what difference does it make to writers if public figures deny responsibility for their own actions?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

At Penn this semester I'm teaching memoir, as I do (until next spring, when I'll be teaching the art of literary middle grade and young adult fiction). But I am also overseeing two adult linked short stories projects, a responsibility that has me working very hard to ensure that I bring more than intuition and experience, preference and instinct to these young writers. It doesn't actually matter that I, years ago, published many short stories or that I publish novels with young protagonists at their heart or that I have reviewed, for papers like the Chicago Tribune, many collections of stories. A deep grounding in the history of critique is also a prerequisite for this teaching job, I think. Readers' guides for well-chosen works. Deep dives into craft books and craft conversations.

When we say yes to doing something, anything, we have to commit to doing it fully. And so, I read, take notes, suggest, and ponder.

This week while reading Charles Baxter's immaculate Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, I came across these words:
What difference does it make to writers of stories if public figures are denying their responsibility for their own actions? So what if they are, in effect, refusing to tell their own stories accurately? So what if the President of the United States is making himself out to be, of all things, a victim? Well, to make an obvious point, they create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling. You can argue that only a coherent narrative can manage to explain public events, and you can reconstruct a story if someone says, "I made a mistake," or We did that." You can't reconstruct a story—you can't even know what the story is—if everybody is saying, "Mistakes were made." Who made them? Everybody made them and no one did, and it's history anyway, so let's forget about it. Every story is a history, however, and when there is no comprehensible story, there is no history. The past, under these circumstances, becomes an unreadable mess.
Incredible words, right? Written as if they erupted just yesterday, but they did not. Burning Down the House was first published in the 1990s, and Baxter begins this chapter, called "Dysfunctional Narratives," by talking about Richard M. Nixon.

What am I saying? Why I am putting this here? Because I suspect that the exhaustion so many of us are feeling right now is at least partially bound up with our sense of extreme confusion regarding the narrative we are watching unfold. How do we keep pace with it, untangle it, read it, learn from it, responsibly act on it, and keep moving in our own daily lives? How, especially, if so much of what is happening now rocks us with its strange familiarity (to use another concept Baxter later explores)? But weren't we here, already, once? Are we repeating our past?

Writers have responsibilities. As parents. As partners. As friends. As teachers. As assemblers and testers of narratives. As entertainers. As chroniclers of human (non-partisan, non-polarizing, finally binding) beauty. We are called upon to pay ever closer attention, and fatigue sets in.

And then we pick up a book by a writer like Charles Baxter. We think about what we will teach and how we will write. How we will carry the wisdom forward and on.

We carry forward, too, by the grace and goodness of friends. That work of art, that EXPLORE, in my office window there, in the photo here, was the gift of a Juncture memoir writer named Tracey Yokas. It has sat here, Tracey, right here, where I daily see it, since the moment I brought it home.

A sign of goodness. An unconfused narrative. Explore. Keep going. We can do this.


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