As I move to the close of my second decade of teaching creative writing, I’m experiencing a dramatic shift in my philosophy. Writing has always been for me a means of personal discovery; I came to understand and claim my identity as a bisexual Christian when writing Swinging on the Garden Gate, and then melded my spiritual direction training with writing coaching to support others in profound personal healing and exploration through writing. I’m a firm believer in the power of privacy at the start of a writing project. If a writer’s heart isn’t on the line, what that writer writes hasn’t much chance of mattering.
Because I’m well-trained as a feminist, I know the personal is political. So I’ve always trusted that deeply private explorations play a powerful role in public discourse. By reconciling my sexual identity with my faith, in my heart and in Swinging, I believe that, in a small but effective way, I helped make space for such a reconciliation within our culture. Many of the memoir writers I work with question the value of such personal writing. I don’t. I know its intrinsic, healing value for the writer, and I believe truth-telling of any sorts is constructive for our world.
But recently I’ve begun to feel a sense of urgency about our world’s needs. Perhaps I’m waking up to my responsibility to address inequality and injustice. Certainly I feel pressured by impending climate change. Somehow, listening to the movements of my heart, following them onto the page, and trusting these stories to bring about social change seems slightly passive. Irresponsible, even. If the pen is mightier than the sword, shouldn’t I be wielding it intentionally, for the common good?
Nothing is more taboo in American letters than an “agenda.” We all know that a message, political or theological or social, can knock a story dead. I’m beginning to wonder, though, whether American writers have avoided addressing social issues—and our responsibility as culture-makers—for the sake of staying safe.
So I’m positing this question: How can writers connect the intimate material of their hearts to the broad social issues of our times in a way that’s artful and effective? We know it’s possible. Shakespeare did it. Tolstoy did it. Adrienne Rich did it. Karen Connelly and Arundhati Roy and Tracy Kidder are doing it. This is what I want for myself and the writers I support.
I can’t help but think of Frederick Buechner’s definition of vocation: “The place God calls you is to the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Whether or not God’s in the picture, I’m increasingly convinced that this nexus between deep, private gladness and the world’s deep hunger is where we writers need to work. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew