This month we’re taking on a touchy subject: POLITICS! Some of us dodge this topic at any cost, while others go at it all-in. Either way, it’s really hard to completely ignore politics during an election year in America. We considered: How much does modern, culturally relevant politics affect your writing? Do you try to be apolitical in your writing? Do you think your conservatism, liberalism, or disinterest is reflected in all or some of your writing? Reflect on whatever aspect you feel is relevant to your process.
I DON’T Want to Talk About It…
I have always considered politics to be something I’d rather not talk about, because, in general, I like making observations and not judgments, and it’s impossible to talk about politics without being wrong in someone’s eyes and inciting ire. And when I’m confronted by an idea that I feel is particularly reprehensible I tend to completely overreact and behave as if someone killed a kitten rather than expressed an opinion. So, right now, I am going to attempt to write something that is about our current political state in America, and do so with absolutely no political agenda. OK, here we go:
Our country is currently engaged in the fervent throes of the expressiveness inherent in an election year. Some people think it is important to review the job that the current POTUS, Barack Obama, has done, and want to summarize the positive and negative effects his terms have had on the country as a whole and its citizens. It is very rare for an individual to review both kinds of effects; most stick to positive or negative. Many US citizen, and indeed, people around the world, are engaging in opinion-sharing about the primary candidates and who will actually be running for POTUS come November. As Democrats, Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are both trying to win their party’s nomination, and the Republicans also have a number of candidates running with results that vary. Let’s hope that come November we have some kind of choice to make!
OK, that was the best I can do and I couldn’t help snarking at the end. And what a boring synopsis to read! I could make it interesting, but I won’t. I would like to think that politics has nothing to do with my voice as a writer, but that, of course, is impossible, because how I express myself will be rooted in my values. I’ve found what seem to be the most innocuous of expression has managed to piss someone off. 20 years ago in an online dating profile I wrote that I enjoy the company of open-minded people (edgy, right?) and I got a comment that read, “Keep loving those (n-word)s, Sweetheart. F&*# You!” Wow.
So, in all sincerity, may this country continue to be strong and brave, and…no wait, I can’t say anything about equality or freedom. May God (in any monotheistic, polytheistic, atheistic, agnostic, non-sexist, all-encompassing or uninclusive presence you may mean) bless this country. And may He/She/It/They/No-one/Everyone in the world/My dog) have mercy on us all!
To me politics fits in the same category as abortion, religion and the behavior of other people’s children. I simply never discuss it with other people either in person or in my writing. I’m sure I’ve annoyed many people over the years because I refuse to be drawn into discussions on those topics, but I have seen friendships crumble over them. My friendships are the most precious thing I have and I don’t want to endanger them. Besides, everyone is entitled to their opinions.
My training as an historian leads me to take a very long view of things and to look at the long-term results of political action. I constantly find myself comparing and contrasting the current political circus with the circuses of the past. When I worked in the Westchester County, NY, county executive’s office we used to call election year “the silly season” and silly it is. I take an independent view of the whole thing, listening to all sides while searching for the small, elusive grains of truth in all of the rhetoric.
Politics as My Impetus
My ideal reader believes that sexism and racism are forces in the world—actively doing damage—right now in 2016. I don’t take it upon myself to explain or prove that. It could be that someone would choose not to read my work knowing that.
When I wrote about the Upper Peninsula guys who spied on the commune in Holding True, I portrayed them as menacing and racist. I was letting their actions speak for them. There could be a reader who would read about their actions and think they were doing the right thing, who could believe that Mags was right to be stockpiling weapons. There could be those who viewed the ATF as menacing, and the stand Mags planned to take heroic. I wonder if my writing was neutral enough to hold a reader with those opinions throughout the story. I certainly had my slant.
Yet I wasn’t relentlessly promoting an agenda. I felt I was doing service to the ideals I am compelled to serve. Otherwise I do not believe I would ever have completed my first novel. And, because of my political beliefs, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to indulge in the kind of novel I am writing now. In a way, I earned the right to write about a woman like myself, as I am doing for Book of Forty, by using my talents, first, to attend to the needs of social justice.
Yet I think my writing is better when I’m not trying to prove or promote anything. I think that was a hobbling factor of the driving purpose behind Holding True. Even though I wasn’t pounding my fist for diversity with every word, I know that behind every sentence I wrote was my duty to use my words to do some good. That may have skewed the whole thing. I know I feel much freer with this novel. I’m not tied to anything except myself and what comes out of me when I let my mind go.
I think about Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Helen Hunt Jackson. Maybe Their social agenda skewed their writing too much. They became unpopular largely because of that, their naked, blatant appeals to the reader to give compassion to the poor, to slaves and to oppressed North American natives. Still, what higher purpose is there for writing?
Yet there are many more purposes, maybe not as lofty, but equally necessary. Fun is one. Pleasure. Sharing. Comforting. Playing around. Joking. Exposing.
At the moment my political urges are being expressed in other ways than through writing. I wonder if that is how it will be—a balance, with some part of my energy going toward politics, some toward creativity. Sometimes they’ll flow together, sometimes apart.
Politics and Writing
To the extent that the act of writing, including fiction, aims to explore, probe, and uncover truths, it is political. I speak as a writer of fiction. I write because I have something to say which is informed by my view of the world and by my beliefs about human nature. I hope that what I write influences others, persuades them towards my view through emotion and thought.
However, the fiction writer is freed from political orthodoxy, or worse, political correctness, if not from the cultural context of her time and place in this world. I can invent characters who have evil in their hearts, who may simply be misguided, or deluded. I can draw characters who have the capacity to change. I can invent a world unlike ours that draws attention to the fault lines of our own.
Perhaps the most disheartening book I ever read was E.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun (1984), his fictional account of child survival during WWII. I would never choose to read it again. The book has remained with me because the writer was unsparing in his depiction of the very worst of humanity. It contained a horrible truth. This book and the film, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970), so influenced me that my political views about war spring from my emotional experience as a reader/viewer of these works.
Novels of attachment do not announce themselves as such. Irony holds sway in popular and elite culture. But I crave scenes of departure and reunion at the train station. I am amazed and in awe of animals, silent and steadfast, and the bonds we share with our animal friends. Guterson’s East of the Mountains is a spare elegy for resolve at the end of life. The protagonist’s dogs accompany him on his journey. Novels of grief find their well in love. But love holds its distance in politics, becomes general not individual. It is often the journalist who brings us the individual to love in the opening paragraphs of the story. We fix our hopes upon the child who might be helped with shelter, food, our love. The New York Times, in a lengthy piece, followed the daily life of a little girl named Dasani living with her family in the shelter system in that great city; writing this vivid exposes chasms of political ineptitude. (New York Times, 12/9/13, feature article titled Invisible Child)
Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, offers the reader both the experience of horror and the experience of love in his grim depiction of a dystopian future. I would argue that beliefs about the individual as a member of society, a citizen, “polites”, lie close to the heart of good writing.