Do you remember a time when you felt the kind of unbridled joy so evident in this photo of my grandson, John Martin Taedu Clayton? It makes me smile every time I look at it.
I’ve had some health challenges, a ruptured disk that resulted in spinal surgery, in the past few months that have prevented me from doing what I love--doing what makes me the happiest--writing. Instead, I’ve been reading all sorts of random novels, short stories and essays. And I've been doing a great deal of thinking about my life and how I have chosen to spend so much of it pursuing the art of writing. In Cynthia Ozick’s book of essays entitled Ardor and Art, I came across the following quote:
“The burden of art is obvious: here is the world, here are human beings, here is childhood, here is struggle, here is hate, here is old age, here is death. None of this is a fantasy, a romance, or a sentiment, none is an imagining; all are obvious. A culture that does not allow itself to look clearly at the obvious through the universal accessibility of art is a culture of tragic delusion.”
This quotation sent me on a journey into my past and my early, high school experiences with literature. I found myself remembering stories that had moved me to a deeper level of thought. Tolstoy’s, The Death of Ivan Illich, was an example. It was after reading that novella in the 11th grade that I had my first conscious thoughts about the meaning of life being love—that interaction between Ivan and his son—that death scene that haunted me for years and made me look deeper into myself and my relationships with others.
I read To Kill A Mockingbird and Light in August during the same era. It was a time when civil rights were issues—a time of racial unrest and violence. My high school in New Castle, Delaware, was being integrated. Bus loads of young black students were delivered to its front doors each morning. There were fights, fear and distrust everywhere. My older brother's friends were being drafted into the Vietnam war when I read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Another example of art that changed my young life while still in its teens.
Those books dealt with the obvious—love, hate, evil, death, prejudice, pride, parenthood and the darkness of the human soul. They dealt with the struggle to survive. They fulfilled the “burden of art” as it was above defined. By experiencing the struggles of the characters in those, and many other works of art, I was more able to survive my own. Art gave me courage.
In a letter to her daughter, the author, Jean Rhys, said, “I know that to write as well as I can is my truth and why I was born.”
Writing is very hard work and I don’t believe anyone would do it unless she had to—unless, like Jean Rhys, she knew in her very being that writing was her truth. Difficult as it is, writing is not without its rewards. Composing, even the most minor of pieces, teaches us a great deal about the ways of the world. We writers learn who we are through the act of writing and perhaps help readers to discover themselves as well. Ultimately, self knowledge may be the greatest achievement one can make—the accomplishment of a lifetime—to define, to create and to recreate the self.
And besides that, it makes me so happy I want to leap into the air just like my grandson.