Each kid in my grade four class was given a little bible (hint: this was a long time ago). I remember its red, fake-leather cover and the embossed gold words on the front. I had absolutely no interest in God, but I treasured this little book for the answers it gave me.
At the back was an alphabetized index of human experiences, linked to a page in the book that promised solace. I would look up “Sadness” and “Jealousy” after a fight with my friend Sarah (her family was Sikh but she got a red bible too), or “Anger” and “Justice” when I was grounded. Of course at that age I neither understood nor appreciated the verses I read; I just liked knowing that someone had indeed figured these things out and that the answers could be found in a book that fit in my small hands. I treated this index like a prescription, the scriptures and psalms like medicine. I was 9.
Fortunately, my hands and reading tastes grew. On the long literary journey from omnivorous to discerning, I ate it all up and spat out nothing. Now I understand that it wasn’t medicine I sought or needed; it was simply comfort.
When a wonderful teacher read aloud a 17th century poem in my first year English class, I read along silently, bored by the olde English, the subject matter and, frankly, the course itself. When the prof read the last line, I could not hold back my tears and the sense of bursting I felt. I put my head down and tried, discretely, to wipe my cheeks, appalled that the earnest looking boy beside me might notice. But it also felt good, very good. I left that class knowing there was something more to me, something more to the world, than I had previously understood. It tasted very good, as poetry does when it finds you at the right time. Which is often a bad time.
All readers and writers have at least one of these stories, a Joycean moment when, even if our own words fail us, the words we read make us stronger. Not like medicine, not an anaesthetic or sedative, not an antibiotic or a vaccination. Not like any of these things because there was nothing wrong with us in the first place — except perhaps that we are human and therefore in profound need of comfort and because, whatever else divides us, we are ineluctably and reluctantly joined by what is hardest about being human: the unresolvable tensions, the wounds inflicted and the pains of tenderheartedness among even the most wretched of us.
So readers, read more. More! And writers — write more and then more; and then more! All the better for us when you publish it and make it available for the one, the few or the many whom it will find and bring comfort through its off-key humour, odd characters, twirling story line, bizarre ending, experimental syntax, jarring rhythms, sensational language or flowery descriptions (thank you Charles Dickens). Anyone who has been to more than one writing workshop knows that one person’s learned idea of “good writing” is another person’s “meh.” The theme, or a particular character in an otherwise badly written story can stay with you for days. Years. A technically well-written one, perhaps worked on for years, can leave you dry. Overweening, self-conscious writing provides no comfort, never mind joy.
Categories of goodness do not inhere in the phenomena. There is no “canon.” There are only readers. Readers of varying tastes, with various methods and modes of reproduction at their disposal. What was left out of your high school anthology is much more dangerous than what was ushered in.
Write more. Publish more (much easier said than done, I know). Don’t write to impress. Don’t necessarily write to make the world a better place. Write because it gives you comfort. Admit it gives you comfort. Then send it out into the world for others to enjoy. Then write more. The politics of it all will come crashing through occasionally, or often, but that’s part of what motivates you to write and what you write about or against. And it’s definitely part of why I want to read what you write. Some people will need to read what you write. Especially if they can’t find themselves inside any canons.
Go ahead. Write more. Encourage each other more. Learn more. Publish more. Maya Angelous’ injunction always bears repeating: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
Sing people, sing.