Why Art is Important
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I spend a lot of time writing. Arguably more time than I spend doing anything else, which means I spend a lot of time in my own brain (not a bad place to be). But I had a thought the other day that it might be selfish of me to do so. It might be self-indulgent to write poems barely anyone reads that only seem to matter to me. It may be even more self-indulgent to have to time to consider the question of whether or not my writing matters, but I digress.
Most of what I write goes largely unread, and that is the sad yet squishy plight of many writers. It takes a certain egoism to believe that whatever you write deserves to be read. That whatever you think or write matters, that much. The primary reason I write though, is to deeply interrogate the human experience. To do that, I need to deeply interrogate myself and I suppose that is what feels the most indulgent of all. How cute, to think my life or my experiences deserve to be examined so closely.
But here's the thing: it does matter. It matters to me, yes, but it also makes me a better person. By deeply interrogating myself, I learn to understand myself and thereby have more kindness and empathy to extend to others. By understanding that my own life is complex and nuanced, I can extend that same grace to others. It's really that simple.
I had a wonderful professor of Native American Literature who probably didn't know the extent to which she impacted my life. I took at least half a dozen classes with her and she graciously worked with me to complete more than one independent study. It wasn't until I was studying for my Master's degree that she opened up personally a bit. She told me that "Stories changed my life. Stories saved my life." She told me why, but that isn't my story to tell. Her life or your life or my life is what makes art or poetry or books or music so critically important. It might feel self-indulgent or unnecessary but art is how people express joy and pain. It's how we learn to understand each other better. It's what we look for when we need an escape from our own lives or when we need to feel something. Art is what most of us live for, whether we know it or not. I'm not sure how else to explain it.
If you've ever created something, you know the feeling of deep satisfaction that ensues. You know the happiness you've created by simply expressing yourself in a way no one else has and that is enough. That's the magic stuff that floats through life that is so hard to catch and impossible to capture.
There's been a lot of debate lately about whether college is necessary or whether it's a good investment, but I don't think the question is whether or not it's a good investment. Education is never a "bad" investment. I think the real question is why education is so expensive in the first place, but that's a different story. And the real problem with the high price tag of education is how we've grown to associate it exclusively with work: as an avenue to jobs that are not fulfilling and do not pay well instead of as an intrinsically valuable way to become better, more kind humans. Education is an avenue to help us think critically and accept widely; to disagree with grace and appreciate art. Education might seem unimportant if all you care about are the nuts and bolts of life. The staying alive and fucking and not dying. But if you want to appreciate life, it stands to reason that you should know more about it, learn about the lived experiences of others and perhaps dive deeply into your own.
Writing is an art, but it's also one of the most ubiquitous ways we communicate. Because most of us do it (well or not), writing is a largely unappreciated. It can feel egregiously thankless at times. I've been writing for such a long time that sometimes it feels easy, but most of the time, it's difficult. And when if feels very hard and pointless I wonder why I try so hard to become incrementally better at a thing that is wildly devalued. I suppose the answer is almost grossly simple: there is nothing else I could possibly be doing. I don't have any ideas or aspirations of grandeur. There is a very very low probability of ever becoming rich or even marginally famous for things that I write. But, there is no other thing I would rather be doing with this one wild and imperfect life.
If you are one to believe that each of us have a purpose, mine is to tell stories. Stories that make you wonder. Stories that make you hope. Stories that make you feel something. Stories that help you understand. Stories that make you questions something you once believed. All of our lives are made of stories. You are the story you tell yourself, and I am here to tell you what my late professor told me: stories matter. Art matters. Whatever you're passionate about matters. We do not exist on this planet for long and it is a shame to toil away at something we are not wildly passionate about.
This is not a new message and these are not unique thoughts. I just needed to write this down to sort out why I spend my days the way I do, stringing words together in a way that (I hope), might matter. The process makes me happy and what else is life for? but to be as happy as we can be with what we've been given.
P.S. Read Amanda Gorman's Inauguration Day poem here or buy my latest book of poetry, "I Like It Cuz It's Pink," here.