The Mighty Pen and Its Purpose: Taking On Social and Political Issues in Our World

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Do we have the power to address social and political issues in our work? In class, writers are often discouraged from taking on controversial issues. Instead, one is often told to focus on character, plot, and pacing. Otherwise, the author runs the risk of writing flat, single-minded, political prose. The great George Orwell, for example, was often accused of sacrificing art for politics. As a result, he was never considered a truly great writer.

The above advice is sound in some ways, especially for new writers, as politics can often overpower a story, and in satire one can lose all sense of character development and plot. But, I don’t think writers should shy away from taking on controversial subjects. In fact, I think it is often the author’s responsibility to bring these issues to light.

Three of my most recent stories have in some way discussed the recent recession and unemployment. At first, I felt hesitant in taking on this issue, but eventually I found myself restless and angry about the current state of affairs. I felt I had to write about this issue, if only to put my mind at ease. In truth, these stories are more personal than political, but in a larger way they address issues that I feel are the undercurrent of today’s news: Are common, everyday men and women being heard? If I hadn’t written these stories, I feel I would still be grappling with them somehow. Instead, I believe I have given voice to my own struggles while also expressing the frustrations of those around me.

Similarly, I have written about bullying, teen suicide, violence, eating disorders, and a number of other issues that are perhaps not always political but ultimately important to address. To me, these issues should not be brushed aside but should be taken on with full force. I believe the characters in these stories are essential, but I think the issues that these stories take on are a driving force.

Yes, writing is meant to entertain, but in my mind, the best pieces of writing can also encompass much more than one sentiment. When I first began writing, I was especially inspired by Charles Dickens. He was able to fit so much into his novels. They were not just about political and social injustice; they were also stories about humanity and the individuals who endured difficult circumstances.

I believe writers have the ability to effect change. Even if stories ultimately do not have the desired impact, perhaps they will touch one person or start one conversation. Ultimately, our work should create dialogue and bring up issues that have otherwise been set aside. If we ignore these responsibilities as writers, we will be doing the world, and ourselves, a great injustice.

Writing Aggravations: Finding the Perfect Title

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Finding the correct title for a story is often one of the most difficult aspects of writing. Sometimes the title comes easily. Often, however, I spend an inordinate amount of time searching for the correct phrase or line that truly encompasses all the themes and ideas of a particular piece. This is hard work. There is so much investment in finding the right title that I often feel I am falling short. Instead, I end up with a long list of very bad titles.

Some my favorite short story titles come from the text itself. Titles such as these come from a particularly poetic or apt phrase, often repeated throughout the text or found at a key moment. It is harder than one might imagine to find this key phrase and recognize its potential. Still, if it is there, the phrase can often jump off the page, quickly becoming apparent.

The problem comes when the perfect phrase is not evident in the story. Then, one needs to spend time thinking about what the story really means and how best to capture these ideas in one line. Sometimes this sort of mental work is necessary. It can lead to important breakthroughs, clearing up confusion within the piece itself. It can also help one rework a certain scene. Still, sometimes the correct title for the piece just isn’t there.

The novel I am currently working on is still untitled. I have a list of at least ten possibilities, all of which are related to themes and events within the story and the protagonist’s name. Somehow none of the combinations seem to work. Although I am sure I will find the correct title for this novel eventually, this process is a continually trying one for me. I have spoken to some of my poet friends, who must, of course, write titles for their pieces constantly. Perhaps this process is easier for the poet, as their main focus is the line. The correct title is essential to a poem and can make or break the piece. Although I might one day find inspiration from these poets, usually I am just grateful not to be one of them.

I often think about some of the world’s most famous writers and their titles: A Tale of Two Cities, The Grapes of Wrath, Waiting for Godot. I wonder if these works would have been just as successful if they had been given another name. For example, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins was originally titled The Hotel Adequate View, which just doesn’t encompass the strength the piece, as it is a large and sweeping novel.

Still, some of the best titles are simple ones. Great Expectations and Sense and Sensibility, for example, are not very detailed or complicated in nature. Yet, perhaps a simple title will often do.

I expect most writers struggle with titles from time to time, and a good friend or fellow writer can often advise against bad choices. Sometimes the best solution, I think, is to just pick a title and move on with the work. Even if the future holds a better title, at least, good writing can carry the piece until then.

An Author Dilemma: Creating an Appropriate Work Schedule

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There are many writer “truisms” in the world, and one particularly bothersome one relates to writing schedules. I’ve often heard others writers suggest that to be a truly successful author, one must write everyday. Of course, I’ve heard stories of dedicated writers getting up at 6:00 every morning and writing without a break until noon. Others suggest that they become physically ill if they do not get in their daily dose of writing.

While it is great when more experienced writers offer up free advice to their budding artist friends, I believe trying to create an overarching practice for all writers is a mistake. I’ve heard this topic come up at multiple writing conferences. The young or new writer raises his hand and says, “Do I really have to write everyday?” In some cases the writer, teacher, or editor answers the question in a vague sort of way, but sometimes the presenter begins discussing her own schedule in great detail, urging the conscientious writer to follow along and take notes.

Of course, one’s writing schedule is not always a matter of choice. I am not a morning writer and work best in the evening, although my job and other factors dictate this schedule. If I didn’t have the time to write in the evening, I might switch to an early afternoon practice. Or, perhaps I would try doing all my writing over the weekend. There is no perfect schedule, no right or wrong; there is only what works best for that individual.

While it is usually a good idea to create some sort of schedule or regular practice, it important to really trust oneself in this matter. Some writers might truly need to write every morning to feel at ease. Others might not need a schedule at all and might pace themselves according to a general page count or goal for that week. In my own practice, I try to allow for flexibility. For example, I sometimes incorporate alternate writing days into my schedule. If I end up not being able to write on Tuesday, for example, I might write on Wednesday instead.

I am also the sort of writer who is always plotting story ideas in my head. I often think it would be senseless for me to write everyday, as I need breaks to process and let my writing breathe. I have found this to be an effective practice for myself, although I would never force this same practice on another writer.

Like most, I do feel a pang in my stomach when I miss a writing day, and for this reason I try to be consistent, and, yes, I do write very often. But, I believe if one truly wants to write, one will make time for it. I certainly do. My schedule changes frequently and unexpected glitches come up. In these cases, I adjust my writing schedule accordingly. When it comes down to it, I always find time for my work. Even if I do so a little begrudgingly, I end up at the computer somehow, and I expect that most writers will do the same.

A desk and computer (or pen and paper) are all one really needs.

A desk and computer (or pen and paper) are all one really needs.

 

The Introvert and the “Ideal” Writer

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In the past few years, I have read two books on introverts, The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney and, more recently, Quiet by Susan Cain. Both books focus on the strength of introverts—their quiet reflectiveness and wisdom—qualities which are often ignored in a more extroverted society such as the United States.

I have spent much time thinking about these books and have been grateful to both authors for providing insight into my own and other introverted people’s lives. As an introvert, I have often felt overlooked or misunderstood. On interviews, I have sometimes felt misjudged as “unfit,” coming across as quiet, reserved, and not the sort of “go-getter” that interviewers suggest is ideal.

When I was in college, I once interned at a local newspaper. My articles included features of war veterans and local public figures. Some of my work even won a local journalism award. When it was time for me to leave the newspaper, the editor in chief brought me into his office. He said, “You have been a really great reporter, but when I first hired you, I thought you would be terrible.”

He went on to explain that he had only hired me because a friend had recommended my work. He believed I needed to improve my self-promotion skills, showcasing my strengths on interviews. At the time I thought he was right (and I did practice these skills), but now I wonder if maybe this editor should have also worked on his own interviewing skills, developing a solution for signaling out talent (he also hired a very bad reporter that year and had somehow failed to weed her out).

Similarly, in class I often found myself with teachers who penalized me for not participating, or they highlighted my quiet temperament in front of others. Some wondered how I succeeded both in and outside of school. For example, one professor was shocked to learn that I had spent a year teaching in Korea. He seemed to suggest that my introverted qualities would have prevented me from traveling at all. While I admit I am often a cautious person, I also enjoy new challenges. I was likewise surprised that this same seemingly extroverted professor was afraid to travel without his wife.

Although situations such as these have often proved frustrating, having read the above-mentioned books—I have begun to feel at ease with my own quiet nature, noting its benefits. I can think deeply on topics that many people may not consider. I am able to empathize with others when most might not understand them at all. As a journalist, I believe I succeeded because I was quiet and, therefore, listened to what the interviewee said. I took careful notes, researched and checked facts, and organized my paperwork before writing. I also learned how to write succinctly and edit my own pieces. I believe skills such as these are actually essential and should be sought after in both the journalism and other professional worlds.

As I have come to feel at ease with my own nature and recognize that sometimes interviews and other situations such as these will be difficult, I have also felt frustrated as a writer—believing publishers, editors, and agents have begun looking for extroverted writers with “personality,” good looks, and the ability to self-promote. As I have previously mentioned, I do believe it is important for writers to promote their own work and submit furiously, but I do not believe the ideal writer will ever be an extroverted one.

While there are certainly extroverted writers out there, most are introverted—as are many artists. Writers need time to reflect and hone their skills. In fact, I once read that the most common Myers-Briggs personality type for a writer is an INFP (introverted, intuitive, feeling, perceiving).

It is a mistake to expect writers to create masterpieces and also be outgoing, talkative types with strong personalities. While I believe most of the world understands this, others do not recognize the importance of giving these writers the space and time they need to create. Marketing and promoting their books is essential, but this can only be done after a period of solitude and reflection.

Sources:

Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Random House, 2012.

Laney, Marti Olsen. The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 2002.

Women Writers, “Women’s Fiction,” and Our Place in Literature

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“Women’s fiction” is a term that has always bothered me. In the publishing industry, this refers to fiction written for and usually by women, addressing “domestic” issues such as childbirth, marriage, and relationships. This type of fiction is often more commercially driven and is perhaps the equivalent to a romantic comedy or Lifetime drama in the movie industry.

I am not against light, commercial fiction—although it is true that I prefer more serious, literary novels—but I do believe classifying this sort of fiction as “women’s fiction” is a mistake. Both men and women enjoy lighter fiction, yet no fiction (For example, more men than women stereotypically enjoy spy or thriller novels) is ever referred to as “men’s fiction.” Works such as these are simply called novels.

Although women writers are not limited to writing women’s fiction, I believe as long as this term exists women writers will never fully be included within mainstream literature. While there are many more serious women writers than there once were, many are writing this kind of light-hearted novel—or they are not appreciated or recognized when they do write more serious novels. I think we should be encouraging women to write award-winning fiction and not saying that they are limited to a particular genre or area of literature. Using the term “women’s fiction,” seems to suggest this is where women readers and writers belong.

Perhaps I am entirely wrong about this, and women are being treated as serious writers, along with men. I don’t think Toni Morrison’s work could be classified as “women’s fiction” nor would Nadine Gordimer, Marilynne Robinson, or Zadie Smith’s. Still, when I look at my bookshelf I still see many classic novels by male writers and only a smattering of ones by well-known women authors.

It seems even the best of fiction by women is sometimes still classified as “women’s fiction” with the expectation that this is for women, not men. For example, I believe Jane Austen is one of the best novelists of our time, and yet some men and women seem to suggest her novels are only for women. At the same time, women and men alike are expected to read Cormac McCarthy, Graham Greene, or Ernest Hemmingway—great novelists who arguably address more “male issues” in their work.

While I do not necessarily believe women should begin modifying their work (issues such as childcare and relationships are important), I do not believe they should be limited to a particular topic or genre. I believe we need to get rid of categories such as “women’s fiction,” as they place limits on women readers and writers—and perhaps on men as well. More women writers need to be read and appreciated. While I believe this has begun to take place, we still have far to go—and appreciating women writers as writers who just happen to be women is the first step in letting go of these antiquated ideas.

I do not believe readers or writers should be limited to a particular genre or type of literature.

I do not believe readers or writers such as this one should be limited to a particular genre or type of literature.