Gaining a new understanding of Louisa May Alcott’s “Vortex”

Dictionary.com had several definitions for the word, “vortex” which I thought were interesting:

1. a whirling mass of water, especially one in which a force of suction operates, as a whirlpool.
2. a whirling mass of air, especially one in the form of a visible column or spiral, as a tornado.
3. a whirling mass of fire, flame, etc.
4. a state of affairs likened to a whirlpool for violent activity, irresistible force, etc.

Obviously the fourth one is the one that applies to Louisa but I thought the first three were a great description too, in an allegorical sense. 🙂

I remember learning of Louisa’s self-described “vortex” when I read Louisa May: A Modern Biography by Martha Saxton. I was fascinated by her description of the vortex and found myself wishing that I could lose myself in something creative like that.

This weekend I realized that I do. I wouldn’t call it a vortex because it’s certainly not like the definitions above; I would call it more like a tunnel. I retreat into my tunnel, blocking out the world and heaven forbid if anyone interrupt me! It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to prepare to enter the tunnel and often I procrastinate going there because of the constant threat of interruption that will break the spell (and possibly shut off some creative inspiration that may never come back). Family members do not like it when I enter this tunnel – it can cause downright resentment because suddenly I am not available for conversation, running errands, cleaning dishes or cooking dinner. I am not available for companionship. It’s necessary to shut out the world and everybody in it to complete my creative task, and when I can stay in my tunnel, I produce a hell of a lot of stuff! And it feels damn good too.

I was asked a while back to put together a weekend long religious retreat for women. I’ve been working with a partner and the partner was getting nervous because I had not sent her my outlines for the talks I was supposed to do. In all I had to prepare 4 talks (one was an older one I had used before that needed tweaking). It required time for reading and research, then writing out the outlines, and then actually giving the talk and timing it to see if it would work. My goal was to get all 4 done in one weekend. Thanks to my tunnel, they are done!

But thanks to my tunnel, I have a family member who is not happy with me.

This has been an ongoing struggle for my whole adult life. As a musician, I often entered these tunnels to write and record music. There was a period back when I was first married and before I had children when I could enter the tunnel every weeknight for hours on end because my husband taught guitar lessons during that time at a studio. I would have to pick him up at 10 pm because we only had the 1 car. My job was only about 10 minutes away so I could run home, eat a quick dinner, dump the dishes in this lovely deep sink that had a cover (!), meaning they wouldn’t get washed for a week, and I could write and record to my heart’s desire.  What a wonderful time that was, a time I mourn the loss of to this day.

There is a price though for entering the tunnel. Resentment from family members is one cost for entrance. Others include self-absorption, wild mood swings and tunnel vision. I would literally lose myself in these tunnels and it terrified me. As I grew older and recognized the consequences, I became afraid to enter the tunnel. In fact, when I had children, I sold off all my music equipment and gave up music for five years, instead pouring myself into my children. Eventually, music knocked on my door again and I let it in. But now with a family, I had to steal time. It was hard and frustrating, and it makes me wonder truly how May Alcott Nieriker would have coped with having a husband and child while pursuing a career as an artist. Her resolve to continue pursuing her art as she was expecting Lulu all sounded rather naive. How long would her husband have put up with it? Too bad we’ll never know the answers to those questions.

And now this HUGE tunnel is beckoning me, the writing tunnel . . . yikes!

I applaud Louisa for having the courage to leap head first into her vortexes. Her family understood her need and she went ahead and did it. There was some advantage to there being a practical need for her writing fits – they made a lot of money for the family and everyone lived very well off Louisa!

My goal now is to find a way to gain the support I need from my family and balance life with the tunnel, and ultimately, enter that tunnel and produce something good, maybe even great. Maybe it’ll never go any farther than self-publishing, maybe it will, who knows? I keep it all in prayer, asking for God’s guidance, and I look to Louisa for my example, remembering her courage. My goal is not necessarily to get published, but to produce something worthwhile.

8 Replies to “Gaining a new understanding of Louisa May Alcott’s “Vortex””

  1. I once heard a woman artist describe being absorbed in her work and she call it “flow,” which to me implied being carried along under the control of the current of work. Do you really want to lose that gift of being able to enter your own tunnel!

    My work style is more like a big old heavy locomotive. It is hard to get me underway but, once I am moving, I am very difficult to stop.

    1. Yeah, that sounds like me! I don’t want to lose that gift of my tunnel. It’s really funny, this has been an issue my entire adult life and I’m seeing now how much of my failure to succeed in producing the kind of work I want to produce was being held hostage by fear. I’ve produced stuff in the past, stuff I’m proud of, but always with major compromises of quality that I’ve had to accept and live with. This time I want it to be different!

      This is a really interesting exercise. I never imagined when I started this blog that I would be dealing with such a gut issue. This was just supposed to be fun (it still is, of course!). 🙂

      How do you handle the people around you when you get on your locomotive (I love all these analogies!)?

  2. I don’t handle them much at all. Fortunately I am retired now, so I have more freedom to control my time and fewer family responsibilities. When I was younger I was often frustrated because I was not free to concentrate of what I wanted to do. Now I tend to guard my time and independence — and sometimes overdo it.

  3. I can identify completely with the vortexes you describe and how self-absorption can lead to family resentment. My writing and painting endeavors can swirl me into isolation to such a degree that I forget the time of day. I believe I’m in good company, knowing that Louisa May Alcott faced the same dilemma. Very reassuring, indeed! Blessings, Jan

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