152. Knowing what and how to write

This is an open response to Sue Hampton’s blog post “For the First Time in 15 Years I Don’t Know What or How to Write. She explores the dilemma of how to write truthfully and meaningfully in this era of climate catastrophe and the Black Lives Matter movement

Sue, your blog post moved me profoundly. That made me think, and think about my own writing. I would have posted this reply on your blog, but I couldn’t find a comment function.

Your analysis was fearless. I think you share your dilemma with Mao Tse Tung. He wrote poetry, as well as being the father of modern communist China. To his chagrin, he wrote what he considered bourgeois poetry. Like you, he wanted his writing to serve his cause. You write “This is a context so overwhelming that to write as if the crisis isn’t happening, like the billionaire press, seems to me immoral.” Mao finally decided that he was a man formed in the old China and that he could write in no other way. The next generation, he thought, would write the poetry of the new China.

Great moments of history don’t necessarily lead to great works of literature because we are in the middle of them. A considered understanding of what they mean may have to belong to the next generation. If you’re in the middle of a great war, all you can see is the “Naming of the Parts”.

As our ancestors emerged from the First World War, the so-called “Spanish Flu” killed millions more than the guns and the mud of the trenches. And yet, we had forgotten all about that last global pandemic until we faced our own, a hundred years later. My grandparents who had been through those times never once mentioned the Great Flu, though they talked a lot about the Great War.  

Perhaps the lesson is we are always passing through great moments of history, though we don’t necessarily see this. The nineteenth century, for example, was extraordinarily turbulent with the social devastation of the industrial revolution, the struggles for the abolition of slavery, for labour rights, for women’s enfranchisement. Some, but not all, of that colours the work of writers like Dickens. And before that, upheaval stretches back through wars, revolutions, pandemics. Shakespeare, for example, wrote merrily through the Black Death.

If we look through that lens, Shakespeare’s pandemic is present throughout his writing  (“a plague on both your houses”) though none of it is explicitly about the plague.

Coming back to our times, we can’t help being rooted in the past that formed us, like Mao, even as our feet us march forward into the future. But we can never be the children of that future. We can’t write about that future, because we haven’t seen it.  Of course, writers do imagine the future. But the future each age imagines always looks remarkably like its present. The future imagined in the science fiction I grew up was really the Cold War of a present dominated by the threat of nuclear annihilation and the ideological contention of two great blocs.

We can’t even write fully about the present, because we don’t fully understand it. Only when it becomes the past, and historians have picked over its bones, will writers have the tools and the distance to grapple with it.

But everything we write is suffused by the liquor of the present and the future it threatens or promises. Whatever we write about, even pulp romance, will steam with what is cooking underneath. I think of it a bit like Leibnitz’s monads, or like a hologram, in which the shadow of the whole is present in every part of a thing.

I fear writing activist literature. This is not because I think “art” is a higher truth. I believe every work of fiction is inescapably political, each with its unstated and unacknowledged moral calculus about who should be praised and who should be blamed. I fear writing activist literature because of the likelihood that it will be bad literature and, also therefore, bad activism.

But I do recognize that everything I write is suffused with the ideas of right and wrong, relevance and irrelevance, that have been shaped by my society, my upbringing and my activism. In writing my novel, The Tears of Boabdil, I grappled with some of the issues you mention in your post.

All the characters, bar two,  are of British Asian Muslim heritage. This is not my heritage, and so writing these characters caused me some effort and considerable research. The novel deals with issues of truth and lies, of necessity and abuse, of goodness and wickedness. It’s not intended to be a comfortable or comforting read, but to raise questions about freedom and security. I’m sure it’s shaped by being a man, being white, being non-Muslim, and by being born into an era whose fears and hopes were rather different from today.  But it is nonetheless, I think, a book suffused with today’s issues without necessarily being about them.

The novel I’m working on is, in some ways, informed by the ecological crisis without (probably) ever being about it. It’s about boundaries and about our illusion that we can create zones within which we’re “safe”. Perhaps, I hope, the readers will come away with a changed understanding of today’s lexicon of “safety” and “tipping points”.

I’m so glad you’ve found a route through your maze, though of course the bull always lurks at the centre. My message, and perhaps yours, is that it’s possible to write in the midst of great events because we are probably always in the midst of great event. Whether we write about them explicitly or not, they will poke their heads up, distorting the net of our words into recognisable shapes.

5 thoughts on “152. Knowing what and how to write

  1. I have never had aspirations to write about huge subjects – but even in light ent writing, aspects of era will creep in. My almost-completed book alludes to the perils of ageing alone and my most recent short story is a poke in the ribs of the huge supply agents we have become enslaved by. An elderly woman tells an outrageous lie because she wants to be famous and a young student of journalism believes her because it’s going to make a great article – and because she lives in an era when most people still seem to be exploited. But in summary, I write to entertain, holding tightly to the belief that like Coward (only much less so, of course) I have a talent to amuse and my aim has always been to pour the metaphorical wine after a person doing a real job has turned in a shift.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for contributing, Jilly. Poking fun has a long and distinguished history from at least Jonathan Swift on. And, of course, even what we consider funny reflects the age and culture to which we belong

      Liked by 1 person

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