Should Your Writing Be Political?

I've avoided politics and social change in these essays until recently. Then I wrote two essays in a row about violence in media. Why the change?

I couldn't escape.

Writers, I've come to believe, have an obligation to portray a world that we want to see. We must create the characters we would like to meet and shape the fictional situations that might suggest how to fix the fix we are in now.

Our times are out of balance. I don't have to tell you this. But, by the way, if you think they aren’t, and our executive branch of government is working just fine, you can stop reading now; there's nothing for you here. And if you believe that climate change isn't happening, well, let me just take a moment to argue the point. We've spent the day walking around wearing particulate-filtering masks and staying inside near air purifiers because of smoke from nearby wildfires. Climate change is coming home to us here in California. So: Can a writer's imagination show us the way to a better understanding of our times? It's been done by Octavia Butler when she wrote about slavery through the frame of time travel. By Toni Morrison. By Issac Asimov when he wrote about human-robot interaction. By Aldous Huxley when he wrote about state control at the expense of personal freedoms. And Orwell, of course. Those writers created fictions that showed us the way to truth. Fiction — especially science fiction — can be startlingly predictive. There is also prescient journalism: Rachel Carson’s, when she warned us about environmental pollution. By Bina Venkataraman, whose book I'm reading now: The Optimist's Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age.

My view, for years, was that weaving political views or social change prompts into your fiction was forced and bad. I've questioned the work of the Geena Davis Institute, which has been compiling statistics on the number of women with speaking roles in movies and the number of women in crowd scenes in movies, and using those statistics to recommend to development executives that there should be more women represented on screen, and more in leading roles. I've heard about groups that suggest climate change themes for writers to shoehorn into their television scripts. I chafed at this sort of activism. Shouldn't writers write whatever the hell they want? 

Yes. But. I think differently now about the Geena Davis Institute and other activist groups.

Our audiences take entertainment seriously. Our viewers and listeners see and hear themselves in our work. They use it to visualize themselves in different jobs and lives. If we don't provide these visualizations, they may not see a path they could take. Using the powerful entertainment media that we create and sometimes control, we can show the way.

This doesn't have to be a big deal. In a scene, or a line or two of dialogue, we can show how cities can be more green. We can show how to eat so that we don't kill ourselves quickly and the planet slowly. We can show the power of exercising your right to vote. We can demonstrate the importance of truth-telling in journalism. 

Too pollyanna-ish for you? Too much utopian thinking?

Let me tell you a secret. Your writing is already politicized. Everything you write comes from your perspective. If you're not celebrating diversity in your choice of characters it reflects who are are, or aren't. If you've never written a part for a person using a wheelchair, you're saying something. If all of your stories take place in white neighborhoods or black neighborhoods, you are making a statement. How many leading roles for women have you written? How do your characters spend their time or their money? Who are their heroes? Who are yours? Your writing is your freedom. Write what you want. But you can’t escape: You don't have a choice about making a statement. Until you choose to make one.

Thanks for reading,


Episode 2 of IN PURSUIT coming this week

Last week, Glassdoor released episode one of their podcast IN PURSUIT, which featured an interview with Brené Brown. So far, more than 10,000 people have downloaded the episode and listened. Brené talked about leadership, vulnerability, and her sobriety. This week, Vinny Eng talks about leaving the restaurant business to pursue activism. He was a beloved sommelier in a San Francisco hot spot. Then his sister was murdered by police and it changed everything. Listen now. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts. IN PURSUIT is produced by Red Cup Agency.