How Making Art Changes Your Life and Why You Can’t Make it for That Reason
For the last two years, I have been trying to make sense of how, after a very hard period in my life, I got so deeply mired in regret and sadness that even falling in love with a man who makes my whole being light up just by walking around a corner wasn’t enough to set me free.
I have not been journaling about my regret mire; I have been attempting to craft it into a story that you would care about, that you would read with (hopefully) page-turning interest, that would change you.
In wrestling to make art from my past, something magnificent happened: I not only made peace with myself and what I did – or didn’t do – during that stretch of time, I freed myself. I even prepared myself for this new life in Colorado.
Now before I get all hyperbolic on you and do an art-triumphing-over-everything bugling, let me stop myself and say:
I am not in any way proclaiming that the shitty things that happened to me or that the shitty things I did to other people are now transformed into some edifying lesson that makes all that pain worthwhile. No. A very firm no no no. It’s that life happens and by trying to shape it into a story while staying absolutely truthful to what happened as I can best remember it, the nasty and inchoate can become something else.
But I did not set out to free myself or forgive myself. I set out to stretch myself as a writer, something I have been attempting to do through writing fiction for 15 years, and repeatedly failing to bring to full fruition, stymied when my agent told me she loved my writing but hated my main character or when, in another story, the mechanics of magic at the middle-aged witch school outwitted me.
I did not even set out to write a memoir. I set out to shape something true and beautiful. I did not know a fringe benefit would be a slow shuddering into self-forgiveness and freedom. If I had wanted that outcome, if I had wanted redemption, then I believe I would have been seduced into making things pretty, making myself a better person than I was, or staying caught in a loop of trying to understand. Then, instead of stretching myself and my work into something new, I would have ended up in a sanctified dead end. It was – it is as this project is very much in process – the allegiance to honesty and art, along with curiosity and compassion, that has, and is, changing me.
A word about curiosity and compassion: you can’t make art out of your personal experience if you are trying to prove you deserve to be indicted on charges against humanity. You may have to write or paint or photograph your way out of the rage, the revenge fantasies, and the self-blame (I have written 50,000+ words of such raging) to get to the art making but be sure as you are raging to be working toward art making – not just raging. Dedicate yourself to shaping something true and beautiful (even the ugliest things can be beautiful). That is what you are up to, but you can only be up to that if you have mercy for yourself.
Isn’t that a juicy conundrum?!
Let me end with an observation and a quote. The observation is from a pub crawl I went on a week and a half ago with 10 of my new neighbors. Now you have to know that I often have felt I do not belong and nobody likes me. On the pub crawl, every time that old story would arise, I would instantly feel in my body the new shape I had made from that old story of not belonging by using it to (try to) make art (aka the memoir in process), and I would then gain a space to choose to make a different choice than I used to make. Then, a small miracle: I had a great time.
The quote is from Steve Almond, author of many books (and podcast creator with Cheryl Strayed of Dear Sugar), in his book This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey:
“We are living in an era of screen addiction and capitalist pornography. As a species, we are squandering the exalted gifts of consciousness, losing our capacity to pay attention, to imagine the suffering of others. You are part of all this. It involves you. This is the hard labor we’re trying to perform: convincing strangers to translate our specks of ink into stories capable of generating rescue.”
May you and I, all of us together, work to make art that exalts the gift of consciousness and liberates others from suffering. I know we can do it. And just maybe benefit in the process.