Lessons in Contrast

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Harry Potter has returned to Hogwarts in search of what he thinks is Voldemort’s final horcrux; meanwhile, Voldemort’s forces prepare to attack the school. Professor McGonagall assures Harry they will do everything possible to give him time to search. On the steps of the school, she intones “Piertotum Locomotor!” thus calling the statues and suits of armor to their duty of protecting the school. The stone warriors leap from their high perches and thunk to the ground, crouched ready to pounce. The professor turns to Mrs. Weasley and giggles, “I’ve always wanted to try that spell!”

Last night I went to an outdoor screening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2. The movie reminded me again (I’ve seen it several times…) of the importance of balancing darkness with light, heaviness with humor. The last Harry Potter movie carries a great deal of darkness, visually and thematically, but the creators excelled at inserting contrast into all that darkness.

On the eve of battle, we see a combination of imminent danger, fearful power, and childlike pleasure. The humor allows the audience a momentary break from anxiety. The levity stops the movie from taking itself too seriously.

Likewise the film contrasts the visual darkness (gray to the point of difficulty in making out details at times) with the brilliant scene where Harry meets Dumbledore at what appears to be a very clean version of King’s Cross Station. The white light, almost blinding initially, certainly would not have the same impact without so much darkness surrounding it.

I’ve noticed this need for contrast in other media as well. For example, it’s tough—really tough—to get vulnerable when you are giving a speech, to share something sad or disturbing from your own life. And as hard as it is for the speaker to say, it’s sometimes even harder for the audience to hear. Even if they empathize with you, your sharing of an uncomfortable experience makes them uncomfortable. But balanced with an eensy-weensy bit of lightness or humor or joy, the discomfort becomes bearable. (Easier said than done.)

I have a friend who is a leadership coach. I admire him and I’ve learned a lot from him. But I’ve almost given up on reading his newsletters because everything is so. heavy. I want to say “Dude! Lighten up! Can’t you see the humor in this situation? Everything is not suffering and sacrifice.” As someone who dealt with a parent’s Alzheimer’s for many years, I recognize that laughter can bring as much enlightenment as tears.

In my writing, I find each poem has a certain flavor—dark, light, humorous, cynical—but collectively I think I have a balance of different feels and emotions. I think I avoid monotony (tough to judge one’s own work though).

How does the idea of contrast affect your creative work? Is it a conscious consideration? Does it just come naturally?

9 thoughts on “Lessons in Contrast

  1. 98dayjourney

    Art should reflect life, I believe. In life joy and pain, light and dark, love and loss…are balanced. Although it doesn’t seem that way when we are experiencing the ‘dark’ times. So yes, in my work I work consciously at reflecting the contrasts of life.

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  2. Hi Karin – I feel like I have a fair amount of contrast in overall work, but it’s often hard to infuse it into a single piece. That’s just a lot more difficult. (Maybe works better in a novel!) I tend to be a fairly humorous person, but then get very dire, so a bit hard to mix it up at once. You are right about the benefits, though. k.

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    • Yes, as I’ve been noodling this idea today, it seems to me there’s a certain length or breadth a piece needs to have to “infuse it” with contrast. An individual poem, perhaps not, but a collection, yes. And your work, absolutely! Thanks, K!

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  3. Jeremy Nathan Marks

    I find that the dark and the light are always at work when I am writing. There are times when I will try to explore one or the other more prominently, but they always seem to be there.

    I have never felt that I had to go looking for either. I find that ambiguity is usually the most apparent element when I write. Maybe ambiguity is a balance of contrasts or maybe it is just ambiguity. . . its own thing.

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    • Interesting point on ambiguity. I’m curious if you mean “uncertainty of meaning” or “indefiniteness” or perhaps more the sense that life is (and people are) shades of gray–composed of light and dark, complex, and not easily understood in their entirety. Would love to hear more on this point. Thanks!

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