Thursday, January 30, 2014

Writing for Justice

Las Meninas, Beverly Hills by Ramiro Gomez, Jr.
Make no mistake, being open minded and living in a state of empathy is not about accepting wrongdoing and the evil wrought in the world. Living in a state of empathy has not only opened my eyes to the experiences of others, it has helped to set my moral compass. Trying on someone else's troubles fosters a sense of fairness, and that's just the sensibility that can result in a passion for justice in the world.

Writers are in a unique position when it comes to writing and justice. There is mounting evidence that fiction has a way of getting inside us, and once there, of making us see the world in a different way. And once we see things differently we are forever changed.

I would argue that all good writing, from fairy tales to novels to poetry, has an aspect of wanting to change the world for the better. The mechanism by which this is accomplished is to make us into better human beings. Many people have thought a lot more about this topic than I have. Check out Naomi Benaron's excellent post about the place where fiction and social responsibility intersect for her.

Nobody wants to read a polemic (OK, most people don’t). This is the problem I have with Ayn Rand. Regardless of what you think of her ideas, her fiction barely manages to rise above her ideology. For this reason, I think her novels are just awful. The only people I've talked to who love her novels are already deeply invested in her ideas.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso
Even if you choose to create a work of art with an explicit message – if it's really going to work, really going to embody the message, then the art has to come first. Consider the formal brilliance of Picasso's "Guernica." Look at Ramiro Gomez Jr.'s warm and clever use of throw-away cardboard paintings to highlight how immigrants are perceived by the mainstream culture around them.

Beverly Hills Cutout by Ramiro Gomez, Jr.
No matter the medium, creating good art comes from a mastery of craft combined with an openness and fearless exploration of the world and the self. I believe that if you are truly expressing YOURSELF through your art – your sense of justice, your moral compass will be implicit in the art you create.

Personally, I believe that my job as a fiction writer isn't to convince, but to examine. I believe that storytelling is the best at dragging things out into the daylight. If I turn my gaze on something dark, or write a villain with empathy, then what I believe about right and wrong will be expressed in the negative space of the story.

Speculative fiction, in particular, has a long tradition of writing for social justice. It's suited to it, because of the way it can cross boundaries and explore future and imagined worlds. But don't take my word for it -- read around the genre to see how others write for justice.

Environmentalism among other things
  • Paolo Bacigalupi: The Windup Girl, The Water Knife (This one's forthcoming and I can't wait!)
  • Frank Herbert: Dune
Societies and dystopias in war and peace
  • Robert Heinlein: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
  • Joe Haldeman: The Forever War 
Gender, theocracy, environmentalism, capitalism
  • Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid's Tale
For more strong women who use speculative fiction to take on multiple themes race, gender, environmentalism, and the ills of society in general, check out:
  • Octavia Butler - see also Levi Dugat's excellent post Science Fiction + Social Justice
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Toni Morrison (who has never shied from using fabulist and speculative elements in her work, Beloved and Song of Solomon being two of my personal favorites)
    Octavia Butler

Thursday, January 23, 2014


Cave paintings from the Cave of Swimmers in the Sahara Desert.
In my opinion, empathy is the writer's most important tool, and possibly the purpose of the whole endeavor. If you’re wondering what empathy is exactly, check out this video for a lovely short course.

Empathy is our love for each other born out of our suffering, and our mutual understanding of the fragility of life. This love binds us together. And, It’s what will make your writing soar.

To have our view of the world transformed by a book, the book must work a transformation within us. This is the magic of great writing. It can reach across time and gender, class and culture. Magic, and no simple spell. Writers apprentice themselves for years, decades, lifetimes, to master the art of deep, transformative writing. At its heart is an emotional connection to the characters born from a deep empathy with the world and everyone in it.

Empathy is good for you. I recommend it for everyone. But, if you want to be a writer it is a necessity. You can’t create real characters, or truly interrogate a situation, if you are so entrenched in your own beliefs and opinions that you cannot step outside yourself to contemplate why someone might think or behave differently than you would.

Here are some writerly ways to practice empathy.

Be curious about the other.
A writer is curious about everything, but especially about people. The more different their opinions and life experiences are from yours, the better. Look for opportunities to interact with the sorts of people you wouldn't normally talk with. Challenge yourself to be a fish-out-of-water. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or at City Hall. Don't go to argue with anyone or to promote your own agenda, but with an intense curiosity about the people you meet. Reorient your interest away from yourself and towards the other.

You may be surprised how quickly you find that you have something in common. You both like Schnauzers, or knitting, or muscle cars, you both have daughters, or a parent suffering from Alzheimer's. Humans are social creatures and even as we define ourselves into tribal groups, we are also driven to find common ground. For extra credit, cultivate friendships with people who do not believe the same things you do.

Be a good conversationalist.
They don't call it the "art" of conversation for nothing. It doesn't always come naturally. Imperfect as it is, conversation is the best way to find out why other people think and act and feel the way they do. The more people you talk to the more equipped you'll be to write dialogue that feels real and conveys each character's individuality.

First, listen.
Really listen. I work on this all the time, especially with friends because there's always so much I want to talk about. I try to tell myself, listen first. Even brief exchanges with strangers, in line for coffee – or when you give that coffee to the homeless guy sitting on the curb – can be fruitful. Listen and take in what you hear without judgment (this is not the same as not expressing an opinion). Just keep in mind that it's not always about you.

Then, talk.
You have to open up because empathy is a two-way street. How can anyone trust you with their fears and crazy schemes if you don’t ante up too? More importantly, you can’t truly be receptive to another person’s point of view if you can’t allow yourself to be vulnerable. Learning empathy has a lot to do with experiencing your own vulnerability, and it’s the price of admission for a real connection to another human being.

Be trustworthy
It doesn’t pay for anyone to be vulnerable if there isn’t trust. If someone shares something personal, or emotionally difficult, they have given you a gift in trust. Be worthy of their generosity by keeping it well.

Put on those shoes.
And then walk a mile in them. Be like an actor researching a role, and put yourself in real life situations that are new and different. Take a variety of jobs, travel to exotic places (and stray from the tour group), volunteer for an organization that helps people you wouldn't normally meet.

Now that you've opened your senses to the world and gotten in touch with the people around you, it's time to do something with all this input. Develop an ambitious imagination - the key word here is AMBITIOUS. You will use it practically, when empathizing with someone who has a very different worldview than your own to imagine where they come from, and to extrapolate why they hold the views they do.

When you write, your imagination is your bread and butter. I believe absolutely everyone has a great imagination, just sometimes we get in the habit of keeping it hemmed in, tamped down, locked away.

Know that your imagination is vast; it contains multitudes. Let it stretch and play. Go to the bright places and to the dark places. Be an adventurer. Use the raw material you gather in your every day, empathetic interactions to feed the fire of your imagination.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Practice of Gratitude

Hope by George Frederic Watts 1886
It seems like I just posted about all the things that make me happy in writing and in life. Yet, over the past couple months, events have conspired to keep my mind on the idea of gratitude.

We had a lot of challenges over the holidays, nothing truly awful, but not much fun either. The roof over our bed developed a leak (due to low-bid contract work on our addition to the house, i.e. the original builders were not roofers). The roof over our bedroom essentially had to be replaced. The week before Christmas, the timing belt on my car wore out. I'm hoping to upgrade to a new car someday soon, making expensive repairs on this one especially galling. Right after Christmas – the day we were to leave for our family vacation – I broke a crown. 

Just before all this happened, a family we know lost their dad. The girls know his daughters, so we all went to the funeral. That's the kind of thing that will really keep your head screwed on straight when facing the stumbling blocks in your own path. We all stepped out of that church with a deep sadness and a sense of gratitude that trumped everything else.

In the weeks between the funeral and Christmas, I thought a lot about what it means to move through each day with a sense of gratitude that is decoupled from the events of that day. This gratitude didn't make dealing with our troubles any more pleasant. I wanted to swim, but it seemed that I was stuck treading water.

We moved some money around to pay for the roof, and when I was at the grocery store that week, I was grateful that I could get our usual groceries and grateful for our pantry and fridge full of good food. I was grateful for my fantastic husband who, with a no-big-deal attitude, paid for the timing belt in my car. I told him to put a bow on it and call it a Christmas present (shhh, don't tell the kids: new roofs and replaced timing belts are grown up Christmas presents). Despite my broken crown, my tooth didn't hurt. Amazingly, one of the dentists at our practice was in on Boxing Day and "patched" it before we headed out of town for our vacation.

Gratitude is like the oil that keeps the wheels moving, especially when you hit a rough patch. It's an attitude that you can arm yourself with to meet whatever the day throws at you. I believe that the practice of gratitude has not only positively affected my life; it has also improved the productivity and depth of my writing. It has given me more stamina and resilience to slog through the challenges, so that I have something left to give to my writing.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Take a Sensory Inventroy

Still Life With Chessboard (The Five Senses) by Lubin Baugin, 1630
I’m still thinking about writing and living in the moment. Today, I’m thinking about the practice of close observation. We tend to walk through life taking in what we take in without thinking too much about it. Most of the time life actually requires us to be focused on whatever task is at hand and shut out much of the world around us. This is why it’s even more important to take time to step back and observe your surroundings through a wide-angle lens, using all your senses.

There's a game I used to play with friends, when I had the kind of unstructured time to lollygag around and invent these kinds of diversions. I wish I had a nifty name for it but I'll just call it the sensory inventory. For me, it started in Bestor Plaza at Chautauqua Institution (where I spent my summers as a kid), but you can do it anywhere.

Simply sit still for a few minutes, and inventory everything you observe, sense by sense. You can do this out loud with a friend or alone in your journal. Priscilla Long suggests some very similar exercises in her excellent book The Writer’sPortable Mentor: A guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life.

I think most of us with decent eyesight tend to rely too much on just seeing. Still, it's a good one to start with. Look around you – without purpose. Try to see everything just as it is. Don't be afraid to stare. Point (if it won't get you into trouble). Really study what you see. Be aware of your peripheral vision too. What impression do the things at the very fringes of your vision make? What attracts your eye? Color? Movement? How do sounds or smells interact with what you’re seeing, or direct what you look at?

Now listen. We are constantly surrounded by sound. Inside there’s the hum of the refrigerator, the whine of the desk lamp, the whir of the computer fan. I live within 20 minutes of an airport and near a highway, so our neighborhood is filled with sound. Flight patterns that change according to wind direction, and the ebb and flow of traffic throughout the day. If I can’t sleep, I listen. Sometimes, a local owl calls wistful “who whos” against the whir of sparse late-night traffic. For a moment those sounds will be covered by the hectic whine of a motorcycle winding up on the now open road.

Next time you visit a friend or neighbor’s house; try to parse the different smells. Do they cook different food? Keep their doors and windows tightly shut up or wide open? Can you smell the wisteria that grows just beyond their back porch?

I take my kids to horse camp one week every summer. Coming and going, I consciously try to parse and inventory the smells (and sights and sounds, of course). This served me well when I wrote "The Horses." It's not just manure and horse sweat, there's the smell of straw heated by the sun and the super fine dust (pulverized by so many hooves) that coats everything, including the inside of your nose. Because there's so many kids around, the horses get fed loads of carrots and you can smell it on their breath. (Do you think of the color orange when you smell carrots? I do.)

(tip - if your trying to get better at smelling, open your mouth too, you smell with your tongue as well as your nose)

Eat slowly (it's better for your digestion anyway). If you’re eating food that you didn't cook, try to identify the ingredients that went into it. I remember having some chicken wings at a kid’s party and being pleased to identify white pepper in the rub (the cook was pleased with my observation, too). Offer your guesses to the cook or your fellow diners for comparison. People love talking about food.

If you see something that fascinates you and you can, touch it. What materials is it made of? Is it warm or cold? Think about the differences between similar materials. Does the wooden salad bowl feel different than the wooden railing on the porch? How does holding different materials make you feel? For example, the feel of a plastic bottle verses a tall glass in your hand.

Then there’s the human touch. Simply shaking hands gives you a world of information about a person in a touch that lasts only a few seconds. Think about all the people you've shaken hands with, and how different each hand, coarse and warm, soft and small, or so old and frail that you are afraid to apply any pressure, choosing instead to make a gentle sandwich, holding that person's hand lightly between both of yours.

Don’t Forget to Observe Yourself

Think a little bit about your observational biases and preferences. Do you key in on how people drive, or what kind of car they have? When you are talking with someone, are you most struck by what they’re wearing or the verbal tick they keep repeating like some personal catch phrase? Do you notice the animals in your neighborhood? Is it the stray cats and people with their dogs, or the family of crows that always seem to be arguing in the tree outside your kitchen window? Do you kill any spider you find in your house, or let them be in hope that they'll kill the mosquitoes that find their way inside?

Think about how your emotions might effect your perception. How do you feel about a cold rainy day when you have to stand at the bus stop in the weather to get to work? How do you feel about that same weather on a day when you don't have anything pressing to do and can curl up under a blanket and read a novel? Emotions can color what we perceive or vice versa. How does a windy, sunny day affect our mood, compared with a windless day when the sky is blanketed with soft gray clouds?

Mindful observation is its own reward. Before long, you will find that you are noticing more and more all the time. And, of course, it also pays off when you’re in front of a blank page and have to create a lived experience for the story you want to tell. 

Don’t forget to stay in the moment. Try not to be distracted with thoughts about how you might use the moment in some future piece of writing (even if you set out to have an experience as research for a particular story –a particularly fun excuse to try something new IMO). You're going to trust your memory to that; this is all about filling up the well.