I first heard “Four Strong Winds” by Neil Young when I was fourteen, and I fell in love with it. I’d always enjoyed Neil Young’s music, but this song was an album track and not a single, so if I wanted to own it I had to buy the whole damned album. But so what? The power of its message—both lyrical and musical—wiggled into my heart and soul and has remained there to this day. Over time, I associated the song with this girl or that, feeling it articulated our relationship in words, music, or feelings more effectively than I could on my own. This is one way music is like prayer. “Four Strong Winds” has also always been one of those songs I crank up every time it shows up on the radio or my iPod.
In Neil Young’s concert documentary “Heart of Gold,” he tells the story of how he first heard this song in a little diner in Canada and thought it was the most beautiful song he had ever heard and that he wore out the jukebox playing it every time he came in and promised himself he would one day record it. This story floored me. In a six degrees of separation miracle, my life had been changed by a song that Neil Young had recorded because his life had been changed when he heard it years before. This is writing's real power. True, authentic written expression has a life of its own and can span generations, geography, and ideologies.
Laura Preble recently wrote a blog post about doing poetry in her creative writing classes that inspired me to do poetry in my own Sophomore classes. I chose poems from Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, a compilation of very modern, very accessible poems as edited by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. It was a miracle that we even had these books. In a profession decimated by budget cuts, I threw rational thought out the window and made a request and was shocked when I received a single class set of 40 copies. About two weeks after my classes did activities with six or eight poems from that book, the following exchange took place among a group of girls who were sitting together:
“Guess what, Mr. Tricarico?” Ja’ana said, pointing to the girl sitting next to her. “Alyssa bought that poetry book we read. It was in her room the other day. On her desk.”
Alyssa’s cheeks flushed immediately.
“Yeah,” another girl said. “She forgot to hide it before we came over.”
I stared at Alyssa, stunned.
“You bought the book?” I asked.
“Yeah.” Her voice was a whisper.
Her eyes suddenly averted from mine.
“I really liked the poems.”
Hearing that Alyssa purchased a book from an actual bookstore because she enjoyed some writing I shared with her in class almost choked me up, and sophomores make grown men cry less frequently than you might think. But it never would have happened if Laura hadn’t written her blog post and I never would have known about it if Alyssa’s friend hadn’t spoken up.
I thought of all of the other times where writing—a short story, a novel, or another poem–might have inspired my students in a way that I had no idea about because no one uttered a word. Just as Ian Tyson, the musician who wrote “Four Strong Winds,” and Neil Young have no idea how deeply their song affected me and how much it has changed who I am as a person.
The truth is that if your writing has an audience at all, you’ll never know the effect it might have on people once you put it out there. Your writing will–with a strength, power, and life all its own–touch people in a way that has nothing to do with you or your intent and about which you will be largely unaware. Your writing has the power to affect people, change people. It just might cross through time, leap through generations, and wiggle into hearts.
Whether you ever hear about it or not.
When did a piece of literature touch you?