The art of destruction

Remember Hedda Gabler?

The very confused and somewhat unbalanced heroine in Ibsen’s play of the same name?

You know, that racy play from 1890? The one that’s full of all sorts of juicy stuff for its time: scandal, early feminism, alcoholism, suicide, jealousy, sexism, infidelity, creativity.

What’s that you say?

You mean you don’t have it sitting in your stack of must-reads?

You weren’t planning a tete-a-tete with it tonight?

Well, that’s okay.

Because I spent some time thinking about Hedda while I was on blogging hiatus, so I can fill you in.

The scene I kept remembering was the one when she commits an act of supreme creative destruction. In her hands is the only copy of a manuscript written by a man she once loved, a man for whom she was once a muse. She’s enraged and jealous that another woman has taken her place. And sitting before the fire, she slowly draws out the pages of his book, and places them on the flames, saying:

I am burning…I am burning your child.

Pretty dramatic, right? But the weird thing is, I think I had a few of my own Hedda Gabler moments last year.

It all started well over a year ago.

I decided to get a jump on spring cleaning, setting out to sift through years of accumulated papers, books, and mementos. I needed to do this; I’d grown edgy and anxious (kind of like Hedda), and this stuff was dragging me down and messing with my momentum.

I needed that experience of destroying what no longer served me (inside and outside), in order to step into renewal and the space to create again.

The first layer of shedding was easy.

Old documents, tax returns, bills, invoices, receipts. The flotsam and jetsam of day-to-day-week-to-week-month-to-month-year-to-year life.

But the second layer of shedding, not so easy.

Because it was here I discovered things I had wanted to create that never came to be: half-formed ideas captured in scribbled notes; half-finished projects stuck in the back of the closet. Little creative seeds that would not see the light of day.

Hard as it was, I followed Hedda’s lead and shoved them into the metaphorical fire (in this case a shredder and recycling bin).

I didn’t really flinch until I got to the third layer though.

Here was a play pen full of my creative babies: workshops, seminars, syllabi, handouts, articles, classes, activities. All completed. Facilitated. Written. Taught. Worked through. You could even say they were successes.

But they had to go into that fire.

There was a moment in all of this stripping away and destroying when time stopped, when I felt like I was in a dream. I don’t exactly know what it was. Let’s just say I had a felt sense, fleeting though it was.

In that moment I knew that we’re not here to merely destroy what no longer serves us, but our creations as well.

Some really good ones, in fact. Successes and achievements. Our creative children. Just like Hedda says.

And maybe this is the deepest and most profound kind of creative destruction.

No wonder we get angry and excited and sad and elated and lonely (like Hedda) when we’re in the throes of it. Because in order to create anew, we must kill off some cherished parts of ourselves.

Now, I know that you know I’m not championing Hedda’s final descent into suicide. But the symbolic meaning – yes – it’s really quite stunning. Another example of how art really does imitate life.

So. Had any Hedda Gabler moments in your life?

7 thoughts on “The art of destruction

  1. Oh Patty, what a great entry! We often talk of shedding the old, the stale but not so much the old and the beautiful. I have gone through something similar myself and your process resonated with me! One example for me was riding myself of my graduate school artifacts. It was difficult to let go of all my notebooks, binders, books and past papers (many of which contained those seeds for new and exciting ideas I was planning on watering and growing in a PhD program). But I’ll never forget the day I let go of my diploma. I remember when it arrived- staring at it with all its official stamps and signatures, plotting my trip to IKEA to find a big bold frame to hang it in for all to see, for me to see and be reminded of what I could do and what I had accomplished. Well, it sat on my desk in my office for approximately 2 days before my partner, in a sleepy haze, accidently spilled coffee on it. He was sorry and I was devastated. I immediately contacted the University and paid to have another one sent to me. They told me it would be at least six weeks before the new diploma arrived, and that was fine by me– anything to get my proof back.
    Six weeks came and went and one day my replacement came. I was so paranoid of anything happening to it that I stashed it unopened in the back of my office closet and I went back to daydreaming about frames and clever hanging techniques. Days pasted, then weeks and months. One day that anxious nagging feeling you described also came over me, and I too went into my office to purge when low and behold I stumbled on my coveted prize. Still unopened I stared at the package realizing it had been almost two years since its arrival. So much had changed for me, I had changed and it’s like I hadn’t realized just how much until I was holding that unopened diploma in my hands. First, I never went on to get my PhD like I had planned. In fact, I no longer had an interest in academia. I had lost touch with most of my grad school pals and had deepened my other friendships on platforms non-academic. Entering the ‘real world’ after school, I no longer idealized the bubble that is academia. All of this and more came flooding out of me that day, and I found myself walking over the trash and throwing my coveted prize away.
    There are some days when I think on that decision and feel confused and a bit sad, but mostly I feel relieved and a bit giddy about my act of destruction. I’ve never told anyone that story in full before, so thank you for letting me share it here :-)

    • Thank you for telling the story here, Kristie. I’m moved and inspired by it. And you’ve reminded me that there are even deeper layers of shedding for me to do.

  2. Hi Patty — in keeping with what you say here, sometimes I have wanted to erase everything on my blog before I definitively entered what I think of as my “music phase.” Sometimes I feel like I no longer identify with talking about the “process” of creativity, and now am all about the “substance” of it. I have deleted some of the very old posts as part of this, but I probably won’t get rid of all of them.

    • Yes! I think I know exactly what you mean, Chris. My blog is changing too after being away for so long. I’m not the same person, and some creative destruction is in the cards here too.

  3. A cleansing ritual — I love it, Patty. Years ago, I got rid of a whole bunch of unfinished paintings and gave away a few finished pieces to friends who expressed an interest in them. I also donated a bunch of jewelry-making materials, mosaic projects and perfectly good, unused tiles. I felt it wasn’t generating the right kind of energy for me anymore and wanted to move on unburdened. It felt good.

    I think that this could also apply to non-artists; possibly to educators who have grown complacent (toss those lesson plans from the 90s), fundamentalists who put a dusty old set of words over masses of real people (crack that mind open and let a little light in, why don’t they), etc.

  4. This idea always reminds me of the Phoenix which is burned before it is reborn. So many things in life have to be destroyed in order for life to form or creativity to bloom.
    I have thought about doing it to my blog too – but I am not sure as the things I wrote before serve to remind me where I was and how far I have come. Then again, I wonder just how important that is as I am here now.

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