In a 2010 roundtable discussion here at the Mantle, I wrote about the responsibilities of a writer in a time or place of conflict. While my opinions on the subject continue to inform my writing and the creative decisions I make, two encounters with nonfiction writing classes during the 2011 Writers in Motion study tour of America occasion a coda of sorts.
Gettysburg College sits in the middle of a major American Civil War battleground, with historic buildings repurposed into school facilities. First-years are obliged to tour the battlefield as part of their orientation. As such, my colleagues and I couldn’t resist asking the students of Kathryn Rhett’s nonfiction writing class what it felt like to live amidst all that historical context. How did the weight of history affect their writing, and did it find its way into their writing at all? Their answers were a welcome antidote to the reverence with which we had approached the site (this was the first stop on our tour).
One student set the tone by saying that the history is perceived as “corny,” possibly because of their constant exposure to it, and its undeniable kitschification in Gettysburg, where an aggressive “ye olde tyme” atmosphere panders to the fantasies of (mostly American) tourists. Other students pointed out that writing about a historical event, documented and discussed in exhaustive and even obsessive detail by experts who have devoted lives and careers to its study, is too daunting for them to attempt. The fear of being criticized for inaccuracy or inauthenticity prevents them from even trying. Interestingly, though, once they leave Gettysburg (most of them are from elsewhere in the U.S.), they are perceived as authorities on the Battle of Gettysburg, having lived in the town and studied there.
We threw the same question to the students of James Braziel at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, a city once nicknamed Bombingham for the rash of anti-integration bombings in the 1950s and 60s, and a flash point for the American Civil Rights Movement. The question provoked visible discomfort, perhaps owing to the more recent history involved and the continuing racial tensions not just in Alabama, but throughout the U.S. They also were reluctant to write about the city or its history (most of them were apparently Alabama natives), preferring to tap into their personal lives and family histories. They acknowledged how attitudes on race have changed—one of them tells us that her best friend is black, and that another friend is about to marry an Asian—and were more concerned about how their part of America is perceived by the rest of the country. To them, it was important that any beauty to be found in Alabama not be buried under an ugly past, which meant keeping that beauty alive by writing about it. One student invoked American optimism, saying that he and his generation prefer to look forward—a choice to see Alabama not as a place where racism was allowed to run rampant, but as a place where it was eventually thwarted.
While the responses to Gettysburg helped to place our visit in a broader context, the responses from Birmingham elicited strong reactions from me and my colleagues. Some of us took to our group tour blog to write about it, and generated some very incensed reactions in the comments section from the students.
Perhaps it was because the American Civil Rights Movement is very recent, and its repercussions are still being felt today. Perhaps it was because of the differences in age, background, experiences, and worldview between us and the students. Perhaps it is just a particularly American way of dealing with unpleasant history that jars so much with our own ways of remembering. In any case, the encounter highlighted our problematic position as observer-commentators on the study tour, which had bothered me at the outset. I wasn’t sure if I could avoid arriving at conclusions and generalizing based on such a short exposure to cultures we are still learning about. Up to that point, we had been traveling in a virtual cocoon, and the talkback reminded us that this project is probably best approached as a dialogue with the landscape.
The encounter also reminded me that artists have to arrive at social commitment in their own time, and in their own way. An ethics of creativity, one that can withstand pressure from the community it addresses, is best shaped from within. When I was at university, the student literary publication was a politically charged activist organization, and when I joined it, I felt obliged to take up the struggle in which my peers were already immersed. I read the theory, boned up on current events, attended meetings, demonstrated. I also attempted to write the kind of militant poetry and fiction—committed literature—that was favored by the organization. These pieces I felt were the worst I had ever written, because I had forced the issue, and they had not arisen out of a genuine creative impulse. They resonated with nothing more than the desire to gain the acceptance of the organization, and I soon abandoned this facile approach to my writing.
Instead, I took the dictum “write what you know” to heart, realizing that this need not result in endless navel-gazing. A writer moves in the world, takes in sensation and undergoes experience, and learns. As people mature, the scope and range of their attention necessarily move beyond the self to the world at large. If the writer writes honestly, then the world at large cannot help but find its way into the writing.
Since then, I have been criticized for writing in English rather than a Philippine language, for writing about and thereby giving a voice to the already privileged upper classes at the expense of the downtrodden, for taking incorrect or unpopular stances in my writing. Despite this, I feel able to stand by my writing because I produced it with honesty and truthfulness, while still aware that these concepts can be slippery and unreliable.
Which is why I don’t fault the students we met in Gettysburg or Birmingham, because they will have time enough to grow into the responsibility of a writer, if they choose (and the ability to choose is just as important). Memoir might even be the best form for them to begin with, as it will help them to shape and articulate an identity from which to view the world and start making sense of it in their writing.