What a month! Seems like I’ve started just about every post here lately with a similar exclamation, but the impact of the current moment just keeps growing. WU Editorial Director Therese Walsh wrote a piece to start the month in which she reminded us that we are witnessing history. She made the case that “history is written by the writers,” which I fully embrace.
As someone who identifies first and foremost as a writer, I feel I have a responsibility to use my voice—to express my perspective, my concerns, my hopes and fears. I don’t know how anyone who’s paying attention can remain unmoved. The outpouring sparked by the murder of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street, in the full view of the world, feels like nothing short of a national reckoning; a moment from which there can be no looking away, no turning back.
Although I feel the responsibility to use my voice, I also feel it’s important to recognize that I am a middle-aged white male. Demographically, I sit squarely within the group that has historically remained the biggest obstruction to real societal change in the form of inclusion and equal justice.
Acknowledging My Privilege
I had a typical suburban upbringing, fairly detached and sheltered. We were walking-distance to our elementary school and a huge bucolic park, for little league baseball and winter sledding. Our fridge was always well-stocked, and we were served a healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day.
I was never drafted nor called to serve my country in war. I was given a car to drive on my sixteenth birthday, and another to drive to college. My parents paid my college tuition and helped out with my rent throughout my years there.
Of my dozen-or-so encounters with law enforcement, most entailed me being pulled over for traffic violations. During these incidents I have felt several things: incredulous, chagrined, and even confused (as in, “what was I doing wrong, officer?”).
But never once was I afraid.
The worst I ever expected was a ticket. I never once felt the need to keep my hands in plain view (to assure that I wasn’t reaching for a weapon or hiding something). Never once did I imagine that I might encounter excessive force. Let alone that my life might be in danger if I made the wrong move, said the wrong thing.
I’m embarrassed to admit that it was fairly late in life that I even began to recognize that, in their encounters with law enforcement, far too many of my fellow Americans don’t share the luxury of this lack of concern or fear.
I relay all of this because I think it’s vital to acknowledge where each of us is starting from before we can even begin to seek our true selves. I also feel it’s only through seeking my true self that can I responsibly use my voice.
The Necessity of Empathy
I’ve written here before about the empathy that’s naturally bestowed by the writing life. In this post from 2017, I even refer to it as a gift. Not that my stance has changed. But I’ve come to see empathy as being beyond a natural byproduct of the venture, and more as a necessary acquisition—a needed skill for finding our way to our best work. I see empathy not just as a virtue to passively accumulate, but one for which we should strive and work to strengthen.
The pursuit helps me to better appreciate the name of this community. To commit ourselves to this journey is to commit ourselves to seeking constant growth. I see striving for greater empathy as a vital component of that. If we are seeking to unbox ourselves, we are always striving for new and broader perspective.
After all, isn’t that what empathy is—seeing from another’s perspective? Isn’t that at the very core of what we do, and aspire to do better and better—to put ourselves, and then our readers, into the shoes of others?
Empathy is the difference between bemoaning the disturbance and property damage of an uprising and seeking to understand the outrage that led to it. Empathy is the difference between finding ways to excuse or belittle past harm done and seeking ways to redress it, as well as solutions to keeping it from recurring.
In one respect, I feel lucky that I write historical epic fantasy. It’s offered ample opportunity for me to work on my empathy. I have already included the lives of oppressed people, as well as those who oppress them, in my storytelling. I have explored the divisions that arise from misperceiving people who are different, cultures that are different, and how those divisions become the source of entrenched conflict and tragedy.
But I know I can do better. I know I can improve. It’s absolutely incumbent on me to try.
I can seek to make such elements more than mere plot points or world-building. They can and must be the source of character emotions and motivations and transformation.
Regardless of genre, we can all strive to do better. We can all unmask bullies. We can all find ways to expose the mechanisms of oppression. We can all utilize story to unbox society at large; to lay bare the fact that we are all human beings, with a thousand times more ways we are the same than the pittance of petty fabrications we devise for the sake of keeping us divided.
And we need only to pursue empathy to begin.
Using my Voice
As I say, I feel it is incumbent on me to continue to try. Part of trying is seeking understanding. It’s not up to the black members of my writing community to educate me. It’s on me. I have to educate myself. And I have to speak. That’s part of trying, too.
As the events unfolded in the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd, as the marches grew and the issues we’d long avoided confronting as a nation became unavoidable, I saw that my day to post on WU approached. And I knew that I couldn’t avoid writing about a topic that had become such a powerful and moving presence in my life as a writer. Nor did I want to. But I must confess that it makes me nervous.
As I say—yes, I am privileged. I’m a middle-aged white male writing about race in America. It causes me some discomfort. But can you think of anything that’s worth taking on that doesn’t cause some form of discomfort? Are there any of your worthwhile achievements that haven’t pushed you out of your comfort zone? How can we call ourselves writers if we are unwilling to write about challenging topics and issues? Especially those that are essential to our times, intrinsic to our progress?
So yes, I acknowledge my privilege. No, I don’t have many answers, but I am committed to seeking them. As a writer, I see using my voice not just as a responsibility, but as the means of seeking answers and of conveying what I glean.
In doing so, I will strive for greater empathy. I will continue to seek better understanding. Because until we all have the empathy to fully understand how our black fellow Americans feel when they are singled-out, prejudged, targeted, harassed and harried—until we instantly feel the same outrage they feel when a member of their community is senselessly murdered—our voices will not be powerful enough to effect real and lasting change.
I recognize that by speaking, I will make mistakes. But my silence serves nothing but an entrenched status quo. I will seek to use my voice, never to build or to reinforce societal barriers, but only to tear them down; to seek to reveal the pettiness of the fabrications the few devise to keep the many divided; to reinforce the thousand times more ways we are as one. Whether it’s in my fiction, an essay, a letter, or a tweet.
The Benefits of the Endeavor
For those of us willing to undertake the endeavor, there are benefits. For me, speaking truth maintains my hope.
Just in the attempt to use our voices, we can only get better. That gives me hope, too.
I don’t have many answers, but I’m sure of one thing. Everything I describe above in the context of race relations in American in 2020: the acknowledgement of self and a starting point; the striving for empathy, for an unboxed perspective; the discomfort in putting ourselves out there; the willingness to make mistakes in an effort to improve—they are all bound to make us better storytellers.
If we all continue to seek a challenging and enlightening course forward, better books are bound to come of it.
And the ultimate benefit of better books is that they make for better human beings. I may not have many answers, but I remain certain that story lifts us up and makes us better.
How are you doing WU? Are you still striving for greater empathy? Speaking your truth? Maintaining your hope?