Art Won’t Save the World, But It Might Save You

And that’s just as important

This week, I had to read (using the word “had” here sounds so taxing, because it really was more than a pleasure) a short story called “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro. Firstly, on it’s own, the piece speaks volumes, but here’s the catch: it’s about two rather ordinary people. There are no ghosts. No one is bitten by something supernatural. No one has cancer. No one is dyslexic, autistic, blind, or broken (in the visible sense). Even though there are some fantastic works out there that do handle all of those topics in stunning ways, there’s something utterly revealing about reading a story about normal things we overlook every single day.

However, I’m not here to give you a synopsis about the work. As Jonathan Franzen says in his review of Alice’s book “Runaway,” “the way to do it justice is to read it.” I could not have said it better myself. What I’m here to tell you is another idea that Franzen’s review gave me which came from this quote, “Can a better kind of fiction save the world? There’s always some tiny hope (strange things do happen) but the answer is almost certainly no, it can’t. There is some reasonable chance, however, that it could save your soul.”

This past summer, I found myself pondering my inadequacies and wondering if perhaps, my chosen profession and passion, wasn’t enough. That I should be using my writing skills to present stark, “unbiased” journalism. That I should be telling the real stories and not ones I make up in my head. That maybe poetry doesn’t actually do anything. That painting is “entertainment” to escape all those “real-life” things. That my poetry is just an “outlet” for my frustrations. That writing about boys, coffee cups, my dad, the Cross Bronx, or carousels isn’t big enough. But what Jonathan Franzen revealed to me, what Alice Munro presented me in her short story, is just the opposite: we need art now more than ever.

How do you stop hate? You start with the soul. You start with the core. You can’t heat something up for a couple seconds in the microwave and expect it to be cooked can you? It’ll still be cold in the middle. How do you heal the soul? Art. Art, writing, music, that’s the way you get into someone’s soul. Within milliseconds we are able to tell if we like a song, or else we change the station; we hit next. You read the first sentence of any novel on a shelf and know if you want to buy it or not, better yet, you look at the cover art and decide instantly if you even want to open the damn thing. You walk into a gallery and within the first ten steps you know whether or not you want to turn around and walk out. Art is the way that we reach the deepest part of someone within seconds.

Something that I write, that you write, can change someone’s perspective. I find that if I can make someone even merely question their position on something as simple as a domestic situation, a text, a scene, a moment, then I’ve done my job. If I make someone think. If I make myself think. If I get someone to take a step back, pause, cause them to reflect. If I can make someone reconsider their emotions, turn their heart around to see it from a different angle, then that’s certainly “big” enough.

So maybe you’ll never see my byline in the New York Times. Maybe you’ll never really know if I’m telling the truth about anything, because after all, I write fiction. I make a lot of it up. But next time you stumble upon a poem and lose your breath a little, consider if that’s not the most earth-shakingly honest thing you’ve ever read. That maybe they said it better than you ever will. That maybe, just maybe, they’ve filled your heart with a little more empathy than before.

Let’s times that by ten. Let’s say all the things we are afraid to say using acrylics, typeface, violins, rap verses, pentameter, and digital brush strokes. Let’s turn our hearts inside out so that someone else can match their veins to ours. That maybe then we can realize we are all exactly the same. That’s how we save the world; we save each other.

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