In this post, we’ll consider the challenges of trying to change people’s minds, trying to urge action, trying to change the world, or some portion thereof, explicitly with your words. While the examples I reference are from creative nonfiction, I believe the tips can apply to fiction or poetry as well.
In response to the many troubling events we’ve seen unfold in recent days, weeks, and months, I’ve sometimes noticed a worrisome hand-wringing among writers: Why do we bother? Does art make any difference? I understand the feeling, I’ve been there, too. But I fervently believe we have the power and the responsibility to use our art in service of our values.
Make no mistake, this kind of writing is rife with pitfalls. We often get too didactic, too preachy, and no reader likes to be told what to do. Other times, we end up preaching to the choir, only persuading those who already agree with us. (Now, there’s a legitimate argument that this, too, serves a purpose in validating your reader’s perspective, or outrage, and spurring them to action.) A related problem is when our focus is too limited, tied to one culture, subculture, place, or time period. (Like when I was a high-schooler writing endless op-eds about eliminating home room.)
None of this to say writing for change is a bad idea. Where we would be without books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring that changed people’s minds about pesticide use or Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that spurred people to protest for racial justice?
That’s one thing I want to emphasize: never forget our first job is to write well and true, to make art, to move reader’s and maybe change lives
Another is this: All change, arguably, comes from stories. Stories move us
Here’s one more: Good writing for change should also be about change.
Change happens in the action of the story: change in the world, in the character or the narrator.
Change also happens in perception: the narrator’s, the character’s … and the reader’s!
Let’s look at five particular ways to approach writing for change:
1. Bear witness for yourself
Many years ago when I was assigned my first class teaching memoir writing online, I was shocked by how many stories I read about abuse, emotional and physical. Perhaps ten of the fifteen students wrote about it. I thought “What are the chances?” Then I taught another class, then another, each one had about the same number of hard stories. Finally I realized: This is the world in live in.
Memoirists often ask: Does the world need another story about X? The answer is YES. I needed to read that many stories to recognize how widespread abuse is in our culture. Ditto for disability, for racism, for misogyny. So many hard subjects are swept under the proverbial carpet. The first step to changing any problem is recognizing it exists! This is what writers of autobiography or memoir or creative nonfiction can do!
In “Black in Middle America” Roxane Gay simply describes her experiences as a black woman in mostly-white communities, the way she can never escape feeling out of place. She bears witness to effects of racism that are more subtle than those of overt discrimination.
2. Bear witness for others
Writers of creative nonfiction can also write about something that has happened or is happening to others. This can be in the form of investigative journalism or it can take a more lyric form. In “Dawn and Mary” Brian Doyle bears witness to the heroism of two women by packing their stories into 750 words, using only their first names, using the tools of poetry: repetition, refrain, sound to pack a punch. One pitfall of bearing witness for others is when you become condescending or when you appropriate a story the subject could writer for themselves. In “Dawn and Mary” Doyle eloquently gives voice to these women who are no longer alive to tell their own stories.
3. Use myth or allegory … and turn up the volume!
You can use a mythical figure or an allegory to expose a person or a dynamic without pointing a finger directly. (Animal Farm by George Orwell is a classic allegory of how socialism can go awry.) Native American writers Robin Wall Kimmerer uses the figure of “The Windigo” to decry the behavior of many Americans, and one in particular, without naming names. It arguably allows her to be even more scathing than she would/could be otherwise, to “turn up the volume” on her voice.
4. Write a letter … to the future
The epistolary form can be means of creating intimacy. In “Dear Soon-to-be-Sprout” Elizabeth Rush uses it, unexpectedly, as a call to arms for collective action to combat climate change. The letter form personalizes her urgency, but also reaches out to the reader. She addresses most of her letter to “you,” her unborn daughter, but she slyly also slips in an occasional “we” as in this sentence. “I want to say to you, little seed, change is that only thing that is true, and it starts when we join one and one to make more than two.” And just that, the reader is implicated and invited, too.
5. Try a “found essay”
I mentioned earlier the danger of appropriating someone else’s story or voice. One solution is to quote them, as in “Transgender Day of Remembrance” take snippets of other texts and put them together. (How long did it take you while reading to realize this was the case?) This technique is most often used in poetry, in what are called “found” poems, but Torrey Peters takes it a step farther in creating this rightly harrowing “found essay.”
PROMPT Option 1: Write a letter
List three experiences you have lived that others may not share (perhaps you were raised rural or in a nontraditional family, maybe you have a disability or identify as L.G.B.T.Q)
Choose one and write a letter to a child-to-be about this experience and what you hope will change for him/her/them
OR Write a letter to your former self reassuring him/her/them of all that has changed
PROMPT Option 2: Bearing Witness
Write about someone acting heroically, big or small, at some risk to himself, someone you know about or someone you’ve heard about recently in the style of “Dawn and Mary”
OR Try a “found essay” with bits and pieces of news articles or testimonials that speak to the experiences of an underrepresented group in the style of “Transgender Day of Remembrance”
Ana Maria Spagna is the author of several books including Uplake: Restless Essays of Coming and Going, Reclaimers, stories of elder women reclaiming sacred land and water, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, winner of the River Teeth literary nonfiction prize, 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (as We Know It) a humor-infused exploration of how to live more lightly on the planet, and two previous essay collections, Potluck and Now Go Home. Her first novel for young people, The Luckiest Scar on Earth, about a 14 year-old snowboarder and her activist father, appeared in 2017. Ana Maria’s work has been recognized by the Society for Environmental Journalists, Nautilus Book Awards, and as a four-time finalist for the Washington State Book Award. You can find her at www.anamariaspagna.com and on Twitter @amspagna