In short, writers need to make the political personal. Very personal.
Over the past week, I’ve had several encounters that have forced me to really look at my writing, especially my fiction: what I’m writing, whether I’m digging too deep, becoming too issue-oriented.
My latest fictional venture was supposed to be a piece of pulp horror, a cathartic outlet. That didn’t last long.
Recently, I got some feedback that led me to sit down and really take a look at the book, and my goals. What’s the point here? What am I trying to say? Is it fair to the reader that I’m even trying to say it? Am I being too ambitious, reaching too high?
I’ve always felt it was important that writing be about something, not just the plot, not just the thrill, but about Something, it should tell some unlabelled Truth people need to know. In a culture that wants to eschew meaning and is so easily seduced by the shiny, pretty little things out there, it’s hard to stick to your guns. At times, I’ve been discouraged, and wondered if I need to scrap that whole part of the work.
Even in this blog, I often wonder if I should scrap the commentary for more wistful pieces of uplifting anecdotes of mundane experiences. Then again, maybe when my world has that kind of thing to offer, I’ll get right on it.
That’s not to say good things don’t happen. They do. Like this week.
And having seen all the dark, ugly badness out there close enough to count Satan’s nose hairs, well, that made this week’s messages from the Universe all that more powerful.
Something other-worldly must be nagging at me to do a mission statement, too, or at least stick to the one I’ve got – however unwritten it may be. In the last week I’ve discovered two great articles on the very questions I’m asking.
Last things first.
Today I found a wonderful Huffington Post essay “The Devil in Politics: Why Fear Works and What to Do About It,” where the Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite speaks of fighting evil. Thistlehwaite doesn’t take an intellectualized stand on the existence of the Devil, reducing “Devil” to be a cultural signifier of dissenting values in an arbitrary theological order.
For her, as for me, the Devil exists. It (both he and she) lives and speaks and walks among us. Evil has a very real face and does very real damage.
(Trust me sweetie, I had the Devil over for coffee and never even knew it. She napalmed my life and I’m still cleaning up the mess.)
According to Irenaeus, the weakness of the Devil in going after the innocent exposes how corrupt that really is. That does not mean, however, that while that is happening the innocent do not suffer. They do, and often horribly.
But we can help devilish overreaching sink itself more rapidly by constantly showing up to expose it in every venue we can and in every way we can.
So, being who I am, of course, as I read the article my memory was drawn to my experience this past year with corrupt authority and the cruel extremes people will go to maintaining it.
Thistlethwaite affirmed my commitment to opposition and exposure of the specific wrongs we saw and experienced, and helped me renew my commitment to embracing and touting the same in my writing.
First things last.
Similarly, I came across a great article in The Guardian by Rowan Williams. I think I’ve read this three times. I am never turning my computer off again, so that the article can remain accessible in my browser … forever. Even after browsers cease to exist.
I was positively possessed by inspiration (and giddy beyond belief at the experience) when reading about the moral and ethical mandate Williams ascribes to Thomas Merton:
the difficulty of good writing is a difficulty meant to make the reader pause and rethink. It insists that the world is larger than the reader thought, and invites the reader to find new ways of speaking … Bad writing is politically poisonous; good writing is politically liberating …
~ Rowan Williams
I am emboldened. My resolve is strengthened. My pen refilled.
I find a good deal of contradiction as I take these thoughts around with me. Feedback to my own work that rebels against the validation of the perceptions of characters who experience life as the Other, and seeks to have me validate as objective truth the opinions of readers who cannot know the truth of the Other.
Fear works because it leads us into temptation, the temptation to hate and despise the religious other, the immigrant other, the racial other, the sexual other. Fear is very tempting to politicians who want to acquire power because it makes people irrational, hateful, and easy to manipulate.
In short, writers need to make the political personal. Very personal.
What strikes me is that even as the “ordinary person” overtly voices an aversion to meaning, we are all drawn to it – some of the most popular cultural phenomena lately have been all about the Other rebelling in a dysfunctional system of authority to prevail:
Harry Potter is an orphan, rejected by his guardians. How many of us also notice that Dumbledore doesn’t do anything about Potter until it’s time to get to school? (Why didn’t anyone think about getting him better adoptive parents? The hubs and I were available.)
Hogwarts takes him in, but in the later books/films, Voldemorte’s cohorts take over the “establishment” institutions and our Good Guys are forced underground. Even in the beginning, no one dares speaks Valdomorte’s name. So deep runs that river of institutional denial that entire plot segments are devoted to Potter’s insistence on his existence. Hogwarts is in ruins in the finale.
Katniss Everdeen learns the truth behind the old adage: “sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” The movies do an exceptional job of highlighting the designation of her and the districts as social and economic Others.
The Divergent Series explores a struggle against a society based on over-simplified stereotypes of people whereby they are forced to live out their entire lives by one personality trait, to the suppression of all others. People are divided by difference, unified only by sameness.
The Walking Dead. It’s season seven before organized authority is represented in a positive light, by Deanna. Who promptly dies. I’ve written elsewhere on themes where authority and establishment figures fail at every turn: from the CDC to Father Gabriel.
We’re eating this stuff up likes it’s ice cream.
So, while people around me say they don’t want meaning, that there’s nothing wrong to talk about, their attraction to all these narratives of good against evil, the passionate opposition to political organizations that deny either evil or the value of a human being is undeniable.
What is my concluding statement?
Well, I’m sticking with it, folks. I’m not giving up.
And if you’re out there, and you’re fighting the good fight in your own way, too, don’t you give up either. Because Orwell, Merton and the good Reverend Thistlethwaite said so.