Being a writer in today’s contentious climate can change your vision. It can make you either hop on the current bandwagon of anger and hurt, or make you want to think only happy thoughts, create a new world as you go, or simply focus on topics that have escaped contention. We need both.
WHAT TOPIC TO CHOOSE
I follow the blogs of other writers. I tend to be more serious while some fellow writers can knock out a light-hearted piece over and over. We need those. It’s like watching a great comedy where laughter is a gift. Because reading a newspaper every day and listening to news can really drag you down. Writers must create with variety. But also with compassion.
INSIGHT FROM DONALD MAASS
I follow a blog for writers that is blessed occasionally with a piece by New York literary agent and author for writers, Donald Maass. He offers incredible insights into the writing process, but he also lives in the real world and in answer to another writer’s post recently wrote: (Note: I have altered his response slightly)
Stories do not require a consensus.They do not legislate.Their purpose is to persuade. But persuade us of what? And how?
In a novel, (or screen play, script that becomes a film) to prove others wrong, it is first necessary to acknowledge that they may be right. So…
- create characters who represent divergent ways of thinking and doing–actually opposing ideas are represented by opposing characters. (Brilliant and basic. Every television drama presents tension–because people with differing points of view are interacting.)
- But to be strong, each character must face their weaknesses. (As writers, our characters face what we are afraid of). As readers and viewers we will not be moved unless we see humanity first. The character must fail. And then to persuade us to change, the character must change because of the failure. They see the light, in other words.
- Writers must create antagonists whose case is excellent and heroes who are flawed.
- But in order to truly be a hero, those characters must learn and then change.
- Thus the power of storytelling to change us (the reader) lies in the courage writers summon to see things as others do. It depends on creating heroes who are flawed and must learn. Most of all, it requires that authors humble themselves, writing not out of resentment but out of twined compassion and conviction about what is right.
Maass asks: What is the bell you will ring in your writing today? What clear and simple truth does it sound? Words are strong when you know their purpose. Stories speak loudest when the storyteller first listens.
I AM LISTENING
Writers speak through their characters. They use their so-flawed-ideas and their closer-to-perfect ideas. Both are on the page. My novel-in-progress. presents a crack in the foundation of a marriage: one of the partners decides to forget an initial pledge to be compassionate in life and help others. He is turning away. She is not. But that doesn’t make her an angel. Maybe she is overboard and thus wrong in her belief that she can change people through empathy and compassion. It helps me day to day to grapple with my own fears and insecurities while getting into the skin of my characters.
FINDING COMPASSION THROUGH SELF-TENSION
This week Erin Aubry Kaplan published a piece in the LA TIMES, entitled A New Reckoning for Whiteness. And I found a connection between the hero of any novel or story wrestling with his or her flawed-ness, before becoming a hero-again. And myself wrestling with my own lived life. Kaplan writes that our current president’s “both-sides” problem just might make some citizens grapple with a crucial question: What does it mean to be white? Or, what does it really mean?
For me, it was a hard piece to read. But necessary–that’s why I am sharing it. Kaplan asks: “It (the question) requires individual answers to intimate questions: How do I feel as a white person? What advantages do I take for granted based on my skin color? How do I see nonwhites? Or do I see them at all?”
Kaplan writes that if white people struggle with these questions, she has struggled with similar ones all her life: “What sort of black person are you? Middle class or ghetto, articulate or down-home, educated or irrational, bourgeoisie or radical?”
She writes that currently, “no one can indulge in the illusion of togetherness. He’s (POTUS 45) disrupting a surface that needs to be disrupted, for good.”
She’s saying that in order to write the best American story, each of us “characters” has to look and acknowledge our flaws before we can go back to believing in the “prefect union” we so desire and thus become the heroes of our story. Please read the entire article to see the whole of her argument. It might be disruptive — but then we are becoming used to that EVERY SINGLE DAY.
In conclusion, I have been examining my whiteness. Yes, I benefited from living in a middle class Chicago neighborhood and attending private schools. I knew few black people growing up. My high school was integrated, but barely. Did I make an attempt to befriend my fellow black students? No. Maybe I felt myself absolved by the literature I was reading and getting A’s analyzing. CRY THE BELOVED COUNTRY. Big deal. In college, Martin Luther King was assassinated and the black students printed a piece in our newspaper with a photo of them gathered. They called themselves the “worms in our apple.” By the time I was teaching high school in an integrated school that pulled from neighborhoods of poor whites, middleclass whites and poor blacks–I was more awake than ever. And I fought to stay awake. But even now, I wouldn’t give myself an A plus, that’s for sure.
SO WHAT’S THE END OF THE STORY?
I want to be open to the world and all its colors and brightness, all it’s variety and hopes, dreams and pains. I want that to flow through my fiction and encourage you to comment on this post. We are family–all of us. Time to work on our flaws and become the best people we can be. Compassion, anyone?