Sideways: how fiction writing can be effective in an activist age

What good does writing fiction do in a world torn by political tensions, some of which are urgent matters of life and death?

I take some solace in these wise words from author Ray Bradbury: “And what, you ask, does writing teach us? First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is gift and a privilege, not a right…. So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.”

It’s hard to sit down and write today, seeing the news, the ridiculous undermining of our freedoms, the life-and-death matters in so many countries. It almost feels wrong to make art, to create. If you’re an artist or author or musician like me, then you know this feeling. But that feeling is bad aim — the arts are far more important than they at first seem.  One of the best discussions of this effect is over at Chuck Wendig’s blog, “How to create art and make cool stuff in a time of trouble.”

Beyond the personal attitudes we each have as writers, there’s the simple fact that all of the arts contain and promote political thought. Thus autocrats and totalitarians always want to control the arts, censor them. By so doing they believe that they can control the dialogue and debate, and even control what people think. Art has far more power than that, but the autocrats know it has power and politics. In contrast to their desire to silence us, we should embrace our power as artists and writers and make more and better art when we can.

Writers often engage political issues. In his 1946 essay ‘Why I Write’ George Orwell said, “No book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” There’s no avoiding how our art, music, theater, and writing include viewpoints, and that each viewpoint reflects, amplifies, and contests our politics.

Recognizing this mixture of viewpoints is important to me, a rebellious liberal who grew up in a conservative home. My liberal inclinations meant I had to advocate for myself and various ideas, while learning to negotiate a world where those closest to me disagreed, or found my questions heretical or sinful — the arts were counterculture. (True story: one teacher nicknamed my ‘Scheckler the Heckler’ because I asked too many questions; and yes, I’m still proud of it!) But if I’d conformed to every Catholic guilt-trip that my community tried to levy, I might have missed James Baldwin’s essays, or Asimov’s stories infused with his atheism, or Alice Walker’s honesty, or Kurt Vonnegut’s hate of war. It took gall, spit, and curiosity to go beyond the ideals of my closest associates. But even then, as anyone who’s ever witnessed an argument across the Thanksgiving table knows, direct debate inflames passions rather than builds understandings across our differences. How does fiction work around such arguments?

science fiction painting

Future Frolic, 10×7, acrylics

Here’s how I think of it… You know that great and rousing convention speech from Michelle Obama, “When they go low, we go high”? I agree with her that striving for decency and seeking out the better angels of our nature is critical. (And it’s quite sad to see the reverse, an insult-clown gain the election). But fiction is a bit different. Relying on fiction is like this: When some of us go low and some of us go high, some of us tend to go sideways. Or go wide. Or go upside-down.

I have a friend who’s pro-Trump. Almost as soon as we debate politics, to him I’m a snooty know-it-all over-sensitive liberal douche. And that’ll anger me and I’ll start quoting articles such as these over at wilwheaton’s tumblr.  I’m no better; soon I’m thinking my friend’s a fascist windbag ignoramus who’s probably racist and who can’t call out his candidate’s lies, and who doesn’t see that behind the lies are deeply damaging policy proposals to gut health care, deny the sciences, destroy social safety nets and deny civil rights all while turning a buck for his own businesses. The argument encourages absolute divisions. But my friend likes baseball. And good grief, the Cubs actually won! We can talk about baseball. (Or Star Trek, or any number of other interests that we have in common.) Establishing that we have some common ground off to the side of our main disagreement helps us listen to each other when tougher topics arrive.

Sooner or later tough topics arise because, just as art is always political, everything has political dimensions. Maybe baseball becomes stories about Jackie Robinson’s life as the first black American major league baseball player, toward Civil Rights. Or maybe the discussion goes a different direction. The point is that we just talked to each other.  We found a path around our disagreements. That builds rapport, and the opportunity to keep talking. Fiction writing, and a lot of art, serves this same purpose of bringing people together despite their vivid disagreements. Stepping sideways does not mean giving up on your ideals and beliefs. It means identifying a problem, then going around it instead of straight at.

What does this mean in the context of fiction writing? It’s about the imaginary contexts of fiction. The imaginary turns us on our heads, toward a virtual-world dramatized. Imagined characters in unreal settings, however realistic they may appear within the mind’s eye, can be so compelling that they provoke our emotions. In fiction writing this technique is the act of dramatization rather than exposition. Often the tactic is taught as ‘show don’t tell,’ which suggests writers rely on writing action, character and scene rather than summary explanation. The fiction takes us aside ourselves, outside the lock-jawed oppositions of our own thinking, and helps us be in other worlds, empathetic. This bridges our imaginations; it changes us for the better in a way that blunt-force direct debate cannot.

The complexity of longer-form writings also helps us pause, reflect and consider. Author Ann Patchett, in discussing literary awards, wrote, “Let me underscore the obvious here: Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.” (New York Times, “And the Winner Isn’t…“)

The goodness of fiction might reflect a bit of what Einstein meant when he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Knowledge depicts the known, but storytelling can include the unknown, the uncertain, our mistakes, the complexities and nuances, the degrees of difference and similarity.

The stakes are far higher in real life. The facts we ignore, the policies we approve and the laws we pass can harm us in real ways. Too often they engender real cruelty, awful discrimination, and even loss of life. These negations must be resisted. But fiction gives us an unreal space to pause, to consider, to dream alive. Fiction’s space isn’t exactly a safe space, but at least it’s different, a change of space and a new imagination and one that is shared across divisions of political party and belief. In the hot mess of today’s political tensions, the dangers of our time imply that we will need far more imagination.

In other words: keep creating when you can. Making great art is exactly what censors and naysayers don’t want us to do.

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For more on writers developing activist stances through their work, recommended links:

On poetry and activisit literature, see many essays at What is Literary Activism

Interview with Edwidge Danticat: NEA Art Works Blog interview, 2014

On current events: “What Just Happened? Seven NYC Writers Respond to the 2016 Presidential Election”

On current events: “Aftermath Sixteen Writers on Trumps America

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Thank you for reading.

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About The Author

Gregory Scheckler

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