Secondly, the writer is transformed. When we investigate the raw materials of our art through the lens of a character, we see it differently. Even when we are writing memoir or personal essays or in our journal, we take the substance of life and hold it up to the light. We learn something. We explore, we discover. We may simply have a greater understanding about ourselves or our situations, or we may change at some very deep level within ourselves. For example, when I wrote about my father’s memorial service, I was still bitter about the way he had treated me and my brothers. I wrote about the details of the service, about the conversations I had with my brothers, about the walk along the beach that I took that morning with them. By the time I got to the end of the story, I understood that I may not have had much of a father but I had something better: I had these two wonderful older brothers who knew me and loved me and who shared my life. My bitterness was transformed into gratitude.
Third, the reader or listener is transformed. Stories shape us. They help us to know the world outside of our limited perspectives. We work our empathy muscles. Here is a piece that Jennifer Huang wrote at the Winter Writers’ Retreat at Sevenoaks:
Writing is telling Tommy (my best friend) my hellish weekdays and my rides to the park, sometimes to run and sometimes just to sit and stare; and anyways, running and staring usually leads to writing. Writing is telling him how I like the feeling of velvet beneath my fingers and the pressing of pianos. Writing is him telling me that his parents don’t pay attention at all. He speaks of his car rides to school, his friends endlessly talking about nothing at all. Writing is him telling me that he wishes for something more but cannot describe it. Writing is our friendship, meshed and tidied into a bundle of letters, some turning yellow and others crisp and white. It is the box beneath my bed, exploding with laughter and tears and frustration that can somehow be heard even as I try to avoid them.
As they write to each other, Tommy and Jennifer deepen the friendship between them. They are transformed with every letter they write and every letter they read.
The fourth, but not the final, layer of transformation is societal. It is the third level writ large. I meet so many people in my workshops who are working in the trenches of our society. They are the ones who witness. They work in Washington D.C. and travel through the labyrinth of a system designed to defeat the underfunded; they do environmental work and confront the daily destructions of the greed machine; they spend their days with autistic children and explore the effects of our toxic world; they know what it’s like to be abducted, to lose children, to be widowed, to care so much they bleed. In writing, they have a tool to educate, to transform others, to open our eyes and maybe crack open a heart here and there.
What would Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath have been without the final scene? That example of compassion in the face of desperation is one of the most moving scenes in literature. And I believe that the final scene where Rose of Sharon performs her act of kindness is the one that enabled this work of art to transform a country. The rest of the book opened our eyes. The final scene opened our hearts.
The way we can get to that fourth level of transformation is to search our own lives for the intersections between the personal and the societal (or political). My friend, the poet I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, is interested in writing a book about what it means to be masculine. This is an important question in our culture as we evolve and as gender roles bend, stretch, and sometimes bounce back. For him, it’s also a personal question — one that he grapples with in his work as a therapist and in his own interactions with other men.
There is one more layer of transformation that I believe is important — the spiritual level, which I will write more about next time.
In the meantime, here are some things to think about:
1. Make a list of the books, poems, essays, stories, etc. that you have found transformative. How did they change you? How did they affect your world view? What were the words, the lines, the passages, or the scenes that opened your heart?
2. Try the “Writing About What Matters” exercise. Where in your life does the personal intersect with the societal? This question was the impetus for me to write about taking care of my elderly mother. My personal situation was reflected in some of the questions I had about our society: How do we treat our elderly? What happens when someone no longer “contributes” to society in a tangible way? What resources are there for caregivers? How do we juggle all the demands on our time and attention? So take a look at your own life. What are your pressing personal concerns? Are these concerns that others have to face in some way? And how do our national policies and/or our society mores affect those concerns?
3. Interview someone! I interviewed Ina May Gaskin, the mother of modern midwifery. I had no idea how the medicalization of the birth process has affected the birth experience in such a negative way — even to the point of sometimes causing maternal deaths. You can read the interview in the January 2012 issue of The Sun Magazine. I later turned that information into this essay about that intersection of personal and public.