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.

December 5, 2013

'Argos' by Michael Collier

I love this poem.


by Michael Collier

If you think Odysseus too strong and brave to cry,
that the god-loved, god-protected hero
when he returned to Ithaka disguised,
intent to check up on his wife

and candidly apprize the condition of his kingdom,
steeled himself resolutely against surprise
and came into his land cold-hearted, clear-eyed,
ready for revenge--then you read Homer as I did,

too fast, knowing you'd be tested for plot
and major happenings, skimming forward to the massacre,
the shambles engineered with Telemakhos
by turning beggar and taking up the challenge of the bow.

Reading this way you probably missed the tear
Odysseus shed for his decrepit dog, Argos,
who's nothing but a bag of bones asleep atop
a refuse pile outside the palace gates. The dog is not

a god in earthly clothes, but in its own disguise
of death and destitution is more like Ithaka itself.
And if you returned home after twenty years
you might weep for the hunting dog

you long ago abandoned, rising from the garbage
of its bed, its instinct of recognition still intact,
enough will to wag its tail, lift its head, but little more.
Years ago you had the chance to read that page more closely

but instead you raced ahead, like Odysseus, cocksure
with your plan. Now the past is what you study,
where guile and speed give over to grief so you might stop,
and desiring to weep, weep more deeply.

December 4, 2013

'I Love Deadlines'

Douglas Adams (via)

"I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by." ~ Douglas Adams 

December 3, 2013


Not actually my son ;) (via)

My son’s been giving me a bad time lately.  He’ll say, “Mommy, it’s all your fault.”  He’ll drop his bread on the floor or make a mess or nothing at all will happen, and he’ll say, “It’s your fault, Mommy.”  He’s joking, I know he’s joking, and he knows that I know he’s joking. All in good fun, and we laugh. 

But I was thinking about the social agreements we make, the way we agree on what’s “normal” and what’s acceptable ~ which amounts to the assumptions we make. You know how a couple will have a certain way they do things.  She stays at home with the kids and does all the housework and he goes out to his job but doesn’t have to do any housework or “help” with the kids.  Or he does the cooking and she does the laundry and they share taking care of the kids.  Or he’s the primary caregiver to the kids because she can’t handle it for long. You get the picture.

We personally have these agreements between us, but then society, too, has agreements.  The idealized nuclear family is an agreement: wife keeps the home and kids while husband goes to a job outside the home.  All this is, however, is an agreement, and these things change over time.

What’s interesting about all this is that we often take those agreements we’ve been handed by our parents and never question them.  The nuclear family is how it “should” be.  Two people of the same sex having a loving relationship and getting married? Inconceivable.  It’s inconceivable because that’s the agreement we’ve inherited and we take the status quo as “normal” and “acceptable,” and anything outside that is “unnatural” or the other.

I was particularly struck yesterday by a number of articles I read that illustrated this.  One was from the Guardian ~ and I can’t seem to find it now ~ about a man who raped and killed his wife.  The point of the opinion piece was that we blame the rape victim and tell her (or him) that they should have done something different, that it was their fault.  By saying that, we’re setting normal that way, rather than saying the rapist is the one who is responsible for his own actions.  He (and it is most often a “he”) should be held accountable rather than the victim.  Another was about the practice of gaslighting, named from the iconic 1944 MGM film, where you call a person crazy and discount their feelings and thoughts so much that they question their own impulses.  A third one was about a woman who witnessed a man undermining another young woman and her writing, and how the woman took the chance and pointed out the gaslighting. A lot in the news about this type lately.

It takes a lot to change these givens.  First you’ve got to understand what’s going on and then you’ve got to call people out on it.  You’ve got to make boundaries and change normal to something that takes your reality into account.  It’s really hard to do ~ on a personal level and on a societal level.

That’s a little of what my son is doing ~ gaslighting.  We all do it to varying degrees.  It’s all in good fun, but it’s also a way to control your world, to try to get your way.  It’s a way to nudge the agreement.

December 2, 2013

The Stories Don’t Suck


It was a great Thanksgiving.  Amid driving to Omaha, eating deep-fried turkey and Guinness cake, seeing Frozen in 3D with cousins, and talking nonstop, I edited through my story collection.  Only one more story to go and I’ll have an almost final draft!

One thing that was cool about it was I used my Asus Infinity tablet with a docking station/keyboard to do it.  It was a little slow, but so totally worth it with the portability and flexibility.  I loved being able to sit at the dining room table with everyone around and work and then have it in the car on the way there and back.  Very productive.  The Word I use (Kingsoft Office) does not have full capabilities and takes a little to get used to, but it worked great.

But the thing I loved most was the thing that inevitably happens:  the stories didn’t suck.  Most writers I know are like this.  They write something, and they may think it’s good or not. But the more time that passes, the more they are convinced that the story is absolutely no good and they’ll be mortified when they go back and read it.  But when they do finally go back ~ you know what? ~ they’re not so bad.  In fact, some of them are decent.

That was my experience this weekend editing through my stories.  Some of them needed some work, especially the oldest ones, but the newer ones weren't half bad!