Using Our Voices for Others

I hope this finds you well and looking forward to spring.
In the midst of much change and chaos in our country, I have been reflecting about the role of a writer. The US Department of Arts and Culture has said that, “In order to thrive, Democracy needs all our voices.” As writers, our words serve as bridge to hearing the voices of others, including those who have been silenced, marginalized and/or misunderstood.  We spend our days getting inside “the other”.  How might we use our voices to attain peace and justice and to advocate for distributing services to ensure basic needs are met for all?
  1. Open our eyes to see “the other” in our midst.  That person, or group of people, whose life or lives looks so different from ours.  We must be ready to encounter from within, our own harsh messages of judgment and lay them aside in the service of greater truth.
  2. Compile a list of questions.  Start with a question to which the answer seems obvious…to the one posing the question.  Often therein lies our basic misunderstanding.  Do a little research.  Review the questions for biases, admit them, and then rewrite the questions with honest intent to gain understanding.
  3. Approach the person(s) to be interviewed with respect and assurance that the interviewer will first use active listening, allowing the voice of the other to be heard.  Use the writer’s skills:  interviewing, research, active listening, fact checking.
  4. Consider what has not been said.  Consider especially the gifts and strengths of the other.  Probe for deeper understanding.
  5. Examine the raw material.  Who will be the audience?  Who needs to hear this story?
  6. Consider that more research may be needed, and perhaps a follow up interview.
  7. Examine any theoretical and/or political underpinnings of those being interviewed as well as one’s own.  Address directly in the story.
  8. Enlist as participants those whose stories need to be heard by asking them what story they think needs to be told.  And accept their help in making the story in order to serve a fuller truth and to avoid cultural appropriation.
  9. Intend then to write stories that live as art, and not as political propaganda.
  10. Submit!
For years, I carried around “The Hero and the Blues” written by Albert Murray, American essayist, critic and novelist, in which he said it is the writer who sounds the warning bell to show when a time is out of joint.   We live in our time, tied to it, shaped by it, and shaping it.  Stories of witness, whether personal or political, individual or social, local or global, help our culture to understand the human heart of the matter.  Let us then, get to the heart of the matter.
Call to Action:  Write one piece as witness, whether fiction or nonfiction.
Join  me at the Mark Twain House for a special one day workshop on this topic in late May or early June. More info. soon. 

Writing About Violence

Years ago a wise writer told me that readers do not read to have reality reflected back to them, but rather because they hunger for wisdom. I have been thinking about this in relation to writing about violence. I feel raw from the ongoing violence of racism, terrorism and guns. Like many writers, I want my words to help me and others. How should we write about violence?

1. Do not be satisfied to repeat or reflect the obvious.

Eleven years ago, one of my high school classmates was executed on Death Row in Connecticut. His name was Michael Ross and he was the first person executed on Death Row in the State since 1960. Michael Ross admitted to killing eight young women, raping seven of them and in the end advocated for his own death to alleviate the suffering of the families who had lost loved ones to his violent acts. After Michael Ross was executed, I tried to write about him, but my attempt failed to do more than sensationalize his crimes. I put the draft in a filing cabinet.

2. Gain insight, compassion and perspective.

It took me eleven years to write a fiction story (“The Appointed Hour” forthcoming Notre Dame Review) that tried to make some meaning. During those years, I became a better student of humanity and read the work of writers whose writing and insights I admired, including James Baldwin, Cormac McCarthy and Mary Oliver. I honed my own thinking.

3. Give the reader a road map for how to read the work.

This map has to come from inside the work itself. The way I think of this is that any act of violence is not and cannot be the whole story. Someone took a violent action, and someone suffered as a result. How do your characters feel? How will the violence affect them? Violence happens in a story world. Know your story world to reveal not only what happens, but how the story world will change as a result. If you have a classical plot, your main character should be capable of strong external action in this story world, whereas a minimalist plot may show us a character’s inner turmoil and inability to affect change.

I believe in a story’s power to help us see and understand and feel things we might not otherwise allow ourselves to see, feel and understand and that each such act becomes an intervention of sorts. Do not be be afraid to make an attempt, if such a story calls to you, but I hope you will not rest until the story offers insights our world needs.

Are you writing?

I hope this post finds you enjoying spring. Are you writing? Are you honoring your own creativity by finding time to put your ideas on the page?

Here are three compelling reasons to do so:

Each word of creative expression lights up dark matter to bring a story, poem, essay into form. A recent visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum helped me make that connection from an exhibit on dark matter in the universe. For more on this, check out:

The thing you are making as a creative artist is also making you, according to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. An inspiring take on creativity to be sure. If you want to read more along this line, read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic.

Write 300 words a day for a book in a year. Even though the above offered reasons to create take an expansive perspective on creativity, the goal is achieved with small action steps. 300 words, one page a day, could yield a book draft in a year! Writing 300 words a day increases joy, deepens commitment, banishes doubt and accumulates pages. We don’t need to see all the way from A to Z to develop a writing project. In fact, ask to be surprised to keep your creative passion alive.

I wish you a summer of all good things as you light up dark matter with your words.

Sunrise in Merzouga, Morocco
Sunrise in Merzouga, Morocco

Happy Spring and New Beginnings

What better time than the first day of spring to start this blog.  I’ve started writing new fiction and in the spirit of creating, this blog:

The Matter of Voice and A Writer’s Habit

Powerful voices cast their influence over the world. Consider Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous I Have a Dream speech, words inscribed in our collective memory. In literature, voice is considered as the style of the individual writer, one’s basic vision and attitude toward the world seeping through words on the page. Narrative voice and character’s voice are crafted and identified by the subject matter of the story being told, but the writer’s voice is mysterious. It is the result of a writer’s “habits” as Flannery O’Connor said. “Art is the habit of the artist, and habits have to be rooted deep in the whole personality. They have to be cultivated over a long period of time.”

We can strengthen writing habit as we strengthen our voice. Voice, with its nuances of expression, arises from the soul. While we are creating our habit of art then, let our voice arise from the soul. How do we do this? A combination of sound and silence. In silence we allow ourselves first to be guided. Meditation, and connections with nature help me.  When I become silent, sound emerges to show me connection. The wind and the birds herald in the seasons; whimsy and fury connect me to the truth of life’s depth, and authentic characters stir to life.

As characters speak, they add another layer of voice. Hear me. See me. Tell my story. Is the voice of one oppressed calling for a witness or an advocate? Or does a character seek to entertain and delight? Either way, the arts have the power to capture something greater than the individual parts.

A voice that speaks truthfully is a powerful voice. The concept may start as an abstraction, but the result is a felt experience…feeling and matter. This spring, I wish you a season of creating with the power of your voice.