Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Writing in the cloud of our uncertainty

I haven't fed this blog for a couple of weeks. Not because I don't want to or don't have time, but because I am so overfull. Sometimes one has to wait for the words to come because what is going on is beyond words. It has to emerge, take on a sharper focus. Some of the worst writing is when it becomes words for words' sake, something we have way too much of in this culture.

When that happens, writing becomes noise. And any good writer knows these days how hard it is for good writing, for writing and art that is urgent and needed, or simply beautiful for its own sake, to find a path through the noise to our awakened consciousness.

There are people I love struggling with cancer. There are people I love struggling with old age and growing vulnerability. There are people (me, too) wrestling with profound economic insecurity in a world that seems to have little use for them.

There is my poor Wisconsin cluttered with angry hateful noise of a political culture in a state of demise,
angry clouds of racism, selfishness, disdain for the common good and the good of the commons, anti-democratic in tendency, dark and foreboding, heading for some climax in June, a climax not likely to cause the clouds to lift much at all.

Hate and resentment (especially of the well-off towards the workers and the poor, or towards people of other races and cultures) is not cured in a political exercise, no matter how significant. We know we are dealing with sicknesses in the soul of the nation and that the causes of the sicknesses are not being addressed anywhere I can see in the mainstream culture.

There is all of this, and more.There is also the earnest efforts of those struggling against these destructive winds to open up spaces of hope, democracy, justice, and basic human decency.

What is the role of a writer in such times? We live amidst this cloud of uncertainty over our future, and I mean this in ways big and small, including that really big uncertainty - the prospects for human survival in the planet. What contribution can we make, when we ourselves struggle with voice and syntax, meaning and narrative, metaphor and myth, trying to uncover layers of meaning in our lives and our world when meaning is one of the hardest spaces of struggle in our 21st century lives?

It may be a generation or more before clarity comes from the vast uncertainties of our times - but we can name the uncertainties, we can tell their stories, or the stories of how we cope with them, we can try to bring them to the light honestly and with courage.

These clouds of uncertainty emerge from centuries of western civilization, and the philosophical, economic, scientific, and religious thought that formed its arc of meaning. That arc is crumbling rapidly because it no longer works to describe or provide meaning to the human experience, no matter how hard we try to hang on to it. That's why all the proffered remedies fail so dismally - they are based on that arc of meaning, frameworks for human 'development' that have been the underpinnings of the drivers that are bringing us to this moment of crisis across the human experience, along with that of all sentient and non-sentient beings.

What's a writer to do? One role is to offer the metaphors that penetrate entrenched psychological and spiritual orientations to the world, that cause breakdown, that in a moment collapse the 'meaning structures' that no longer provide meaning. Another is to offer the narratives that break open the real story of how we humans are grappling with these many tumultuous transitions, the disorientation, the fear, the profound insecurity and anxiety that come from living under this cloud of uncertainty. Still another is to tell the stories - with great honesty and compassion - about how our past narratives, personal and historical, have brought us to this moment of crisis. We need to understand how we have arrived at this moment so that we know what we must leave behind, what no longer works, what is tearing apart the human community, and therefore the eco-community as well.

And then, too, I think about what stories meant in past cultures, before all the technology that makes it possible for me to sit isolated and alone at my computer as I compose this blog post and then send it out into the world. Stories were once how cultures passed down their origins and meanings, their cosmologies and spiritual understandings of how this world came about and who they are in it. They were passed down orally, tribes, villages, gathering together to hear the narration over and over again so that it could be passed down to the next generation.

Stories used to bring us together (though by defining 'tribe' they also set us apart). They used to provide collective meaning. Book groups and poetry readings are among the ways we show yearnings for this aspect of community, but there we mostly share what is already written, not what we are creating collectively.

Maybe that's why so many of us who are writers end up in writers critique groups. I was with mine yesterday at RedBird Studio a 15-minute walk from my little beat-up flat. I joined for feedback on the memoir and more-than-memoir that I'm writing. But now I know that I also joined for that sense of community. The narrative takes on life when read out loud and shared with a community struggling also for the right story, the best turn of a phrase, the "ah ha!" metaphor that takes one's breath away.

Writers may not be able to scare those clouds of uncertainty away, though some of our best writers do open those little spaces where we can see the light; but they help us understand them and know what they are - reflections of a scary time of transition in the whole human presence within this planet, a time when the ground beneath us is truly shaken and old constructs are crumbling all around us.

Writers, poets, artists can help calm the storms by providing great stories and verses, shared communities of meaning and joy, a little interior beauty that can reflect out into the world. The world is sorely in need of it - and so are we.

Text and photos: Margaret Swedish

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