It’s the End of the World. How Do Writers Bear Witness To It?

 

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By Julie Tyler

We’ve all clicked on the click-bait confirming Election 2016 to be more demoralizing than ever. As candidates’ dirty laundry hangs in the public square flapping in the breeze, voters divide themselves and rally for the “lesser of two evils.” Political Tweetstorms and Facebook rants have supplanted the kitten videos and duckface selfies of yore.

And the election isn’t all that’s going on. Millions of refugees have left their homes as bombs continue to ravage cities. Schools and night clubs are vulnerable to shooting sprees. Enough of the environment has been polluted that we wonder whether Earth can sustain human life for much longer.

In other words, it’s the end of the world (as we’ve known it, at least).

Lately, I’ve been watching these particular crises unfold, knowing there’ll be other ones, and brainstorming new ways in which my writing can address what’s going on in the world. A number of questions come up:

  • Where does this desire to write about what’s going on come from?
  • If I do write this kind of stuff, what forms would it take in fiction?
  • What would this kind of stuff actually accomplish?

I have only a few concrete answers.

One of my favorite authors, Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, recently appeared on NPR’s interview series to discuss Election 2016. Diaz began by acknowledging that,

“…One of the strange things about being a literary artist is that we’re called upon in our work to bear witness to the times that we’re writing about.”

He added that having this mindset “sharpens one’s lens.”

This segment wasn’t focused on a writer’s obligations—rather, Diaz spent more time discussing the demonization of immigrants and citizens’ lack of opportunity to vote on important issues—but I was still struck by this notion of a writer’s calling and I wondered where it comes from. Listening to Diaz’s radio voice and having read his fiction, I imagine that his calling to bear witness comes from within. I imagine that it is NOT an obligation laid on him by the academic-industrial complex to write about whatever social or political topic is trending at the moment.

For several years now I have heard a call from within to “bear witness” to many ideas, some of which include depicting our current moment in history. I left an academic career, as I wrote in a previous post, to pursue a creative one, believing that my stories could “inspire readers to think more about their place in the world.” I hope that one day I can reach audiences as large and receptive as Diaz’s. I won’t know in every case what readers do after reading and thinking, but I enjoy thinking about the possibilities.

The end of the world (as we’ve known it) is a special time for creators to create, to interpret reality in different ways, and to think about what it means to be human. It’s an inspiring time to write what we are called from within to write. It’s a darn good time to begin a new world. We writers know that a world without stories isn’t a world worth living in.

If we choose to write about a social, historical, or political topic we need to remember that a lot is at stake. We need to do our homework. Let’s start by:

  • Reading as much “witness-bearing” literature as we can. For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) both bear witness to the evils of slavery, but were written from different historical vantage points. Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin when slavery was still active, while Morrison wrote Beloved over a century after slavery was abolished, with a mind to upgrade how history is understood.  
  • Thinking about what’s at stake for these authors: a career, a legacy, a reputation, and the list goes on. 
  • Thinking about what’s at stake for readers who miss out on these texts: a more comprehensive understanding of the world and heightened awareness of their place in it.  
  • Conducting as much research as possible about the social/political topic and being familiar with all perspectives on it.  
  • Creating a story-world that resonates with readers and what they know (or need to know) about the times we’re bearing witness to. 
  • Creating characters who directly experience the impact of the events we are depicting. 

*****

I want to close with a note about social media as one of the places where a new world can begin. While I’ve made it a personal rule not to engage in political discussions on social media, I am grateful to read posts every now and then that provide eloquent insight into various issues. My best friend Deidre recently composed one such post and has given me permission to include a link to her page. A talented scholar and writer, Deidre highlighted recent news of Mr. Trump’s sexual exploits and spoke about rape culture in our society.

I admire Deidre for being authentic, for sharing her personal experiences, and for sparking dialogue in the public sphere. I admire her for having the courage to face the scrutiny of her family members, coworkers, students, and other stakeholders in the world we are creating. I thank her for supporting me in everything I do.

In what ways does your writing bear witness to our times or to the human condition at large? Share your ideas in the comments below!

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