“It would be a poor sort of world if one were only able to read authors who expressed points of view that one agreed with entirely. It would be a bland sort of world if we could not spend time with people who thought differently, and who saw the world from a different place.”
-Neil Gaiman, from his introduction to “Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror and Fantasy,” collected in The View from the Cheap Seats (Morrow, 2016)
Today was my last instructional day with my motley crew of English 101 students. Despite my pervasive sense that I was really too busy this quarter to teach a class, I enjoyed this batch of students. They were fresh and enthusiastic. Many of them were still in high school; no one was older than 19. Although they were uniformly very young, they were truly an assortment. They came from all over Snohomish county and from all walks of life — athletes, gamers, science majors, artists — and even represented a small range of ethnic backgrounds. They were conservative and liberal, radical and undecided. We managed to avoid any knock-downs over politics by agreeing that it was better that we didn’t agree on everything. If we all agreed 100%, then we’d be living in a sci-fy world — we’d be clones, or robots. It would be bad.
Neil Gaiman would agree (on that at least), though he’d probably want to explore the subject further by writing a dystopian book about it.
I told my students that I didn’t care how they voted. What I was there to teach them was how to be informed, how to read closely and widely, how to think, and how to write — which can be described as how to have a voice and how to use that voice effectively.
(And while we’re talking about Neil Gaiman, here’s his advice for how to behave in tough times: http://www.uarts.edu/neil-gaiman-keynote-address-2012.)
“The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in your mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.” -Sarah Manguso
I have been thinking about villains; specifically, I have been wondering why it is that oppressive regimes often give rise to the best art, why apathy is converted to action by conflict. I have been brooding on how it is that we (that I) will do almost anything to avoid conflict, when — obviously — it is so good for us. Is enlightenment possible without it? Can you play music on strings that have no tension? I think it was Helen Keller who said that it isn’t an absence of hardship that makes us strong, but mastery of it.
As writers, we can’t steep ourselves in a world view that reflects only our own view. We can’t wallow (not for too long). We have to be willing to interview the vampire, deal with the devil, and shake hands with opposing view points. We have to invite in the other, respectfully, and we have to listen much much more than we talk.
If you want to stand up for social justice, then you will need to explore what its opposite looks like.
“To write what you know needn’t mean a fictional rehashing of your own circumstances: it sometimes means taking a single strand from your own life – a small incident, an inexplicably resonant encounter, an unnamed feeling – and giving it to another, a fictional creation with whom you share not race or gender or history, but something both less defining and yet also more profound. A writer cannot make only characters who resemble her; she must allow herself a literary transgression, even if she is not certain she can pull it off – the best characters are always the most frightening to write, and they are frightening to write because they are unlike you, because they are creations, because they appear to be not mere replications of the self. It is, ironically, those characters who are also truest, because in their differences, their othernesses, they make the writer confront the largest, most troubling questions about how we live. To write this way may not be brave: but it is unafraid, and sometimes, in art, one is just as good as the other.” -HANYA YANAGIHARA (Thanks to Advice to Writers for this quote)
This week I finished rereading The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz. This is a book that I read about 15 (or more!) years ago, and which I found during my recent reorganization. Fittingly, the book is all about how to structure one’s life as a creator — and more, a book about choosing to do valuable work in the world, about choosing to be free. It is a book of great optimism for the future. One of the last chapters is a tribute to the legacy of John F. Kennedy, which, according to Fritz, was “not political,” but “orientational” (273):
When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concerns, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his experience. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. The artist, faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an offensive state.
– John F. Kennedy
I’ve been trying to read about what one can do in troubled (and troubling) times, and while I’m happy to wear a safety pin in solidarity with the marginalized, the real key, to my mind, is to BE the change, and not just post on Facebook about it.
…it’s just that today it’s more obvious.
I have been thinking about Garrison Keillor who is fond of saying that nothing bad ever happens to an English major; it’s all fodder for stories.
When I left Writing Lab today, my friend Gina called out to me, “It will make for good art and music!”
Woody Guthrie wrote his best work under oppression. Dante wrote The Divine Comedy while in exile. The poet Rabia al Basri was sold into slavery as a child.
I had never encountered Rabia until last night, when I volunteered at our church for an hour so we could keep our sanctuary open for people who needed, on Election Day, to pray. She was the first poet in a book I found at one of our prayer stations. The book is Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (Daniel Ladinsky).
May we be as faithful to our vision, as she was to hers.
In love, nothing exists between heart and heart.
Speech is born out of longing,
True description from the real taste.
The one who tastes, knows;
the one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?
And who lives as a sign for your journey?
Back in September, at my college, I began my English 101 class class by introducing the concept of cognitive dissonance. I also, that first day, asked how many students are first-generation college students. To my surprise, nearly every student raised his or her hand.
Cognitive Dissonance, in short, is the tension created when we try to hold conflicting ideas or values in our mind at the same time. One of the goals of education, perhaps counter-intuitively, is to help us be more comfortable with this tension, to be willing to live with it longer. To be willing to look at it and feel it rather than immediately act to reduce it. When we learn to tolerate tension, or what some people call discrepancy, we can become more aware of what we are really facing. We can tolerate reading articles about an opposing viewpoint. We can see clearly where we are behaving against our own best interests, and, if we choose, we can more easily change our behavior.
When you are being defensive, it’s a good bet that you are trying to avoid dissonance. When we too quickly act to avoid dissonance, we squash opposing viewpoints. We rage at these who don’t agree with us, or we tune them out. We reduce the opposition to sound bites. We demonize. (A fairly perfect definition of an election campaign TV commercial.) We might have a very high IQ, and in other circumstances enjoy reading, might be perfectly able to read and think, but in an election year (for instance) in order to reduce tension in our emotions, we refuse to listen to someone who disagrees with us–we stop subscribing to the newspaper or journals that in other times have delighted us. We don’t watch news that doesn’t pander–I use this word deliberately–to our point of view.
My advice, as a writer, is to learn to live with cognitive dissonance. Endeavor to become thoroughly cynical about what you are seeing and hearing. Be cynical even of your own convictions and opinions. Examine everything.