Scott Korb | Longreads | February 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)
The following essay is adapted from a talk presented at Pacific University’s MFA in Writing Program. It includes advice from writers of “YA fiction, writers for television and stage, of novels and essays, investigative journalism, and criticism” on how we might produce meaningful work in the next four years.
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I often teach a piece of writing by David Foster Wallace, included originally as the introduction to the 2007 edition of The Best American Essays. He called the piece “Deciderization—2007,” a title that jabbed at the then-current president, George W. Bush, who, in the midst of his second term—in the midst of the Iraq war, which as fought had been lost—reminded the country during a press conference insisting he would not fire Donald Rumsfeld, whom he would later fire, that he, George W. Bush, was “The Decider.”
The moment seems far away now, but Bush’s choice of words here, it was said at the time, “struck the national funny bone.” Writing in the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg said,
On the Internet, it was memorialized to the tune of “I am the Walrus,” by the Beatles. (“I am me and Rummy’s he. Iraq is free and we are all together.”) On late-night television, the Decider emerged as a comic-book hero, courtesy of Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show.”
In other words, in making fun of Bush, Wallace was not alone and, as he was well aware, was far from the most high-profile or widely observed jabber. Opening the book’s introduction, he wrote, “I think it’s unlikely that anyone is reading this as an introduction.”
Most of the people I know treat Best American anthologies like Whitman Samplers. They skip around, pick and choose. There isn’t the same kind of linear commitment as in a regular book. … There’s a kind of triage. The guest editor’s intro is last, if at all.
This sense of being last or least likely confers its own freedoms.
When I’ve taught his introduction before I’ve tended to highlight how Wallace considers and reconsiders the essay form itself—“one constituent of the truth about the front cover,” he writes, “is that your guest editor isn’t sure what an essay even is.” This confusion is fun in a way that Wallace is often fun. It does what this particular writer tends to do—puts his own subjectivity front and center in an effort to pull a rug out from under us. What do you mean you don’t know what an essay even is?
Continuing on, Wallace then addresses his lack of both confidence and concern with the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction—more fun for us—only to change course a moment later, explaining that he does care about such differences, but conceding that they’re “hard to talk about in a way that someone who doesn’t try to write both fiction and nonfiction will understand.” At which point he dives into the part of the essay I’ve always been most interested in talking about with writing students, who tend—as I am—to be interested in how to do what writers are trying to do. What is writing supposed to feel like?
Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder—because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses—it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.
The intergenre debates that go on in our culture have been a great pleasure to me over the years. I like what journalist Jeff Sharlet says on the point: “Fiction’s first move is imagination; nonfiction’s is perception.” And to be sure, I’m always delighted to hear from someone about the abyss under poetry’s tightrope.
I’ve also been compelled, in teaching and in my own writing, by the question of our culture’s Total Noise, which sounds from different and more numerous quarters, perhaps, than it did a decade ago, when Wallace was writing, but which amounts to the same thing more or less: “a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value.” And because, since Wallace was writing, so many of us have grown so addicted to the noise, I often bring Zadie Smith to the conversation to help me make the argument about putting our phones away, because, she writes, at the end of a long essay where she laments her own habits of scrolling, “shouldn’t a person live—truly live, a real life—while they’re alive?”
But now here’s the thing. The conversations I’ve had about Wallace’s introduction over the years, conversations that began in 2013 or so, have mainly overlooked what’s really at the heart of the piece. Talk about Total Noise as a condition into which we writers all write—and from which we draw our inspiration—has been part of the debate about social media, about stories going viral, about hits and likes and hashtags, about trending and weekly, daily, and yearly “Most Read” lists. About a kind of writerly branding, developing a professional platform. This is on the one hand. On the other hand, talk has come in the form of warnings from, say, the poet and novelist Nick Laird, who says that “the Internet—with its endless choice, its banner ads, its IMs and gifs and vines—is a disastrous locale” for most poetry. Or from Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, who argued, in a January 2016 New York Times essay, that “writing fiction is pretty much the opposite of writing a good tweet, or curating an Instagram feed. It’s the opposite of the personal-slash-professional writing that is now part of our everyday lives. More than ever, we need writers who are unprofessional, whose private worlds come first.”
Arguments can—and have—been made against Stein’s complaints about Twitter and Instagram and the like. One of note comes from the novelist and essayist Alexander Chee, in a thread on Twitter, posted in response to Stein. His most salient points, I think, have to do with writers from minority communities. So those:
A few thoughts on social media and writers. 1. Some of us are on here because—surprise—text based communication is fun for writers.
We skip ahead:
- Social media made a new level of visibility possible for a diverse group of writers previously shut out of legacy publishing.
- The popularity of those writers on social media platforms is why many legacy publishers now work with them.
- That popularity is not artificial—readers find them on social media first because of their writing.
- Being suspicious of a writer’s popularity on social media ignores how popularity comes from the way readers connect to their writing.
- Disdaining that connection, assuming it can be had without social media, is a privilege & ignores structural racism, sexism, homophobia.
Now, I can be—and have been, in the classroom, and in practice—of two minds. Chee is right. And so are Stein and Nick Laird. I tweet. And I hate tweeting.
But all of this debate, a little like what Stolberg called the cheap “linguistic gifts” George W. Bush presented us throughout his presidency, runs the risk, it seems to me—again—of distracting us from what Wallace was really concerned with in 2007 and what it may mean for us today to take the thrust of his argument seriously. Because he was making an argument about what matters, and why, given particular circumstances. It’s true, in a profound way, that he was “not really even all that … concerned” with the intergenre differences he takes up at the beginning of the essay. His focus on Total Noise represented a description of his reality more than any sort of argument against it. (Total Noise is more than just description today, I think. But more on that soon.)
As the Decider behind 2007’s Best American Essays, Wallace situated “overall value” at the heart of his decision making process. These were not necessarily, he said, the most beautiful or most well written essays of 2006. One measure of value for Wallace had to do with how the essays he selected for inclusion served “as models and guides for how large or complex sets of facts can be sifted, culled, and arranged in meaningful ways—ways that yield and illuminate truth instead of just adding more noise to the overall roar.” They were, he believed—while acknowledging that he was just “some limited, subjective human doing the valuing”—the most useful. They were, by and large, what he called service essays, meaning both that they provided a professional service and that they possessed the virtue of serving their readers. How? They were all “smart and well written,” sure, but the essays Wallace decided on were rendered most valuable by “a special kind of integrity in their handling of fact. An absence of dogmatic cant.”
And the facts he seemed most interested in, those requiring the kind of personal and professional integrity needed to resist dogma, led him to the most significant measure of all in determining the value of these essays: the moment’s historical context. Not the world’s Total Noise, in this case—no, not that. “In your 2007 guest editor’s opinion,” Wallace wrote, “we are in a state of three-alarm emergency—‘we’ basically meaning America as a polity and culture.”
For years I’ve read around center of this essay—years when I’ve taught in a nation where “we” had essentially agreed Iraq was a debacle and where U.S. torture had been dragged out from under the euphemisms and into the light and was ended. Guantánamo would be closed, even if it wasn’t yet—and isn’t yet. The wars would be ended, even if drone strikes, terror, and the wars’ fallout continued across the region—and still does. The three alarms had quieted enough—apparently, to my mind—that it always seemed enough to tackle the lessons from Wallace about managing the noise of social media and the how to perform our high-wire acts above our genres’ abysses.
What was Wallace really saying though? Why had he decided as he had?
It is totally possible that, prior to 2004—when the reelection of George W. Bush rendered me, as part of the U.S. electorate, historically complicit in his administration’s policies and conduct—this BAE Decider would have selected more memoirs or descriptive pieces on ferns and geese, some of which this year were quite lovely and fine. In the current emergency, though, such essays simply didn’t seem as valuable to me as pieces like, say, Mark Danner’s “Iraq: The War of the Imagination” or Elaine Scarry’s “Rules of Engagement.”
Before I continue—because there’s one more moment from Wallace’s introduction I want to share before moving on—I know many memoir writers, some of whom perhaps are composing descriptive pieces on ferns and geese. For my part, for months now I’ve been writing an essay that centers on how my son, who is five, has learned to swear. What I mean to say is that I’m not presenting us with Wallace’s bias against memoirs—which was real, that bias—to discourage anyone. Nor do I mean to discourage anyone from writing descriptively about the natural world, or about anything that your perception draws you to, or that your imagination conjures. Or that stirs your soul. Wallace himself wrote very little between 2001 and his death in 2008 that dealt directly with the three-alarm emergency. Mainly he was writing about boredom and a group of Internal Revenue Service bureaucrats for an unfinished book that would be published as The Pale King. Asked during a 2003 German television interview about what forms of rebellion he saw in America, he noted the hard work it would take to think through the country’s complicated position in the world. “The people I know who are rebelling meaningfully are not buying a lot of stuff, and don’t get their view of the world from television, and are willing to spend four or five hours researching an election rather than going by commercials.” He spoke of quiet rebellion—not saber rattling—a rebellion he seemed to have found in the useful pieces he selected for the 2007 Best American Essays. But talking with the German interviewer, he nevertheless concluded: “I’m a writer. I’m not a political thinker or whatever. I’m just a scared little American.”
The final moment I want to share from “Deciderization—2007” concerns itself, as I see it, with the rebellion he was asked about in 2003, and which he found in a collection of essays written in 2006, models, he said, “for what free, informed adulthood might look like in the context of Total Noise: not just the intelligence to discern one’s own error or stupidity, but the humility to address it, absorb it, and move on and out there from, bravely, toward the next revealed error.” We needed that bravery—from our writers and in our readers—in the face of false warnings of Weapons of Mass Destruction, or the legal justifications put in place to suspend the Geneva Conventions, or when confronting the thousands of American lives lost to the war, the suffering of those soldiers and sailors who have returned, and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who lost their lives. This is not to point fingers, he said, because the entire electorate was complicit. But—
Here is an overt premise. There is just no way that 2004’s reelection could have taken place—not to mention extraordinary renditions, legalized torture, FISA-flouting, or the passage of the Military Commissions Act—if we had been paying attention and handling information in a competent grown-up way. “We” meaning as a polity and culture.
Which brings me to today, just weeks before the inauguration, in the midst of a transition into who-knows-what, in a nation that writers I know have described as being in the midst of an emergency. As a writer myself—as a teacher, a husband, a parent, a friend—I’ve felt the emergency. And in response, I’d like to behave—to pay attention and handle information—like a competent grown-up. Perhaps with some bravery.
Now I know I risk appearing politically partisan talking this way. And you can guess with all I’ve said so far about even just torture, and a politics of fear, whom I voted for. I’ve written an essay for my local hometown paper making it perfectly plain, so there’s no use hiding my vote —you could go read about it on my website. The end of that essay draws on the words of a hero of mine, the Midwestern novelist Marilynne Robinson, whose books I was reading with undergrads in the weeks surrounding the election. I said this:
My students are grieving as I am grieving. We have Marilynne Robinson guiding us, which helps, but in terms of what I could present in class—in this case, an interview with President Obama—she’s only issued a warning: “When [the fear of a sinister other] is brought home … I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.” It’s up to us—teachers and students alike, parents and children together—to continue our democracy.
I’m not trying make a partisan argument. After the election, a large part of my grief, and my students’ grief, had to do with the enormous gap that seemed to have developed between people of good faith in this country, who believe in democracy—and with it, free expression—but who also seem to have stopped believing in, or really even knowing, understanding, one another. (I’d be remiss not to point out that another part of my grief, and my students’ grief, had to do with the racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia—basically the politics of fear—ginned up within the electorate over the past eighteen months.)
But back to the first grief, of not knowing one another, not understanding. Here, I think, is where the problem of our own moment’s Total Noise comes into play, especially for writers who believe in free expression and the pursuit of truth, which I hope are all of us. So much of the noise that’s out there now is deliberately untruthful: fake news, partisan and dogmatic cant. In 2007, Wallace described his own noisy world in terms of those three alarms:
Part of our emergency is that it’s so tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the “moral clarity” of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.
And this was all really before Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, before the rise of a new host of fake-news makers around the globe, before conspiracy theorists cracked the mainstream and international computer hacking revealed corruption and lies in persons and parties striving for power, and before a free-and-fair election raised to the U.S. presidency another leader who says whatever the room seems to require, refuses to hold press conferences and seeds distrust in the news media, and tweets and tweets and tweets with the “moral clarity” of the immature, which may be another example of the medium being the message. And another reason I hate Twitter.
Which all leads me to ask: Do emergencies go higher than three-alarm?
Over the past months, facing my work, facing the world, facing the prospect of writing anything meaningful about our new world, I’ve felt somewhat out of my depths. Stupid, in a number of senses: slow of mind, lacking in intelligence. Dull in feeling or sensation. Not always, but sometimes. Consider this, for instance, with regard to my work:
I’m writing a novel right now set between 1979 and 1981. The central character is a middle-aged man who owns a motel. He believes in his business degree and acumen, his ability to make money and support a family even in the small Florida town he’s just moved to—a town that, decades earlier, had, in the words of one historian, “hung its hopes for the future on its location along one of the South’s busiest highways”—Highway 301.
But then came the Federal Highway Act of 1956 and the interstates the law mandated, all of which bypassed this Florida town. As a result, and over the years, this town came to be seen, says the historian, as “a depressing village of strip malls and decaying motels—backwater Florida come to life.” A place ripe for a politics of resentment. It’s also home to Florida’s electric chair.
And so, I’m writing about peoples left behind, about mass-incarceration and the death penalty, the early moments of the War on Drugs.
But still in all this, my character, Frank, loves the pool, the sun. The Sunshine State and its promise. He believes he, and everyone else, can be better off that they were four years ago. He’s poised to make America—to help make this Florida town—great again. And I like Frank. He works hard; he tries. I named him for my father.
I’ve lived with Frank for nearly two years now, through multiple drafts of the work. And before this November 8, I still wasn’t aware—I had given it no thought—whom he voted for in 1980. Then in a flash it came to me. It’s no surprise, of course, that I’m writing a Ronald Reagan voter—that wasn’t the flash—but for all my concerns today, in hindsight, about prison privatization and law enforcement and race and capital punishment, to say nothing of poverty, resentment, and fear, the significance of that vote, Frank’s—what he believes in politically—seems huge. The flash was discovering this new area of personal ignorance and delusion: It’s stupid that I hadn’t thought this, or simply known this, before.
The election of Donald J. Trump has revealed to me lots that I don’t know—from the people in the town that raised me, to Frank, the central consciousness I’ve been imagining with my own mysterious mind in fiction over the past two years. So how to respond to all this knowing what I don’t know? Well, that one’s easy, I think: walking out the door to go teach the day after the election, after a night my wife and I spent mainly sitting up—hoping, panicking—I turned to say, “Goodbye, I love you,” though she interrupted. “You have to write about this.”
That I know. And I know one more thing. Despite the headlines that came after the election calling this country “Trump’s America”—and there were many—I won’t call it that, or see it that way. And regardless of your politics I’ll ask you to join me. This is our America. It’s our America to write in, and our America to write.
Explaining how to do this presents me with a problem that again makes me feel out of my depths, stupid. So I’ve asked for help—for my own benefit, for this essay—making requests of writers to send me some instruction and advice for writing over the next four years: insights that might improve my sense of the various obstacles and opportunities we face and strategies for doing meaningful work. And while I’m mainly interested in looking ahead, the New York Times’s James Risen has reminded me lately that the obstacles for writers defending whistle-blowers, say, have grown huge already over the past eight years. Risen opened a New Year’s Day essay this way: “If Donald J. Trump decides as president to throw a whistle-blower in jail for trying to talk to a reporter, or gets the F.B.I. to spy on a journalist, he will have one man to thank for bequeathing him such expansive power: Barack Obama.”
To my request for help, many writers replied, of all kinds—of YA fiction, writers for television and stage, of novels and essays, investigative journalism, and criticism.
Now, let me tell you first about what they said: it has been heartening to hear from writers I admire that they are likewise feeling stupid. One said, “I do not have delusions of any grandeur that I possess the wisdom to impart advice.” I heard, “ I have to be honest about my feelings of helplessness. … To some degree, whatever I might try to say to your students, whatever advice I want to give about writing, seems sort of ridiculous in the face of what is happening, to our country and, yes, to our world.” Another replied, “I’m afraid I don’t have any great insights into how to survive the next four years. I have trouble imagining what they’re going to be like. I suppose we all have to do the best we can?” Note there that he ended that last sentence with a question mark.
But those same people—and even the ones who left out their own feelings of helplessness—took up the call to service so that I might be a little useful up here. And some of them, I’ll say, present themselves in a way that’s more partisan I’ve been.
Asked about being useful, Daniel Raeburn, author of the memoir Vessels: A Love Story, said this, much of which is based on notes he took after reading Brian Boyd’s The Origin of Stories:
Writing’s a kind of art, i.e., something that’s useless. It doesn’t provide us with food, clothing, or shelter—and yet it’s survived. The question is, why? And the answer is, because writing helps our species to survive. It’s given us an evolutionary advantage. But how? The answer’s especially urgent now, when we’re afraid that our Republic won’t survive, to say nothing of our planet.
Stories evolved out of a paradox: on one hand, we’re competitive beings. We compete against one another for our share of resources. On the other hand we’re also cooperative beings. We work together as teams, if only to become better competitors. To bring down more mastodons or research grants than one can alone. But that cooperation is mind-bogglingly complex. We compete against our peers even as we cooperate with them, and oftentimes this cooperation is only to compete better against another group of humans who are also cooperating. (Politics is of course a perfect example.) I’d argue that the incredibly intense mental calculations necessary to cooperate and compete at the same time are at the root of all our storytelling. What stories do is make the writer and the reader more sensitive to the patterns in these complex social situations; they help us to predict what moves will lead to what kind of results. They make us better at predicting the future.
Which is what we’re all worried about: the future. And rightly so, because if there’s one common thread to all the stories we’ve ever told, it’s this: Selfish individuals always beat altruistic individuals. Bad guys usually win. BUT, and this is a big but, altruistic groups always beat selfish groups.
The television writer and playwright Beau Willimon, creator of House of Cards and author of the Farragut North, Spirit Control, and Breathing Time, among other plays, intuited what Raeburn is saying immediately after the election, and began his own political action network, now with chapters in major cities across the country. His advice begins with something we’ve all heard, but which Willimon insists we must not forget, because our words and our work have power: “Do Not Normalize.”
Your writers have a responsibility to remained shocked by the world they are reflecting in their writing. This is how we maintain an anchor of truth in our society, and warn each other of the clear and present dangers we are facing.
That notion that we’re called to “illuminate truth instead of just adding more noise to the overall roar,” as we heard from Wallace, is something I heard from writers across genres, a couple of whom suggested to me our jobs—what calls us to make our art—has not, in fact, changed (or not very much):
Former New York Times religion reporter, Mark Oppenheimer, who currently hosts the podcast Unorthodox and is also the author of Wiesenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate and Dan Savage: The First Gay Celebrity, among others, tells me this—a reminder that what we do as writers is hard and time-consuming work.
The thing we reporters and other nonfiction writers have to do over the next four years is what we always have to do: report. That means that when we are after a story—especially if it’s a story that the public needs to know, one that will hold public officials accountable for their actions—we don’t send out a couple emails and maybe a tweet and then congratulate ourselves for our “reporting” or “research.” Real reporting involves phone calls, then more phone calls, long drives on boring stretches of interstate, and maybe hanging out outside a source’s house to walk up to him when he gets home from his bowling outing. It’s arduous and the hourly rate is terrible, but if you ask 10 people, then a hundred, you’ll shake some facts loose. That’s the job.
C. Alexander London, also a reporter who’s mainly written Middle Grade and YA novels over the past decade—including The Wild Ones and the Proxy series—agrees with Oppenheimer that what we do is hard, it remains hard, because it’s the same as it ever was. But we face particular challenges now since we work in words, the power of which depends on their actually meaning something. London says:
The job of the writer hasn’t changed much, though the stakes are ever shifting. When power seeks to obscure reality, it’s the writer’s job to illuminate it; when power seeks to sap the meaning from words, it’s the writer’s job to write with precision; and when power seeks to dehumanize, it’s the writer’s job to embrace and amplify as much empathy as possible and as much ferocity as necessary on behalf of even the most despised among us. None of these things are easy to do with 26 letters, but those are our tools and we build what we can with them.
I also love a particular letter from CS Lewis about the writing life, especially this part:
Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
The critic and novelist, Caleb Crain, author of Unnecessary Errors, sounded a similar note about the diminishing power of the words we all work with, and the facts that many of us do. But to me, he mainly issued a warning, and suggested we need to take care:
I think it’s important for everyone to remember to put their own oxygen mask on before they try to assist other passengers—in other words, to do whatever they need to do to stay sane and healthy, because it’s impossible to fight in poor condition. … I’m concerned about the loss of information that we’ll face. The great myth is that journalists battle the government, extracting information from it against its will, but in fact, a great number of news articles depend on a government bureaucracy or a government investigative committee of some kind for the raw facts that inform it. If, in addition to his shameless lies, Trump manages to cut off this flow of facts from the government to the people, it will be hard even for the well-intentioned to continue to distinguish truth from falsehood.
Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted, Cowboys are My Weakness, among other books, echoes London’s call for empathy and concern for the most despised among us, those who have been abused. And like Crain, she’s worried about our ability to access truth, but she’s slightly more hopeful; she thinks we’re tough.
Writers who are deeply invested in truth telling become vastly more important in a society where the mainstream media is colluding with a corrupt regime. I imagine if one took a poll, one would discover that many of us became writers because we were raised in families where truth was a movable object, and the lies that were told there were used to hurt the weak and to shore up the tyrant. For some of us, our sanity—in some cases our very lives—depended on, if not being allowed to tell the truth, at least being able to know it within ourselves. Those of us who were actually abused as children have a real advantage right now because the worst kind of prolonged torture perpetrated upon us by people who were entrusted with our care has already happened to us. Whatever we might face in the months and years ahead might be terrible, but it won’t be worse than that. For many of us, even death is not worse than that.
Houston added a little more in her note to me that felt very familiar—personally true. Something like an inevitable call to action.
When people’s lives are on the line because of a corrupt government, our work becomes more meaningful by definition. Ditto, when a bunch of big Oil CEO’s are determined to destroy the planet at a breakneck pace. These two conditions are not new, but when they become America’s stated agenda, as they have in the last months, now they are loud enough that they will infuse all of our work, no matter the subject matter. It is not a question of whether it should it infuse our work—though I personally believe it should—it simply will, whether we want it to or not. My writer friends from other countries are always asking, why don’t more Americans write about politics. Well, stay tuned. Because we are about to start.
She’s right, of course. Remember, my man Frank became a political being after November 8.
Two writers wrote me mainly to get me to read other, wiser writers—more humility, I suppose, more feeling stupid in the face of the world.
Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of the memoir Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, told me to think about the novelist and jazz critic Albert Murray, whom Williams himself had recently written about. Thomas said this:
I was looking over a piece I wrote on Albert Murray for the nation a while back and this advice from Murray seems very much in line with what I’d tell anyone: “Many consider complexity of circumstances and motives to be precious indulgences that can wait until a better world has been achieved.” And yet, “the sensibility of the writer must be prepared to withstand the shocks and distortions inherent in human existence.” No serious writer (or artist, or person) can afford to indulge in “easy and superficial cynicism either.”
The novelist Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children and most recently Alice and Oliver, first wanted to remind us all that, “Great and important writing has been done during the worst times in the world’s history. Memoirs, living documentation, and journalism have told us much about the rise and fall of empires, fascist states, you name it.”
And then Bock went on with the recommendations, of which I’ll include snippets:
So then maybe the thing to do is to just simply share two of my favorite quotes about writing. When I teach, I always end my first lecture with them, as it gives some sense of just what some of the challenges, and the deep and best appeals. These do not address the particulars of our moment, but do move toward certain larger, more timeless ideas:
From the editor and writer Ted Solotaroff, in his book A Few Good Voices In My Head:
The writer’s defense is his power of self-objectivity, his interest in otherness, and his faith in the process itself, which enables him to write on into the teeth of his doubts and then to improve it. … It converts diffuse anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer’s main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer’s main means of relating to otherness. Similarly, his wounded innocence turns into irony, his silliness into wit, his guilt into judgment, his oddness into originality, his perverseness into his stinger.
And this, an essay by Michel De Montaigne:
To The Reader:
This book was written in good faith, reader. It warns you from the outset that in it I have set myself no goal but a domestic and private one. I have had no thought of serving either you or my own glory. My powers are inadequate for such a purpose….
… I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray. My defects will here be read to the life, and also my natural form, as far as respect for the public has allowed. Had I been placed among those nations which are said to live still in the sweet freedom of nature’s first laws, I assure you I should very gladly have portrayed myself here entire and wholly naked.
Of all the writers I queried over the past month, one is closest: Peter Bebergal. We co-wrote our first book, The Faith Between Us, and he’s gone on to write a couple others: the memoir Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood and the cultural history Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll. There are echoes of Pam Houston here in what he says—about context, lived experience, ugliness. Peter includes beauty, as well. Echoes of Solotaroff in what he says about the uncanny transformations possible in art, and of Montaigne in what he says about the world—and the writer—laid bare. Peter’s is the most “crafty” of all the advice I got.
Whether you are writing about politics, religion, or history, the lived experience is the most authentic. People might believe in ideas, but their stories tell us more about how these ideas manifest. Expect contradiction, hypocrisy, startling moments of compassion and empathy. Don’t worry that the story won’t always align with the bigger theme you are trying to explore. In fact, your theme might change as you begin to see how narrative shapes what you thought you were writing about in the first place. But don’t forget context. We all live in historical and cultural moments, long accretions of time and nature. Don’t treat your stories in a vacuum. Situate them in time and place. Above all, even when you keenly disagree with some aspect of a life, don’t mock. Let the story unfold as it will and when the ugliness—or the beauty—reveals itself you won’t need to do much more than let allow it be laid bare.
Peter’s a kind and beautiful man. What’s great about knowing him as well as I do is that I get advice like all the time. I offer counsel, too, of course. And recently, like several of the writers who corresponded with me, I’ve suggested he get off Facebook. For all the platform does to bring us together, and all the promise of promotion, I’ve found the conversation there to be mainly corrosive over the years—indeed, not conversation at all. Zadie Smith issued a warning as early as 2010, in a review of The Social Network. And I wonder how much we’ve all suffered since then:
When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.
In our own new moment, Facebook owns not just us, but also so many of the channels through which we get our news and other writing. The writer Maria Bustillos, a cultural critic from Los Angeles, whose Longreads piece about her daughter’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis is among the best essays of 2016, wrote to say this, which I find incredibly hopeful and demanding:
I’ve been working on starting a new publication with a few people. It seems there is a newfound willingness to pay for information, and in my view that needs to be taken advantage of right now to the fullest possible extent. Facebook needs to be removed from the media equation entirely.
The context—and motivation—for new publishing ventures, where Maria is concerned, is related to a term she coined this year—“dismediation”—in another essential 2016 essay, this time for The Awl, published five days before the election: “When Truth Falls Apart.” Here she explains:
Dismediation is a form of propaganda that seeks to undermine the medium by which it travels, like a computer virus that bricks the whole machine. Thus, for example,
• Information: John Kerry is a war hero who was awarded three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star;
• Misinformation: John Kerry was never wounded in the Vietnam War;
• Disinformation: John Kerry is a coward;
• Dismediation: “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” are disinterested sources of information about John Kerry, equivalent in integrity to any other source that might be presented on the evening news.
Though she anticipated the election results in mid-July, the fallout has left her vigilant. She tells me:
Ever since these cabinet nominations started coming in, it feels like the whole world is about to come crashing down around our ears. … Right now, for me, doing meaningful work = never shutting up and telling all the truth, all the time. Finding others who are doing the same. Making common cause with everyone I can, even former opponents (for me, that means Clinton supporters; I honestly don’t care how badly they betrayed the left right now, so long as they are willing to oppose Trump).
It’s so clear to me that the institutions of the left have failed quite as spectacularly as those on the right. New alliances are needed. People like [right-leaning] Conor Friedersdorf, who loathes Trump, can bring one audience, and writers from the left can bring another one. People of faith, yet another. Scientists, another. Only when we get a non-partisan group of people who care about the truth more than their own teams in the same room to tell the truth, no matter who is made to look “bad” by telling the truth, are we going to have the ghost of a chance of reestablishing trust in the media. It was lost for a reason, on all sides.
Somewhere in her note she used the word “Snort.”
Another writer who worries about the corrosive effects of social media on our civic life is the playwright and essayist Wajahat Ali, a regular in the New York Times opinion pages, and author of the play The Domestic Crusaders. He’s the one with no “delusions of any grandeur.” But he did say this, and sees some hope in social media, as well, if we use it properly:
Simple things, and this is for myself as well.
- In an age of over-sharing, let’s try listening more, posting less. The urge to pontificate and become a social media warrior using our thumbs and smart phones as weapons is high. In the midst of digital warfare, going beyond our social circles, our Facebook-altered news feed and convenient talking points could provide new modes of thinking, new perspectives and a fresh ear for listening to many conversations and communities often buried under headlines.
- It’s better to be right than first. Speaking of social media, he who dies with the most Twitter followers still dies. Quality work which is factual and cited will rise to the top—maybe not replace puppies and cats, because let’s not get crazy, we love puppies and cats, but it will be valued and respected. In fact, it will be necessary—especially considering our president-elect will tweet falsehoods to millions.
- With Trump’s election, many Americans feel their identity, beings, and communities are under assault. A writer can carry other people’s water; give a voice to those who are silenced; create empathy and entertainment through narratives. We should challenge ourselves to carry other Americans’ water—step outside our comfort zone, do some research and write tales of those who don’t get to sit in the editorial boards.
This notion of carrying the water of others is also the work—and advice—of journalist Jennifer Percy, my final correspondent, author of the book Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, who in the past couple years has reported stories across the globe about American vigilantes fighting ISIS, Afghanistan’s sole female warlord, and a Japanese father still searching the deep for his daughter, lost in the 2013 tsunami. She offered an anecdote of reporting she’s currently doing, an assignment from the New York Times Magazine to try to figure out how the Eastern Oregon’s Bundy family, and their followers, think and work. “Basically,” she said, “an empathetic portrait of a group of people who seem insane to many of us on the East Coast (a.k.a., an armed militia taking over a wildlife refuge).” She continued:
I interviewed the wife of the man who was shot and a couple others who were at the refuge. Each of them said they don’t trust the liberal media because we twist what they say and say it out of context. Another woman, over the phone, said she could feel her heart beating just thinking about how I might portray her. She started crying and pleading for us to stop calling them terrorists. Then I flew to Northern California for some interviews and a few minutes after I landed the subjects cancelled because they were too fearful. One man said Politico had just been there the day before and twisted everything he said.
In the end, I think there needs to be more care about how certain groups of people are being depicted even if it is incredibly easy to take jabs at them. Otherwise the gap in communication and empathy is only going to widen. And apparently journalists who do a shitty job ruin it for ones who really want to try to tell an empathetic story. I think largely this isn’t about Trump, it’s about poverty, and when you experience poverty, you will go to extremes to get out of it—to survive—even if that means voting for Trump.
Care. Empathy. Confronting a gap that exists between us. These are my concerns these days, more than ever, and I’m grateful to everyone who shared their thoughts and ideas with since November 8—all efforts, I think, to close, or cross-over, that gap as much as possible. I’ve recently published an essay I wrote in the lead up to the election—and with the election in mind—that tried to confront this gap in terms of what we call love. It’s also an argument with my hero Marilynne Robinson that returns to the conversation with President Obama that I referred to in my letter to my hometown newspaper, that I brought to my classes. The essay’s called “Give Me Love,” which feels particularly apt right now—this week, this coming year, the next four, the decades ahead—because I think we’re going to need it desperately. The possibility of love—and what it makes possible—also returns me to Wallace, whose work I see as a series of reminders of how life is and how it could be. I’ve written before that Wallace used as an epigraph to his 2001 essay “Tense Present”—a review of a modern usage dictionary, and, in its way, a guide to good writing—a line from St. Augustine: Dilige et quod vis fac. Love, and what you will, do. And I’ve often considered this line a sort of gloss on his entire body of work—including, yes, the essay I began this essay with. His work includes essays novels, stories and reviews, that present life as it is, complete with Total Noise, three-alarm emergencies, and all of our private abysses, and asks how it could be different, better, if our actions—which may, for our purposes, mean all we write—were always preceded by love. Love, and what you will, do.
This advice, I think, applies as well to our democracy as it does to our writing—if you consider those things distinct at all at the moment, which I’m not doing any more. My wife said it: “You have to write about this.” And I think many of us feel this way. You, she said, have to make our democracy. And I’m here saying the same to you.
And I’ll close with this same advice from Marilynne Robinson, once again from the conversation with Obama that I’ve been meditating on for more than a year. She grounds the argument for our America in history. America has always been a struggle. The gaps have always been huge. And democracy has never been easy.
One more time, the novelist Marilynne Robinson:
I think that in our earlier history—the Gettysburg Address or something—there was the conscious sense that democracy was an achievement. It was not simply the most efficient modern system or something. It was something that people collectively made and they understood that they held it together by valuing it. I think that in earlier periods—which is not to say one we will never return to—the president himself was this sort of symbolic achievement of democracy. And there was the human respect that I was talking about before, [that] compounds itself in the respect for the personified achievement of a democratic culture. Which is a hard thing—not many people can pull that together, you know…. So I do think that one of the things that we have to realize and talk about is that we cannot take it for granted. It’s a made thing that we make continuously.
What’s happened—the forsaking of truth, dismediation, the election itself—is not normal, and it’s left many of us grieving: for our neighbors, our world and environment, the common good. An uncertain future. But we’re responsible—that’s what I’ve been told, both for what’s happened, and for all that is to come—and for the future of our America, it’s very important that we take up responsibility. No, for our America—the one we’ll keep on writing—it’s infinitely so.
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Scott Korb directs the first-year writing program at The New School’s Eugene Lang College and is on the faculty at Pacific University’s low-residency MFA in Writing Program. He is the author and editor of several books, including Light without Fire: The Making of America’s First Muslim College, now out in paperback.