Writers who wish to do more than bear witness to human suffering or add to the overburden of entertainment have a responsibility to advocate for justice, humility, and compassion.
– Alison Hawthorne Deming
Recently, a friend of mine slapped me upside the head. Not literally, of course, and not intentionally; figuratively only, and in a good way, a necessary way. She posted the above quote on her blog’s Facebook page. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. I went to bed thinking about it; I got up thinking about it. I’m still thinking about it.
There is so much truth in that short little statement that I have no idea how to begin to unpack it. What exactly am I up to here?
As a writer and a human being, I am under a dual obligation, both to tell the truth and to be the truth. And it’s that second one that gets me. It’s so easy to take a bird’s-eye view when I’m sitting at my keyboard, communing with a lifeless monitor; so easy to expound upon the errors of others and lay out a carefully-crafted philosophy for living as a corrective to the world’s ills. But if I put down the message along with the pen, if I follow pontification with prevarication, then my work becomes all plot and no action: my life is, to quote the Bard, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Moreover, to act in the moment as the moment demands (one of my favorite Zen teachings, and one that challenges me every time I attempt to live it) is more difficult, more threatening, than we often imagine. True spontaneity is a rare gift; it is also the essence of authentic living; it is also usually just beyond my grasp. To be truly spontaneous is to respond to the exigencies of the moment simply because they are there, thoughtlessly, not in the sense of acting carelessly, but in the sense that action follows opportunity naturally, as inhalation follows exhalation. And for me, anyway, that sort of open response to unfolding circumstance is much more easily said than done.
I want to know how to marry deed to word. I want to be that finished product, The Compleat Writer, that Alison Hawthorne Deming references in her quote. But how to do such a thing? Will Wheaties-eating do the trick? Is it enough to say what needs to be said and hope to hell someone’s listening? More importantly, am I listening? Am I the same guy, out there in real life, that I am when I’m all crammed into this blog post?
Writing humanity is a difficult task: character development, authentic dialogue, the ability to tap into the core of human emotion–all these things require great skill in the best of writers. But humanity in writing is another thing altogether: I can’t afford to be just another one of my own characters, and my dialogue can’t get by just sounding real. I have to be willing to let others tap those human emotions right out of me; I have to bleed so they can see it; the ink and the sweat must mix.
This is a responsibility I cannot ignore. It is also one I all too often pass over unthinking. So thank you, my friend, for the wake-up call. I needed that…