This post isn’t so much about writing as it is about being a writer. Or, to be more precise, it’s about simultaneously being a writer and a citizen of the troubled world in which we live.
Here’s the question: should the writer of fiction also publicly discuss politics and related controversial topics?
The prevailing wisdom says no. As writers in the twenty-first century, most of us necessarily spend nearly as much time growing and nurturing our platforms as we do writing the books and shorter works those platforms exist to promote. It doesn’t make sense to work as hard as we do to build our platforms only to weaken them by broadcasting our political views. When it comes to political matters, everyone’s got an opinion, and everyone is convinced he’s right. So unless you make your living as a political writer, it’s simply not worth the risk of offending half of the potential readers out there by expressing political opinions we might just as easily keep to ourselves.
But maybe the prevailing wisdom isn’t always right.
I can think of two reasons for a writer to discuss politics with care, and they go hand-in-hand. First, she believes the person she is presenting via her platform is not genuine because the political side of her is a key part of who she is. Second, she believes she has an obligation as a human being to speak up where she sees injustice. In these cases, perhaps it’s better not to remain silent.
Are you the kind of person you want to be? Given your unique skills–which include communicating nuanced ideas to others in ways that resonate–are you fulfilling your obligations not just to promote your work, but to improve whatever it is you value in the world? People look around our troubled planet all the time and wonder how to change it. As writers, we possess a power not shared by everyone: the power of the pen (or laptop). If we write fiction, must we surrender that power completely in order to market successfully our stories and our books?
I began writing creatively over a decade ago after leaving a career in politics and policy. I intended the break to be complete in the professional sense; I would always be interested in politics personally, of course, and might dabble in that world more or less as a hobby, but I intended to keep it separate from my writing.
For a while, the plan worked. I was a new mom, and nothing was more fascinating and terrifying to me than parenthood, so I wrote mostly about that. When we adopted our second child from South Korea, I started writing about race and multiculturalism, but in my mind, those pieces were far more about family than politics.
As I began to emerge from the clubbed-over-the-head daze that life with toddlers can be, I grew as a writer, and none of that growth was political. I began writing fiction, another clubbed-over-the-head daze of an obsession, this one involving frequent dialogues and debates with imaginary people far more compelling than any politicians I knew.
At the same time, I also ventured onto Facebook and Twitter. Here I was mindful of the fact that my intent was to form quality connections with many different kinds of people, and I kept my words relatively noncontroversial. There were times I bit my lip or shouted at my laptop, but my fingertips held back.
But partly because of Twitter and Facebook, I also read more news than I had since my kids first commanded the front of my stage. I saw plenty I approved of; more I didn’t. I kept writing and studying, finished the first draft of my novel, continued to build followers, kept reading and watching the news and frequently thought, “someone should do something about this.”
Until I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. State legislation collided with my keyboard, and I realized that there wasn’t much point to my being a writer if I wasn’t going to use my ability to work with words to speak out publicly for something I believed–to try to make people understand that to allow some people to marry but not others was to violate the rights of an entire class of people. I considered the words I often imparted to my children about equality and about standing up for others and for what they believed. Increasingly, I felt like a coward for hiding behind my developing platform and for not writing the op-ed I’d drafted several times over in my head.
So I took a step forward and wrote an incontrovertibly political column, then took a deep breath before sending it to my editor.
But I did not take this step lightly. This sort of writing comes with consequences. I knew that publishing a piece that came down so strongly on one side of a heated political issue would instantly cause a few readers to dislike me and bias them against my future writings, regardless of whether those writings were non-fiction columns, stories, my parenting blog or my still-in-progress novel.
Since that time, I have written numerous other political pieces—the most recent just this week on the question of Syrian refugees—always mindful of the potential results. I don’t delude myself that everything I write (or tweet) is a meaningful contribution to the public discourse, but I am conscious of the fact that in the age of the internet, every political word I release into the stratosphere must be something I’ll be comfortable living with forever.
I know that when I finally try to sell my novel, there may be an agent or two who won’t like me because of something I’ve said on Twitter. There may be some readers who won’t pick up my book because of a few columns I’ve written. But there may also be agents who will respect what I’ve done and who will recognize that, in fact, I’ve been building relationships and a platform all along–in some cases, because of my political words.
As writers, we create platforms with the ultimate goal of promoting our work. A key ingredient of platform is authenticity, and we weaken our platforms if we allow ourselves to become inauthentic. For me, I came to a place where I could no longer remain apolitical. My conscience would not permit me to remain silent any longer. I’m a writer, but I’m also a person with a place in the world, and I possess the power of the written word. It’s my responsibility to use it.
An earlier version of this post appeared at Beyond the Margins (now defunct).
(Image courtesy Jonathan Cohen via Flickr.com.)
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