Thursday, July 7, 2011

On writing for change and changing my writing

I renewed my library card last night at the Capital Area District Library and borrowed Writing to Change the World. It was written in 2006 by Mary Pipher, Ph.D., a former therapist who also wrote the 1994 New York Times bestseller, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.

I chose this book for a few reasons. First, Dr. Pipher dedicated it “to Anne Frank and Nelson Mandela and to those writers from all over the world who, in all times and places, have written to make things better.” Who doesn’t want to consider themselves in the same arena, if not the same box or row, as Anne Frank and Nelson Mandela?

Secondly, before I even made it to the table of contents, I ran across the following quote by James Baldwin:

"You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can't, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world...The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way...people look at reality, then you can change it."

I love the idea that my thoughts and objections and rants, my sentences and paragraphs, might actually have an impact, might stick with my readers and reshape, even slightly, the way another person thinks or feels or interprets something.

When I got home and started reading, I found myself bummed out by page two of the introduction:

“I can name salient examples of our harsh world – the deterioration of the ozone later, deforestation, and the enormous differences in wealth across nations and within our own. We live in a world where twenty-seven million people live in slavery, a world where poor children make toys for rich children, where the World Food Program cuts distribution because of lack of funds while two-thirds of Americans fight obesity. We humans have become the species of nuclear weapons and genocide, one that is killing itself and all other living things.”

It’s a good thing Dr. Pipher moved on or I might have started sobbing and that would have surely awakened Anita, who was sleeping soundly next to me, oblivious, apparently, to the immense pain and suffering and evil in the world.

I haven’t gotten far but from what I’ve read so far, I’m doing it wrong. Dr. Pipher believes the goal of “change writing” is “not to evoke one particular set of ideas, feelings, and actions, but rather to foster awareness and growth.” It’s doubtful that I’m fostering growth among my readership through my angry missives and bitchy diatribes, although strong and loyal readers are probably more aware of what’s wrong with the world if they’re able to make it to the end of a post.

I hope this book teaches me how to write compellingly about tough issues without turning people off. One friend told me she doesn’t even read my stuff unless I’m writing about my kids. She said she feels better after reading the posts about my family but worse when she reads about politics, and she prefers better over worse. When I asked how I’m supposed to get people to care about important stuff going on in Lansing or Washington if I don’t just lay it out there in black and white, she answered, “You don’t. It’s not your job to change the world. Just make your readers happy.”

That was the first time I wished I was 233 pounds of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream instead of a guy who writes about politics. I hope it won’t be the last.

Many cool and inspirational quotations from Tier One writers are sprinkled throughout the 226-page book:

  • “A true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life.”  (Tobias Wolff)

  • “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.”  (Isak Dinesen)

  • “We can spend our whole lives fishing only to discover in the end it wasn’t fish we were after.” (Henry David Thoreau)

  • “I shall allow no man to belittle my soul by making me hate him."  (Booker T. Washington)

I need to work on that last one because it seems like the older I get, the more I hate. Well, maybe not “hate,” but certainly “despise with a deeply-rooted passion to the point that I’d probably hit this person in the back of the head with a brick if I could do so without fear of apprehension or prosecution.”

I haven’t even finished the 15-page introduction and already I feel like changing something. Dr. Pipher’s good.

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