Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Doing the Write Thing: The (Seeming) Dichotomy of Arts and Activism: Art Is a Place to Stretch the Self, Which Is How a Soul Is Made

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Doing the Write Thing: The (Seeming) Dichotomy of Arts and Activism: Art Is a Place to Stretch the Self, Which Is How a Soul Is Made

Article excerpt

I remember the night my friend Annemie, an activist and artist, called to tell me there was going to be a demonstration in downtown Burlington, Vermont. It was the fall of 1983, and our country was involved in yet one more foreign policy fiasco, the invasion of Grenada.

"Sure, I'll go," I told Annemie. "When is it?" I assumed the demonstration would be after work hours in order to encourage prime attendance.

"Tomorrow morning in front of the post office," Annemie said.

"Oh, but I'm working then," I reminded her.

"Oh? I didn't know you were still teaching."

I wasn't. As a matter of fact, I was unemployed. My job at the University of Vermont--replacing a tenured teacher on leave--had ended back in May. I had taken a year off to complete a manuscript in hopes that with a book publication, I would land a "real" job as a writer somewhere. I had to get that manuscript done. Find a publisher. Land a teaching position so I could pay the bills, not have to keep moving every nine months.

But who am I kidding? It was not just professional necessity that sent me to my desk every morning for six or seven hours. Writing is the way those of us who are writers integrate the myriad, baffling, beautiful, and painful things that happen daily.

RECENTLY, MY 5-YEAR-OLD nephew came for a visit and I took him to the local county fair, where we saw a puppet show. After it was over, little Pepe walked around talking to himself about what he had seen on the stage. I asked his dad what was going on. "He just gets overloaded, and this is the way he processes things," his dad explained. "Telling himself the story over and over until he's sort of made sense of it all. He'll get over it," he added apologetically.

I had to laugh. "I know exactly how he feels," I said. "I'm 56 years old and I still need to do that, on paper."

Of course, being 51 years older than Pepe, I'm no longer integrating the world around me just for myself--though that is a prime motivation, one I never want to lose sight of and inflate myself with righteous public-servant or elite-artiste airs. But I do like to think I am one of the storytellers of the tribe, trying to do this integration for all of us. Doing it well involves a daily, rigorous commitment to putting in the long hours, staying focused, limbering the language muscles, regaining beginner's mind while accessing experience and craft, a practice not unlike that of meditation and prayer.

The goal is to break through the barriers of routine thinking, being, and feeling, to shed the smaller versions of the self to move past the sticky clusters in which language clumps, and if lucky and persistent, be able to see the world in all its dazzling fresh ness again.

But so often, as I am about to sit down and begin the work day, along comes the knock at the door.

And this happens more and more. Technology has given us so many more doors, from electronic to cellular, at which people in need can come knocking. This call to action is now embedded in my very writing implement, the computer. E-mails arrive daily with news, notices, reminders, pleas for my attention, nay money, my compassion, my time. The world and its woes are ever more with us. And the older we get, we can no longer fool ourselves into thinking that the parental others, the adults, the real movers and shakers, will do this for us. "We are the ones we have been waiting for," the Hopi elders told their people during a difficult time in their history. You, and you, and you, and yes, me--we are all needed to roll up our sleeves and take on the work of righting the world.

On the other hand, the poem will not get written, the story told, if the writer is constantly away from her desk waving the banners of hope. What to do?

I USED TO TORTURE myself--as I did the night before the Grenada demonstration--about what was the right thing to do. I kept pitting the righting and writing of the world against each other--I still do. …

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