This last Saturday I presented at the Columbus State Community College, in which I continued to develop my persona of published writer with advice to those who wish to follow in my path. I’m adjusting.
The keynote speaker was Naomi Wolf, a writer most famous for The Beauty Myth. I admit I never read the book, but the ideas have influenced me. Her book. along with Susan Faludi’s Backlash, were the feminist texts of my twenties. Because of Wolf I’ve walked through the overlit make-up counters and recognized the bright lights and giant mirrors for what they are—an assault. I might feel that brief nosedive of self-esteem when I see size zero clothing modeled on headless torsos, but at least I am aware of the manipulation.
Wolf’s presentation was on, naturally, political writing, or as she termed it, “advocacy writing.” In the world of creative nonfiction, debates tend to center around truth vs. bending the truth—mostly (I have to say) egghead debates centered around writers only writers know about. But what about political change? Civil rights? Feminism? What about risk as in bodily risk?
I’ve generally shied away from overt political stances. In My Life as Laura, I edited out musings I had on abortions rights and the Ingalls family’s Congregationalist religious background. Maybe I didn’t want my book derailed by circular debates. Maybe I was scared. My tendency is to write sideways political. For instance, I include a gay married couple in my book as matter of fact, versus a huge statement.
Wolf got me thinking, though, that I might be a wuss.
Important writing, she said, is dangerous because it demystifies and strips comfort. You can no longer be a “nice person” who doesn’t make waves. To “write dangerously” means taking risks—emotional risks, personal risks, personal risks. Steve Almond’s recent piece on Mitt Romney and bullying in The Rumpus does this. Almond reveals secrets. He doesn’t mince his position or his language.
Where I balked was with Wolf’s “writing tips.” I believe a writer can do more than “subject/verb” and “strong topic sentences.” Almond managed just fine as he told us a story. And while I do believe in clarity, I might question “moral coherence.” We don’t need slogans and tidy packages. We need to work on our ability to embrace ambiguities.
Yesterday I saw poet Terrance Hayes speak about how he chases surprise. So perhaps just as dangerous are these words from “Cocktails With Orpheus”:
I want to be a human above the body, uprooted and right, a fold
of pleas released, but I am a black wound, what’s left of the deed.