The rain fell yesterday, its cleansing of the dying garden and leaf-littered deck a welcome sound as I worked. I ate my lunch late – a toasted tomato sandwich with a tasty tomato from the St. Paul Farmers Market – in front of the rain-spattered patio door where I could watch water droplets plink into ever-growing puddles. I’d spent the morning working on the editorial for the fall issue of Gyroscope Review, answering email, reading articles about American gun culture and women’s anger, and watching a short YouTube film about the poet Donald Hall. My thoughts bounced between different tracks as I got ready to write this post.
One of the greatest gifts of a writing life is the variety of ideas to explore. There is always an opportunity to learn about experiences and reactions of others, always an opening to take part in one of the many public discussions going on every day. As I ate my lunch, I thought about how art forwards the conversation, about the poems I’d read over the summer that were reactions to all the news swirling around us. And I thought about how making art requires us to listen, really listen to the whole range of what is being said, what is being offered as truth.
There are a slew of political ads on television right now. They pepper the spaces between segments of the evening news and the new fall programs. They are vile, in many cases, telling stories that may not be completely true, that leave out context and detail and all the things that any good writer knows must be part of a true-story narrative. The candidate who lost his driver’s license more than once. The candidate who doesn’t provide health insurance for his part-time employees, which somehow got rephrased to not providing health insurance for employees at all. The candidate who moved here from another state and might have support from people in California. The candidate who doesn’t have “Minnesota values” – what exactly does that mean? The candidate who will destroy Medicare. Advertising is a different kind of writing, a persuasive story arc that emphasizes obscure points and extends its reach on currents of fear – fear of violence, of being left out, of not having something that might save a life. Tribal fear. These ads make me crazy with their insistence on poking at the very things most people think they need to feel safe.
But those ads do make me want another story, something that pushes back against their mythology. My kids voiced some of that feeling over the weekend, at a family dinner, when they spoke of the inadequacies of our two-party system and how out of touch everyone on both sides of the fence is with their world. The day-to-day realties of people who really are working hard and raising their kids is beyond the reach of those hockey-parent sound bites or those attack ads over who is lying to the people or who favors letting in more immigrants. Beyond the reach of the ads that bemoan any attempts at gun control or spending of tax dollars on programs that benefit a majority of our citizens. My kids are people who vote. They are people who work. They are people who think.
It’s that last part that makes them dangerous.
As I ponder my own work and the place of art and literature in this culture, I am so proud of having adult children who think beyond what is fed to them across our current media options. The keys to change are enough to fill a very large keyring: learning, listening, thinking, discussing, voting. Lose any one of those keys and the task of making the world better becomes much harder.
Not everyone may feel like they have time to use those keys, to move beyond the day-to-day survival that is required to keep up the rent, buy food, keep shoes on the kids. And that’s where personal experience and story is so important. Real people are affected by how a government takes care of its citizens, how it welcomes those in need no matter where they come from, how it keeps vulnerable children from becoming political footballs, how it maintains freedom to be safe in choices of love and worship. Playing on fear does not push forward a healthy populace; it erodes it. It divides people.
We’ve heard before that one of the most dangerous of citizens is the artist. The writer. The people who tell stories with sharp needles of truth, arrange those stories so others cannot look away.
Those needles might do a great deal to heal a divided population if they can poke through a fabric of hate, come out the other side and sew things up. Just not so tightly we can’t breathe.