Annie Howard's biweekly-ish newsletter, with thoughts on cities, music, organizing, biking and more.

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The truth is worth the cost

The truth is worth the cost

“Are you writing from the heart?” is a big, almost impossible question to face as an artist. It seems so simple, really: we create art as something that helps us to make sense of ourselves, to share a bit of that insight with others, and perhaps, in time, to find new ways of existing in a world where we know we cannot fit. Yet to be asked so plainly where that work emerges from, how we account for what we’ve created, and know that it is something that rings true and honest from our innermost being, is a challenging proposition in the best of times, one made even harder when simply being alive costs as much as it does and we must compromise in everything just to keep moving.

I don’t know why Sufjan Stevens included that line in his song “Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream),” why he chose to have it chanted by a choir of women, coming in after Sufjan has already talked about crying himself to sleep, being visited by the ghost of Carl Sandberg, and being asked to improvise a verse “On the attitude, the regret / Of a thousand centuries of death.” Yet it’s a message that still rings true and necessary, a guidepost for how I hope my own work might resonate. Again, that’s a lot easier said than done – I’ve certainly taken on writing assignments that I didn’t love, but knew that the money they brought in would make a lot of other things I needed to create more possible. We don’t yet live in the world where our artistic visions do not need to prop up some amount of income to stay alive. Still, I find the idea of creating with that world in mind a hopeful way of knowing I’ll reside there comfortably, already practicing in this moment an approach that could sustain me over the long haul.

These questions have been with me a lot lately, as I’ve been writing some things to members of my family, trying to clarify and understand events now 15 years old that have had a major impact on my life and where I find myself today. It’s been an intense process to revisit these things, to feel myself dredging up painful memories that in many ways are probably easier left behind. It’s not that I want to revel in these ugly moments from the past eternally, fixating on them to the point where they crowd out a sense of emergence possible in the present. Still, as I’ve been doing some other writing that touched on these events, it felt necessary to get back to that time, to try and open a conversation around them, hoping that everyone involved could find a little more closure and mutual understanding from this experience, difficult and painful it might be.

It's a lot! Even now, I still can’t tell if I’m making the right decision – our pasts are so messy, so innately a part of who we are, and yet they remain opaque, there to surprise us at unexpected moments, when we thought we’d gotten somewhere very different than before. I still go back all the time to Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” which gave me the title for my second zine of collected essays, How It Felt To Me. In the piece, Didion describes being “on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

It’s a frightful image, that of a past self, there as a reminder of some promise we’d failed to fulfill, some piece of ourselves still wanting to be healed. No matter how scary or uncomfortable this work can be, I still find it worthwhile: as Laura Jane Grace says on “Cuffing Season,” from an upcoming album I’ll be reviewing soon, “You don’t have to like the truth to know it’s worth the cost.” I try my best to hold fast to that belief as much as possible, trusting that a more honest understanding of myself and those I’m in relationship with is always the best pathway forward.

I’ve been getting a lot of ‘you will keep writing more and more’ energy from the universe lately. Last week, I had a chance to speak at a Chicago Reader event about my work, including the preview piece I’d written about the stage adaptation of Illinois that’s now playing at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater. (Go see it! I’m going for the first time this weekend and I’m ecstatic.) Even more importantly, I just learned that I’ll be returning to Northwestern to pursue a creative nonfiction MFA later this year, a dream come true opportunity to work with Sarah Schulman, a writer who has guided me deeper into the difficult work of being accountable to oneself and to others. I am immensely grateful for this opportunity to deepen the work that I’m already doing, a rich and engaging moment to go further than I could have ever imagined.

A few weeks ago, I finally read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet, a work that I knew would be tremendously impactful once I read it, as it was. In one letter, Rilke tells his friend to ask himself the question “in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.” The desire to write is a constant companion for me, one that I would sometimes rather turn off. But as I return to the question “Are you writing from the heart?” I know the answer: this is what I feel called to do, and I am daily so grateful for the opportunities I’ve found to make this work something that can sustain me. Thank you to everyone who has supported that effort, and I’m so excited to see where things lead from here!

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