About Your Writing: Make It Personal by Steve Adams

I’m Steve Adams, a writer, writing coach, and a freelance editor who’s studied a wide range of artistic forms before landing, quite late, on prose. As I’ve always been fascinated by the artistic process, I decided to start working my ideas out on the page, using a quote from a writer or other kind of artist as a prompt. I hope my column, “About Your Writing,” is useful to you.

“You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.”―James Baldwin 

Something I struggle with during this crazy, confusing, radical moment in time, is how can a writer justify writing what, at first glance, doesn’t directly address the many crises afflicting the nation and world? How can we justify writing, say, a simple love story today?

There is no clear or clean answer to this, but one thing I deeply believe is we can never know the value of what we’re creating or its purpose. I mean, you might force out five short stories addressing the environmental catastrophe we’re facing, but since writing directly from the soap box usually falls flat, you might end up with five stories that won’t get into the world. This would likely be because you came at it from your head and didn’t go deep into either your characters or your heart, instead moving ideas around like chess pieces on a board.

Along these lines I want to mention two relatively recent and very successful full length literary works that carry enormous political heft: Sing Unburied Sing, by Jesmyn Ward, and Between the World and Me, by Te Nahisi Coates. The reason they work as literature and are so effective in their politics is that both forefront the human experience; both dive deep into heart of the writer. There are no easy statements (even with Coates’s, which is nonfiction), just experience. Readers join in that experience and weave it into their own, interpreting it along the lines of their lives. One of my most successful short stories concerns a childless couple at the end of their lives after they find out their small dairy farm has been contaminated from a toxic dump site, and that they’ve been serving contaminated milk to children. The focus is on them, the couple as individuals, how this impacts them, and how they handle it. I didn’t design it to be political; I wrote about a specific tragedy a specific couple experiences. But the message is embedded in the story. And as far as an overt political novel, remember that at the center of 1984 is a love story. The whole book turns on Winston betraying his love, Julia, in order to stop his torture. Without this intensely human element, the book would never have held up.

That said, I don’t believe it’s necessary to address your politics in your work. You can also write purely to your heart, and then address your civic or political concerns in some other way—giving money to an organization, volunteering for a cause, running for school board. Then your private writing can help sustain you, give you strength and grounding for this other work. And this is a reason to write, say, that simple love story you can’t stop thinking about, even if it doesn’t address climate change. First of all, the work will nourish you, and if the piece moves into the world, it may well nourish someone doing important public work who needs to stop and refresh before going back to what they do. All artists serve those they never see.

If you do your best work, you won’t be able to predict how it will act in the world, or upon the world. And this is good, because it may be smarter than you. It might do better work if you’re out of the way.

Writing is not “this” or “that,” as some people would like to think. It is, in fact, often “this” and “that.” The personal can be surprisingly political. Think of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, a book exploring the life of an individual man and his family caught in the Russian Revolution. But a 1950s Russia was so invested in propaganda it was outraged that this book glorified an individual instead of society, a human life over political causes. And so they banned it. Banning it, of course, made everyone in Russia even more anxious to read it. And in a wonderful bit of irony, the CIA in the U.S., seeing the political opportunity, published the book and smuggled it into Russia where it was passed from hand to hand all through the country, causing its citizens, who could see nothing wrong or dangerous with the book, to doubt their government. This turned Dr. Zhivago into one of the most powerful political books of the century.

As far as the James Baldwin’s quote, let’s stop and think about it. Here he is, one of the most important writers of his time, a Black man whose fiction is not only as significant as anyone’s, but who also wrote important essays overtly addressing race and politics when that could’ve gotten him killed in the wrong neighborhood. A man who felt outcast by the dominant culture. Yet here in this quote he’s gratefully identifying with a White Russian writer from another century and his characters. Dostoyevsky keeps Baldwin from being isolated in his experience. To repeat what Baldwin says, “This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone.”

That’s the nourishment I was talking about. You never know who your work might support, or how.

Or, as the poet Rita Dove says, from her poem “Transit”…

while in the midst of horror
we fed on beauty—and that,
my love, is what sustained us.        

Steve Adams’s writing has won a Pushcart Prize and Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s award, been listed as a “Notable Essay” in Best American Essays, and anthologized. His prose is widely published, and his plays have been produced in New York City. He’s a writing coach and freelance editor at www.steveadamswriting.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @iamsteveadams.

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