At Work

At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Hitting Refresh

People write for many different reasons.  Those reasons all fall under the umbrella of "need."  A Need to write. A Need to say something that other people will hear. So where does the Need come from? The call we hear in the present moment likely has deep roots. Events, people, incidents, "stuff" in our past, taken altogether, poke us, prod us–require us to speak up. Speak out.  I don't necessarily mean trauma, though trauma is often a strong trigger for writing.

Where Need to write does not come from is here.  Blogs. Twitter. Snapchat. Instagram. Tumblr and a hundred other social media, informationally overloaded, time-sucking pleasures of the internet.  Cumulatively, the effect of our time spent online is dilute our Need to write. A dilatory effect. The more time we spend online, the more we are absorbed into the monolith of Cumulative Thought–Group Think–at the expense of our inner, unique selves.  The more we post and comment and share, the more of ourselves we give away–all at the expense of our own truths. Our own secret, individual voice.  Our unique vision of the world, the one that looks out through our eye holes.

Yet we all have an online life.  It's almost impossible not to.  That being the case, my argument is simple:  we all need to hit "Refresh" on occasion.  We need to try to find our way back to those events, feelings, and images that shaped us in the first place.

For example, I grew up on a farm, and so landscape is a key part of my identity.  Fields, machinery, harvesting, the company of men, group labor ("many hands").  But gradually, from a career of teaching and writing, I became a "town guy."  An urban person.  Steadily, over the years, I necessarily left behind all the "stuff" that had shaped me, but with a gradually deleterious effect. Enough so that that the occasional objective correlative (T. S. Elliot)–the sound of a tractor, or a smell of freshly mown alfalfa, or a man's cap cocked at a particular angle (my Uncle Earl)–became dizzying. As if, for a moment, I didn't know where or who I was.  When that happens nowadays, I know it's time to hit "Refresh."  To get back in touch, however I can, with my original, inner self.

This week I will head up to serious, big-farm country in northwestern Minnesota for the "beet" harvest.  Sugar beets, that is.  I'll stay a few days with a farm family, and ride in the harvesters, and drive a beet truck, and eat a long table with the other workers, men and women.  It's the life I had to let go of in order to write well about it, but a life I greatly miss at times.  The critic and short story Frank O'Connor coined the phrase "submerged population."  He meant the people, usually from our past, who were authentic, unselfconscious, non-homogenized, and "real."  His point was that we need to stay in touch with them and with other "true" bulwarks of our lives.  Our online life might churn us through the great washing machine of wired culture, but we have all a secret stash of memories that belong to us alone.

A serendipitous coda to this post: the mail just came, including the new New Yorker magazine.  In a cartoon, one character says to  another, "I spend too much time promoting myself, and not enough time being myself."

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"Cultural Appropriation" and Fiction Writing

I've been hearing about his issue from younger writers in the trenches of college writing programs, and in their encounters with "progressive" editors and agents.  But personally I've been ignoring it in hopes that it will go away.  I've been ignoring the issue of "cultural appropriation" for same way reason I try not to use the name D***** T*****: talking about him gives him credence.  Legitimacy.  Hey, if we fiction writers can't use our imaginations to cross boundaries and create characters unlike ourselves, we're doomed as a species.  But the issue doesn't seem to going away away. A recent New York  Times op-ed piece by Lionel Shriver (9/23/16) has generated a lot of buzz.  Here's her piece:   

And below is part of two letters to the NYT in reply:

"No one is saying Ms. Shriver should be put in jail or that it should be illegal to publish a book she writes from the perspective of an oppressed person of color or some other position about which she can have little personal experience. In the same vein, it shouldn’t be illegal for me to post an article about how that reflects on her, and suggesting that other people join me in not reading it...."  Uma  B. Gaffney

 "If the great evolutionary triumph of our species is the capacity to reason and understand, then for millennials to define themselves strictly in terms of their race, age, gender or ethnicity is to be forever stranded on a smaller planet. When we allow anyone of any age to police our imaginations, to condemn us to writing plays, poems and novels only about people like ourselves, then we’re doomed as artists and humanists. The best thing about our capacity for abstract thinking is that it allows us to imagine what it’s like to be someone else (saint or sinner), and might help us become more empathetic...."  Fengar Gael

My take?  (Sorry, can't shed the highlight).  The first letter is dripping with assumptions and "correctness" if not literary fascism. The second is quite a nice counter. All the writers I know personally are quite sensitive to the issue cultural appropriation.  We're simply not going to do it if it's a bridge too far, that is, if we don't have deep personal experience and knowledge about the subject at hand.  We have to earn the right to write the character very different than ourselves.  And if we've done our work–deep, sincere, empathetic immersion in which we imagine the inner and out life of the character–then we should have at it.  After all, in the business of fiction writing the rules are made to be broken.

Postscript:  here's breaking news/response to the issue of cultural appropriation: