My writing students complained the other day about certain canned responses to their disappointments: Well-meaning folks assured them, “Everything that happens to you is for a reason!”
I asked them to raise hands if they agreed or not with this statement. 75% said they disagreed. I’m their writing teacher, and find cliches born of other people’s discomfort with our discomfort hard to stomach too. But I suggested a revision: what if you said to them (and yourself), “Everything that happens to you…is for art?”
A common problem: Where can I say how I really feel?
At a seder this weekend, an older female guest in a glow-worm white jacket confided in me, “We’re about to lose our family home. My husband got forced out of his work two years ago. I’m so sad–‘” she lowered her voice, “but no one really wants to hear about it.”
I am always interested in what’s really going on for people, and as a result, even strangers often open up for me. I felt for her, what felt like losing her roots. And she was right: it was hard to elicit the empathy she really needed. Much worse things were happening to people everywhere…but so what? This was her grief. She should be able to find an ear for it.
My philosophy: Everything That Happens to You Has a Home in Your Art
I couldn’t tell her this, then, nor did I know if she ever wrote, but we could say: Every single thing that happens to you has a home in your art. That annoying comment your teacher made about your test. That t-shirt you won at the fair. The way your mom looks at you when you get home late. The family home you lost. The cough that wouldn’t go away. The school you didn’t get into. The kid you hope to have. It doesn’t matter what it is: art can handle it. Art will hold it. Art gives you a place to hold it and understand it.
In my intro to personal essay class, “Word UP,” I ask my students to call out, “Thank you, Life, for giving me my material!” It’s goofy but accurate and it never hurts to be grateful for something you can turn into something else. What felt like a blow to your life can –maybe– become life-affirming, or at least affirm the experience of someone else.
Poems Repurpose Everything That Has Happened to You
I was reminded of this this morning reading poem-a-day by Catherine Barnett, in which she built a poem out of the real estate section in the newspaper. The poem is about redeeming poems from a world hyper-focused on monetary value. But it’s also about using everything we have. And, of course, or buddies, the Trees.
2 Prompt: News & Everything that has happened to you
- Open to your preferred news source and click or read at random. OR Choose a section– business?–that you think might create particular friction for you, or in which you are normally not compelled.
- Set your timer for five minutes or longer. Freewrite everything that comes to you in response to phrases or sentences of the article. Avoid commentary per se, and focus on associations.
- Pull out lines from what you’ve written, set the timer and try again.
- Make a list of “events” in your life, small or big, that have meant something to you, but which you have not had a space to talk about in a meaningful way.
- Try to name the thing that keeps you from talking about that “event” –usually this will be an emotion, or an internalized “rule.”
- Imagine a circumstance in which that obstacle to conversation vanished– what would have to change.
- Write about that thing as if the change had already occurred.
Need a reader?
As always, if you want a reader with open ears and fast feedback, contact us to send us your writing. We believe everything that happens to you has a home in your art, and we’ll help you make that possible.