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Why We Write

This Week’s Bits of String: An unknown 14-year-old’s thoughts on street art

Having established that both art and the empathy it enables can be excruciating processes, the next question is: What do we get out of it? This question reminds me of Dulcinea begging Don Quixote to explain himself in The Man of La Mancha. And the analogy makes sense. Writers and artists tilt at windmills when we try to draw beauty and order from the sticky marrow of reality. It’s a difficult job. Why do we insist on dreaming this impossible dream?

A Noble Reason: Resounding Into the Chaos
Spotted in Stroud: Lamppost stump repainted as Crayola crayon
Transforming blank space in Stratford Park, Stroud: this stump of a lamppost becomes a giant crayon.

Julia Bell, in a piece for The Guardian about the ability of books to change the world, quotes Salmon Rushdie: “If literature is not an argument with the world then it is nothing.”

Arguments aren’t pretty things. But sometimes, making art or writing literature doesn’t mean inserting beauty onto a blank page or canvas. Instead, it can mean creating depth, and to accomplish this, we must guide readers through dark places, and alert them to some ugly monsters.

Working as a teaching assistant, I once found a scrap of paper in an Art classroom. It was a copy of a questionnaire assignment Year 9s devised on the ethics of street art. One of the questions was: ‘Do you think Banksy is doing the right thing?’ and the anonymous respondent had scrawled, ‘Absolutely not! But neither is anyone else!’

These kids are on to us.

In other words, even with the edgiest art forms, we aim to project intent into a seemingly cruel, random world. Sometimes the intent, as with post-modern authors like Kafka, is to expose the chaos by reflecting it. Other writers, from Charles Dickens to Alice Walker, reminded society to uplift those being trampled in the disorder. The current ‘Own Voices’ books campaign continues this quest today, as more people seek out stories from LGBTQ authors, ethnic and racial minorities, and people with disabilities. Support this exciting movement by checking out this list on Goodreads and choosing a few books for your Christmas list.

A Possibly Less Noble Reason: Grabbing Attention
Puddle full of colourful leaves
We write because we are like leaves cast too soon from the tree, left with no choice but to brighten puddles instead.

We also do it because we want to be heard, even those of us with the privilege not to be in a minority or disenfranchised group. Stories may be fictionalised, often wildly, but the emotions they draw on are real, and perhaps, in our humble opinions, heretofore neglected. I love Esther’s thought in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: “Then I decided I would spend the summer writing a novel. That would fix a lot of people.”

We tell ourselves that our acts of creation will at least avenge, at most remedy, the ways in which the world tries to destroy our spirit.

One of my favourite motivations for writing is to resuscitate memories of people and places I no longer get to see. Putting versions of them in stories allows me to keep hold of what time snatches away. As the protagonist, Helen, exhorts her students in my novel Artefacts:

‘Let’s write, and mine the glimmers inside that might turn out to be gems. Whether it’s people we love, or the feeling of playing a sport really well, or a place we visit that makes us feel free, let’s use those to defend ourselves.’

Art is All Around

This week’s bit of string: Thoughts and images from artists who’ve passed this way already

We’re approaching that time of year when Bill Nighy’s ‘Christ-MAS is all around us’ from Love Actually gets stuck in our heads. Come now, it isn’t just me. But I won’t bother you about Christmas yet, nor even, indeed, about love. Let’s talk about art instead. Art is all around us!

Bristol street art: Colourful twist ties in old city wall window
Bristol’s old city wall, brightened with hundreds of colourful twisty ties.

As someone who left the ability to drive when I emigrated twelve years ago, I do a lot of walking, and I don’t mind it. Even when I’m walking the same route to and from work every day, I enjoy taking pictures from my journey and reflecting on it later, scribbling details in one of my handy-dandy notebooks.

I’ve been motivated in this by a hashtag project my sister Nicole St. James started two years ago. #Everythingyoucanwalkto encourages us to get outside and take pictures. We use our phone lenses to frame what we see, and make it into art. Have a look, here.

What qualifies these photos as art? They just feature things found in nature, or random bits of graffiti like a sticker on a lamppost. How do we identify what art is?

Art Derives from Nature

On her Brainpickings website, Maria Popova posted a nice compilation of quotes defining art. She references Frank Lloyd Wright, who observed that art develops the ‘elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms’ for people to use.

Roses laced with frost
A rose is a rose, but it’s art too.

I agree that the relationship between nature and art is key. Being out in the fresh air, in the colour and grandeur of the landscape, opens our minds more to appreciate art and beauty. So when I’m walking along, provided I’m not stressing too much about something stupid, I am more liable to look around and interpret what I see as beautiful, and capable of use in art.

Art Creates the Unexpected

The other thing that opens my mind to art as I’m out walking is finding something unexpected. A painting on the side of a building, or a baby’s shoe hung in a tree. These give me pause, make me think, question: what’s the story here?

In remarks detailed by a New York Public Library article in the Huffington Post, Leon Botstein called art necessary to ‘discover the imagination.’ He also noted its ‘powerful protection against boredom.’ In order to do so, of course art has to surprise you a little. As for defining it, he said: ‘If it seems to evoke, even inadvertently… it can be a piece of art.’

Yes, those weird pieces of street art, even the most obscure or minimalistic modern art—if they cause emotion, even frustration or confusion, they are art! After all, it’s a frustrating and confusing world. We have to expect art to reflect that, at least occasionally. Look at Kafka, or Beckett, or Joyce. The bizarre, somewhat disjointed narratives they created qualify as literature partly because they awaken us to the same qualities in the real world.

The Unbearable Inconvenience of Feeling

My personal definition of art, plain and simple: It makes you think, and it makes you feel. That includes literature. As writers, we definitely have the power to do those things, if people let us.

Paris graffiti: 'Love me' sticker on a drainpipe
Encountered this ‘Love me’ sticker in Paris. Ceci une pipe? Or a poignant plea from a wayward artist?

Admittedly, thinking and feeling aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. In a passage from my novel Artefacts, a teacher confronts the rather challenging seventh grader, Luke, after Luke covers the toilet conveniences in paper mache and uses the excuse that he’s made art.
‘You can’t use art just to inconvenience people,’ Mr. Tamworth said. ‘Or even solely to shock people, I would argue.’
‘They say it’s supposed to make people feel,’ Luke snapped. ‘That’s pretty damn inconvenient.’

And it is, it is inconvenient, sometimes excruciating, especially when art or literature places another human being’s pain-stricken soul in front of us. Art is all around us, bursting before our eyes, blooming in our minds, and the beauty of it can ache. But we use it to create our own work.

So we cry at movies (including Love Actually. You know it isn’t just me!) as we are forced to contemplate what we might do in a similar situation. We feel as if we can fly when listening to music like Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’ and new imagery and ideas seep through our veins. We look at an art installation in the street and start thinking about who put it there, and why. And eventually, these feelings and thoughts, these what ifs and bits of string, help us formulate new stories, and put new art into the world.

The Borders of Sympathy

This week’s bit of string: That person you disagree with, maybe even deplore: What’s their story?

Quite rightfully, we’re hearing a lot now about tolerance and empathy. It’s not easy to strive for these things. One may well deplore people from the opposing political camp. As I watch events unfold, I sympathise with people in the LGBT community or in immigrant populations and other minorities, who fear losing their rights. However, seeing footage of protesters cheering in LA while burning an effigy of the new President-Elect and holding signs saying, ‘We want an inclusive America—’ that gives me some pause. I don’t think of effigies as being inclusive. Can’t we muster up some sympathy for the other side?

I like to think that we writers are in the sympathy-mustering business. We’re the ones who witness a street scene, walk away heavier under the burdens of every single person involved, then transfer that burden into a story. Just last week I walked past a multigenerational family having a cup of tea outside a cafe. The mother was berating a small boy, shouting, ‘You’re stressing Granny out! Remember what happens then? Do you want Granny to have an accident?’ It was hard not to feel sorry for the Granny whose difficulties were being broadcast to half the street, the small boy who was probably rather confused at being blamed for his grandmother’s issues, and even the shouting mum, with her straggly peroxide hair and haggard eyes, who looked pretty stressed herself.

Abandoned high-heeled shoes on front garden wall in Cheltenham
Like these shoes I spotted walking to the Cheltenham Literature Festival. What miles had they walked?

Naturally, I didn’t agree with how the situation was handled. Nor do I agree with people supporting a candidate who mocks prisoners of war and disabled persons, and boasts about forcing himself on women. But I ask myself why they’re handling things this way, and my mind is whisked down a different path. I believe writing is the process of planting yourself and your reader sometimes quite mercilessly in someone else’s shoes.

Rebecca Mead wrote an exceptional New Yorker article a couple years ago, encouraging readers not to shy away from characters different from themselves. “To reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure.”

Still, people don’t always want to acknowledge that stupid or unpleasant acts have motivations. They might feel victimised by the very people who commit those acts. How do we elicit sympathy for our characters, whoever they may be?

First, let’s consider the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy can be defined as a tendency to feel alike, whereas the definition of empathy goes so far as to ‘vicariously experienc[e] the feelings’ of others (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). Maybe empathy is what we should strive for as writers. Instead of searching for sympathetic characters to portray (those with similarities to potential readers), we can create empathetic characters—depicting a diverse range of people so realistically that readers can’t help but feel the story.

I think the key here to reveal our characters’ pain. Most of us, when we see another human being suffer, will recognise that. That was my experience working in health and social care. I’d go about doing my job for all sorts of people who weren’t always sympathetic types. Some made racist or sexist remarks, or were unkind to their families. But when they were afraid or in pain, and said things like, ‘I wish my mum was here,’ the differences fell away and I was fighting back empathetic tears.

It’s not just bits of string we gather as writers; sometimes we feel with particular strength the heavy ropes of understanding that bind us to the rest of humanity.

Many of us writers want to aide the voiceless through our work. But it’s not just the blameless who feel voiceless. After all, if pain is what most draws our sympathy—what’s more painful than guilt? In his epic Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote not just about the heroic Jean Valjean, but also about an abandoned unwed mother, and even delved into the background of the brutally strict Javert. By exposing each character’s background, he made all of them sympathetic, allowed none to stay voiceless, and more fully exposed the effects of poverty and oppression.

In my own work, I’ve given voice to a young Haitian earthquake survivor, a mother who’s left her family to live with her girlfriend, an Evangelical teacher desperate to convey his faith to his students, and so many others. (See more about my work here.) Sometimes, my characters hurt each other, and they pay the consequences as the plot advances. I can’t protect them even when I wish I could, but I ache on their behalf, no matter what wrongs they’ve done, because I know their story. By conveying that story, hopefully I pass that empathy on to my readers as well.

Abandoned mill building with waterfall
Abandoned mill in my hometown.

So, what’s the background of the people who aligned themselves with the KKK-endorsed presidential candidate? David Wong has written a very insightful, if saddening, article for Cracked about what many Trump voters, often from depressed rural areas, have gone through. As it happens, my stories often take place in similar depressed rural areas. And it’s worth remembering that people can feel voiceless or victimised, even when they’re shouting at the top of their lungs and someone else might be cowering in fear at their feet.

I’m not saying we don’t hold people accountable for how they vote, just as we hold politicians accountable for how they respond to the vote. And you may be feeling so frightened, so scarred by what’s happened in your own life, that you don’t wish to look at the horrors in anyone else’s. But if you can find the strength, let’s not tune in just at the end of their story; let’s walk the full miles with them. After all, these are people who were desperate enough to elect a man most accurately described on Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe as ‘a sort of guinea pig staring at you through the porthole on a washing machine.’

Doesn’t it almost make you feel sorry for them?