Monday, March 25, 2013

Writing from what you know

I mean, is there anything more toxic within the culture these days than all those people who speak from what they don't know? Watch Sean Hannity for a great example. Of course, a lot of TV news and punditry is just personalities reading scripts on a teleprompter written for them.

They are saying things they do not know.

Or listen to those Sunday morning political shows (I don't anymore, can't, my soul finally rebelled). My Ayn Rand Sen. Ron Johnson is a great example, too. I can still be stunned by someone who apparently has no real understanding of economics trying to yell down a Pulitzer Prize winning economist like Paul Krugman. You don't have to agree with Krugman all the time in order to appreciate how smart he is, but if you are going to engage him in debate, at least know your stuff, right?

Yup, few things more toxic than listening to people speak like confident, strident, experts on things about which they know so little. Wayne LaPierre of the NRA is another great example. Sometimes I gasp at the factually errant things he declares with such practiced righteous anger. What's worse: that he does this, or that the political culture takes his point of view seriously, as part of the "balance" in the debate?

Climate change - don't even get me started on that one.

With that in mind, I was intrigued by this article in the NY Times yesterday: Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture. It's about a rising expression in the art world in which art is deeply engaged in the world - not just art for the sake of art, but art embedded in the struggles of humans for dignity, expression, social change, and social transformation, often at a fiercely local level (though with potential repercussions far beyond).
"Known primarily as social practice, its practitioners freely blur the lines among object making, performance, political activism, community organizing, environmentalism and investigative journalism, creating a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system. And in so doing, they push an old question — 'Why is it art?' — as close to the breaking point as contemporary art ever has."
Part of the answer to that question, why is it art, is simple - it is art because it is art: that's the answer. It emerges from the human experience like food from organic gardening, like dreams in the night that simply appear, like air in our lungs or blood in our veins. It is something we need to do to live.

But because we are purposeful beings, just like sitting in mindful meditation by focusing on the breath, making it purposeful even though it will happen with or without our conscious attention, so is art. It's there within us - mythic language, ancient narratives, shapes and sounds, a play of colors - going on all the time. Like our dreams, this goes on within the human whether we want it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not. What art does is make it purposeful.

And what social practice art tries to do is make it purposeful by immersing the various forms deep within the human experience, within the social realities of our times.

When multimillionaire businessman Ron Johnson tries to tell poor people how they should live, what our values ought to be, the many kinds of cruel discriminations that in his mind are just fine because that's the way the world is (Ayn Rand followers tend to be fierce Social Darwinists), I can say fairly safely that he does not have a clue what it is to be, for example, poor, African-American, young, and male in the city of Milwaukee, or poor, frail, elderly, trying to live on a Social Security check each month.

But then there's the artistic expression that might come from that young male or frail elder, if encouraged and nurtured, and who knows what stories might emerge, what images that would blow the lid off the fake culture in which we sadly exist these days.

We get the authenticity of doing art, of writing, from what we know; but first we have to really know it.

I've been living back here in my hometown and state since 2006-2007, returning to be with my mother in her waning years, struggling with diminishment, vascular dementia, broken bones, and more (but also incredible resilience and spirit). That experience forms part of the narrative of the multi-generational more-than-memoir that I'm working on now. What happened when I returned, though, was that I not only rediscovered my family/immigrant roots here, but I discovered things I never knew before about that history, and it broke open a world of truth and reality that had been hidden from much of my generation by our parents and ancestors, stories they did not want us to know, aspects of their lives that were crucial to our understanding them (and this culture) but which they repressed or kept hidden out of shame or suffering or a mistaken hope that if their kids and grandkids didn't know these stories, it would be to our benefit.

It wasn't: it just taught us to be in a world where the truth is hardly ever fully disclosed. We make decisions based on what we don't know, and some of them are pretty destructive, and could even prove fatal.

So I tore up some pretty serious community, work-life, roots cultivated over more than two decades to come back to these origins, the origins of my ancestors who arrived here in the 1800s from Croatia and Bohemia (Sudeten Germans) leaving tremendous suffering behind (I know their stories now, and they are suffering ones indeed) to try to make another way in this world. And some of these immigrant ancestors also suffered tremendously. But the fact that I have only discovered the extent of that, and the long generational threads of it through two different family lines, since my parents' deaths is the remarkable fact here. I had to do research to find some of it, and my siblings and I had to pour through thousands of documents, letters, and files to find as much as we now know.

We can only write from what we know if we know it. We can only write about our world if we are truly immersed in it not separate from it. Artists can only reveal if they are tapping into what is truly there to be revealed.

As our world, our culture, continues to race headlong toward some precipitous collapse (really, so many people see it coming but feel so helpless to alter course), doesn't art have a crucial role to play in this search for the kind of reveal that can break the psycho-spiritual impasse that has settled over the western world?

Last Wednesday, March 20, twelve of us from writers' roundtables at the RedBird-RedOak Writers community read brief samples of our current work at the Fixx Coffee House just down the road in St. Francis. It was a remarkable evening for the skill and passion in what was read. The place was packed! Very satisfying. But among the things that really struck me was that, from all the variety of readings - poetry, essays, short stories, book excerpts - from those that made us gasp or brought tears or that had us laughing hysterically - each piece opened a window on something important in the human experience. Each one resonated at the level of the heart, not just the head.

Each one told a truth that the audience recognized as truthful.

So as I have been writing the memoir (finishing up the first round of revisions of the draft), as I have dug down deeper into the truth of my own history and ancestry, my own bloodline across the big water to the upper midwest, the rest of my writing is also getting deeper and more truthful simply because writing the truth of who we are from our vantage point in this life, in this world, does something to the writing that is seductive, powerful, and moving for me, the writer, and creates an incredible impatience to get this out into the world.

Something about authenticity that catches you up and makes it harder to be a pundit sitting like an expert pronouncing something you can't possibly know. Truth, authenticity, become something you feel rather than something you think. You know when it's there.

The culture needs a boat load of our truth - not the lies and obfuscations, the false images and story lines some try to pronounce over the world, but the truths that come from deep down inside each of us, often that within us of which we are most afraid, but which, when liberated and made into a creative life force, can be a source of the societal transformation we so urgently need now if we are to survive the coming collapses. Because what we want, and so urgently need, is not just the truth that exposes the real world to us, but also the truth from which a new vision for the human can emerge - that which we hope can and will survive the coming descent.

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