On letting go of tidy endings & the art of citizen politics by Ai Wei Wei
Greetings, friends. It is dark and wet here in Portland as I write from inside an atmospheric river, something that feels like a new phenomenon or at least a new way of thinking about the rain that pours from the sky. On a recent cold morning, I saw Maxwell the scrub jay land on the frost-covered Peanut Board and do an icy little skid, then right himself and choose a peanut. Most mornings we play a game I like to call First Bird, which consists of arranging 4-5 peanuts along the board and then watching from the kitchen window to see who arrives first. No deck of cards or strategy required — just pour a warm cup and stand still for as long as it takes, (and sometimes it’s awhile).
I wrote about the life cycle of a book in my August substack1 and of the various cool opportunities my co-author Hodge and I have had to visit and talk to people about Loaners: The Making of a Street Library. On a recent zoom call with a group of writers from Bend, Oregon, a person said that one of her favorite sections of the book was my vignette entitled “Lucidity.” From the start, one challenge of writing the book for me had been overcoming the sense that I could never hope to capture the crazy holiness I’d witnessed most days on the street; how often I’d ridden my bike home filled with a sense that it would be simply impossible to describe the beauty/sorrow/light in what I’d seen. This felt connected to the voice that said You are not up to this project — There are too many ways to fail. Which of course is the best ever ingredient for the recipe for How to Stop Writing Completely. So it meant a lot to me that the woman had loved this section. Here’s a bit of it:
There were those of us with plans, with tethers to the day in the form of a schedule or a place to be: kids coming home from school, a sofa with books piled on it, a cat looking for attention. And there were those whose plans consisted of returning to a spot near Skidmore Fountain or Forest Park or the waterfront, to a loading dock or an alley, whose priorities were to protect a backpack and bedroll; life goals winnowed down to simply staying alive, warm enough, fed enough. But, for the length of a conversation about books on a street corner, these differences fell away. For whatever reason, there were sparks inside that day. The magic came at that precise moment on that precise morning with its particular slant of granular late autumn light, and the shadow that an oversized backpack casts. When I looked around slowly, I saw that it was like we were all on the set of a musical, inside the final scene where everything prior has built to this last song and dance, everyone spinning in their own orbit, yet in sync with one another: a garbage collector with his trash-can dance moves; pedestrians stepping in unison, arms suddenly linked; and the shopkeeper emerging with her push broom, sweeping in time to the music.
—from Loaners: The Making of a Street Library2
The fact is, the vignette that became “Lucidity” was rescued from the cutting room floor by Hodge himself. Our meticulous editor/publisher, Michael, often warned me in advance of an editing session that he’d cut a fair amount of text from my section, leaving Hodge’s bit more or less intact. I appreciated Michael’s keen eye and pen, recognizing that it often had the effect of saving me from myself. I knew my tendency was to write a story and try to wrap it up neatly like a package to hand to the reader. Offering not just the story itself, but also all the sense to be made of it. Michael unwrapped the over-neat parts and let the writing be more itself, outside the package. I trusted him and could tell that he was making our book much better. But that day as we reviewed the edits for the week, Hodge spoke up:
“Hey,” he said. “What happened to Laura’s part here?”
Michael explained that he’d pared back some of the lines.
“But it’s one of my favorite parts of the book,” Hodge said. We read it through, debated about what should stay, and Michael eventually restored some of the section to itself. I’ve heard from a number of people since then how much they liked the vignette. I suppose that somewhere in this anecdote is a lesson about the need to kill one’s (writing) darlings, mixed with the importance of defending our work when we know it deserves to live. But here I go, starting to package it up and tell you what it means. Sigh.
She Lived Happily
The tiny details inside each story snag me like tumbleweed on barbed wire. Or a sharp burr on a sock. An accumulation of hard little truths that stay with me: like the way Elijah McClain told the police officers before they killed him, “All I was trying to do was become better.” Or how Leroy Walker Sr. told reporters after his son was shot dead by a gunman in Maine, “My Joey will be missed by thousands.”3 I feel the same about a phrase from an art piece of the dissident Chinese artist, Ai Wei Wei.4 After the earthquake in Sichuan, China, in 2008, Ai Wei Wei toured the area outside of schools and saw Hello Kitty pencil cases and small backpacks, lunchboxes and tiny jackets. The devastation was far worse because of shoddy construction through negligence and bribery, a fact that the Chinese government was not keen to acknowledge. They also refused to release names or numbers of the dead.
Ai later wrote: “During the earthquake, many schools collapsed. Thousands of young students lost their lives, and you could see bags and study material everywhere. Then you realize individual life, media, and the lives of the students are serving very different purposes. The lives of the students disappeared within the state propaganda, and very soon everybody will forget everything.” He went on to create the piece “Remembering,” for a gallery in Munich, Germany. On the façade of the Haus de Kunst, nine thousand children’s backpacks spelled in Chinese characters a quote by one of the mothers who’d lost her daughter in the quake. “All I want is to let the world remember she had been living happily for seven years.”
Right now we are being required to hold many awful truths at once – in the Middle East, where people attempt to go about the business of living, feeding babies, keeping homes, whether horror came to them on October 7th in Israel or in the form of bombs raining down now in Gaza. So many children and so much rubble now. It is easy to go mute with the terribleness. It’s what happened to Ai Wei Wei, after he first toured the piles where the schools had been. He went silent. But eventually he began to post about it on his platform. It didn’t take long for people to join his efforts and eventually he had a team of more than 100 citizen activists, knocking on doors to visit the families of those who had lost children and collecting their names. Making sure each loss was counted in the public record. Ai says that “Remembering” was a turning point in his artistic career. 5 For one, he was subsequently detained and beaten by police and eventually forced to leave China. But it was a different kind of mark left on him that he still thinks about, and maybe it’s the mark left by stories and hard experiences, the accumulation of hard little truths I spoke of earlier. Ai Wei Wei writes, “If you cut into a tree and look at its rings, you can see certain years have left more of a mark in the wood. That’s what the Sichuan earthquake did to me.”
Truth: Make a list or write a vignette6 that captures elements of a recent day you’ve had, whether it was a day that felt quite magical or difficult, or one that felt pretty pedestrian, (possible factors to consider: color of sky, places visited, overheard conversations). Think of distilling it to its essence and capturing its feeling.
Dare: Custom design a game of First Bird for yourself. Choose a First ____ to watch for (first leaf to fall from the tree on your watch, first human to pass your sight on the street. First dog you see or first red bicycle). Note it in your writer’s notebook or write it in pen on your inner wrist. Bonus for announcing it to someone (even if they raise their eyebrows at you..or especially if they do). I’d love a report back, so let me know if you do it!
Geez there’s a lot of heaviness in this episode of Truth & Dare. Let’s take a long breath in and hold for 4 counts. Now exhale slowly. We can do this. Thanks for reading this far, and for considering and/or doing the Truth & Dare challenge. Thanks for the notes and comments you leave and thank you for climbing up out of your beds and venturing into each day, no matter how off-tilt it might feel. Take good care of yourselves, keep writing and throw your phone over your shoulder without looking where it lands. Stay tuned for some information on spring writing adventures and workshops and spread the word to your friends if you think they’d like this substack. Thank you!
3 He goes on: “There’s so much hate in the world, and people who have a sickness or a mind that’s a little off-tilt, they go to hate. If he’s sick in the head, I can’t hold anything against him.”
6 Vignette (vin-yet): A short literary sketch or scene that captures a specific moment in time (and can stand on its own).