Art Saves Lives

February 25, 2021 § 30 Comments

by Jan Priddy

I used to have a bumper sticker on the back of my car that read: Art Saves Lives. I was sorrier to lose that slogan than I was, eventually, to lose the car. Because that is how it feels and what we writers mean to do. We add our words to those who came before. We claim them: Sappho and Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain, William Stafford and Ursula K. Le Guin, Joan Didion and Mary Karr. We know them by their words. We should be humbled, but our goals are not humble.

We want to change the world with our imaginations, one word at a time. Words are our raw material, and our tools include description and reason, vision and touch and sound and flavor and scent. We know that what we put down on the page makes a story and that stories are what make us human.

Here is a story:

In 1836, a recently widowed visionary, remarried. With his second wife he fathered seven children, preached, taught, found academic employment, and wrote in his study while a large household revolved cautiously about him. Quiet. Don’t disturb Papa, he’s working.

Most of us scramble and bargain for writing time, often finding it only in slivers and odd hours, between the detritus of day-to-day responsibilities and paying work, wedged between the insistence of people who rely on us to put their demands first and our human need for rest. How lovely to sit behind a door, working until we are ready to stop, parishioners anxious and waiting, our loved ones tiptoeing past the door—Quiet, don’t disturb the Writer.

But we are not writing sermons that come crashing into the world with authority and an eager audience, we are not Calvin Stowe, that mystic composing in his study.

It is his wife we know—the wife who bore the seven children and ran the house and did not, in her day, enjoy legal recourse to law, the right to vote, or control of her own finances. The woman who provided Stowe with a room of his own, didn’t have one herself. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Harriet Beecher Stowe, nearing forty years of age and with a newborn seventh baby, began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the kitchen table while keeping house. She was disturbed by something other than noise.

The little lady who started the Civil War, Lincoln called her.

I wonder: Did she worry her words would run out? Did she call herself a fraud and suffer writer’s block? How was it possible for her to have imagined, with a household bustling, interrupting, and tugging at her, that the words she struggled to pen would change the world?

Maybe we are writing our own transformational books at our kitchen tables and we don’t even know it.

Few of us have sheltered space or devoted congregations. We are not Emily Dickinson or even Calvin Stowe. We are poets scribbling lines while we wait for laundry to spin, composing in our head on a run, letting the cat out, letting the dog back in; we are novelists running sentences across the ceiling before sleep or revising stories in the rare hour children are preoccupied; we are memoirists and essayists getting up to make the coffee and losing ourselves in words when we have so many obligations. We hear voices. We stare into space and forget where we are and what we’re supposed to be doing. (Hopefully this doesn’t happen while we’re driving to the grocery store.)

We cannot know the influence our words might have on that still-imaginary audience. We only know we want to do it—this writing.

With so little outside our need, without free time or a room of our own, the leisure and space that all human beings deserve and crave whether they are writers or not—we have words. We have imagination.

We look up from our table and out at the world and bend back to our page. We’ll write what we understand of it, or admire, or deplore dream fear hope.

We’re not done with our work at the kitchen table. Whether we transform the whole wide world, or our own private corner, Art saves lives. I know it’s true. I think it’s why we write. We’re saving ourselves.

____

Jan Priddy’s writing has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as Brevity, CALYX, Liminal Stories, The Humanist, North American Review, and anthologies on running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon and blogs at IMPERFECT PATIENCE.

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