Dear Newsletter Friends,
In two days I head off on my book tour. It’s going to be twenty cities in about as many days, and I’m really looking forward to it. For me, writing the book was a four-year meditation on…well, a lot of things. Mortality and loss, but also on literary form. Citizenship, for sure – the idea that, if we were really living into the Constitution, we would be also discovering what love means in a political sense: the radical, passionate inclusion of everybody, just as they are. It was interesting to be in the head of one political leader, Abraham Lincoln, who was so sad and kind and sorrowful and beaten-down and somehow found a power in that state, and an amazing sympathy for others, and a willingness to lose, or appear to, if this would serve the larger cause – and then to tumble out of the writing of that book, last spring, into the crazed politics of the moment. I went out on the trail with the Trump campaign and witnessed another manifestation of American political energy: more anxious and fearful, less inclusive – panicked, somehow; innately suspicious of The Other, increasingly mean-spirited and bullying in its goals and methods.
To have been in that peculiar artistic state for four years – a state that requires the writer to be as open as possible, comfortable with ambiguity, constantly trying to regard one’s invented characters with curiosity and sympathy, lost in the deep symbolic system that a novel can be – was a privilege. It reminded me every day that there exists a powerful mode of thinking that we don’t use much in everyday life: intuitive, non-conceptual, bountiful. And then, to report the Trump piece, I felt I had to come down and immerse myself in another mode – what we might call “contentious mode” – by watching a lot of cable and being on social media to an excessive degree. That mode is different from the one we’re in when making or absorbing a work of art. It’s agitating and anxiety-provoking, and another set of values prevail (speed, snappiness, snark, certainty). Our main motivation can come to be, simply, to prevail – to be sure, to be forceful, to be secure in our rightness, to debunk other views.
Somehow, in our culture, we’ve tacitly agreed to accept art as something less, something inessential; a weird thing a freaky few of us do, over in a corner; a sort of quaint paper-swan-making. But it seems to me that art is actually the most high-level thing the human mind can do; that the “brain on art” is at its most capacious and generous and dynamic; that the artistic mode of thought was given to us in order to guide us to higher ground in difficult times, to enable us to get better at empathy and truly complex thinking. Being involved in art (whether as producer or recipient) reminds us, ritually, that this spacious part of our mind exists, that we are not meant to be (merely) beings in opposition to each other, fighting for limited resources, but are brothers and sisters at heart, capable of knowing one another’s experiences, and feeling genuine sympathy for one another. Art instructs us in how to get into that spacious mindset, and how to abide there.
So, one of my goals on this tour is to talk about art – its essential function in our culture, and its usefulness in helping us feel empowered in these strange times.
I also have the lofty goal of not wearing the same shirt more than three days in a row.
I hope to see some of you on the road, and, as always, thank you so much for your support and encouragement.