Like most people living in the Twin Cities, an unusual number of my friends and acquaintances work for nonprofits. Not long ago, I was talking with one of said friends who is the policy lead (aka “lobbyist”) with a social justice organization that recently scored a huge victory for their cause, despite ferocious opposition. I asked him how he approached and tried to persuade those opposed to his organization’s cause and he said, “Actually, the people who are really against what we do just don’t meet with me at all. Sometimes they just won’t make the time. Sometimes they’ll let me schedule a meeting, but they always bail out at the last minute, or keep rescheduling until it’s past the point that it matters.”
There are many opinions and causes that I find reprehensible, but I always try to go out of my way to understand where the people who hold those perspectives are coming from. For the past couple of years, I’ve worked with organizations involved with policy-making and so the idea that an elected official would refuse to even discuss matters with the other side was, until my friend told me about his experience, unthinkable to me. Yeah, sure, blustering and heated, intransigent debate I can understand, but flat out refusing to talk to someone about an issue that affects both of you appalls me.
And it offends me for another reason: as a writer, if you’re serious about writing good, believable characters and stories, you have to make the effort to understand things you don’t like. I’m not very good at this, admittedly, but I try.
A few years ago, I was an intern at the Playwright’s Center. During one of the artist talk-back sessions, one of the audience members asked a panel of writers, “Who’s your audience?” The woman was an artistic director at a DC-based theatre and the question sounded innocent enough to me, so I was surprised by the flak she got from the panelists. “I hate that question,” they all agreed. Later, I asked one of the other interns, who had been working in theatre for while, why everyone was so angry. She said, “Do you think anyone ever asks a straight, white, male playwright who his audience is?” Then I realized that maybe, at best, one or two of the people on the panel fell into all three of those categories.
One of the playwrights, Taylor Mac (a magnificent artist), responded to the question, “People should go see things they don’t understand.” The things that make them uncomfortable.
And I do genuinely try to seek out the things that I don’t understand and make me uncomfortable… ish. It’s the MN Fringe Festival right now and, despite my best efforts, I can’t convince myself to go to musicals (call me prejudiced, because I am). That’s a terrible example, I know, but I am mildly ashamed of my intolerance of the genre.
The problem is that I’m not very good at writing characters and stories with whom/which I have no personal experience. In other words, a lot of my characters are white, American, young, irreligious, liberal men. That’s not just a problem in my maturity as a writer, but as a service to the people who read my stories. My plots and themes, invariably, come back to privileged existentialism or, worse, solipsism. Who the hell wants to read about white, American, young, irreligious, liberal men struggling with angsty existentialism all the time? Even I get sick of it and I like it because it resonates with me. But, any time I try to stray from that character, I end up writing caricatures, which reinforces my aversion to straying outside what I know.
That’s a problem. Art isn’t just about entertainment (though I am committed to that goal first and foremost), but about offering new perspectives and encouraging progress. Really great art is about Change.
The great Bertold Brecht theorized the lehrstueck, the play that teaches. When I studied abroad in Germany I gave a presentation about how Brecht believed that art could transform people and encourage them to do heroic, necessary things. Being a natural cynic, I asked my class if they thought Brecht was right and was shocked when everyone raised their hands. If people believe that a book, movie, play, or song can encourage a person to change their lives for the better, that is magnificent.
That also puts a great burden or responsibility on the artist. If you’re going to make a point, you’d better do it right and make sure that the comment you’re making isn’t frivolous or destructive.
Now, I’m reading Stephen King’s It. No matter what you may think of the man (King-hating is awfully popular), he does not shy away from incorporating social justice into his stories. That’s admirable. The guy is one of the whitest writers ever, and still a bit of a misogynist, but at least he tries and often succeeds at pointing out that Horror comes from banal, immoral hate and misunderstanding. The characters who are the most terrifying and awful in It are just some people who have spent way too long in their own worlds refusing to acknowledge that what they’re doing to other people might be wrong.
This is something I’ve become increasingly concerned with in the past few years. How do you write an entertaining story or play that offers something meaningful to the audience? Looking back on my own work, I think the closest I got was either my short story, “The Law of Gravity,” or a play that no one has ever seen called “The News Is Next.”
In the former, I really wanted to tease out the serious moral and emotional dilemmas we’re faced with today in mourning the dead on the internet. What do you do with someone’s Facebook, Twitter, or Deviant Art accounts after they pass? It may not sound like a social justice issue, but I think it is. Grief rituals aren’t about the person who died, but about the living who miss them, and their right to honor their memories. Funeral practices are a cultural universal, and the inability to reckon with your feelings about losing a loved one can seriously interfere with your working and personal life. A friend of mine died not long ago, and I remember vividly the anger my friends and I felt when this friend’s parents changed the person’s social media accounts to better fit their idealized version of their child. Of course, there is no moral high ground you can take against a grieving parent, but for people who have grown up with social media as a part of our identities, changing someone’s Facebook account is like cutting a smile into someone’s face.
“The News Is Next” was supposed to be a comedy, but it isn’t. It’s about the perverse transformation of news into entertainment and how identifying yourself with your career can corrupt the rest of your life. Most of my stories and plays are pretty cowardly. They explore ideas and identities I know too well and express beliefs I assume without question. Art can do better than that and should, if only just one time out of ten.
Okay, getting back to the point, I need to answer the “… So what?” question. Well, to get there, I need to take a detour. There’s a story that I listened to on the Moth recently that I adore and only recently began to understand why. It’s “The Story of Boris” by Dan Barber, and
Exploring the things I don’t understand.