Like so many people I know, I fell into despair after the election in the fall of 2016. As a usually upbeat person, I didn’t know what to do with these new dark feelings.
It hit me especially hard in the realm of my work. Throwing myself into writing, teaching and coaching – work I love – always raised my spirits, allowing me to lift and support others.
But I couldn’t turn off the sound of a disturbing question that echoed in my head:
How was being a writer, and a teacher of writing, really going to make any difference now?
A few months later, though still anguishing, I was functioning, getting along. When I explored why, I realized that it was because of art. Art – through humor, empathy, community and beauty – was anchoring me, steadying me. I mused about that here.
So when the gloominess returned this summer, it muddied up my heart and felt like a prompt to dig deeper.
I found myself searching for words that had made actual change in the world.
Some highlights I found across genres:
Song. As he tunes his guitar, Pete Seeger introduces “We Shall Overcome” (written by Charles Albert Tindley) with, “If you would like to get out of a pessimistic mood yourself, I got one sure remedy for you.”
Essay. James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son,” educated an entire generation about the civil-rights struggle.
Poem. Kevin Power’s essay, “What Kept Me from Killing Myself” credits Dylan Thomas’s poetry for pulling him through a serious post-war depression.
Memoir. William Styron’s memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, was identified as the book that opened up a public discussion of mental illness in a recent NPR interview.
Essay Anthology. Terry Tempest Williams’ Testimony: Writers of the West Speak On Behalf of Utah Wilderness made a mark on environmental policy when President Clinton held the book in his hands at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, dedicating the new Grand Staircase-Escalate National Monument in 1996, saying, “This made a difference.”
Law. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg quite literally changed the laws around gender equality and equal rights with her legal arguments.
Fiction. Harriet Beecher Stowe lit the fuse that led to the Civil War inUncle Tom’s Cabin. The Handmaid’s Taleby Margaret Atwood illustrated the perils of misogyny and male privilege. Censorship took a hit in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Opinion. I was writing this blog post, this piece de resistance in the New York Times and Barak Obama’s speech at University of Illinois materialized.
Do these examples raise my spirits?
Yes. Yes, they do.
But not all words are designed to make people change their mind or behavior. Not every Beatles song became a hit.
Some words expose, educate or simply entertain – remember the global reach of Pharrell William’s song ”Happy” ? – but it’s fair to say that words strung thoughtfully together share one mission: to move.
And movement – even if it’s temporary – is a treasure. It can be breath allowing. Perspective giving.
We need the writer’s words to prod, stir, calm or badger. To remind us that we are still alive.
The Fall Issue of Thread is now available for your reading pleasure!
Summer’s end. A healing creek. A Russian bath.
A New York subway ride.
An afternoon in California. A muse on checks and balances.
See September’s Stitch!
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Photos courtesy of unsplash.com. Top by Val Vesa. Bottom by Greyson Joralemon.