“Let glory go the way of all sad things.
Children need a myth that tells them be alive.”
-James Welch, ”Blackfeet, Blood and Piegan Hunters”
Years and years ago, when I was banging my head against some story idea, my mom came into the room and said, “Stop making yourself miserable.”
“I don’t mind being miserable if it makes better art,” said the pretentious, idealistic, twisted up thirteen-year-old me.
“It doesn’t,” she said. “And even if it did, don’t choose to be that.”
Then she walked away.
That moment came back to me recently, because I lived it again from the other side. My ex-student and good friend played the role of a (probably much more self-aware) me. We were talking about a powerful piece he’d just finished, in which he criticized the way we blind ourselves by only seeing what we expect. We were talking about our literary influences. He mentioned one writer he looked up to who came off as a “total asshole” on the page.
“Well, follow his writing, then, but not his life,” I said.
He said something like, “I don’t mind being the asshole critic if it helps us see what’s wrong.”
He’s more self aware than I was, so he said it as a joke, and a little bit later he circled back uncomfortably. But it’s an image our culture has, just like the Jock and the Tech Bro: the Tortured Artist, turning pain into life. And, okay, I know some people who have transformed their own hurt into compassion by having it teach them what it’s like to hurt, and inspire them to help others. That’s wonderful magic. And, okay, art gives us a garden where we can grow thorns and flowers and fruits and poisons, and wonder about what to do with them all. But lately I’ve been trying to work out of love and hope, not hate and fear, and the work is better. My friend’s writing was angry because he cares, but if he chooses the anger over the caring, he’ll end up with a torch but no beacon to burn, no hearth to sit at. He doesn’t want to be an asshole critic, just like I didn’t want to be miserable. We were just children, listening to myths.
Where are the myths about two friends who are good friends, without killing anything? The myths about doing the dishes, and installing a grey water system to feed your garden? The myths about listening, about going to work and coming back from work to something else? The myths about quietly, deeply hoping, and following that hope through the little moments of every day?
“Children need a myth that tells them be alive.”