Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
I love finding out what stimulates writers to write. And what urges them on to write a particular piece.
This past week, I read an article about a poet, Jane Hirshfield, who believes poems can transform the world. Really? (You can read the article here.)
I was attracted to her point that poems show us the subtleties of a situation and keep us from oversimplifying. “One of the current great problems in the world is fundamentalism of every kind—political, spiritual—and poetry is an antidote to fundamentalism. Poetry is about the clarities that you find when you don’t simplify. Poetry is about complexity, nuance, subtlety,” she said.
Good art also creates a connection between the consumer of that art and the creator and reminds us of our points of commonality. Hirshfield makes that point when she talks about how important poetry is when a situation like the Baltimore riots occurs. Both the genesis of the killing of Freddie Gray and the aftermath can be better grasped through poetry, as we connect with how the poet sees and feels about the situation.
And good art can transform the consumer’s way of thinking. “…A poem by one of the two foremost women poets of Japan’s classical age, Izumi Shikibu, …changed my relationship to my own life, permanently and lastingly,” Hirshfield said. “This is in a five-line form called ‘tanka’:
“Although the wind
blows terribly here,
also leaks between the roof planks
of this ruined house.”
“What I understood from the poem was this,” Hirshfield explains, “If you try to wall yourself off from pain, difficulty, distress—if you try to build a house so solid that the cold wind won’t be able to enter—you will also be keeping from your life beauty and joy. The poem became for me a kind of vow toward permeability. It really let me understand that if you want to live a life of fullness, then part of that is a willingness to experience all of it—to experience love and to experience loss. And to understand that you don’t get either without the other.”
Sometimes writers write to give meaning to their lives. Take for example, Kent Haruf, author of Plainsong, which has sold more than a million copies and was a finalist for the National Book Award. He gave this account of why he worked on a novel until he was mere days away from dying. He was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease in February 2014 and felt “sick and very downhearted spiritually and mentally…And then in April, I began to feel a little better, and I thought,’Well, I don’t want to just sit around waiting.'”
He worked on some short stories but wasn’t making much headway. Then an idea for a novel occurred to him.
“In some ways it felt as if that was what was keeping me alive,” he said. “It was something significant for me to get up for every day.”
Haruf died in November 2014 at age 71, and his last novel, Our Souls at Night, will release on May 28. You can read the details of his writing habits (sitting blind-folded and hunched over a typewriter!), and the inspiration for Our Souls here. For Haruf, writing that novel gave his last months meaning. And he gave readers the gift of one more book from him.
Pulitzer Prize finalist and poet Elizabeth Alexander expressed her motivation for writing as “processing the world through art and word.” Writing clarifies our thinking and enables us to ponder what to make of the items life hands to us. It’s like turning a stone over and over in our hands while we consider its contortions, weight, texture, and colors. Then we let others peek over our shoulder at that rock so they can see it from our point of view.
“Art is a tunnel that gets you from one place to another.” That’s the reason Mateen, a 12th-grade student at the Baltimore School for the Arts, gave during a television interview for pursuing his great love, playing the bassoon.
Mateen beautifully and simply expressed what music, painting, photography, writing, or any art form can accomplish in the person creating a piece and in the individuals who ponder that work. It moves us–from one emotion to another, from one way of thinking to another, from one perception of life to another.
And that’s ultimately a pretty wonderful reason to write.
What moves you to write? What piece of art have you read or viewed that “tunneled” you from one place to another?
Why do writers write? Click to tweet.
Can writing transform the world? Click to tweet.
What does art give to society? Click to tweet.
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