The lesson I look forward to most in the creative writing for new media class I teach at the University of Iowa involves me giving an unconventional lecture as a series of texts (complete with abbreviations, typos, and emoticons) projected on an overhead while I forbid speaking of any kind for about 20 minutes. During this time, students are allowed to take out their cell phones and use them in any way they wish—if they have a question, they’re instructed to type the question in a text and raise their phone in the air so I may come around and answer them with a text. It’s a strange spectacle to behold for sure but I’m always amazed at just how apt they are at following along, never missing a beat. Almost all of them whip their phones out and relish the opportunity to check their e-mails or Facebook while I type away and they glance up every once in a while. The room is full of darting eyes and tiny glowing screens.
One morning in late September, I found myself backstage at the “Annual Day of Peace” in Covington, KY—an event that kicks off October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I’d been asked to perform a song I wrote about my family’s history of domestic violence, and was listening as speakers urged the young audience to find—and use—their voices to prevent violence. I wondered how many listeners were writers, performers, artists, and how many might go on to use their art as voice, changing their communities in the process.
Leaving that day and re-entering the media binge on the word “shutdown,” I couldn’t help thinking about writers around the globe: how we use our voices; whether (and how) we’re heard. I also couldn’t help thinking of Audre Lorde:
We lose our history so easily, what is not predigested for us by the New York Times, or the Amsterdam News, or Time magazine. Maybe because we do not listen to our poets…
Creative writing has the potential to change perceptions, elevate public discourse, inform, protest, and/or bring awareness to difficult issues and situations. Could we do more with this potential? Should we?
Before anyone gets politi-scared, hark! I don’t believe writers should start “politicizing” all our work, or Woodie-Guthrie-ing our poems for the greater good. But I do believe that if we’re moved by any current economic, cultural, political, and/or social suffering, there’s a place for us—and our craft—in the fray.
But how? Where? If you’re interested in finding your writerly place in this kind of work, here are three steps even non-”activist” writers can take to dive in:
- Identify Our Stories
- Re-imagine “Going Public,” and
- Chuck “Art for Art’s Sake.”