Rebecca Solnit on the Impotence of Anger

screamingwoman - Version 2The internet is a hotbed of outrage.  If someone expresses an unpopular opinion or tweets something provocative or controversial, the net erupts in vehement vitriol.  In our era of social media, angry mobs don’t attack with torches and pitchforks; they disgrace your name on the blogosphere or accuse you being a “racist” or a “bigot” on Twitter and Facebook.  Rather than physically punish offenders, we shame and humiliate.  Much like Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter, we march transgressors of political correctness through the streets, hurling tomatoes of ad hominem attacks along the way.  In our age of rage, red-faced screaming has replaced dialogue. 

On one hand, the fact that we get angry at those who use hurtful speech represents a giant leap for basic kindness and human decency.  In many ways, today we have a deeper respect for words, both for what they mean and how they can potentially wound people.  We’re more sensitive and thoughtful.

But have we swung too far to the opposite extreme?  Are we too sensitive?  too willing to label something “offensive”— not because it’s actually derogatory or hurtful— but because it challenges our opinions?  threatens our long-standing beliefs?  Are we too angry?  Why as a culture have we exchanged the sober-mindedness of civil discourse for the intoxicating righteousness of outrage?  Is anger only a destructive force, an inextinguishable inferno that annihilates everything in its wake?  Or can anger be harnessed for light and heat? 

These questions are what Rebecca Solnit ponders in her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names.  A catalog of our era’s most urgent catastrophes and crises, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history, the importance of using language clearly and accurately, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories.  In one of the collection’s most timely essays “Facing the Furies,” Solnit explains anger is a spectrum ranging from minor irritation on the one end to indignation on the other.  Though we often pathologize anger, anger is a useful alarm system that alerts us to a breach of our moral code.  When we want to shriek and slam doors, Solnit explains, we feel we’ve been done wrong:

“At its mildest, the emotion is no more than annoyance, an aversion to mild unpleasantness.  Annoyance with an ethical character becomes indignation: not only do I dislike that, but it also should not have happened.  Indeed, anger generally arises from a sense of being wronged.  In this respect, my conviction that you should not have eaten the last slice resembles my conviction that we should not have bombed Iraq: in each case, I see an injustice and wish it to be righted.  Anger that is motivated by more than a mammalian instinct for self-protection operates by an ethic, a sense of how things ought or ought not to be.” 

We’ve all heard the old adage “love is blind.”  When we’re head-over-heels in love, in the throes of infatuation, it’s impossible to objectively assess our partners: one sip of passion’s intoxicating liqueur and we become dizzy with delusion.  In the glorious beginnings of a budding romance, we can rationalize our lover’s every flaw: he can’t split the check because he’s in-between jobs, we explain when our friends ask why he never pays; he never comes around because he’s not a big drinker and doesn’t like the bright lights and loud music at nightclubs.

If love is blind, so is anger.  While it can signal our boundaries have been crossed, it can also interfere with our ability to think rationally.  As Solnit writes:

“Anger is hostile to understanding.  At its most implacable or extreme, it prevents comprehension of a situation, of the people you oppose, of your own role and responsibilities.  It’s not for nothing that we call rages ‘blind.'”

In the public sphere, anger can either incite riots or spark revolution, fan the flames of chaos or fuel positive social change.  Cesar Chavez.  Mahatma Gandhi.  Martin Luther King.  By framing their fights in terms of right and wrong, these activists were able to use feelings of outrage and injustice to rally support for their cause.  In each case, anger galvanized a movement and built a better world.

But though anger can be channeled to reform unjust systems and rectify wrongs, it can also be exploited by those in power to advance their own agendas.  No other public figure has stoked the flames of our anger more furiously than Donald Trump.  In our era of unprecedented division, animosity seems to be the state of political discourse: we’re angry at those across the party divide, we’re angry at those who disagree with us.  Those who have historically been at the top of the social ladder— white menare angry to find themselves thrust to the bottom rungs.  The result?  Resentments that have been simmering beneath the surface are finally boiling over.  White supremacists have moved from the margins to the mainstream; anti-immigrant rhetoric and cries of “America first” dominate news cycles.  By inflaming our anger and redirecting it toward a common enemy, whether that be immigrants or Muslims, Trump protects his own power.  After all, if citizens are pitted against each another, if they’re divided rather than united, they’ll never band together and revolt against their actual enemy, those in power:

“Is anyone more possessed by this kind of obliterating anger than Donald Trump?  Our nation is currently led by a petty, vindictive, histrionic man whose exceptional privilege has robbed him of even the most rudimentary training in dealing with setbacks and slights.  He was elected by people who were drawn to him because he homed in on their anger, made them even angrier, and promised vengeance on the usual targets, domestic and foreign, successfully clouding their judgement as to what electing him would mean for their health care, safety, environment, education, economy. 

Yet Trump’s furious ascent is only the culmination of fury’s long journey toward enshrinement in this country.  Our legal system, for example, has been lurching backward for some time from the ideal of impartial justice toward a model based on retaliation.  The prison system still employs a plethora of terms that suggest otherwise—  “rehabilitation,” “reform,” “correction,” and the penitence implicit in penitentiaries— but its current rhetoric and practices are often purely punitive. 

[…]

Governments regularly manufacture or exaggerate threats to suggest that violence is necessary and restraint would constitute weakness: during World War II, the United States condemned citizens of Japanese heritage; during the post-war period, it targeted leftists.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it scrambled to find new adversaries, and has since settled on Muslims, immigrants, and transgender people.  The provocation of anger is essential to government by manipulation, and the angriest people are often the most credulous, willing to snatch up without scrutiny whatever feeds their fire.”

Just like any powerful emotion, anger must either be channeled or controlled and contained.  If we allow a flame of anger to transform into a full-blown wildfire of rage, we can become violent or do something stupid we later regret.  Another possibility is we simply waste time being mad.  The last time she faced her own furies, Solnit recalls she squandered thirty-six irretrievable hours indulging in fantasizes of revenge:

“We speak of blind rages; I know the last thing that made me angry—  an anti-Semitic comment— got me stuck replaying the details of the interaction, buttressing my arguments as though I would fight the charges in court, and generally simmering for thirty-six hours or so that might have been spent more profitably and pleasantly on almost anything else.  The slur took place in the course of a conversation about the uses of left-wing violence.  The comment, you could say, called a whole ethic group on a whole continent the cowards of the country: ‘And didn’t 6 million die because they didn’t resist the Nazi regime?’  After I questioned the remark, the speaker eventually apologized and admitted the factual inanity of the statement, but I was nevertheless stuck. 

The anger crowded out other thoughts, got me mired in a resentment that didn’t threaten me directly (though anti-Semitic slurs, and the beliefs behind them, underlie anti-Semitic acts, which are having a resurgence right now).  It was as though something weighty and hard-edged had slammed shut in my chest, and a fire simmered inside.  It was as though my mind was on a treadmill revisiting the Polish partisans, the French resistance, the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Primo Levi in the Italian Resistance, and so forth.  But this rumination was not, overall, pleasant or productive, and when I finally exited the treadmill I vowed to self-regulate better.”

So how do we regulate this volatile emotion?  Do we suppress it?  Or do we express our ire freely and lash out at whatever and whomever provokes our rage?  Solnit suggests we adopt the Buddhist’s approach to anger management.  Rather than repress our anger— which is extremely unhealthy, not to mention ineffective— or weaponize it to wound others, we can feel it and simply let it go: 

“Fury is a renewable source; though the initial anger may be fleeting, it can be revived and strengthened by telling and retelling yourself the story of the insult or injustice, even over a lifetime.  Many accounts of American anger focus on what people are angry about, as though reactive anger were inevitable and the outside stimulus provoking it the only variable.  They rarely discuss the status of anger or the habits of mind that support it.  Those are discussed elsewhere, in spiritual and psychological literature and in anthropological texts. 

In Christianity, wrath is one of the seven deadly sins; patience, a cardinal virtue, is its opposite.  Buddhist theology regards anger as one of the three poisons, an affliction to be overcome through self-discipline and self-awareness.  ‘The tradition ethical precept about anger is sometimes translated as not to get angry,’ Taigen Dan Leighton, a Zen priest and translator of Buddhist texts, explained to me.  ‘But in modern Soto Zen Buddhism, we say not to harbor ill will.’  The Buddhist writer Thanissara put it thus: ‘Anger is traditionally thought to be close to wisdom.  When not projected outward toward others or inward toward the self, it gives us the necessary energy and clarity to understand what needs to be done.’

We will all feel anger at one time or another, but it doesn’t need to become animosity or be renewed or retained.  Buddhism offers an elegant model of anger management.  Harness the emotion.  Feel it without inflicting it.”

Solnit concludes by correcting a popular misconception.  Though we imagine anger is a sort of gasoline that drives the engine of social change, anger— at least blood-boiling red-faced rage—  isn’t sustainable over the long-term.  The most effective activists may first get involved because they’re dissatisfied with some aspect of society, but to make real, lasting change, they must remain committed to their cause, to action, not their own rage:

“In my experience, those dedicated to practical change over the long term are often the least involved in the dramas of rage, which wear on both the self and others.  After reading or listening to, say, hundreds of detailed accounts of rape, you may remain deeply motivated to engage in political action but find it difficult to get indignant about the newest offense.  The most committed organizers I know are often not incensed.  Their first obligation is to changing how things are— to action, not self-expression.”

Rebecca Solnit on the Responsibility of Journalists to Challenge the Status Quo & Rewrite the World’s Broken Stories

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Humans are hardwired to tell stories.  Because of our superlative intelligence and unrivaled reasoning abilities, we seek to make meaning from chaos.  Whether we’re telling a story about a disastrous blind date or the Geneva peace talks, we organize events using a logical narrative arc.  Rather than describe every detail of a scene, we choose what to omit and what to keep.  Storytelling is the art of selection.  If we were recounting a blind date, for example, we wouldn’t bore our listener with the clink of champagne glasses or the color of the waiter’s bow tie or an exhaustive inventory of the Merlot’s every flavor and note; we’d focus on what was relevant to the central plot.  If the story of our blind date was the story of yet another failed attempt to find love, we’d emphasize our date’s flaws: his too-confident demeanor, his obnoxious habit of always redirecting the conversation to himself— not the seductive scent of his cologne. 

In real life, it’s often hard to discern meaning: there’s no central conflict, no systematic sequence of events, no easy-to-follow arc.  Sometimes the boyfriend we thought would be our chief love interest turns out to be a passing fling; sometimes an interminable three hours on the phone with Comcast has no bearing on our life’s larger plot.  But in a story, every element performs an essential part.  A description of character, a specific sequencing of scenes, a use of one word instead of endless others: all are deliberate choices on the part of the writer.  Everything, therefore, is meaningful.

But a story is just that, a story— not an objective representation of truth.  As British philosopher Alain De Botton so astutely observed, stories “omit and compress; they cut away the periods of boredom and direct our attention to critical moments, and thus, without either lying or embellishing, they lend to life a vividness and a coherence that it may lack in the distracting wooliness of the present.”  Storytelling is ultimately a kind of manipulation.  Just as a photographer artfully arranges his frame, foregrounding his subject and relegating other aesthetically-pleasing but not-so-important objects to the background, the storyteller emphasizes certain things while downplaying or entirely neglecting others.  He zooms in and out.  But just as a photograph can only capture a small snapshot of a scene within its frame, a story is just one person’s perspective— it’s a version of reality, not reality itself. 

Stories may only represent a portion of reality, but they determine our collective experience.  Public storytellers like journalists tell the stories that dictate how we see the world.  In her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit argues journalists have a responsibility to rewrite our culture’s broken stories.  Why?  Because if they change their stories, they can change the world. 

In “Break the Story,” one of the collection’s most insightful essays, Solnit uses a sharp-witted play on words to suggest journalists have a duty not only to break stories in the traditional sense, but to shake up the status quo:

“‘Break the story’ is a line journalists use to mean getting the scoop, being the first to tell something, but for me the term has deeper resonance.  When you report on any event, no matter how large or small— a presidential election, a school board meeting— you are supposed to come back with a story about what just happened.  But, of course, stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out.  The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and becoming their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do.  Being a public storyteller requires the same skills with larger consequences and responsibilities, because your story becomes part of that water, undermining or reinforcing the existing stories.  Your job is to report on the story on the surface, the contained story, the one that happened yesterday.  It’s also to see and sometimes to break open or break apart the ambient stories, the stories that are already written, and to understand the relationship between the two.”

My favorite English professor used to say there’s two levels to every novel: a narrative and a story.  The narrative lies on the surface of plot, character, setting.  To get to the story, you have to plunge beneath what is said and dive into the depths of what is implied.  This is just as true in real life.  Just as we must read between the lines to get the real story, we must shovel away the dirt of our socially-sanctioned stories to unearth truth.  Rather than simply perpetuate our culture’s most enduring myths, journalists have an obligation to question the very frameworks on which they depend.  Too often the stories we tell go unexamined.  And, too often, we only hear stories that reinforce rather than challenge.  While certain stories dominate headlines, other more pressing issues get little coverage, suppressed in shame and secrets, either spoken in whispers or completely ignored. 

What stories are heard and what stories are silenced largely depends on who’s in power.  Take terrorism and domestic violence.  Though the fear-mongering media might have us believe terrorism is the most urgent issue of our times, terrorism claims very few American lives.  In contrast, domestic violence kills nearly a thousand women every year.  To put the scope of the issue in perspective, between 2001 and 2012, 6,488 American troops were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq; in that same time period, 11, 766 American women were murdered by current or ex-partners.  That’s nearly double the number of troops who died during the war.  As Solnit writes:

There are stories beneath the stories and around the stories.  The recent event on the surface is often merely the hood ornament on the mighty social engine that is a story driving the culture.  We call those “dominant narratives” or “paradigms” or “memes” or “metaphors we live by” or “frameworks.”  However we describe them, they are immensely powerful forces.  And the dominant culture mostly goes about reinforcing the stories that are the pillars propping it up and that, too often, are also the bars of someone else’s cage.  They are too often stories that should be broken, or are already broken and ruined and ruinous and way past their expiration date.  They sit atop mountains of unexamined assumptions.  Why does the media obediently hype terrorism, which kills so few people in the United States, and mostly trivialize domestic violence, which terrorizes millions of U.S. women over extended periods and kills about a thousand a year?  How do you break the story about what really threatens and kills us?

[…]

Part of the job of a great storyteller is to examine the stories that underlie the story you’re assigned, maybe to make them visible, and sometimes to break us free of them.  Break the story.  Breaking is a creative act as much as making, in this kind of writing.”

So why is it that we speak so often of the improbable event of dying in a terrorist attack and so seldom of the very real threat of being killed at the hands of an intimate loved one?  In the end, society will only endorse the stories that maintain the status quo.  The baseless story that terrorism is the greatest threat to national security identifies a common enemy, breeds fear and paranoia and makes the populace easier to control.  Such a story upholds the power of the powerful.  If we’re too busy talking about terrorism, we’re not talking about rising income inequality or the disappearing middle class or mounting college tuition costs.  The story of epidemic domestic violence, however, exposes the serious problems underlying our power structure.  If we were to examine why nearly 40% of female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, we’d have to rethink the damaging myths we propagate about romantic love: maybe a suitor who immediately showers you with adoration, for example, is not a fairytale prince but inappropriately obsessed; maybe a man who texts constantly wanting to know where you are and what you’re doing is not head-over-heels in love, but controlling and potentially dangerous.  We’d have to rethink how we teach boys to be men: the ways we make excuses for their bad behavior, the ways we encourage their aggressiveness and entitlement.  Indeed, we’d have to rethink society itself. 

The widespread occurrence of rape is yet another story our culture silences.  When we do discuss sexual assault, our tendency is to distrust the woman.  The prevailing belief is women lie about rape and make accusations either to exact revenge or get attention.  The narrative is women are spiteful and vindictive; the story is an alarming number of men rape and never face prosecution:

“Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives.  For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general.  This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women.  In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy.  But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot).”

George Orwell once said “good prose is a window pane”: when a reader looks out the window of a finely-crafted sentence, he should more clearly see the world.  Plainness and preciseness formed the pillars of Elements of Style, his definitive guide to writing well.  To his timeless advice, Solnit adds writers should construct their own windows rather than look through other people’s.  A good writer is a freethinker.  Never will he mindlessly conform to popular opinion or march with the masses in neat little rows.  Instead, he will dispel the myths that sedate us in a stupor of inaction and challenge his moment’s status quo:

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view.  News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo…This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian.  You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.”

For more from our era’s most passionate defender of democracy, read Solnit on the impotence of anger, the importance of calling things by their true names, and the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history.  If you want to delight in even more of Solnit’s lyrical language, meander through her lovely meditations on walking as a political act and walking as a means of replenishing the soul and reinvigorating the mind.

Rebecca Solnit on Our Responsibility to Call Things By Their True Names

 

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Language is a distinctly human ability; our language is made up of words— not growls and grunts.  But though our capacity to communicate is what separates us from beasts, we rarely stop to marvel.  We can write!  We can talk!  We utter hundreds, if not thousands, of words a day, most often to relay the humdrum information of the mundane: the frivolous pleasantries of superficial small talk, the obligatory “hello, how are you?” in the grocery store check out.  We’re careless with our words, only approximating— rather than exactly— expressing our thoughts.  We allow words to slip from our mouths, forgetting they have a current of implied meanings and historical connotations that surge beneath the surface of their definitions in Merriam Webster.  We use offensive, derogatory language to revolt against political correctness, thinking we’re provocative defenders of free speech when we’re really just insensitive morons. 

Throughout history, those in power have intentionally manipulated language to conceal, rather than reveal, truth.  The ruling class weaponizes words to pit the marginalized against each other.  Political parties mobilize hate speech to advance their agendas and dehumanize entire groups.  Tragically, in our 1984 dystopia of “alternative facts,” language continues to be abused.

Though we take words for granted, nothing is more powerful.  “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word,” Emily Dickinson once wrote.  Indeed, the Bible attests, “In the beginning was the Word.”  Words catch the elusive and inexpressible.  When we take care to choose words that precisely convey our meaning, we can articulate what was once inarticulable.  Before anything can exist in the physical, material plane, it must first exist as an idea.  The theory of relativity, the notion of civil disobedience, the foundational democratic belief that “all men are created equal”: all began as ideas.  They only revolutionized our lives once they were expressed in words.  Language is the vehicle through which we can transport our innermost thoughts; it’s how we spread ideas.  Words launch movements and ignite revolutions, overthrow oppressive governments and spark meaningful discourse.  In other words, they remake the world.

Because we’ve been bestowed with the miraculous gift of language, we must be responsible with our words.  This pressing responsibility is what Rebecca Solnit explores in her paradigm-shifting essay collection Call Them By Their True Names.  A catalog of our era’s most urgent catastrophes and crises, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the impotence of anger, the remarkable ability of ordinary people to redirect the course of history, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories.  As the title suggests, Ms. Solnit’s latest collection is a passionate plea to name things precisely.  Our ancestors knew there was tremendous power in naming things as they are.  As Solnit says, it’s only after we diagnose a disease that we can find a cure:

“One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how ‘a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.’  In the deep past, people knew names had power.  Some still do.  Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness.  It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.

When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis.  Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it.  Research, support, and effective treatment, as well as possibly redefining the disease and what it means, can proceed from this first step.  Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one.  And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.”

It’s crucial that we call things by their true names because language determines our reality.  When we say “a woman was raped” instead of “a man raped a woman,” the passive construction essentially erases him from the equation and absolves the perpetrator of responsibility.  The result?  Because passive voice transforms the grammatical object (the woman) into the subject, we begin to view rape as a “women’s issue.”  In our discussions of sexual assault, we focus on the victim (“She shouldn’t have drank so much…”/”She shouldn’t have been walking down a dark alleyway alone…”) instead of the perpetrator.  Rather than teach men to treat women with dignity and respect, we teach women it’s their responsibility to protect themselves against men’s violence.  Ultimately, how we discuss rape dictates how we understand it.  Or, as British philosopher Alain de Botton so astutely observed, “how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.” 

At the heart of Call Them By Their True Names is the assertion that words can either clarify or mystify, inform or mislead.  They can liberate or oppress, promote tolerance and understanding or spread hate.  In the end, we can only fix what we acknowledge is broken.  When we call things by their true names, we can see the world as it is— and begin to change.  

Rebecca Solnit on Hope, Hindsight & How Our Choices Can Redirect the Course of History

rebecca solnit #2What is hope?  In 1861, Emily Dickinson composed the most enduring definition: hope is the “thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”  Over a century and a half later, Anne Lamott wrote hope was the belief that even in the desert you could still find “life, wildflowers, fossils, sources of water.”  For poet of politics Rebecca Solnit, hope exists at the crossroads of “might” and “might not.”  We might repair our broken republic; we might eliminate small-mindedness and bigotry; we might recover our lost democratic ideals.  However, hope is pragmatic enough to know possibilities are not certainties.  Though we might break the oppressive silence surrounding sexual assault, though we might pass stricter gun control laws and finally put a stop to senseless mass shootings, we might not.  Whether or not we do depends on us. 

Our ability to redirect the course of history is what Solnit explores in her consciousness-raising 2018 essay collection Call Them By Their True Names.  A catalog of our era’s most urgent catastrophes and crises, Call Them By Their True Names is wide-ranging, covering topics as diverse as the impotence of anger, the importance of using language to preserve truth rather than disseminate fabrications and falsehoods, and the responsibility of journalists to challenge the status quo and rewrite the world’s broken stories.  Though today -isms threaten to topple our very democracy, Solnit never resigns to despair.  Despite Donald Trump and the alt right, despite fake news and distorted facts, despite melting ice caps and the impending threat of global warming, Solnit remains hopeful; indeed, hope is the bedrock of all her writing.

In one of the collection’s most beautifully buoyant essays, “In Praise of Indirect Consequences,” Solnit asserts hope implies responsibility.  Unlike optimism, which believes humanity will undoubtedly have a happy ending, or cynicism, which maintains we’re doomed, hope says the future will be determined by what we do (or don’t do):

“Optimism assumes that all will go well without our effort; pessimism assumes it’s all irredeemable; both let us stay home and do nothing.  Hope for me has meant a sense that the future is unpredictable, and that we don’t actually know what will happen, but know we may be able to write it ourselves.

Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written.  It’s an informed, astute open-mindedness about what can happen and what role we might play in it.  Hope looks forward but draws its energies from the past, from knowing histories, including our victories, and their complexities and imperfections.  It means not fetishizing the perfect that is the enemy of the good, not snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, not assuming you know what will happen when the future is unwritten, and part of what happens is up to us.”

In our near-sighted age, it’s difficult to magnify the telescope of our perspective and clearly see into the distance.  Big businesses pollute our skies and poison our oceans because they consider short-term profit rather than long-term environmental consequences.  Wall Street bankers exploit others to afford the excesses of a lavish lifestyle: extravagant parties, flashy Ferraris, luxurious multi-million dollar penthouses— they think nothing of how their reckless decisions will affect the economy down the road.  But our choices in the present— from the most significant to the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential— will be felt for years to come.  A flap of a butterfly’s wings can set off a tsunami halfway across the world. 

History belongs not just to monumental events and larger-than-life public personas but to commonplace moments and ordinary people.  As Leo Tolstoy once said, history is shaped by “an infinitely large number of infinitesimally small actions.”  The lyrical Ms. Solnit agrees: the little things we do today can reverberate for centuries.  Even when a political campaign or social movement appears to be a “failure” from the limited perspective of our particular moment in human history, it may be a triumph in the grander scheme of things.  For example, though British suffragettes didn’t win the right to vote until 1928, their early activism would go on to inspire Gandhi who, of course, would go on to inspire Martin Luther King.  His philosophy of non-violence would later influence activists in South Africa and protestors in the Arab Spring: 

 Ideas are contagious, emotions are contagious, hope is contagious, courage is contagious.  When we embody those qualities, or their opposites, we convey them to others.  That is to say, British suffragists, who won limited access to the vote for women in 1918 and full access in 1928, played a part in inspiring an Indian man who, twenty years later, led the liberation of the Asian subcontinent from British rule.  He, in turn, inspired a Black man in the American South to study his ideas and their application.  After a 1959 pilgrimage to India to meet with Gandhi’s heirs, Martin Luther King wrote, ‘While the Montgomery boycott was going on, India’s Gandhi was the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.  We spoke of him often.’  Those techniques, further developed by the civil rights movement, were taken up around the world, including in the struggle against apartheid, at one end of the African continent, and in the Arab Spring, at the other.”

Solnit concludes by citing great French philosopher and social theorist Michael Foucault: “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does,” he wrote.  Using the lovely metaphor of a tree, Solnit suggests the seeds of our actions can take root and blossom in miraculous, unexpected ways:

“You do what you can.  What you’ve done may do more than you can imagine for generations to come.  You plant a seed and a tree grows from it; will there be fruit, shade, habitat for birds, more seeds, a forest, wood to build a cradle or a house?  You don’t know.  A tree can live much longer than you.  So will an idea, and sometimes the changes that result from accepting that new idea about what is true, or right, just might remake the world.  You do what you can do; you do your best; what what you do does is not up to you.”

How many of us have turned on the news and felt like we lived in a doomsday dystopia of racism and misogyny?  of discord and division?  of mistrust and acrimony?  We live in an age of white supremacy and anti-immigrant hysteria, police brutality and mass shootings.  Yet Solnit insists we can still shift the tides of history.  Call Them By Their True Names should be required reading for anyone concerned about the state of American democracy. 

Anne Lamott on How to Find a Wellspring of Hope in a Desperate Desert of Despair

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Pain is an inescapable fact of life: for every moment of ecstasy, there is misery; for every intoxicating love, there is sobering heartbreak; for every pronouncement of undying devotion, there is betrayal.  Inevitably, to live is to die, to love is to lose.  The question isn’t if we’ll suffer, but rather when we will.

How do we bear this unavoidable truth of being alive?  How do we persist when our lover smashes our heart?  when we get a harrowing phone call from the hospital in the middle of the night?  when calamity and catastrophe split our lives into two distinct eras: “before” and “after”?  How do we find the resiliency of spirit to keep on keeping on?  How do we resist the temptation to simply throw our hands up in defeat and say “I give up”?

How we find a flickering light of hope amidst the impenetrable darkness of despair is what Anne Lamott ponders in Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace.  Much like Emily Dickinson, Lamott believes “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”  But she also knows there are times when tragedy unexpectedly wreaks havoc on our lives, when our delicate bird of hope— the skittish thing— escapes the security of its cage and flutters out the window.  At its heart, Small Victories suggests the only way to recover hope in times of overwhelming despair is by starting small: by taking life one day, one hour, at a time, by practicing compassion and forgiveness (especially toward ourselves), by doing something kind for someone else.

In “Ham from God,” Lamott writes in her trademark style of down-to-earth wit and wisdom hard-won.  The year is 2003: the paranoid Bush era of weapons of mass destruction and preemptive self-defense.  Lamott recalls that on her 49th birthday she decided things were hopeless.  Terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers, presidents invaded helpless foreign nations without just cause, teenagers graffitied swastikas on park benches and bathroom stalls.  “How are we going to get through this craziness?” she asks her priest friend Tom.  To which he replies:

“Left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe.”

 Since Biblical times, the wilderness, or desert, has evoked feelings of abandonment, desolation and despair.  As Sarah Ban Breathnach so gracefully notes, in the wilderness “you can wail and gnash your teeth all you want, but no one hears your heart tearing asunder except God, who presumably sent you there.”  Death, divorce: it is during these distressing times that we are broken to be made whole.  Like Moses, we have no choice but to endure— despite the scorching sun, despite the sands that seemingly stretch out forever, despite the lack of water.  With endearing humility and self-deprecating humor, Lamott confesses that— though Father Tom and some of her more “spiritual” friends have come to appreciate the tribulations of the desert— she’d rather learn life’s difficult lessons from the air-conditioned comfort of a car or luxury resort: 

“Father Tom loves the desert.  A number of my friends do.  They love the skies that pull you into infinity, like the ocean.  They love the silence, and how, if you listen long enough, the pulse of the desert, begins to sound like the noise your finger makes when you run it around the rim of a crystal glass.  They love the scary beauty— snakes, lizards, scorpions; kestrels and hawks.  They love the mosaics of water-washed pebbles on the desert floor, small rocks that cast huge shadows, a shoot of vegetation here, a wildflower there. 

I like the desert for short periods of time, from inside a car, with the windows rolled up and the doors locked.  I prefer beach resorts with room service.”

When God has seemed to forsake us in the desert, where do we even start?  For Lamott, the answer is small.  In much the same way we surmount writer’s block by breaking up daunting tasks into short assignments, we survive the wilderness by seeking shelter from the sweltering heat and searching for sources of water.  Or as her wise friend Tom reminds her:

“We start by being kind to ourselves.  We breathe, we eat…We take care of the suffering.”

After her conversation with Tom, Lamott prays for help.  When she goes to the grocery store shortly after, she’s surprised when she wins a free ham:

“I felt blindsided by the news.  I had asked for help, not a ham…I almost suggested that the checker award the ham to the next family that paid with food stamps.  But for some reason, I waited.  If God gave me a ham, I’d be crazy not to receive it.  Maybe it was the ham of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” 

As she lugs what she comes to think of as that “fucking ham” out the store, Lamott— in a moment of blissfully-timed serendipity— runs into an old friend who’s down on her luck and needs food.  “Do you and your kids like ham?” Lamott asks.  “We love it!” she replies.  As her friend drives away in tearful gratitude, her ham strapped into the passenger seat, Lamott realizes even in the driest desert rain eventually arrives: 

“Walking back to the car, I thought about the seasonal showers in the desert, how the potholes in the rocks fill up with rain.  When you look afterward, there are already frogs in the water and brine shrimp reproducing, like commas doing the macarena, and it seems, but only seems, that you went from parched to overflow in the blink of an eye.”

Like a reassuring conversation with a supportive, sympathetic friend, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace will cheer a discouraged heart and mend a dispirited soul.  For more from the eternally optimistic embracer of our human frailties Anne Lamott, read how friendship teaches us to be merciful and how to salvage your sanity in a nutty world

Maya Angelou’s Writing Routine & the Exquisite Torment of the Creative Life

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All writers have their routines and rituals.  While working on what would be his first novel, Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller, for example, established a stringent daily schedule: in the mornings and afternoons, he’d write diligently; in the evenings—if tired— he’d make time for relaxation and visit friends, go to the cinema, or read a book in a cafe.  Graham Greene, like innumerable writers throughout literary history, required himself to write a certain number of words a day (his quota of five hundred words seems rather unambitious compared to Stephen King’s, who requires himself to write ten pages a day, even on holidays).  Haruki Murakami views physical exertion as an essential part of his creative process and rises at daybreak every morning so he can run before he sits at his desk for the day.  For him, the rhythmic, monotonous movement of putting one foot after another puts his rational conscious mind in a trance so his more powerful subconscious mind can synthesize ideas in new, exciting ways.

In her soulful Paris Review interview in Women Writers at Work, poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou reveals her personal routines.  Ms. Angelou comes from a long lineage of writers whose mundane daily routine takes on the consecrated status of ritual.  She regards a few things as absolutely essential: a bottle of sherry, from which she’ll perhaps sip in the morning and take a celebratory swig at night, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow writing pads, an ashtray, and a Bible.  When asked why she needed the Bible, she clarified:

“The language of all the interpretations, the translations, is musical, just wonderful, I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.

[…]

I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English.  I want to hear it, so I read it aloud.  It is not so that I can imitate it.  It is to remind me what a glorious language it is.  Then I try to be particular, original.” 

“How do I become a better writer?” is the number one question of starry-eyed literary hopefuls.  No matter who you ask this perennial question— a novelist, an essayist, a poet, a playwright— the answer is the same: read.  “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write,” Annie Proulx once said.  Colossus of modernism Virginia Woolf agreed: “Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river.”  Stephen King put his tough love advice more bluntly: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that.”

Though we glorify writing as an inborn talent, writing is a skill, one that can be improved and refined.  How to construct compelling sentences with strong active verbs, how to spellbind our reader with the music of our language, how to convey our meaning through precise word choice: all can be learned through the devoted study of our favorite authors.  In much the same way Angelou learned to treasure the musical, poetic aspects of language by reading the Bible, we can learn how to play with words’ double meanings by reading Shakespeare or pace a story by reading a page-turning crime novel. 

I know that when I’m at my desk despairing that I have nothing to say, despising my every hideous sentence, my every careless turn-of-phrase, a good book can offer a powerful antidote.  If, the moment I feel uninspired, I feast on the sumptuous prose of Anais Nin or get intoxicated on the raw intensity of Sylvia Plath, I remember all the marvelous things language can do.  When I come across a perfect arrangement of words, a sentence where, as T.S. Eliot so elegantly said, every word has a “home,” I feel inspired to create striking sentences of my own.  Lesson?  Like Angelou, we should always keep a good book nearby to replenish and renew our soul.

Books inspire us not only to be better writers but better people.  When asked whether she read the Bible just to get inspired to write herself, Angelou added she read the holy scriptures:

“For content also.  I’m working at trying to be a Christian, and that’s serious business.  It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy: it’s serious business.  It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done.  I did it all day, hot-diggety.  The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening, if you’re honest and have a little courage, you look at yourself and say, Hmm.  I only blew it eighty-six times.  Not bad.  I’m trying to be a Christian, and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.” 

Other than her Bible and glass of sherry, Angelou required one thing: a room of her own.  Because creative work demands a sanctuary of silence and solitude, Ms. Angelou had an eccentric habit of renting a hotel room over the course of her decades-long career.  When asked how she began her writing day, she explained:

“I have kept a hotel room in every town I’ve ever lived in.  I rent a hotel room for a few months, leave my home at six, and try to be at work by six-thirty.  To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses.  I never allow the hotel people to change the bed, because I never sleep there.  I stay until twelve-thirty or one-thirty in the afternoon, and then I go home and try to breathe; I look at the work around five; I have an orderly dinner—proper, quiet, lovely dinner; and then I go back to work the next morning.  Sometimes in hotels I’ll go into the room and there’ll be a note on the floor which says, Dear Miss Angelou, let us change the sheets.  We think they are moldy.  But I only allow them to come in and empty wastebaskets.  I insist that all things are taken off the walls.  I don’t want anything in there.  I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended.  Nothing holds me to anything.  No milkmaids, no flowers, nothing.  I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember.  I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson.  And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself.  If you pull it, it says, OK.”  I remember that and I start to write.”

A firm believer that writing is work, Angelou described the long, arduous journey from an idea’s initial conception to its execution on the page:

“Nathaniel Hawthorne says, ‘Easy reading is damn hard writing.’  I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page.  It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy.  Of course, there are those critics—New York critics as a rule—who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer.  Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing.  I work at the language.  On an evening like this, looking out at the auditorium, if I had to write this evening from my point of view, I’d see the rust-red used worn velvet seats and the lightness where people’s backs have rubbed against the back of the seat so that it’s a light orange, then the beautiful colors of the people’s faces, the white, pink-white, beige-white, light beige and brown and tan—I would have to look at all that, at all those faces and the way they sit on top of their necks.  When I would end up writing after four hours or five hours in my room, it might sound like, It was a rat that sat on a mat.  That’s that.  Not a cat.  But I would continue to play with it and pull at it and say, I love you.  Come to me.  I love you.  It might take me two or three weeks just to describe what I’m seeing now.”

One of my favorite writers once said there’s a blissful obsessive-compulsive quality to creative work.  Those who endeavor to express themselves know this neurosis well.  “Should I rearrange this subordinate and independent clause?”  “Is this word too plain?  too conversational?    Should I opt for a more dignified word?”  To attempt to articulate ourselves is an exquisite form of torture.  In most things in life, it’s obvious when you’ve arrived at your goal: the mechanic knows his work is done once the engine ignites and the car propels itself forward; the carpenter, once the house can stand on its own.  But in writing, it’s hard to know.  Draft after draft, there always seems to be more we can do: an idea we can phrase more elegantly, a dull sentence we can polish further.  How do we know when the burnishing and beautifying, pruning and perfecting so essential to revision has crossed the line into helpless (not to mention unproductive) obsession?  How do we know when our work is ready to be released into the world?  To this enduring question Angelou replied:  

“I know when it’s the best I can do.  It may not be the best there is.  Another writer may do it much better.  But I know when it’s the best I can do.  I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, “No. No, I’m finished. Bye.”  And leaving it alone.  I will not write it into the ground.  I will not write the life out of it.  I won’t do that.” 

For more brilliant conversations with our era’s finest writers, read Anne Sexton on how poetry helped her exorcise her demons and find a sense of purpose and Joyce Carol Oates on the myth of mood.

Anne Sexton’s Advice to Young Writers

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“How can I become a writer?” renowned authors have been asked throughout the ages.  Ray Bradbury believed you had to be irrepressibly in love with your work, “If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling.  You must write every single day of your life.  You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next.  You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.”  Henry Miller thought writing required strict schedules and single-minded commitment to your craft: “Write according to program and not according to mood!” he advised in his 11 commandments, a set of precepts meant to direct his conduct, If you can’t create, you can work.”  Henry James maintained a writer must be attentive and turn an unflinchingly eye to the world.  “Be someone on whom nothing is lost!”  he implored.

Anne Sexton added her own counsel to the storehouse of advice on the craft in her extraordinary Paris Review interview in Women Writers at Work, a compendium of conversations with leading literary lights as dazzling as Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou.  In response to the perennial question “What advice would you give to a young poet?”, Sexton offered the following beautifully-phrased guidelines:

1. be careful who your critics are

2.  be specific

3.  tell almost the whole story

4.  put your ear close down to your soul and listen hard