I met a man in the woods the other day. A stranger. I was wary, but I had my dog with me, and he had a dog, too — a lovely German short-haired pointer named Billy. Besides, the patch of bush we were walking through wasn’t that large. Just a narrow corridor of trees squished between a freeway and a long tract of houses. Large enough that I couldn’t see cars or houses when I walked through its center, but small enough I couldn’t get lost.
Or so I thought.
The man told me there was more to the bush than I’d seen. He described a creek and a dam and a field where horses once grazed. He told me about a tunnel under the freeway that led to forest as far as you could see, a trail that wound all the way down to the lake.
I didn’t believe him, not at first. But then he showed me. While he told me stories about this neighborhood that only recently became mine, he showed me a creek where my dog could swim, a field where she could run, and bush that spanned much further than either of our legs could carry us. It was a whole world, hidden within the one I thought I knew.
A few days later, I went back on my own. Mika and I, we explored this new world. We smelled wildflowers, ran through the trees, splashed through creeks and muddy puddles. Again and again, we went back. We’d found magic and we weren’t about to let it go.
Lately, I’ve been turning over a new story idea in my mind. It started with a question: How can a creative person change the world? I don’t have all the answers yet, but I think this is part of it: Art is the offered hand that leads you into the woods… and back out of it.
The artist ventures into the world and reports on what she sees. Come, she says, look, see. She shows us the places we think we know, the trails we’ve always walked, and then pushes us to look deeper. Did you notice? she asks. There, right there. Have you ever seen that before? It’s her great task: to show us a world greater than the one we’ve seen, the strange in the familiar, the magic in the mundane.
There’s more to it, though. Good art, lasting art, does more than show us new paths to wander. When we put down the book, leave the gallery or cinema, when find our way back to our old, familiar lives, art leaves us changed. We can’t look at the world in the same way anymore.
When I stepped out of the woods that day, I wasn’t the same girl I was when I first ventured in. I don’t walk the same paths anymore, and I don’t only walk the ones the stranger showed me. My world is growing, my capacity for joy and peace and wonder expanding every time I step into the trees.
That’s the crux of it, I think. Art has repercussions past the initial experience. If a creative person wants to change the world, they need to create art that changes people.
How? I don’t know. All I can do is keep venturing into the world and bring back what I see. Maybe I’ll help someone see things a little differently. Or maybe, just maybe, someone might read my stories and find themselves changed. I can’t imagine any greater privilege, or any greater responsibility, than that.