December 10, 2013

The Responsibilities of Writers

This morning, NPR interviewed David Simon, writer and producer of The Wire, and Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, about the effect of the NSA surveillance on writers. Nafisi talked about how she’s heard of poets who censor themselves because of the NSA surveillance, and Simon talked about how writers have a responsibility to write anyway.  That got me thinking about the responsibilities that writers have. 

1.      To write. First and foremost, writers have a responsibility to write.  They have a talent, a skill, and they should use that skill.  The only way to be a writer, after all, is to write. Think of how what you’ve read has deeply affected you and what would have happened had that author not written whatever it is? Your words may have the same effect, and therefore you have a responsibility to your readers.

2.      To be brave. It’s easy to write what’s easy, not to push yourself, not to edit as much as you need to, not to reveal what you need to.  I believe in prudence ~ do no harm ~ but always ask yourself: “Am I holding back because of my concern for others, or am I just not being brave?” As Anne Lamott says, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Besides, your best material often comes from what shakes you to the core.

3.      To be honest and truthful. By this, I don’t mean not to write science fiction ~ science fiction is more emotionally truthful than some other types of writing.  What I mean is that if you write false, the reader will see right through you.  You may think you’re being clever, but readers are much smarter than some people give them credit for.  Don’t talk down and push yourself to be as accurate and honest as possible.

4.      To be clear.  I’ve found that when people use circuitous language, it’s often because they either don’t understand what it is they are trying to convey or they haven’t thought it through or they're being untruthful.  Others use fancy language when they’re trying to impress people ~ don’t do that.  You just come across as unintelligible and pompous. On the other hand, there are things that are hard to convey, and so you have the responsibility of working even harder to convey them clearly.

5.      To write to the best of their ability and to continue to improve their craft.  We need to write well, and so we need to always be working to get better at what we do.  10,000 hours, and all that.  And as Gladwell says, it not only has to be practice, but you have to challenge yourself and find mentors, if you can.

6.      To consider the rhetorical situation, especially audience. Unless you’re writing totally for yourself ~ which is fine, too ~ you have to consider the needs of an audience.  I think of it as a sin, in fact.  You also need to consider the genre you’re writing in and what you’re trying to achieve.  “Everything is an argument,” as they say, and you need to use all your tools to convince your readers.

7.      To represent the interests of their client, much like a lawyer.  Sometimes we’re not writing for ourselves, and there’s no shame in that.  Writing for money isn’t bad.  In that case, we need to put our own needs and agendas aside and consider those of the people we represent above all else.  There are many writers who consider this their highest calling ~ to represent an organization and change the world.

8.      To entertain.  Be not boring.  This came as a surprise to students when I taught freshman comp.  You not only have to write well, but you have to try to engage your audience.  It helps if you’re engaged with the subject yourself, and I’ve never found a subject that didn’t engage me in some way once I got into it. 

9.      To be good literary citizens.  Writing is by nature a solitary pursuit, and so it’s easy to become isolated.  I think we have a responsibility to help other writers ~ whether it’s volunteering at a grade school or giving other writers feedback and encouraging them or running a litmag or something else. 

You’ll notice what’s not on this list.

1.      To follow your heart.  I'm not saying not to write what you want, but, you know what, sometimes you just need to write for money to feed your family, and what’s more noble than that? Also, writing is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration, as they say ~ trust your fingers, not your heart.

2.      To write what you know.  There is truth in this, in that you should write clearly and truthfully.  However, don’t let this dictum confine you.  You’re a white male surburban kid?  You don’t have to write just about white male suburban kids.  What I take from this is to write what you care about and write about it truthfully.

3.      To be likable.  We have no responsibility to be likable and in some situations we have a duty to shake people out of their complacency.  I think this is a hard one for some women writers, including myself.

4.      To create likable characters.  Likable can be very boring. Claire Messud said it best: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’”

5.      To fight for the underdog ~ or the top dog, for that matter.  By this, I mean we need to question our knee-jerk reactions, and we don’t have a responsibility to have a certain take on things.   We as Americans tend to go for the underdog, but sometimes the establishment is trying to do good in the world too, and maybe they need to be represented.

6.      To be moral. I recently read this on the interwebs: “A writer should change readers into better humans.” Bullshit.  You can try to do this, sure, but there are many other goals in writing, and much writing that has changed the world has been considered immoral by the people of its time.  Harm no innocents, surely, but also don’t be afraid to tell your truth, as most likely it’s someone else’s truth.


Ladyluck said...

Very thoughtful and enjoyable. As much as I want to embrace Lamott's attitude, I don't want the consequences (hurting someone), which could lead to disrupting relationships that are important to me. Ultimately, I stay away from certain topics. I admire Lamott's fierce loyalty to herself, however.

Tamara said...

Thank you!! It's a delicate balance, to be sure! I could never be as callous as all that, but I also know, too, that I have a tendency to cede my voice to others. And for years I had no voice. So it's important for me to remember that I own my self, you know?

And definitely - stay away from certain topics. I found myself wondering if I should ask my mom things while I have a chance, though, as she's 90.