A World Worth Writing For

Unfortunately, writers guilt is all too common. When we are working on a project, we feel guilty that we aren’t doing something more practical or useful – even if that task is nothing more than basic domestic chores. Ironically, as soon as we leave our desk to carry out said useful task, we feel guilty for abandoning our project. “I should be writing!” is the familiar, tedious mantra that plays in every writers’ mind.

Lately, though, I’ve been struck by the other type of guilt creatives suffer from. Perhaps you are familiar with it? The “Is my art doing anything?” guilt.

Part of me believes in art for art’s sake. With so much ugliness and helplessness in the world, I believe there is a place for aesthetically pleasing art. What harm can come from admiring something that is beautiful? What’s wrong with reading fun, frivolous fiction and indulging in the escapism it offers? Then there is the other part of me. The part of me that scorns this irresponsible reader. This placid person who chooses to read the latest bestseller while soaking in a tub of Epson salt as the world burns outside their window.

A vision that spurs the question: how can reading and writing contribute to solutions?

The “civilised” world has never been perfect. For better or for worse, technology’s omnipresence means we can no longer remain ignorant of our imperfection. In the face of these serious and urgent global issues, how can writers contribute to the crafting of solutions? Do their story-telling and communication skills offer anything of value?

Some argue that the publication of books reflecting current global issues is vital. Of course, these people tend to be authors. Ann Patchett (author) recently stated that she has moved away from reading classic literature in favour of contemporary texts. She believes that the accountability and challenging themes presented in recent works have once again made reading a political act.

To contradict Patchett’s point, I recently started reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and I have been shocked by the timeliness of the commentary. Many of Esther existential concern remain relevant today.

“I felt now that all the uncomfortable suspicions I had about myself were coming true, and I couldn’t hide the truth much longer.” (31)

“A million years of evolution […] and what are we? Animals?” (87)

This modern classic was published in 1971. A fact that saddens me slightly, as it illustrated how little we have evolved in the last 47 years. As an aside, I bought my copy of ‘The Bell Jar’ from a second-hand bookstore. The previous owner had unlined the above passages (and others) in pencil.

I wondered why someone who loved a book enough to read it with a pencil in hand would ever part with said book. This question was immediately followed by the thought, “Maybe they died?” Given the sombre tenor of these passages/the whole book and the former reader’s obvious identification with them, I hope their ending was happier than Esther/Sylvia’s … That being said, I was constantly impressed by Plath’s ability to clearly articulate what depression felt like. I’ve never experienced depression (though the evening news does test me…) but Plath’s considered descriptions of Esther’s mental state bridged that divide. I got it.

If nothing else, this is what writers can do. They can communicate ideas. They can shape messy and complex emotions into tidy sentences. They can shatter binaries and expose hidden nuance. They can repackage complex problems into comprehensible forms. But. Is this the only irrefutable claim that writers can make? That they can present readers with information?

As the saying goes, if information was the solution, we’d all be happy millionaires with ripped abs.

You can write about the issues that trouble you, but you can’t make people read your work and you definitely can’t make them do something. While the publication of cli-fi and other challenging literary works are appearing more and more, the market isn’t exactly flooded. (No pun intended).

In a recent episode of The Garrett Podcast, Jennifer Mills, author and literary editor of Overland said that while the magazine has been successful in the publishing of marginal voices, few submissions address our present-day issues like the Anthropocene (humans impact on non-humans). Instead, most of the submissions received are concerned with relationship dynamics.

Is this because readers want escapism or because writers do?

Mills, who has published her own Anthropogenic work, Dyschronia, says that she intentionally constructed a plot that offered little in the way of solutions or action because that is what she sees in society: passivity. An observation that is no doubt reinforced by the submissions she vets.

Information is key. Without it, people may not understand the depth of a problem or how to fix it. Historically, the publication of good writing has played a vital role in the mobilizing of populations and the igniting of revolutions. Within our current culture, the problem is not a lack of information but our passivity and denial in the face of it.

Perhaps this is where our writerly self-consciousness stems from. Words are the tools wielded by skilful writers, but are we simply hiding behind our profession? Perhaps we should accept the fact that the gap between information and action is too wide? That our culture is passive. That a challenging book is likely to achieve little more than a 3.5 star rating on Good Reads. That it is time to close our laptops, start a biodynamic farm, become vegan and trade our cars for bicycles…I’m not being facetious; sincerity rests in this hyperbole.

It is true that the grandiosity of the world’s problems is overwhelming, but none of these issues occurred in isolation. We are all driving cars, drinking takeaway coffees, shutting our mouths instead of speaking up, lying to our kids about where the steak on their plate came from and buying caged eggs because they’re a dollar cheaper.

We need to do better. We need to do something.

Writers can offer solutions in their weekly columns and fiction. They can encourage readers to re-evaluate their opinions and behaviours by holding up a mirror. While a single blog post cannot change the world, our combined voices do have the power to shift culture.

Together, we can aspire to create a new culture. A culture that carries re-useable cups, that walks to works and eats ethical, sustainable food. A culture that votes. A culture that allows minorities to have space without slipping into fear that they are ‘taking over.’ A culture that questions why education hasn’t changed in 150 years. A culture that swivels its gaze away from the individual to focus on the collective. A world that is less about stuff and more about substance.

That, my friends, is a world worth writing for.

Why You Should Reread Books

I love re-watching movies. Well…to clarify, I love re-watching movies that I love. Unsurprisingly, I also love rereading books that I love. Though, to be honest, rereading a beloved book from start to finish is a rare event. I certainly have done this – ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’ have both had three complete read-throughs –  but I am far more likely to reread a favourite scene or to follow a story thread through multiple chapters.

Similarly, I don’t always re-watch movies from start to finish, but since movies are typically 2-3 hours long whereas a novel can take 6-30 hours to read, depending on word count and complexity, the time required to watch a movie is far less.

Part of the value of re-watching a film is that you will notice things you missed the first time. Given that film is a visual medium, there is so much information contained within each and every shot. The first time you watch a movie, your attention will be on the foreground action, but by re-watching a film you can choose to pay closer attention to dialogue, character mannerism, the set, background action and so on. For example, a character may make a seemingly through-away comment and it is only through re-watching that you realise it was actually clever foreshadowing.

This is what re-watching offers, the ability to see all of the small details that the creators have both intentionally and perhaps unintentionally placed within the narrative. Of course, this same witnessing and pleasure also occurs when rereading, however, the effect is slightly different. There will inevitably be occasions when you zone out while reading or you miss a snippet of information, but when you’re reading, your attention is solely on the text itself. Of course, in the same way that film contains multiple levels of action, so do books. Beneath the foreground action and story beats lie layers of foreshadowing, theme, double meanings, concealed information and character motivations.

You don’t have to look beneath the hood, you can enjoy the trip from A to B, but it is through the process of close reading and critical thinking that a book will ignite. If you give a book the attention and consideration it deserves, then it will last you a lifetime.

You may not realise this, but books and films are time travel devices.

Temporal narratives are a genre all their own, but I would argue that all books and films are time machines. Whether you consume this content for the second, third or umpteenth time, the story remains the same. As you may be aware, time travel is not possible – yet! – but revisiting a beloved movie or book is a type of time travel.

I can never go back and re-experience the first time I met my partner, but I can read about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s first encounter whenever I want.

I will never again pass through the chain-link fence of my high school (not that I’d want to…), but I can reread the prom scene from ‘Carrie’.

There are two ways in which movies and books act as time travel devices.

The first is that they can transport you to times and places you would otherwise not be able to access. I can cross the Tudor court while reading ‘Wolf Hall’ or dive into a WWI trench while reading ‘Fall of Giants’. Historical novels allow me to travel into the past and to access the knowledge that only comes with personally lived experience. I can travel into the far future by reading science fiction or travel to another dimension or world by reading fantasy.

Books and movies have the power to turn your couch into a time machine. They allow you to step out of linear time and into other spaces and places, but they also provide the opportunity to re-experience a moment, in real time, exactly as it first occurred.

There are a handful of days in my own life that I’d do just about anything to re-live. Yes, it’s true that you can attempt to re-experience a memory but returning to the physical place with the same people, but time has passed and you aren’t the same. You can close your eyes and recall the memory. You can pretend to feel the Californian sun, to hear the crackle of leaves and to smell the Malibu spray mingling with fresh cut chips and chardonnay, but it’s not real. You can never authentically re-experience a moment from your past, but books and movies are different. The way a character’s life unfolds, the adventures they go on and how they feel about those experiences never changes.

Though your opinion of the art may change over time, though you may sometimes feel disconnected from the story or bored by its familiarity, the story itself hasn’t changed. Sometimes though, when the stars aligned and you are in the exact right mood and the craving for a particular experience hits, you can crack back the cover of a book or hit the play button and know that the story will meet your expectations exactly. And that feeling is pretty sublime.

It is true that you can only read a book for the first time once, but you can re-experience the story again and again, whenever you want and for as long as you want. It’s a small, humble pleasure yes, but it’s a relief to know that while I cannot go back to that Californian day, I can cross the moorlands and visit Wuthering Heights, I can feel the weight of stone in Jack Builders hand, and the sting of Alma Whittaker’s heartbreak. I can experience these memories in all their authenticity, any damn time I please.