Why Keeping a Journal is Vital to your Creative Practice

I’ve written in the past about the value of keeping a creative journal: a place where you can reflect upon your current project while you are creating it, but this post is different. This post is about journaling in general and how this practice can help your writing. 

Perhaps you’ve kept a diary or a journal in the past; a place where you could record activities, events, meetings, or appointments. But have you ever kept a journal that recorded your observations, thoughts and feelings?

If you can become an observer to your own thoughts and feelings, then you will be able to articulate certain experiences and sensations better than a writer who doesn’t take the time to analyse or reflect upon their life. 

By recording and critically evaluating your behaviour, feelings and thoughts, you will begin to clarify what your core values and beliefs are. As a writer, you need to know where you stand on particular issues so that you can write about them from a conscious and informed stand-point. 

Do not get hung up on the ‘proper’ way to keep a journal. There is no right way to record or reflect upon your day. To begin with, you might like to keep a bullet-point journal where you list the day’s events in bullet form followed by a brief (1-2 sentence) description of your thoughts or feelings. Maybe you’d prefer to write a paragraph about one event.  If you lean towards the spiritual/mindfulness side of things, you might like to keep a gratitude journal where you list all the people, experiences and objects you are grateful for. If you’re more of a pessimist, you could always rename this exercise as a what’s not wrong right now list

Writing cannot be separated from living.

If our writing becomes too detached from lived experience or from the world, then our stories will fail to connect with readers. Our words will become flat, our characters dull and our plots predictable.

If truth is stranger than fiction, then what better inspiration can there be than the content of our own lives, community and world? 

Inspiration is ‘out there,’ but it’s through our internal processing that we can turn the messy, perplexing, beautiful, scary, dramatic and reverent event into gripping stories. 

Writing is not a purely intellectual activity. It is a combination of imagination and intellect.  As Virginia Woolf said, it is the result of “discipline and the creative fire.”

All brain and no heart leads to unremarkable writing. 

Journals are loose, unpredictable and creative. You can write about the weather, reflect upon the day’s events, record your sleep patterns and dreams, your goals, your disappointments, that shitty thing you did to X and all the ways you were incredibly generous to Y. You can riff on a topic that’s gotten you all fired up or write about how a certain book or movie made you feel. What did the storyteller do right? What would you change about it?

You don’t have to write in your journal every day, but taking the time to regularly reflect on your life is a good practice. Not only for your craft but also the development of you as a human being. You needn’t write for hours. Fifteen minutes is good; three pages is enough to satisfy Julia Cameron. 

Keeping a journal may seem self-indulgent or juvenile, but that’s simply a matter of perspective. Learning to meaningfully reflect on your life, behaviours and thought processes isn’t childish. If anything, it is the mark of a person who is brave enough to examine the beautiful and the disfigured facets within their own character. 

Writing will make you a better writing. Keeping a journal will make you better still. And I can think of no better time to start than right now.

If you enjoyed this blog, please consider sharing it! Simply click on any of the social media logos below and spread the word. 😉

Advertisements

How To Your Daily Walk Part of Your Creative Practice

In previous posts, I’ve written about how walking in a relaxed state with an open mind can lead to creative insight and new ideas. In fact, many authors consider their daily walking a part of their creative practice, as they use this time to solve plot holes and other creative problems. 

The walking practice I’m going to unpack in this post is different.  

Instead of walking with the intention of observing your surroundings and allowing your mind to wander, this post is about walking with the intention of solving creative problems by concentrating on them intensely. Cal Newport refers to this practice as productive meditation.  

Productive Meditation: walking as a way to solve creative problems

I first heard of productive meditation when listening to a podcast with the aforementioned Newport — an Associate Professor at Georgetown University and author of six productivity books. The phrase productive meditation may sound like an oxymoron and hard-core meditators may find this term slightly blasphemous but don’t discredit this practice just yet. 

The intention of meditation is to become detached from your thoughts; the purpose of productive meditation is to hone your thoughts on a creative problem. In this way, both practices are requiring you to take control of your thoughts. Meditation is about focussing on a mantra or your breath where disruptive thoughts are acknowledged and released before the meditator returns their focus to the mantra or their breath. Productive meditation is about focusing on a creative problem in order to find a solution. The idea is that when your mind wanders, you notice this disruption and shift your focus back to the issue at hand. 

Productive meditation is its most effective when done while going for a long walk, 60-120 minutes. Walking activates parts of our brain that are dormant when we’re sitting. This is why we often coming up with fresh ideas, creative solutions or insights during an afternoon stroll. 

My Experience

I decided to experiment with productive meditation after listening to the interview with Cal Newport. At the time, I was dealing with a particularly sticky creative problem. As you may or may not know, I started a doctorate in creative writing earlier this year. My doctorate comprises of two components, a creative work (in my case, a novel) and an accompanying exegesis. 

My research covers multiple areas of study including, but not limited to, ecofeminism, Anthropogenic fiction, the trickster archetype and human-animal relations. 

The problem? 

I was struggling to pull these seemingly incongruous areas of study into one cohesive narrative. While the novel doesn’t have to explicitly reflect ALL my research, I was unsatisfied with the work as it currently stood.

Basically, I knew I could do better. 

So, I followed Newport’s advice. 

To be clear, productive meditation is not as easy as it sounds. You are not simply thinking while walking. No, in order to get the most out of this practice, you must push your mind to think harder and to actively look for new connections, possibilities and solutions. Little will be gained by lazily cycling through the facts you already know and repeating the familiar thoughts you’ve already had about this particular problem.  

You needn’t power walk, this process isn’t about exercise. A gentle stroll or amble is suffice – preferable in fact – because you want your attention to be focussed on the problem at hand. Your thoughts should be turned inwards, not outwards. That being said, creative idealisation is heightened again when walking outside in nature as opposed to urban settings or office stairwells … after all, you’re not going to find much inspiration in there! 

It’s also a good idea to take a notepad and pen with you to record any ideas or insights that occur during your walk. 

My first productive meditation session went for two hours and to be totally transparent, the first twenty minutes were incredibly difficult.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the thoughts that were cycling through my mind:

  • You don’t have time for this
  • You should be back at your desk reading that journal article/writing that paper/working on the next chapter/revising that other chapter/replying to that email blah blah blah
  • This is stupid
  • Screw you, Newport
  • This isn’t working
  • I can’t find a solution because there is no solution to find
  • I’ve painted myself into a corner
  • I’ve totally screwed up this research project, what the heck was I thinking?

Now, to be even more transparent … I was terrified of finding a solution. 

Let me elaborate.

The reason I was resisting this exercise is because I was afraid that I might come up with a solution that would require me to scrap the manuscript and start again.

This is an unwelcome thought for any writer. The idea that I may have to toss my 60,000 word draft in the bin was .. let’s say … disheartening. 

Despite these thoughts, I was determined to stick with the experiment, mostly because Newport’s anecdotes were so convincing. For the first 20-30 minutes, I really struggled to stretch my mind. My thoughts alternated between all the research I had gathered over the past six months and the novel’s premise; cycling and repeating the same information over and over. 

I could sense the connections that ran between these supposedly unrelated topics, but I couldn’t articulate what those threads were.

If these connections were a school of fish, then I was standing on the pier with neither a line nor bait. 

I kept walking and I kept thinking; hard. Slowly and painfully, the connections between my research and the manuscript started to become clearer. The fish swam closer to the surface of the lake. 

After an hour, something shifting. 

If there is one thing I learned from this exercise it is this: you must stick with this process until you experience that first shift. 

That first shift is the key to unlocking your thinking process. Like a domino effect or a chain-reaction, once that first new idea pops into your head, you’d be surprised how this dislodges creative blocks and new ideas start flooding trickling in. 

As I continued my walk, I pushed harder against the boundaries of my limited thinking. I actively sought out new solutions, stopping every ten minutes to write down whatever ideas came to me. This may all sound a little vague, so let me get super-specific. 

During this stage, my thought process looked a little like this:

  • How can the research be turned into the premise for a novel?
  • How else might the research be reflected in a novel?
    (Hint: this is one of the best ways to come up with better ideas. Don’t ever accept the first answer/solution your mind comes up with. Ask what other possibilities many exist. Dig a little deeper and try to come up with at least five responses to every question or problem). 
  • What do I really want the novel to be about? 
  • How big of a scale do I want this novel to be? 
  • How do I want people to feel when they read this novel?
  • Do I want the voice/style/tone to be warm/literary/moody/eerie?

These were the general question that eventually leads to the first BIG realisation. After that, I was able to drill down on the structure of the manuscript. Another 90 minutes of walking passed. I continued to write down ideas and to ask myself further questions. Eventually, I had clarified my ideas enough to sit down at a picnic table and to write a fresh outline. 

To be clear, this was a broad outline that filled two A4 pages. (I tried to follow Steven Pressfield’s method of a single page outline, but failed!)

The Take-Away?

Productive meditation is a very effective tool that can add great value to your creative practice. My project benefited so much from this process that I’ve decided to do one session every week. 

To date, I have only used these sessions as a way to develop my creative work, but I have no doubt that they would be equally beneficial for academic work such as outlining research papers or thesis chapters. 

If you choose to experiment with this method, then I urge you to fully commit to the process. Push yourself to break out of your cycling thinking, challenge yourself to find new solutions and stick with the walk for the allotted time period (60-120 minutes). 

If you do decide to give this method a whirl, please reply in the comments or send me an email. I’d love to hear about how this method works for other creatives.


 

Screen Shot 2019-04-26 at 3.51.18 pmWhile you’re here, be sure to join my email newsletter and gain instant access to your FREE downloadable copy of the Writer Kickstarter Pack: How to Start a Blog and Get Published. Plus, you’ll receive my weekly newsletter straight to your inbox every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog/vlog, updates and other exclusive content that I ONLY share via email.

 


If you enjoyed this blog, please consider sharing it! Simply click on any of the social media logos below and spread the word. 😉

How to Include More Diversity in Your Fiction

The publishing industry is constantly improving in response to reader’s feedback and the natural progression of society and culture in general. For this reason, it is essential that writers challenge themselves to include more diversity in their fiction.

Think about it.

Every day we interact with people whose backgrounds, lifestyles and beliefs differ from our own. People with different ethnicities, sexual orientation, life experiences, physical and mental abilities, classes, education levels … you get the idea. People are different. However, this reality is not always been depicted in fiction or entertainment in general (tv shows, films and music).

When we start talking about the importance of diversity or representation in literature, the conversation quickly turns into a heated debate about appropriation: Who has the right to tell this person’s story?

Ann Patchett firmly believes that she can write about who and whatever she wants, but readers also have the right to tear her to shreds if she does a bad job. Other writers feel a little bit queasier at the prospect of including characters whose backgrounds differ too much from their own.

The way I see it, writers have three options:

  1. Don’t include a diverse cast
  2. Include a diverse cast, do a lot of research, and do it well (and deal with whatever fall out happens as a result)
  3. Include a diverse cast, but don’t make the story about diversity

# 1 / Don’t include a diverse cast

Does this option really need to be unpacked? I think the title speaks for itself. You are certainly welcome to continue the outdated legacy of writing novels about straight, white, western people.

# 2 / Include a diverse cast, do a lot of research, and do it well

 If you agree with Ann Patchett, then this may be the best option for you. If you are a white, straight female living in Hobart, Tasmania, no one is going to arrest you for writing lesbian erotica about two Nigerian refugees. Even if you do a good job, the reality is that some people will be VERY upset with you. If you have thick skin and a rock-solid justification for why you want to write this story, then go ahead.

People may not be happy with you, but if there is a story in your heart that is begging to be written, then you have to write it.

However, if you are writing about people whose background differ from your own, please do your research and do a lot of it. Read memoirs, interviews, blogs. Conduct your own interviews with actual people whose lives and experiences mirror those of your characters. And when the manuscript is done, hire sensitivity reader/s. Sensitivity readers are people who review your book and who assess the work for issues regarding representation, cultural accuracy, biases or insensitive language/depictions.

You can write about people from different background, but do it well and know why you want/need to write this novel.

#3 / Include a diverse cast but don’t make the story about diversity

If the above tactic is for brave writers, then this tactic is for ethical writers who are also cautious people pleasers. It is a lot easier—though that’s not to say easy—to include a diverse set of characters when the novel isn’t about their diversity. For example, some may argue that it is inappropriate for a white, straight female to write a coming-out story about an African teenage boy, but it is appropriate for that same writer to publish a novel about a female heroine whose best friend happens to be queer. See the difference?

You will still need to do a lot of research, but the pressure around articulating the internal experience/perspective of this character is eliminated because the story isn’t about sexual orientation, it’s about something else.    

This option has been used to great effect in contemporary YA dystopian novel and children’s book (though of course it also appears in adult fiction). The need to include more diversity within these two categories become very apparent in 2011 when YA authors Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo realised (during an online conversation) that their (respective) fiction become popular due to the setting: a fantastical version of Asian. This conversation quickly sparked the twitter movement #WeNeedDiverseInBooks and #DiversityinYa.

Adult writers feel that it is especially important to include more diversity in YA and children’s literature so that children and teenagers can see themselves in the fiction they are reading.

As author Walter Dean Meyers, said “[As] a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.”

Regardless of which option you chose – okay, hopefully, you are choosing option two or three – the literary landscape is changing alongside our broader social and cultural awareness of those who have been marginalised. Progress is a natural part of human nature. We need to grow, develop and do better. Including a diverse cast won’t solve all the world’s problems, but it is a step in the right direction. And I encourage you to take it.


 

Screen Shot 2019-04-26 at 3.51.18 pmWhile you’re here, be sure to join my email newsletter and gain instant access to your FREE downloadable copy of the Writer Kickstarter Pack: How to Start a Blog and Get Published. Plus, you’ll receive my weekly newsletter straight to your inbox every Thursday morning. This is where I share links to my latest blog/vlog, updates and other exclusive content that I ONLY share via email.

 


 

Batching Your Tasks

As mentioned in previous blogs, I’ve recently started my doctorate. I’m presently enrolled fulltime, but the completing of this research investigation is hardly the only project on my plate. (Who the heck has ONE project on their plate anyway?)

Over the years, I developed a time blocking schedule where I worked towards the completion of tasks/goals by spending a little bit of time every day working on each task or goal. This meant that I shifted between 3-5 different projects every day and I would spend 1-3 hours on each task. Although I was constantly shifting gears, this system worked because I was strategic in how I organised the completing of these tasks.

For instances, I’m a morning person so my mornings were always spent working on high priority projects or projects that required a greater amount of cognitive or creative clarity such as novel writing, reading and analysing journal articles, or drafting/revising assignments. My energy is much lower in the afternoons, so I usually spent this time working on lighter tasks such as marketing, administration or research.

In between these tasks, I would frequently check my emails, ebook sales (published under a pen name), tend to domestic tasks (laundry/baking/candlestick making) or run personal errands.

For years, this flittering between tasks worked for me. I enjoyed the variety that came with each day and the satisfaction of daily, steady progress. This system suited me and my temperament and I had no problems winding down and switching off at the end of the day.

Then something changed. With no warning at all, the system that I had used to organise my life stopped working. Shifting between 3-5 tasks every day no longer felt invigorating or satisfying. Instead, I felt scatterbrained and overwhelmed. What made matters worse was that I could no longer switch off. I was waking up at 12am to the sound of my inner taskmaster reading out my to-do list. I had worked hard to train my brain to focus intensely on one task for a short period of time before switching to another task and now my brain didn’t know how to switch off.

The system that worked seamlessly for years was defunct. I needed to find a new system!

I first heard of ‘batching’ a couple of years ago, but I never gave it much thought. After all, I already had a system.

If you haven’t heard of this time managing technique, here’s the low down:
Batching is when you organise your day, week or month to the completing of one task or the completing of similar tasks. For example, my blog posts are written in real time. I spend a few hours every Thursday writing and revising a blog that is then posted on Friday. Rather than writing one blog every week, I could batch this task by dedicating one whole day to writing and editing enough blogs for a whole month.

This intense focus allows you to stay in the one headspace for an entire day/week/month rather than flittering between multiple tasks that require different levels of skill or concentration.

When it comes to batching, you choose the time frame and the task. You may want to dedicate a whole month to the completing of a major project, or you may dedicate a whole day to writing. Some tasks don’t require a whole day but you still want to stay in a similar headframe. If that’s the case, you could group similar tasks together such as domestic chores: houseworks/errands/bills or marketing: content creation/social media posts/ads/copywriting.

At the top of this post I mentioned how I used to constantly check my emails. While ‘batching’ a task like emails isn’t feasible for me, I have decided to dedicate one hour every day to this task. I’m not going to lie, it takes a lot of will power to do this. Checking my emailing became something I did whenever I needed a mini-break from whatever task I was working on. Email is disguised procrastination. It seems like you’re being ‘productive’, but usually you’re just wasting time. Don’t get me wrong, mini-breaks are good! Just don’t spend your mini-break in front of a screen checking email or social media. If you’re taking a mini-break, actually have a break. Stand up, move around or stare out the window.

How about you? Do you use the batching method or a different technique to get your tasks done?

 

 

 

The Rise of the Hybrid Novel

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog that listed my favourite reads of 2018. Of the six novels that I listed, five could easily be described as literary hybrids.

A hybrid is a novel that can be identified as literary but that also contains the tropes typically associated with genre fiction. For those of you who may be a bit lost, literary fiction can be described as intellectual narratives that explore ideas and themes through the vessel of story. For example, the rape trial depicted in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is not about Atticus Finch defending Tom Robinson, it is about racial injustice and the loss of innocence.

Literary fictions tell the reader a story, but the story is not the point. You can enjoy a literary book for its ‘plot’, but the purpose of literature is to communicate a bigger idea or to contribute to a cultural/political/social discussion. Imagine the story as a monster costume and it is your job as the reader to find the zipper and to peak underneath.

Genre fictions are stories that use similar elements, tropes or structures. Horror, science fiction, romance and crime are considered the largest genre categories, but beneath these umbrella terms lies a multitude of subgenres. Readers of genre fiction have set expectations of how a novel from a certain genre will handle elements such as plot, character and setting. If you select a novel from the crime section of your local bookstore, before you even crack the spine, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what that story is about. Obviously, not all crime books are the same, but readers of crime fiction would expect the novel to be about a crime told through the perspective of the person whose ‘job’ it is to solve it. Note: The character may not get paid for solving this crime (detective, lawyer), but instead have a personal motivation (victim).

At their best, literary fiction is seen as sophisticated and highbrow; they are the types of novels that get nominated for awards. At their worst, they’re considered elitist. Genre fiction can be described as entertaining, exciting and engaging, but their (supposed) lack of originality can mean they are perceived as ‘childish’ or ‘books for dumb people.’

And yet, five of my favourite novels from last year are literary hybrids: smart novels that use genre tropes.

Australian authors Angela Myer, Jane Rawson and Emily Maguire have all chosen to include genre tropes as part of their literary explorations of feminism, technology, ecology, sex and violence. American author Carmen Maria Machado’s collection of short stories Her Body and Other Parties combines horror and science fiction tropes as she explores the themes of women’s bodies, sex writing and queer writing. George Saunders identified himself as a science fiction writer, yet critics consider him a hybrid author due to his literary voice and his 2016 win of the Man Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo only further solidified this title.

So, why are literary authors suddenly using genre tropes?

Literary fiction is often described as realist fiction, by which I mean, no aliens or monsters. Of course, there are examples of literary novels that are told via otherworldly perspectives. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is narrated by Death and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is narrated by a deceased teenage girl following a brutal rape and murder. Though these novels are told through the perspective of mystic beings, they are not considered hybrid novels as they do not use genre tropes.

Perhaps literary novelists are including elements from genre fiction as a way to test their skills as a writer and to stretch the boundaries of their own genre. It takes a high level of skill to use supernatural creature or futuristic technology within a text that can also be described as intellectual. Realism, as a mode, is somewhat limiting. Perhaps literary novelists are enjoying the innovation and possibilities that can occur when realism is blended with elements of the fantastical.

Interestingly, this trend also goes the other way as authors like Stephen King, who is typically described as a horror author, won the medal for American Letters in 2003 and the National Medal for Arts in 2015; an award previously won by Ray Bradbury, Harper Lee and Maya Angelou.

Considering that genre fiction is sometimes described as Popular Fiction, i.e., fiction for general audiences, the sceptic in me wonders if literary authors are simply trying to get in on the market. In general, genre books outsell literary fiction. With publishing houses merging (Penguin/Random House) and book deals becoming harder to secure, perhaps literary novels are doing what they can to appeal to both genre and literary readers.

Regardless of the motivation (author or publisher), hybrid novels are successfully bridging the divide between these two camps. And more importantly, they make for a ripper read.

Writing and Music

Like good literature, music can invoke powerful emotions, imagery and even inspire spontaneous insights. A bad day can be turned around, even if only temporarily, by listening to an upbeat song or by reading an inspired piece of writing; whether that be poetry, prose or non-fiction.

Whenever a group of writers get together, there’s a series of questions and topics that inevitably come up. One such question is ‘Do you listen to music when you write?’

Authors such as Ted Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Haruki Murakami and William Faulkner have all commented on the influence music has had on their writing. Kerouac told the Paris Review that jazz influenced his poetry to such an extent that he used the size of his notebooks to govern the length of each line of poetry the way musical bars determine the structure of jazz composition. Murakami also cites music as a powerful influence, stating that the chords, melodies and rhythm of blues music help him during the writing process.

Early in his career, Stephen King stated that he always had pop music playing in the background while he wrote and that the rhythm of the music influenced the pace of the plot. In more recent interviews, he is quoted as only playing music during the re-reading and editing stage and not during the initial draft.

Jenna Moreci, a self-published author with over 100, 000 followers on YouTube, has made several videos that document the influence music has had on her most recent publication. When Moreci listened to music, she sees her characters acting out a scene as though she were watching a music video. The unfolding of certain scenes is so closely inspired by particular songs that Moreci can describe the exact moment a dramatic action or gesture links up with a line of dialogue, time signature change or crescendo.

YA authors such as Veronica Roth and Cassandra Clare make public playlists on their websites. These playlists include songs that inspired the writing of particular scenes, that have a similar mood to the book or are personal favourites of the authors. This trend is limited to YA novels and has quickly become a clever marketing strategy as it assists in the building of the authors’ online community.

When I was completing my undergraduate degree ten years ago, I used to listen to music (metal?!) while writing assignments and studying for exams. These days, I prefer the less invasive melodies of classical music or white noise (ambient-mixer.com – you’re welcome!).

In researching for this blog, I found that most literary writers prefer to work in silence. Dani Shapiro, Zadie Smith, Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Stout work at libraries (Smith) or in their home offices – preferably when no-one is home. When it comes to genre writing, especially horror, fantasy and science fiction, it was hard to find a writer that didn’t listen to music! Jay Kristoff, Deborah Harkness, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King and Terry Pratchett are all quoted as writing while listening to music.

Perhaps this trend is not all that surprising. To speak generally, literary work is concerned with exploring internal space while genre novels are concerned with story-telling. Genre narratives tend to have a more visual focus, so it is little wonder that the emotions and imagery invoked by music compliment this form of literature better. To add a small disclaimer, I read literary fiction and genre fiction and I see this division as a marketing strategy and not as a means for determining quality.

Whether or not music forms a part of an authors’ writing process is beside the point. The only thing that matter is that each author discovers for themselves a routine and process that works for them and their project. Now, over to you. Does music influence your writing process? Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what kind of music?

 

 

 

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.