Angels Flight • literary west is elated to publish a special “Dear Sugar” column by Cheryl Strayed on literature’s mission and the writer’s role in grim political moments.
This column was originally presented on Monday, November 21, 2016, at “The Writer in the World: Celebrating 10 Years of the Black Mountain Institute” in Las Vegas.
How do writers have an impact on the world around them? Can literature be political without being partisan or ideological?
Writer in Las Vegas
Dear Writer in Las Vegas,
When I was seven, I had my first epiphany. It was in a church, where I’d ended up one Sunday by chance. My family was not religious. Church was not a normal place for me to be. But on this particular Sunday I found myself there. I’d had a sleepover at a friend’s house the night before, and when we woke up, church is where we went. For ninety minutes, I was an accidental Lutheran. Or at least an accidental Lutheran in training: while my friend’s parent’s attended the service, she and I were sent to the Sunday school.
Our teacher was a kind woman in a corduroy dress. She passed out graham crackers on cocktail napkins and Dixie cups filled with apple juice and made us sing, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” When we were done she handed us each a booklet she said we could keep. It was a chapbook of watercolor images of nature accompanied by short poems. The pictures were of butterflies and flowers and clouds against blue skies. They were lovely, but it was the poems that captured my attention. With a few short lines, the words on the page did more than transport me. They pierced me to the core.
My response to the book was unexpected, astonishing even. I knew by then that I loved books. I found them to be great entertainments, but this Sunday school chapbook of poems was different. It was the first time I understood that, as Margaret Atwood wrote in her poem “Spelling,” a word after a word after a word is power.
The power of words I recognized that day while reading that chapbook wasn’t the sort of power we associate with politics or world affairs, Writer in Las Vegas. It wasn’t the kind of power we talk about when we talk about destruction or physical force. It wasn’t about defeat or domination or control. It was about a deeper, older, truer sort of power, one that calls upon the original meaning of the word, which is derived from the Latin posse.
It means, quite simply, to be able. It’s a definition of power that’s about doing and creating, about writing word after word after word on the page.
It’s the kind of power I recognized as a kid in that Sunday school class, feeling what I did. Because I’d read that chapbook, I was able to understand for the first time what language could do. The beauty it could convey. The truth it could reveal. The way it could be a bridge between my tiny inner life and the tremendous, mysterious world. I was thunderstruck that the words in that chapbook could express what I already knew but couldn’t yet articulate. My epiphany was a modest one, but it was one that changed the course of my life: I realized, quite simply, that writers were the people who had the power to make people feel the way I felt then and I wanted to be a person who had that power too.
It was years before I would have the second grand epiphany of my writer’s life: that someone like me—a poor girl from Minnesota—actually could become a writer, could possess that power, but that’s a story for another day. The most important revelation was the first one. At that church at age seven, I understood the power of language.
Words are the stars I’ve followed like a god ever since.
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read,” James Baldwin said that in an interview with Life Magazine in 1963. He goes on: “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
Like Baldwin, in books I have found solace and recognition. I have found expressions of my most private sorrows and revelations of my greatest truths. Through stories and poems and essays and plays, I’ve felt a kinship with others that transcends every divide, across all time and place. And I’ll guess you have too, Writer in Las Vegas. Connecting us is the thing writing most powerfully does.
Literature’s grand mission is to tell the complicated truths about what it means to be human, but the most powerful proof that any writer has achieved that lofty goal is in the humble phrase: me too.
Me too: I have suffered.
Me too: I have loved.
Me too: I have experienced joy.
Me too: I know what it is to forgive and struggle and hate and triumph and lose and betray.
Me too: I am just like you, even though we are entirely different.
Me too: In your writing, you spoke my truth.
I know it’s a hard moment in our cultural and political life to remember the unifying power of art—many of us feel deeply divided from our fellow citizens—and yet seldom has there been a more important time that we do. High among the few things that have kept me from sinking into the deepest despair over the recent election results has been remembering how writers create that sense of me too.
We do it by honoring story over rallying cry, by digging into a particular point of view rather than echoing the voice of the angry or exultant mob. The most magic thing of all the magic things about books to me is they allow us to be inside a mind that is not our own, whether it be fictional or real, dead or alive, human or animal. It’s the only art form in which we can truly do that.
I don’t know why we chose a misogynistic, racist, scam artist demagogue who also happens to be an internet troll to lead our nation, Writer in Las Vegas. But I do know we have seen the likes of him before and we will see the likes of him again. I do know he has a story. I know he has wounds and fears and memories and desires. I know the face he presents to the world is connected to his innermost humanity, as mine does, and yours does too. I know writers have the capacity to imagine him, this figure whose rise in one kind of power bewilders so many of us, and they also have the capacity to imagine the national struggle that he embodies and plays out.
And most importantly, I know art will exist beyond him and us. Literature, unlike elections, is a long game. Nobody wins or loses in a day.
The questions writers must meaningfully ask in moments such as this are not Hillary or Donald, Republican or Democrat. The questions we must ask sit beneath our partisan and ideological differences, they reside beyond political argument and will. Beneath and beyond. It’s our task as writers to work in that place, at that depth and range. To trust that literature’s unifying power—first felt through the usually private, usually silent, usually solitary act of reading—is the sort that slowly, eventually, but surely changes the world.
That is our impact, Writer in Las Vegas. It’s showing us to ourselves.
We make it by shining upon the world the way the sun does: relentlessly. By illuminating our darkest corners with language and story. By writing sentence after sentence that seem impossible to write. By excavating the things we’ve buried the most deeply. By telling the stories of our how we got lost and found our way back.
By keeping faith with the payoff the writing brings: one soul is saved, one mind is altered, one spirit rejuvenated, one heart expanded, one life redeemed.
Me too. Me too. Me too.
By trusting that those two words will be enough.
Cheryl Strayed is the New York Times bestselling author of Wild, Tiny Beautiful Things, Brave Enough and Torch. Her essays have been published in The Best American Essays, the New York Times, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Salon, The Sun, Tin House, The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere. Strayed is the co-host, along with Steve Almond, of WBUR’s hit podcast Dear Sugar Radio, which originated with her popular “Dear Sugar” advice column on The Rumpus.
All images by MariNaomi
MariNaomi is the award-winning author and illustrator of Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22, Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories, Turning Japanese and I Thought YOU Hated ME. Her work has appeared in more than 60 print publications and has been featured on numerous websites, such as The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, Midnight Breakfast and BuzzFeed.