Anaïs Nin was born to Cuban parents in France, raised in Europe, Cuba and the U.S., and then settled in Paris after her marriage, establishing herself in its lively arts community of the '20s & '30s. By the summer of '39, however, facism was rising, war was approaching, and the French government was urging foreign nationals to get out of the country while they still could. Nin followed her American husband to New York, heart-broken at losing the city she loved, worried sick about friends and family she was leaving behind. Fourteen years later, emerging from the world-wide trauma of the war years, she wrote the following words in her diary:
"Why one writes is a question I can answer easily, having so often asked it of myself. I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me -- the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art.
"The artist knows the world is a subjective creation," Nin continued, "that there is a choice to be made, a selection of elements. It is a materialization, an incarnation of his inner world. Then he hopes to attract others into it, he hopes to impose this particular vision and share it with others. When the second stage is not reached, the brave artist continues nevertheless. The few moments of communion with the world are worth the pain, for it is a world for others, a gift for others, in the end. When you make a world tolerable for yourself, you make the world tolerable for others."
It has been one week since the U.S. election, and the country has taken a fearsome turn for those of us who value civility, decency, diversity, and the norms of democracy. I keep hearing the same question from friends and colleagues in the Mythic Arts field: How can I simply return to my work? Making art can seem like a frivolous pursuit compared to the urgent news of the day; to the need for action and activism, as opposed to the quiet withdrawal from the world upon which creative work often depends.
I have two thoughts about this. First, that art is not frivolous. As Jeannette Winterson states so eloquently:
"Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and my staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed. If, in the comfortable West, we have chosen to treat such energies with scepticism and contempt, then so much the worse for us."
Or as Ursula Le Guin said in her National Book Award acceptance speech in 2014:
"Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom -- poets, visionaries -- realists of a larger reality."
And how right she was.
My second thought is that, yes, we are in a period of cultural crisis -- and in such times, each of us must decide where our energy and resources can best be employed. For some, this may mean postponing personal projects in order to throw oneself fully into activism as a matter of urgency. The brilliant young writer Laurie Penny, for example, tweeted this last week:
"I'd planned to scale back the full-time political writing to do more fiction. That nice life plan is now in the bin. That's okay. Game on."
For others, full-time activism is not a practical option, nor is it the best deployment of our time and our gifts. I'll use myself as an example here. I was politically active in my younger years, but in late middle-age I'm contrained by health issues, by family responsibilities, and by the paucity of "spoons" I have to distribute among competing priorities each day. Within these constraints, the best use of my time is to focus on the things I'm designed by my nature to do: to write, to paint, to create "beauty in a broken world" (to use Terry Tempest William's evocative phrase), and perhaps lift the spirits of those who are on the Front Lines, doing the hard physical work I can no longer do.
I do not think this task is a lesser one. My job is to tell stories, in words and in paint -- and stories, well-told, are not trivial things. Stories teach. Challenge. Console. Refresh. They examine the world, and re-imagine the world. They remind us of what courage looks like, and hope. They explain us to each other. They explain us to ourselves. They feed us. Heal us. Confound us, and shake us out of despair or complacency. They light the path through the dark of the forest, bring us home on a path of breadcrumbs and stones. Telling stories is meaningful work, even now. Especially now. Game on.
I don't mean to say it's a binary choice: going out into the world in the form of activism or turning inward to create works of art. We can do both, of course, and many of the artists I admire most throughout history have blended the two. How do we do this? With "sacred rage," Terry Tempest Williams advises, and an open and active heart:
"I don’t think there is anything as powerful as an active heart," she says. "And the activists I know possess this powerful beating heart of change. They do not fear the wisdom of emotion, but embody it. They know how to listen. They are polite when they need to be and unyielding when necessary. They remain open, even as they push boundaries and inhabit the margins, understanding eventually, the margins will move toward the center. They are tenacious, informed, patient, and impatient, at once. They do not shy away from what is difficult. They refuse to accept the unacceptable. The most effective activists I know are in love with the world. A good activist builds community.
"I used to ask the question, 'Am I an activist or a writer?' I don’t ask that anymore. I am simply a human being engaged."
May we all be "human beings engaged" with the world around us, in one way or another. Loudly or softly, on the streets or at the desk...whichever way suits each of us best. We need it all right now. We need the urgent political conversations...but also the quiet discussions of books and art, folklore and myth, for they serve to keep our hearts open, receptive and responsive. To remind us of what we're fighting for. And to honor what's soft, and deep, and nuanced at a time when the dominant discourse is too often hard, and shallow, and simplistic.
"All kinds of activism will be needed in the coming months and years," says Laurie Penny. "Including the quiet, gentle activism of quiet, gentle people."
Myth & Moor is a safe haven for the quiet and gentle....
But if you're noisy and kind, you are welcome here too.
The passage by Anaïs Nin is from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 5, 1947-1955 (Harcourt, 1975). The passage by Jeanette Winterson is from Art Objects (Vintage, 1966). The two quotes by Laurie Penny are from her Twitter page. The quote by Terry Tempest Williams is from an interview by Devon Fredericksen (Guenerica, August 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from What to Remember When Waking by David Whyte (Sounds True, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors. The drawing is by Charles Robinson (1870-1937).