From "To Save Our Lives," an essay by A.L. Kennedy:
"Let's begin at my beginning. Perhaps some of you will identify. I had an interest in theatre -- it had lit me, had sustained me through a small-town childhood and adolescence. I remember watching a TV production of Chekhov's Three Sisters, knowing nothing of the man or his life, but understanding that when the characters said 'To Moscow, to Moscow' that I knew exactly how they felt. Chekhov articulated the horror of being trapped in a dead end and out of context, of being a permanent stranger. He had also let me know that I wasn't alone, other people felt like that -- like Chekhov, whose brother remembered him saying, 'In my childhood, I had no childhood.' Chekhov grew up in the Crimean backwater of Taganrog, not Moscow -- it took him a while to reach Moscow, to reach himself. On the 7th January 1889, when he was just shy of his twenty-ninth birthday, he wrote to his friend Suvorin:
Write a story about a young man, the son of a serf, a former shop-minder, chorister, schoolboy and student who was brought up to fawn upon rank, to kiss priests' hands and to worship others' thoughts...write how this man squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and then wakes up one fine morning to discover that in his veins flows not the blood of a slave, but of a real human being...
"As I say, when I saw Three Sisters I didn't know about Chekhov's life, I didn't know he had a bumpy childhood like mine, I didn't know he worked with prisoners and the poor, I didn't know anything other than what he made, the product of simple, joyful, human creativity -- his writing. But it started to squeeze the slave out of my blood, drop by drop.
"And I read -- all I could get -- and then I went to university, because a grant made it financially possible for me. It wouldn't have mattered how many exams I passed, I wouldn't have got there without a grant. Beyond university, I started to work with community groups and special-needs groups, partly because I couldn't do anything else, partly because I was looking for something and I didn't know what, but it somehow seemed the proper course for me to write and to search in the company of other people. On the one hand, I was completely busking it. I was working with groups of radically mixed ability, in unsuitable spaces, inventing everything from scratch. Very few people were working with non-literate people to produce writing -- I had to make up how we did that, relying on the fact that written words are simply a high-status record of what someone would say in their absence. I hoped that if we worked out how to catch what people wanted to say and how to finish it in a way that was pleasing to them, we could proceed happily. And so we did. Simply earning a living until I found out my proper direction was pretty much all I had as a plan, but then I saw -- I saw face after face changing after one session, ten sessions, twenty sessions -- I saw the slave leaving the blood. I laughed more than I ever had. And I cried. We all laughed and cried. I found out about people. I was no longer alone.
"I found out what happens when, for example, I watch Three Sisters, when I touch art and art touches me. That's when I get something beautiful and new in my life. I feel no longer alone, I have more strength to be myself and I see there may be other possibilities beyond the here and now.
"I receive a gift within which is a kind of hope about human nature -- it's not naïve, but it's not the unreality of reality TV, not a cheap and nasty opportunity to feel good about ourselves because other people are manifestly more dysfunctional than we are, more stupid, more greedy, more sex-obsessed, more shoddy. Functional art doesn't show us that -- a toxic stasis, a warning not to leave the house -- it shows us what we really are and could be, good or bad. Art is about motion, strategies, rehearsals of new futures. It's a power.
"And think -- of course you've thought -- if you're not just receiving the end product, accepting the gift from the artist, joining in humanity with someone who may be in many ways alien to you -- from another culture, another country, another time, who may be dead -- what if you make that art? What if others can suddenly know a part of you, a deep and intimate part of you, the dreams you make? What if you light them and are useful, bring them into what might have been an alien experience? What if you change their lives? How could that possibly not be a joy in your life and change you? How could that not possibly improve, for example, your health and well-being?
"I began with mercenary and confused motives, running drama workshops, leading writing workshops, improvising from nothing -- and I found a wonder, a purity: people making things for other people, being useful and getting well -- not markets, not an industry, not egos, not much -- just beauty, at very little expense, over and over and over."
A little later in the essay, Kennedy adds:
"When we make art, art to which we commit ourselves, art which isn't simply a commercial artifact, a pose, a gesture towards a concept, when we go all out and really create, we do a number of remarkable things. We take on a little of what we usually set aside for the divine -- the troubles and delights which spring from overturning entropy and bringing something out of nothing. We excel. We offer something of ourselves, or from ourselves, to others. We allow and encourage a miracle -- one human being can enter the thoughts and life of another. We can be the other: the king, the foreigner, the wino, the superstar, the debutante, the murderer, we can experience a little of the large, strange, wonderful, horrible thing which is the human experience.
"What we make can reveal us to ourselves as greater than we were and help us practice addressing the world with courage and -- because it is practical to involve such a thing -- with love. As the listener, the viewer, the reader, the recipient of art, once again we are, of course, encouraged to be greater.
"The proverb tells us we should walk a mile in a person's shoes before we judge them. And if we've spent a whole novel in their thoughts, if we've heard their heart in music, if we've seen as they do how light falls, if we've breathed with them as they speak, felt the way they dance under our skins? Then I believe it is very difficult not to grant others at least dignity, at least that. In the arts, I feel we are in the dignity business."
I urge you to read Kennedy's essay in full, which can be found in her frank, witty, erudite and inspiring book On Writing.
Words: The passage by A.L. Kennedy is from her essay "To Save Our Lives," published in On Writing (Vintage Books, 2014). The poem in the picture captions is from O the Chimneys by Nelly Sachs (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967), translated by Ruth & Matthew Mead. All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: Dartmoor ponies grazing and snoozing by a bench on the village Commons where I often go to read and write.