Writing for Change

Over the holiday weekend I drafted a letter to the editor of my area’s two weekly newspapers, the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette. (Can you guess where I live?) The letter dealt with ways to reduce gun violence. By the time I emailed it off yesterday morning, eight other women had reviewed it, commented, and signed on. All were members of a local women’s group I belong to. (A 10th signer was added last night.) You can read the pre-publication text on the website I manage for this group.

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about Postcards to Voters (PTV), a national all-volunteer outfit that writes get-out-the-vote (GOTV) postcards to Democratic voters in state and municipal elections across the country. My #1 goal was to let others know about PTV and encourage them to get involved. To make sure I got my facts right, I emailed the link to the leader of the group. He emailed back to say he’d already shared the link with a candidate inquiring about PTV and was planning to do so again.

On the editorial side, when I first saw the political e-newsletter What The Fuck Just Happened Today? (WTFJHT — “Today’s essential guide to the shock and awe in national politics”), it was love at first sight. When curator-editor-publisher Matt Kiser put out a call for assistance — not just for financial contributions to enable him to do this full-time but for volunteers to help with the writing and editing — I thought, Hey, I can do this.

So now I copyedit most issues on the fly. The first draft of each issue usually appears online in very early afternoon Eastern Time (Matt’s on the West Coast). I’m on- and off-line a lot while I’m working, so I generally catch it not long after it posts. Editing is via GitHub (which took me a while to figure out, but I managed).  Matt appreciates my contribution, I keep up with the national news, and I have the immense satisfaction of putting my skills to good use.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about writing and editing, it’s usually with the product in mind: books, stories, poems, reviews, plays. newspaper features, blog posts, etc. I tend to forget that writing and editing are also useful skills with lots of practical applications. In these trying political times, the need for clear writing has never been greater. For starters, activist groups frequently have occasion to issue press releases, letters to the editor, position papers, and calls to action.

Plenty of people have the ability to produce such documents, but those of us who practice writing and/or editing as vocation or avocation have an edge that comes with experience. An example: On social media and in the organizations I’m involved with, I’ve noticed that capable writers often don’t think enough about their audience. I’ve seen arguments and even flamewars ignited by careless wording. Earnest activists sometimes forget that to be effective, what they write must be read and, ideally, shared; and readers all too readily skip over documents that are so jam-packed with detail that there’s no white space on the page.

Press releases and letters to the editor are more likely to make it into print if they’re clear, concise, accurate, and well organized. Posters are more effective when the information on them is correct and complete, and if you’re paying for printing, it’s a lot cheaper to get it right the first time. Lots of people can spot the occasional typo (and crow loudly about their catch!), but it takes someone with proofreading or copyeditorial experience to maintain the focus to do it consistently.

So, writers and editors, the Resistance needs your skills, and maybe you’d find the experience of putting them to good if unpaid use immensely satisfying.

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W Is for Write

There’s a verb for you.

By writing the writer spins a thread of written words from some mysterious place in her brain.

Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

Maybe what you most need to know is whether you’re a writer or not, a real writer. Writers wonder about this a lot, especially writers who don’t make a living writing or aspire to make a living or even part of a living from writing. Also writers who can’t point to books — ideally several books — that have their name on the cover, or a sheaf of clippings with their byline at the top.

Writers are ingenious at coming up with reasons they’re not real writers. Do nurses and carpenters and cooks and teachers keep coming up with reasons that they’re not real nurses and carpenters, cooks and teachers?

I blogged about this a while back, in “What Makes a Real Writer?” I don’t have a whole lot to add to that, and once again I’d refer all worried writers everywhere to Marge Piercy’s classic poem “For the Young Who Want To.”

For me the key is, was, and always will be “The real writer is one / who really writes.” But read the whole thing anyway.

These days I’m not all that worried about whether I’m a writer or not. Whatever else I am, I’m someone who can write well, who has writing in her toolkit, well honed and ready for action. I see myriad ways out there that this particular skill can be useful, from telling stories to reporting or analyzing news to blogging to trying to keep political discussions on social media reasonably focused and civil.

Writing is important, whether you call yourself a writer or not.

It’s a rare writer who can do all the things that writers collectively can do, but it’s an equally rare writer who can do only one thing.

Another Piercy classic is “To Be of Use.” You can probably infer the gist from the title alone, but again — read the whole thing. Here’s the stanza that grabbed me by both hands this time through:

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

 

In the world these days we’ve got fires to put out and fires to keep going and fires to rekindle from scratch. Writing can do all these things.

Write.

Write.

Write.

N Is for Narrative

Like many other word people, the cataclysmic 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign and its ongoing aftermath got me wondering whether my particular skills as a writer and editor could be useful and, if so, how. Clarity and accuracy seemed way down low on the country’s priority list.

Then in late January, I found Theodora Goss’s blog post “The Politics of Narrative Patterns.” It began like this:

There are all sorts of reasons the American election went the way it did, but I think one of them, and perhaps quite an important one, was the way in which our thinking is determined by narrative patterns. What do I mean by narrative patterns? I mean that in narratives, in stories, there are underlying patterns we are familiar with. They recur from story to story: stories are often variations on these patterns. When we encounter these patterns, we feel fulfilled, comfortable — we recognize them, we like to read about them. We like variation, but only a certain amount of variation. Too much variation makes us feel unsatisfied, as though somehow the story is written “wrong.”

After discussing some narrative patterns popular in our culture, Goss notes that male characters have more archetypal options than female characters. Right, thought I, thinking of the path-breaking work writers of f/sf (fantasy and science fiction, hands-down my #1 go-to choice for fiction) have been doing since the 1970s and earlier to expand the possibilities for female characters.

Then Goss ties this to presidential elections, past and present. “People did not get so excited by Barack Obama, when he first ran, because of his policies,” she writes. “No, he was the young hero who had overcome adversity and triumphed.”

And Donald Trump? “He fit another narrative pattern: the stranger who rides into town and imposes order, bringing justice to the frontier. . . . It did not hurt him that he was not morally pure, because we do not expect the gunslinger to be morally pure — no, that’s reserved for heroes.”

Immediately it dawned on me that the wise old man in the race, the Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and maybe Walter Cronkite character, was clearly Bernie Sanders. Wise old(er) men have loomed large in my fantasy life since I was a kid, but I never “felt the Bern.” The more I researched his record, the less impressed I was. But I had such a hard time conveying my reservations to my many, many Sanders-supporting friends that I finally stopped trying.

When a narrative pattern takes hold, facts take a back seat. This applies to writing as well as politics: novels that capture the public imagination and become runaway best-sellers seldom do it on their literary merits alone. Don’t tell me the gatekeepers of the publishing world, the agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, et al., are impervious to the power of narrative patterns!

What about women? asks Theodora Goss. Plucky girls are OK, but what happens when they grow up? “We only have two patterns for older women who want political power. One is the Virgin Queen, like Elizabeth I: a woman is fit to wield power if she is willing to give up other aspects of being a woman, such as marital relationships or children.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t  fit this pattern. “What was left?” Goss asks. “The Wicked Queen. We know what she does — she seizes power (illegitimately) for her own gain, to satisfy her own ambition. She kills people or has them killed (this too was a criticism lodged against Clinton). And the Wicked Queen cannot be allowed to gain power — she must be defeated. All of our stories have told us that, from childhood on.”

Walk around that for a while. It resonates.

It also brings me round to the question of what can we word people do in this world where it seems our skills are only valued if we put them in the service of spin, obfuscation, manipulation, and outright lying.

It brought Theodora Goss around to a similar place. At first she thought (feared?) that writing had no use and maybe she should have gone into another line of work. “But now I think that one of our most important tasks is telling stories, and I am a storyteller. I am a perpetuator and creator of narrative patterns. That means I have an obligation to be aware of the patterns, to wield them in ways that are good, and true, and useful. And I can create new patterns.”

That’s the key: the old patterns won’t lose their power with the wave of a pen, but they can be undermined and transformed, and new patterns can be created. I saw it happening in f/sf, where women went from being add-ons and sidekicks to having their own adventures.

Well into the 1960s, lesbian characters in pulp fiction had basically two options: go straight or die. Cracks began to appear in the pattern before the end of the ’50s, and over the following decades, thanks in large part to lesbian and feminist writers, presses, and readers, new patterns were created. In many quarters these days “go straight or die” is an anachronism.

Note my inclusion of “readers” here. The culture’s narrative patterns are very strong, and the gatekeepers, often citing “market forces,” have a vested interest in perpetuating them. Books that break or undermine the dominant patterns are unsettling, and plenty of people don’t like being unsettled. It wasn’t a commercial press that broke the back of the “go straight or die” lesbian stereotype: it was Daughters., Inc., the small lesbian press that in 1973 published Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. The novel’s “underground” popularity caught the attention of mainstream publishers, and Rubyfruit Jungle went on to become a mass-market best-seller — and a cultural icon for a lot of us.

Narrative patterns are deeply rooted in all our heads. They’re our default settings when we read, when we write, when we choose among political candidates. They’re powerful for sure, but they aren’t invincible. Words, our words, can change them, one story at a time.