By Eleanor Morse, Spalding Low-Residency MFA Fiction Faculty
Last week, the day after seventeen students were killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I received an anguished email from one of my students, which began like this: “Yesterday was a day of terrible loss…and writing or creating feels pointless to me, at this time. I’m just reaching out…How do you keep going on days like this? I am struggling…the lofty notions of making the world a better place through storytelling are just falling flat today.”
I attempted to answer: “…it’s times like these when art is the only thing that does make sense, in the face of this madness and terror and devastation. We need to find ways to express the truth of our times, to help open the hearts of people whose hearts are closed and who’ve lost touch with their own compassion, whose lives have narrowed down to their own small circles of frustration and self-involvement.”
Even as I wrote it, this answer felt inadequate and incomplete, and I want to try to write more here. But first I want to thank this wonderful, honest, soul-searching student for her question. Is there anyone alive, writing honestly, who doesn’t at times ask this question? Or similar questions: Why do I write? Does my work make a particle of difference? What in the world am I doing?
I’ve just finished reading a novel by the German-born writer, Jenny Erpenbeck, Go, Went, Gone, an account of a group of men who have fled Libya—many of whom saw parents die in gunfire or at knifepoint, who saw their children drown in sea journeys to Italy—now pleading for asylum in Germany. They are caught in the shadows of their memories and in the mesh of an impossible bureaucracy, unable to work, unable to contribute, waiting, waiting, waiting with little hope of asylum—men without a present and without a future. The narrator, a retired academic, takes on the group as a “‘research project”’ and then feels compelled to action by the urgency of their stories. Through the vehicle of this remarkable book, the calamity of mass migration is no longer an abstraction. It is peopled, humanized, given a beating heart. Here is the narrator, after visiting a lawyer in an attempt to help one of the men unravel the bureaucracy that keeps him in helpless limbo:
“As he passes the coat rack on his way out with Ithemba—there really is a top hat on the shelf above—he finds himself almost entirely convinced that this lawyer, who reminds him of an owl, must have flapped his way from some previous century into the twenty-first, this new and yet already so old century with its endless streams of people who, having survived the passage across a real-life sea, are now drowning in rivers and oceans of paper.”
It is impossible to read Erpenbeck’s book without being moved, educated, and enlarged as a human being. What better reason to write than this?
Last spring, when Neela Vaswani and I offered a joint lecture about art created during authoritarian regimes, it was our answer to a kind of despair we felt about our own times, and a reminder to ourselves of the power of the arts to move others—and even to change the world for the better. We were not implying then, nor am I now, however, that the only writing worth its salt is that which directly confronts the most egregious of society’s ills or the most compelling political and moral problems of our time.
To put this another way, writing—no matter what its content—which is well-crafted, which is honest and fearless, that embraces complexity and is written from a place of urgency, can open up the world for its readers, increase compassion, deepen understanding, and stimulate the ability of readers to imagine their way into the universe of other human beings. (And at the risk of oversimplifying, isn’t a failure of compassion and imagination at least partly responsible for a lawmaker’s inability to fathom the immensity of human pain created when an AR-15 assault rifle is put into the hands of the wrong person?)
In her book, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote her belief that art does change people’s minds and hearts. She goes on to say,:
But I couldn’t write stories or poetry if I thought the true and central value of my work was in a message it carried, or in providing information or reassurance, offering wisdom, giving hope. Vast and noble as these goals are, they would decisively limit the scope of the work; they would interfere with its natural growth and cut it off from the mystery which is the deepest source of the vitality of art.
A poem or story consciously written to address a problem or bring about a specific result, no matter how powerful or beneficent, has abdicated its first duty and privilege, its responsibility to itself. Its primary job is simply to find the words that give it its right, true shape. That shape is its beauty and its truth.
My job is to keep the meaning completely embodied in the work itself, and therefore alive and capable of change. I think that’s how an artist can best speak as a member of a moral community: clearly, yet leaving around her words that area of silence, that empty space, in which other and further truths and perceptions can form in other minds.
We cannot know what will come from “that empty space” between ourselves and a reader. I do believe, however, that this living, ever-changing, ineffable space adds up to something that matters. When I’m in pain about the state of the world, all I can do is write as honestly and as well as I can, to dangle myself over the abysses that open up, and to try my best not to be afraid—and in this way, just perhaps, diminish by a tiny whisker the weight of fear in the world.
Here is the prophetic and passionate Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929, to January 23, 2018) once more, excerpted from her 2014 speech at The National Book Awards:
“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.”
Eleanor Morse, a graduate of Swarthmore College, spent a number of years living in Botswana in the 1970s. She earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Vermont College. Her novel An Unexpected Forest, published by Down East Books, won the Independent Publisher’s Gold Medalist Award for Best Regional Fiction in the Northeast U.S. and was also selected as the Winner of Best Published Fiction by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance at the 2008 Maine Literary Awards. Eleanor Morse has taught in adult education programs, in prisons, and in university systems, both in Maine and in southern Africa. She currently works as an adjunct faculty member with Spalding University’s MFA Writing program in Louisville, Kentucky. She lives on Peaks Island, Maine.