Thursday, April 12, 2012

Art in dark times

Writing, to me, can become all about the details, the little bits and pieces of technique that make up an impressive story. It's becoming a common theme for me in this blog to step back and try to remind myself of the bigger picture every once in a while. Like what MaryAnn talked about in her post, I wonder if I have a life-changing story in me. How few books change the world, anyway?

But there's a bigger question I had about my writing, something that I didn't often think about because I was kind of scared of the answer. It is, in a way, THE big question of life:

What does this all, the writing and the story telling, what does it matter?

Well, after this week, I'm not quite so worried anymore.

A few weeks ago, as I was making dinner, I listened to a story by Elif Shafak, a Turkish writer. It was part of The Moth podcast, which features people telling true stories to a live audience. Elif tells the story of working on one of her novels in a tiny apartment in Istanbul.  You can listen to the podcast here, if you want. If you have fifteen minutes, listen to it first, because the story is most powerful when she tells it rather than a summary from me.

Listening to it a second time tonight, I'm struck by how great of an oral storyteller Elif is. Many of these podcasts can turn into rambles. But her podcast is almost like a well constructed novel on its own, with plot, character, place, and a sense of humor.  And, like many really great stories, it has a twist. In this case, it's the 1999 earthquake that killed thousands of people. The earthquake causes Elif to worry about the very question I posted above. 

As Elif says, 
 "I looked at the manuscript in my hands, you know? All of the sudden it seemed so small, so trivial. What difference did it make if I finished this chapter, whether I found the twist in the plot? ...It was something like a loss of faith… "To this day, it was one of the toughest dilemmas in my work: to have the faith, the belief, that stories matter, that words make a difference and connect us across the boundaries.  And the sneaky suspicion that all art in vain in the face of larger, darker world events. Between this optimism and pessimism, my heart is a pendulum."
 At this point, I'd turned off the stove and was listening with all my attention. I found myself desperately frightened about what the answer could be, because what could one story do when so many people are suffering? How could the answer to this possibly be positive for writing and art? 

Elif continues the story talking about how she comes through the earthquake, and starts her book again.  Most importantly, she finds that not all changes from the earthquake have been negative, that some sense of closeness has developed between her and her neighbors that wasn't there before. At the very end, that connection between neighbors inspires her. And she says: 
"And perhaps, at the end of the day, this is what we writers want to achieve with our stories:something to remain. A spontaneous bonding, a speck of empathy, and also, the possibility of change."
Wow. It wasn't the easy, unqualified answer. I love it all the more for that. 

As I said at the start of this post, a world changing story seems out of my reach. Thinking about it makes me dizzy and nervous. I love this answer much better, the idea that a story can make a human connection, the spontaneous bonding. The idea that I could write a story that could live in someone's memory, even for a little while.

It's not saving the world. But it's something almost as important, in its own way. And that thought, that goal, it doesn't make me nervous or insecure.

It makes me want to write.


  1. I love this post, and it was so Beautifully written.

    I love the quotes from Elif, so eloquent, especially the concept of "Spontaneous bonding" through literature.

    Making human connections is very important to me. I think that is why the stories I love the most always seem to be about relationships of some kind.

    1. Exactly! In some ways though, I think that can be very difficult - unlike some other aspects of writing, you can't decide to add human connection (though like you said, certain types of stories are more likely to encourage that feeling). But it's definitely something to strive for.

      Glad you liked the post.

  2. I don't know how many times I've escaped into a book to take a breather from hard times, and find strength in those words. To be able to give something like that back to someone else would be amazing. Beautiful post.


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