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Unexamined and Unhealthy Stories #3: Art can Help

book as raft

My last post suggested some ways to recall and examine your story. But you may have found that difficult. Sometimes we can’t bring ourselves to do it. That’s why it often helps to approach your story indirectly by engaging with art.

I refer to art in the broadest sense, not restricting it to elite museum pieces or academically approved works. Instead, I’m suggesting engagement with widely available creative works like novels, short fiction, memoirs, poetry, music, painting, and photography.

Arts like these helps you examine your story—even enter your story by entering and examining the story of another—the artist, the storyteller.

Reading a story is an experience, not merely taking in information. To examine your story, too, is an experience.

The arts often tell a vulnerable story, which is why we feel a connection. Such stories bring together brokenness and beauty.  They have the potential to lift the reader out of shame regarding her brokenness. We sense that a person can be weak, broken, valuable, and dignified.

Indirect communication creates a pause for thought… The pause may create a space in which the hearer can re-consider an accepted view, and see something in a different light. When a reader is absorbed in a story, an unexpected truth may creep up on them and take them by surprise.

(Richard Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction)

My Experience

In my previous post, I referred to the book A Horse and His Boy. I entered the pain of Shasta’s story easier than I could have entered my own. But Shasta’s reaction of self-pity reminded me of my own. I’ve always had a vague but menacing feeling that I was short-changed, deprived, that I lacked so much that others had. I became dominated by the feeling that I lacked physical size, the right looks, some obvious talent, and charisma. I carried with me my teenage identity: a skinny, little, weak, odd-looking, big-nosed, boring guy who is unimpressive–one who could easily be ignored and disrespected.

Because I was reading Shasta’s story and not looking for my own, I was able to face mine gradually and gently. I felt less alone in my self-pity, and hope grew that possibly I could be understood and find dignity in being honest rather than avoiding my pain.

Like works of art, our story arises from our encounters with the physical world through our senses, the ways we’ve touched and been touched by people and nature. These embodied contacts with people and places range from majestic to mundane, kind to cruel, including love and profound distortions of love and the attendant wounds.

So, when we engage with art, our senses are engaged, which creates the possibility of activating our memory and imagination.  We have a chance to re-enter our own story.  This can be disturbing but also liberating.

“Functional” Art Too

My definition of art also includes so-called “functional” creations like furniture, architecture, pottery, quilting, and glassmaking. I’ve had the privilege of visiting the Appalachian Folk Art Center in Ashville, North Carolina, and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. In both places, I encountered human stories in what they made.

woven baskets

Making Art

In addition to observing and engaging with the arts,  creating art helps us connect and examine our story. At this point, you might say, “I’m not an artist.” Sadly, “artist” has become an intimidating label for professional creatives.  But I am referring to creating art broadly as “making.”

“Making is a form of knowing.”

Mako Fujimura

We all make. My wife has made quilts but would never call herself an artist. Many people plant and cultivate gardens. Most of us have made dinner or made a hospitable home. We try to make an emotionally safe space for a friend to be vulnerable.

pizza dough

One Christmas, I made lamps from copper tubing for my parents and children. Doing so stimulated memories of making things as a child and seeing my parents make furniture, picture frames, and even a cultivated greenhouse of plants. I felt more connected to my parents and the skills I’d once used. But when I created those lamps, I had no idea I would be connecting to my story.  I was taken by surprise. So, like engaging with another person’s making—their story or song, for example—engaging by making can be an excellent and pleasing way to recover beauty in your story. Perhaps it awakens your body, the place where the stories reside.

To tell your story is to make. It uses your imagination to recover and convey images about your life.  To listen to a friend’s story is to make—a creative act of emotional hospitality.

I slowly began to write about my story, starting with a daily journal. At Christmas that year, I wrote a short summary of my year to my family and friends. I also included what I noticed and appreciated about each of them. By “making” these creations of words, I become more engaged in my story and how it was woven into their stories.

Later I began to write fiction stories. This helped me think about my life without the burden of writing a memoir or a tortured confession. Fiction also helped me imagine what my life could be like if I opened myself up to love.

In my next post, I’d like to introduce the notion of the healing of the imagination, since that is what a healthy story requires.

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