July 15, 2011

Writing and the Heart of Artistic Expression ~ A Guest Post by Shann Ray

It’s been a while since we’ve been honored by a Cool Person Guest Blogger. Well, yesterday I emailed Shann Ray, who I wrote about in yesterday’s post, and he graciously agreed to do one. And a powerful and moving one it is. So without further ado.

Our Cool Person Guest Blogger today is Shann Ray. As I mentioned yesterday, Shann is a professor of leadership and forgiveness, a basketball dunker extraordinaire, a coach, a father and a son, a Westerner, and a kickass poet and writer. His writing has the brute force of Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx, yet a style all his own. In addition to his fiction I mentioned yesterday (“Before Sand Creek” and “The Great Divide”), you can check out "City of Hunger and Light" in Five Chapters, and definitely pick up his book, American Masculine.

Writing and the Heart of Artistic Expression

The greatest work of art is to love someone. -Vincent van Gogh

Bell hooks, the powerful feminist writer and a clarion voice in American life, envisioned a world in which we willingly attune ourselves to the deeper disciplines associated with love. "Genuine love," she said, "is rarely an emotional space where needs are instantly gratified. To know love we have to invest time and commitment." In poetry and prose, the same investment of time and commitment sometimes results in small miracles that move the human heart.

In light of bell hooks’s deep revelations, a new understanding arises: people who live well love well, they understand power and become artistic in conversation, they live transparently and develop integrity in response to their own individual and communal faults-in other words, they know and they are known. They lead others, and their relationships are largely free of diminishment. Engagement is infused with a sense of the appreciative mystery of life. For me, writers who infuse my heart and soul with the appreciative mystery of life often hail from the wild vast country of the American West. The profound rhythmic drive, musicality and force of Melanie Rae Thon, the generous fierce voice of Sandra Alcosser, the crystalline sense of witness, clarity, and beauty in the imaginative landscapes of James Welch. Loneliness and courage and fire and home, all captured in the prose of people attuned to the reality of love and loss at the foundation of life together.

In the great European philosopher Hans George Gadamer's concept of the eloquent or elegant question, we find a lucent manner of relating in which we seek to ask of one another questions to which we do not already know the answer. The eloquent question forms a pathway of listening in which we overcome attitudes and behaviors of dominance, negativity, reactivity, fear, anger, or apathy. When we live from darker, more self-absorbed philosophies we effectively force others to submit to our way of living, especially when their views conflict with ours. But when we live from more hope-filled philosophies we approach those around us as sacred, as Thou or You in philosopher Martin Buber's terms, rather than It, and our conversations result in fulfillment and shared meaning. Initiating and sustaining meaningful dialogue reflects a positive sense of self and other. In art that helps heal the human heart, writers attend to, honor, and transcend the burden of human emptiness.

Ornish, in his decisive work Love and Survival, argues (with convincing scientific evidence) that lack of intimacy or lack of emotional and spiritual closeness to others is the root of human illness, and the positive experience of love is the inner core of what makes us well. Accordingly, the great epidemic of the age is what Ornish calls "emotional and spiritual heart disease, the profound sense of loneliness, isolation, alienation, and depression that are so prevalent today as the social structures that used to provide us with a sense of community and connection break down."

When we consider the children of the nations we consider the next generation, and the opportunity to forgo our self-insulation and sacrifice ourselves for the good of others seems almost to cry out to us, inviting us to listen and take action. The gift of knowing others, and closer still, knowing our own children can completely renew us. Because of inspiration from writers like hooks, Thon, Alcosser, Gadamer, Buber, and Ornish but especially because of the influence of my wife and her dynamic life, in the morning I go now to each of my three young daughters and touch her face and look into her eyes and give her a blessing. The words take me into a quietly enchanting encounter and I go from the blessing better prepared to face the day, and more grateful. For Natalya, "God has given you the garment of praise instead of the spirit of despair." For Ariana, "I have loved you with an everlasting love. I have drawn you with lovingkindness." For Isabella, "God knows the plans he has for you, plans not for calamity, but for peace. Plans for a future and a hope." Yet even in the echo of a morning ritual that heals me, my own frailty and lack of maturity sometimes stalk me throughout the day and rear up in my defensiveness, my will to dominate, my lack of patience, my apathy toward even my most valued relationships. Asserting itself in the daily routine of life is my greed to be served... my failure to serve the most meaningful needs of the beloved others in my life.

The sumptuous wisdom of bell hooks is a wisdom that secures a generous humanity in the center of legitimate mutuality and forms the foundation for the architecture of the mature identity. This involves accepting the invitation to look at one's self, gifts and weaknesses, and draw self and others toward liberation from fear. In this sense what liberates us is love, an identification with the suffering that always precedes life or growth, and a resolved will to seek that which is necessary to make us whole. This love separates the wheat from the chaff from our lives and brings us to our loved ones in a more vulnerable and more truly powerful sense. We can then come to a place of sanctuary with one another in which we find we are capable of living for one another rather than against each other. In this sanctuary joy accompanies us, and we begin to go about the necessary work to move beyond ourselves and willingly give ourselves to others.

Great writing is a whisper in the heart of hearts, and sometimes resounds like a mighty storm.

A well-earned delight takes shape in the heart of readers. In great art, even if that art is sometimes very dark, below or within the darkness we find light, delight in life, and affirmation of people. Cynicism and nihilism are put to rest. Such work is found at the crossroads of ingenuity and a keenly discerned sense of reality. Emerson referred to this crossroads as the oversoul, the place in our collective humanity reserved for transcendence, humility, wisdom, and generative capacity.

that Over-soul, within which every [person's] particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; that overpowering reality which confutes our tricks and talents, and constrains every one to pass for what [he or she] is... and which evermore tends to pass into our thought and hand, and become wisdom, and virtue, and power, and beauty. We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within [humanity] is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.

May the world of writing and reading, in the heart of great artistic expression, bring you greater life.

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