishing later. If you love what you do, and find joy in it, the fear will go away. Love and joy are the key. :)

  4. Wow. I didn’t have time to read this until today. You really do love the art in yourself,
    by my definition. One of my favorite discoveries is that we have readers and an
    audience out there and all we have to do is to hurdle the puzzling maze of getting
    () a role in a play if you act (2) published. Sort of the thorny vines around the castle. I have had horrifying rejections. Luckily, I never had high aspirations. My work is in the crannies and nooks of the sometimes modestly paid. I chose the low road, day office jobs or night jobs to keep that energy for art clear and available. And I
    finally solved the trick of stuffing a 600 page novel into a 2 page synopsis. THAT was
    the worst personal hurdle. Now I am off to the marketplace to bring my goods and I
    will try not take it too seriously. Only diligently.

  5. Great post. Caves are scary. I always go in too, but my problem is often which cave to choose. I used to believe I had chosen the ‘wrong’ cave, but the fact is every choice we’ve made brings us to where we are now, and I like where I am now. I see another dark opening just ahead.

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