Language has the power not only to open me up, to help me feel seen and understood, but also to transform my entire point of view.
This post comes from LA-based poet Jacqueline Suskin…
If one considers herself an artist in any way, be it professionally, casually, or even secretly, the fact is that at some point a realization occurs. She looks at her decorated notebook covers and a light goes on. She calls herself a singer for the first time at a dinner party when someone asks what she does with her time. She knits a perfect sweater and calls it a masterpiece. The moment when she realizes what kind of artist she is is life-changing.
When did I realize that I was a writer? Before I knew how to create regular letters, I was filling up notebooks with cryptic language, stories about aliens and apple trees, poetry about animals and devotion. My parents were always reading to me. My father is a very literary man. Still, with these facts, the mystery of my inspiration intrigues me to this day. No one told me to keep a diary. How did I know the power of the pen? Why did I turn to the page when I felt moved by something? At age six I saw a pig give birth on a farm field trip and I wrote about the beauty of the moment in a notebook that I locked with a tiny key. I always turned to words. I didn’t choose language as my guide. It chose me before I was old enough to fully understand the tool.
On and on it went, through middle school when we were asked to complete a poetry project for our English class. Each student was meant to research every type of poem and provide historical examples, but I asked if I could write my own and created a full book of poetry. In high school I helped found the poetry club. When it came time for college, I knew my major before any of my classmates. I was never hopelessly searching for my path — my path was clear and felt natural from the beginning. It didn’t occur to me that this was special or unique. Writing felt inherent. I couldn’t get through a day without embracing some aspect of language.
At some point, after we accept the fact that we are artists, the internal question shifts to: why do I write, for what purpose? As I got to know myself, as I grew and started to consider my role in the world, I began to wonder about the impact I could make. For example: The visual artist suddenly attaches concepts to her content that touch on larger issues. The singer starts to add lyrics of political protest to her work. The knitter becomes inspired to use only sustainable materials for her pieces.
I connect this type of shift with something an elder asked me once: “what do you serve?” He said that if I could answer that question, I would always know which direction to turn.
I knew my answer right away: I serve the earth. I’m in awe of the natural world and I want to honor it. Most of the issues that the earth faces, like deforestation, climate change and pollution, are brought on by human beings. It’s our wastefulness, greed and shortsightedness that makes a mess of this perfect place. How can I help? How can I, a lone poet, bring about environmental awareness? My theory is that, if I help humans, if I write poetry for people and inspire them to be better, to love the earth, to change and grow, then I in turn do my best for the planet that I’m devoted to. Each poem is a prayer, each poem offers up clarity, each poem has the power to soothe someone and remind them that they are capable of love, of joy and greatness.
I obviously have a lot of faith in words if I think that a single poem can contribute to the well-being of the entire earth. But I know the effects firsthand. Ever since I could read, I’d pick up books and be healed by the connection I’d find within. I’d read a novel and relate so heavily to the main character that I’d no longer feel lonely. I’d read a book of poetry and feel united with the life force of the poet. Their verse would act like a mirror and I’d see myself within the work. Language has the power not only to open me up, to help me feel seen and understood, but also to transform my entire point of view.
Because writing has always been my mysterious talent, I decided to choose it as my outlet for service. I decided to use the gift of poetry to reach people and heal them. This moment of choice, when I dedicated myself to a career as a writer, beyond the world of my personal journals and scratchy notes on napkins, transformed my artistry. I was suddenly able to offer my gift up to everyone in need and in turn spread the inspiration that I’d gathered as a child. I actively chose to transition from the passive and natural work of a private writer who loves nature, to the active work of a writer who is willing to sacrifice time and energy in order to get her ideas across in a gesture of service.
As artists, we first figure out our natural medium. We notice and nurture whatever intrinsic creativity comes pouring out of us. Then we dig deep to discover the purpose of our work. Finally, a crucial moment occurs when we put it all into action. When I write as an act of service, I can feel myself reaching out with specific intention and people respond to that. This is how artists impact the world and the process is beautiful — it’s slow and different for everyone, and it requires a lot of work. We start by accepting our abilities. We assign meaning to what we make. And the rest is the history of change.
Photos by the über-talented Shelby Duncan.