Image by Johanne Brunet
Cambridge University, 1953. At two o’clock in the morning, a student is sitting at his desk. He has been there for hours.
In front of him is the beginning of an essay. He has been writing it, ripping it up and rewriting it for several days. It’s due to be handed in tomorrow, but he still can’t get past the opening sentence.
He doesn’t understand it. He chose his subject, English, because of his love for poetry and his ambition to become a great poet. But for some reason, it’s getting harder and harder to write those essays. And tonight he’s hit a brick wall.
As he sits there staring at the paper, he hears a noise to his right. Turning, he sees the door opening and a head peering round it. An enormous fox’s head.
Into the room walks a creature that looks like a man with a fox’s head, or a fox walking on its hind legs.
As it gets closer, the young man sees that the fox has just stepped out of a furnace, as if the door had opened direct from hell. Every inch of the fox’s skin is charred and blackened by the fire. Between the cracks in the skin, blood smoulders like molten lava, starting to seep out.
The creature’s eyes are shining with the intensity of its pain.
When it reaches the desk, the fox stretches out its hand – a human hand – and lays it flat on the empty page. It looks into the young man’s eyes and speaks:
Stop this – you are destroying us.
When the hand is lifted, the paper is covered in an intricate print of the palm, in glistening wet blood.
The next morning the student woke and rushed to the desk to look at the blood-print – only to find it had vanished.
But the impression it left was permanent.
The young man went to his tutor and explained that he could not continue with his course. After some discussion, he switched from English to Anthropology and completed his degree. He forgot all about academic literary criticism and went back to writing poems.
The student’s name was Ted Hughes, later regarded as one of the greatest poets of his generation. Four years later, when his first book was published, it contained a poem called ‘The Thought-Fox’, a mesmerising piece about an encounter with a mysterious fox, that became one of the best-known poems of the 20th century.
Is there Someone Knocking on Your Door?
When Ted Hughes heard the voice of his dream-fox, he listened and obeyed, ignoring the dutiful part of himself that felt he should persist with his English degree. But it took a while before he got the message.
Before that dream, he had been experiencing a growing resistance to writing his weekly essays, but had ignored the feeling and soldiered on. Luckily for him, his imagination didn’t give up on him – it sent a messenger to make its demands crystal-clear. And he had the good sense to take it seriously.
Like Hughes, most of us have experienced times when we veer off course in our lives, away from our true calling and talent, and towards paths that look promising but turn out to be dead ends. If we have enough self-awareness, we notice how unsatisfying this feels and abandon the dead-end for more fulfilling way forward.
But we’re not always so responsive to those feelings. And that’s when things start to get nasty.
As we push forward, doggedly sticking with our chosen course of action, we can find ourselves experiencing any of the following:
- disturbing dreams
- addictive use of alcohol or other drugs, food, gambling, sex etc.
- destructive relationships
- physical illness
When this happens – and if the obvious solutions fail to work – it’s worth asking yourself the following questions:
- Am I really happy with what I’m doing right now?
- Does it give me the opportunity to follow my passion and use my talents to the full?
- Is there something else I’d rather be doing?
- What would be the first step towards a more fulfilling way to spend my time?
Often, taking a few steps to restore some balance in your life and reconnect with your creative passion is all it takes for the symptoms of unease to disappear. Like Ted Hughes’ fox, the symptoms can vanish overnight – but they leave behind a valuable life lesson.
What Have You Learned from Your Dead Ends?
Have you ever experienced a dream, illness or other disturbing episode that turned out to be your imagination prompting you to get back in your creative zone?
What did you do about it?
What did you learn from the experience?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.