What is Writing For?

This is a year in which I’m planning to increase my writing, again.

Since the run-up to the 2016 election, America has become a contensious place. (This is likely not a secret to you.) During this time and since, I noticed how often artists and writers and athletes who seemed to be speaking up and voicing their opinions were told that they should shut up and get back to creating, writing, or playing.

I can’t speak for sports (I barely understand their concept). But I can speak to the power of writing.

During the fall semester I taught a class which covered American literature from 1865-1914. It was a class which was inside my wheelhouse, but wasn’t really my focus. I had to trust other professors at my school who had taught the class before and do as much research as I could to choose the most important texts for the time period. I then had to read those texts– most of them for the first time.

And while I read, while I researched, I realized: writing is always in conversation with the power of culture. As much as it is shaped by the author who is shaped by the culture the author is and has experienced, the text goes out and then shapes the culture.

The best example of this is, within this time period, but which I didn’t cover in my class, is The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. It is notorious for becoming so popular that it reached the desk of the president of the United States and uncovered issues which made the creation of the FDA necessary.

Other works of the time deal with the personhood of women and people of color and the treatment of laborers. Eventually, I’d argue due to the power of these works, women and people of color were given the right to vote. Eventually, better laws around labor were created. While we can still look around and see how these problems have persisted, we can also read and look back and know that we have at least moved forward.

And largely thanks to the efforts of these writers showing that these problems were problems, for not backing down, and for not shutting up and staying out of politics. For most of these writers, politics and writing went hand in hand.

One of my favorite movies to watch to reignite my creativity once a year or so is Anonymous (2011); one of my favorite lines is that “All art is political, Jonson, otherwise it would just be decoration. And all artists have something to say, otherwise they’d make shoes. And you are not a cobbler.”

So, as part of my thinking about the new year, I hope that our writers and artists today are as brave as those who were brave back then and that we continue to move the needle forward and make progress. And I hope I get to count myself among them.

Thank you for reading.

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