Writers and Their Times
November 8, 2016
At significant historical moments, I think it’s important for writers to pause, step back from our work, and consider what we do in the widest possible context. Of course we are all interested in self-expression; we all want to write beautiful sentences; we all want to craft our work in ways that make it accessible and understandable. But have we stopped to consider why we’ve undertaken each of our projects? Yes, there is that compelling personal need to, in my case, write my father’s story during World War II. Why? To retrieve the father who’d gone away. Was there, though, something beyond that solipsistic desire that propelled the work?
Grace Paley once told me that writers must live in their time. That writers, in some way or another, either overtly or covertly, respond to what they witness, what they see in the world they live in. In that sense, writers are “seers.” Writers record what others sense but might not necessarily articulate.
I found it easier to stay connected to my work once I began stopping to understand the writer’s task as I understood it for the work that was under my pen, I did this because of Grace Paley’s influence, yes, but also because I stumbled upon statements in which writers I respected stood back from their work to understand what they thought they were doing. Henry Miller, for example, said he wanted to be a working-class Proust. And although his work might be considered extremely egocentric, nonetheless, his task, as he saw it, was to record what it was like for a working class man to find his voice in the context of a culture that makes it enormously difficult for such a man to do so. And this, he does brilliantly, in Tropic of Cancer, among other works. Virginia Woolf wanted to write about women’s experience in a new way. And although many mistakenly view her work as being “dreamy,” for example, she was tough-minded in her analysis of how her female characters moved in a world that made it very difficult for them to live lives of their own choosing. You can see this in The Years as well of her more polemical works like A Room of One’s Own.
These two writers knew what they were doing in their work and why they were doing it. And the paradox is that in responding to issues in their culture, in being deeply rooted in the issues of the historical moment in which they lived, they each wrote works that transcended their time (although we can learn a great deal about when they lived by reading their work) and that continue to speak to us as readers so many years later living in a world they would hardly recognize and, in the case of Virginia Woolf, surely, would be horrified by.
So on this significant day in our writing lives, it might serve our work to stop, think, meditate, and record what it is that we think we’re doing when we sit at our desks. What is it that we want to do? And how are the issues we take up in our work related to a context greater than ourselves.
When I’ve asked my students to do this exercise, and I have during classes when extremely troubling historic events occurred (after 9/11, for example) they learned that their work was bigger and more important than they at first realized. Whether they were speaking for relatives who had disappeared, or addressing the unfortunately all-too-common experience of sexual abuse, or discussing how difficult it is to live a life after being involved in a war, they began to understand that their work was not about their experience, but about the human experience. For as May Sarton said in one of her memoirs, the only way to portray universal experiences is to write very specifically about one person’s life.