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To Radiate and Create

Updated: Jun 23


A lady in early 17th-century attire is seated at a table pondering a letter she is writing. In the background is a high Japanese screen. The artist has lavished great care in the rendering of the contrasting surfaces of his subject's satin dress and of the rug covering the table.
The Important Response - Florent Willems - Walters Art Museum - CC License

 

Life among the luminous

As the sixth of seven children, I grew up surrounded by people who towered over me and performed feats of astonishing creativity and capacity. My brother was a centaur riding his motorcycle. Dad designed a car wash machine, penciling mysterious schematics of circuitry onto flattened cardboard boxes, as Hephaestus might if he owned a gas station. Mom floated on air when she executed swan dives into the lake, and, in winter, on the frozen pond behind the house, she skated circles around me—forward and backward—like a water spirit of the north. My four older sisters drew, painted, baked, photographed, sewed, played basketball, softball, and piano, and regaled me with stories they invented on the spot. One sister would materialize as though out of nowhere to give me magical elixirs—a bottle heated to just the right temperature, a tiny cup of “jello juice” she scooped from the mixing bowl before the liquid gelatin went into the fridge. I can still taste that sweet, warm, red nectar. When my younger sister arrived, she glowed like the divine child with eyes of clear blue quartz and gleaming coppery hair.


It all felt miraculous. Stunning. I had blundered into a pantheon of powers greater than myself, and I adored them all, exactly the way I would so many goddesses and gods.


I had blundered into a pantheon of powers greater than myself, and I adored them all, exactly the way I would so many goddesses and gods.

With no language to describe it, I was experiencing my family’s transparence to transcendence, as Joseph Campbell calls it (The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work 51). My child’s eyes let me see what Campbell calls “the radiance of the presence of the divine” (The Power of Myth 267). That radiance shone through my family as though through a cluster of suns.


Unfortunately, I was hopelessly opaque.

 

When the light dims

So there I was, handed from giant to dazzling giant, tossed in the air like a squealing beach ball, spun in circles then set down to fall over in the grass, laughing with giddy dizziness—much the way religious experience leaves me feeling. But I had no awareness of my own talents. I couldn’t sense Campbell’s radiance shining through me.


This luminosity, for Campbell, occurs especially in the experience of art, poetry, myth, and religion (The Power of Myth 277, 283, 259, 285)—all of which are fields of human creativity. I knew it existed, because I’d seen it from the outside, but I had no experience of it myself. All I had was a desperate desire to participate in the fun everyone else was having.


Before long my siblings started going off to college, marriages, jobs, journeys. I wept at the airport when we dropped them off. It was like I lost God, every single time.


I self-medicated with books—another form of creative marvel which I had no idea how to make. I longed to write stories, the way the Brontë sisters did. But no one taught me how, not in high school, not in college. So, after graduating, I read about narrative structure. I attended writing classes and conferences. I joined writing groups, and I wrote terrible stories, one after another after another.


Ten full years of this went by, and then one day I came across Ray Bradbury’s book Zen and the Art of Writing, in which he advises aspiring writers to write one story a week every week for a year. Well, why not? Nothing else had worked, so I rolled up my sleeves.


The first week, I wrote a terrible story.


The second week, a horrible story.


Weeks three, four, five, and six: awful story after awful story.


My settings lacked vitality. Plots petered out. Characters lay flat on the page, stubbornly refusing to stand up and do anything. Looking back, I must have been as stubborn as they were. My grim determination would not let me give up, no matter how much I despaired over each failure.


Stubbornness, meet surrender

In the seventh week of my Bradbury challenge, I had a vague idea for a character and setting. The first few pages filled up decently well, but the middle slowed down. Words dried to a trickle. Then they stopped. I had no idea what came next.


The sun had gone down, and it was a Thursday—late in the week, late in the day, late in my soul. Why was I unable to write a story? None of my siblings would struggle like this, not with their array of talents. But it was time to make supper, so I gave up. This story would be another swing and a miss.


I turned off my computer and trudged down the shadowy staircase from my office to the kitchen, letting gravity do most of the work. Downstairs, the windows were squares of the evening’s deepening blue, the furniture all but invisible in the dark.


As I stepped off the last stair, I flipped the switch for the kitchen lights, as I always did. Unlike other times, though, this time when the kitchen lit up, so did the story’s ending.


There it was, all at once, and it was perfect. Perfect! I loved it! Surprising yet inevitable, it fit the previous pages like a key in a lock, and I had not invented it. The story’s ending arrived in my mind all on its own, at the same moment as that burst of light. Electrical light and story light flooded me both at once, along with a feeling of indescribable joy and impossible delight, wordless, timeless, thrilling, alive. If a camera had recorded that moment, it might have captured Eureka photons beaming from my ears, somewhere on the light spectrum just this side of indigo.


The radiance. The divine.


Still breathless, I wrote up the ending. That was my first published story.


But while I edited, I was looking over my shoulder. Who or what had come up with that ending? It certainly wasn’t me.


A creativity credo

 I was thirty-five when that story’s ending burst in and lit up my imagination. That’s thirty-five trips around the sun before I found a situation where the radiance could shine through. Afterwards, it became more accessible. That’s why I believe creativity can be cultivated.


But chasing the mystery of how that insight happened became more urgent for me than writing more stories. The embodied sensation of light was so overwhelming, so benefic, that I found myself in graduate school learning about creativity and creation myth.


I never solved the mystery, and I never will, but I learned that creation myths represent creativity metaphorically, masking the radiance in stories about forces that pour into the world, stop us in our tracks, break through sometimes in the experience of art, myth, and religion. I believe Campbell is right that mythic images represent our spiritual potential, and encountering them, thinking about them, actually activates them in our lives (The Power of Myth 273). If goddesses and gods embody and evoke cosmic powers, creator deities embody and evoke creativity. And because creator deities are sacred, so is creativity.


My siblings remain bathed in wonder to me. I’ll never stop trying to earn my place among them. I have come to believe their exploits were, in fact, so many acts of God, and I believe our birthright—yours, mine, and everyone’s—is to radiate and create.







MythBlast authored by:


Joanna is a white woman with brown hair. She is smiling, wearing a blazer and a colorful scarf.

Joanna Gardner, PhD, is a writer, mythologist, and magical realist whose research and teaching focus on creativity, goddesses, and wonder tales. Joanna serves as director of marketing and communications for the Joseph Campbell Foundation and is the lead author of the Foundation's book Goddesses: A Skeleton Key Study Guide. She is also an adjunct professor in Pacifica Graduate Institute’s Mythological Studies program, and a co-founder of the Fates and Graces, hosting webinars and workshops for mythic readers and writers. To read Joanna's blog and additional publications, you are most cordially invited to visit her website at joannagardner.com.



Red background with a mandala and Masks of Eternity on the image.

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 6, and The Hero's Journey

 

Latest Podcast


The red cover of the pathways podcast with intersecting lines. The title of the Episode is Bonus: The Psychological Basis of Freedom Q&A

Pathways Bonus: The Psychological Basis of Freedom Q&A


In this bonus Q&A episode, Campbell answers questions about the nature of freedom, the origins of religion, following one's bliss, living out of one's center, and aesthetic arrest. It is taken from the Q&A session after his lecture, "The Psychological Basis of Freedom", recorded at Bennett College in North Carolina in 1970.



 

This Week's Highlights


A picture of Joseph Campbell, a white man in a brown suit.

"Just as anyone who listens to the muse will hear, you can write out of your own intention or out of inspiration. There is such a thing. It comes up and talks. And those who have heard deeply the rhythms and hymns of the gods, the words of the gods, can recite those hymns in such a way the gods will be attracted."


-- Joseph Campbell






 





 

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