Writing: an essential task in a polarized world
Articles, essays, poetry and social media interactions suggest that a seemingly infinite number of people feel ground down by the recent Presidential campaign. The country appears more polarized about directions, methods and issues today than it did with the election of George Bush. A quick look at such digests of literary happenings as the news and links of Poets & Writers and Literary Hub, has–since the election–shown more politically oriented stories than usual.
George Saunders (“Lincoln in the Bardo”) said in an interview in the March/April edition of Poets & Writers Magazine that, “It’s a tremendous literary mission to ask, ‘Can we re-imagine our country?’ It’s going to take some legwork, and it’s going to take some curiosity, which is in short supply these days. But I think for writers, it’s actually an exciting time. I don’t think I’ve ever felt in my life that writing was a more essential task.”
What do we write? Facts and inspiration, I would say. That’s important whether one supported Clinton or Trump or Sanders. A lot of the legwork Saunders mentions is going to be digging up the facts. Some are calling this the post-truth era. For writers, like everyone else, weeding out the lies and slanted material is a large part of the legwork we need to do.
I’m appalled by the number of people on Facebook, for example, who read and listen only to the news they agree with and/or who presume without doing their own fact checking that their favorite essayist or commentator is always presenting objective information that fairly considers all sides of an issue. As writers, we not only need to fight this assumption, this outright laziness, but we need to prove to those who read our material that we’re as honest as we know how to be.
The inspiration comes from not only addressing changes in the political focus and philosophy we consider negative, but in speaking well of those we like. The election and inauguration represent a fairly large change–or so it appears–in how we, as Americans, are being asked to view out country, what it stands for, and how it will operate within its borders and on the world stage.
Inspiration–like a good newspaper editorial or magazine essay–starts with facts. This concept was one of the hardest ideas for me to get across to students when I taught college journalism courses. Many students thought that stating an opinion meant that one could say anything they wanted. Maybe in a bar, but not in a reasonable newspaper, book or blog post. Inspiration that doesn’t begin with the truth isn’t worth anything. Passionate writers often need to rein in their zeal and ask “can my fervor be supported in the light of day?”
It’s easy to be reactive, to read an editorial or a news story and scream “that just totally sucks.” But what good is this outrage if that’s as far as it goes? As writers, it’s essential, I think, to do better than that. I think that if we can take care in creating balanced, realistically functioning worlds for our fiction, then we can take the same amount of care in looking at the real world we have here and just how it needs to be viewed or re-imagined.
It’s also easy to see our personal circumstances as universal. In my journalism class, a student wrote an editorial against a specific make of car, proclaiming that it was a real lemon. His proof: his grandmother had one that never worked right. That’s not proof. It might make for an interesting human interest story, but such an editorial is not the way to fight against the perceived abuses of an company or an industry. We can do better than basing our “facts” and inspiration on personal anecdotal “evidence.”
The hard things are doing the legwork and analyzing how are personal feelings about the issues of the day stack up against the facts, the apparent majority attitudes, and true win-win approaches to making things better. Neither rational democracy or rational writing are easy. Doing better might be more exciting than we think. Goodness knows, doing better is more effective than slinging insults and preaching to the choir.