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4 reasons why writers need to take their freedom seriously

1. Writers hold out a vision of transformation

The writing life demands a degree of reflection.

Writers are people who walk around with their senses open, determined to stay awake in a world where so many people seem to be half asleep.

Writers are those with imagination and insight.

They are people who reflect an extraordinary world within that can transform the world without.

Writers are not those who go with the flow.

People may claim to often that a book is ‘life-changing’ but nonetheless every time we read, there is the possibility of a new perspective and growth.

And if the written word is so transformative then the chances are that writers have power and responsibility.

2. Writers are witnesses

When Geoff Dyer asked John Berger what he saw as the ‘job of his life’, replied:

Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories — storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job of your life is because you are so aware of what you are lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.

For Berger, this sense of being a witness involved total immersion and openness to other people and other places.

The notion of the writer as witness is a lot to live up to, yet it is compelling. In The Artist’s Way Julia Cameron challenges writers to become witnesses. There are countless novels that are a testimony not only inward states, human emotion and condition, but also to events.

Books like Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man witness to the legacy of the Holocaust, so that it becomes part of common consciousness.

The film Hiroshima mon amor, from the book by Marguerite Dumas, witnesses to the existential crisis of lovers who need to cling to one another after horror.

The South African poet, Mongane Wally Serote witnesses to the events of apartheid:

I want to look at what happened,

That done,

As silent as the roots of plants pierce the soil

I look at what happened…

When knives creep in and out of people

As day and night into time.

And the list could go on.

Extraordinary writing witnesses not only to historical or political events, but also to emotional states and human relationships.

3. Writers reconstitute the world

As people who bear witness to the human condition; witness to stories that would otherwise go unheard and to the possibilities that lie ahead, writers deal with how much we can achieve.

As Adrienne Rich puts it:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.

This requires belief in freedom. By opening up new horizons through writing, writers take on enormous responsibility. Our writing shifts the perspective of readers and widens their choices as a result. Thought is a powerful thing.

4. Writers shape reality

What do we believe about reality? How do we conceive the nature of our existence and freedom?

None of us can transcend the facts of existence: we exist in a universe of physical laws and principles. Environment, language and culture shape us in complex ways. And to some extent we never become aware of all these influences or shake free of them.

But we are not reducible to those influences. Neither are we the roles we adopt; none of us is only a writer, a mother, a daughter, a musician. Only objects or deities (if they figure in your world view) are wholly one thing. God is God. A table is a table.

Human beings are complex and changeable. We are conscious, or should be if we are brave enough to stay awake in the world.

Humans can transcend certain ‘givens’ –

  • the class we’re born into
  • the racial stereotypes projected onto us
  • the social expectations around us are not who we are.

As Sartre claims, we have the ability to negate these expectations and to become anything.

And it’s not only philosophers who think like this. Increasingly, research suggests not only that we have plastic brains that can adapt and change, but also that our biology is more fluid than we conceived previously. (Studies in epigenetics are rapidly expanding our understanding of this, for example. Nessa Carey’s The Epigenetics Revolution)

This amount of freedom is terrifying and wonderful. It means that authentic living requires that we take our autonomy seriously.

It means that I am never identical with my current ‘self’, yet always responsible for sustaining, challenging and growing it.

It means I can’t hide behind phrases like ‘ this is the way I am’ or ‘it’s in my genes/my past experiences…’

If I choose to remain a certain way, it is a choice, and there is no lying to myself about that. Quoting Sartre:

You can always make something out of what you’ve been made into.

The inner world is a powerful place that changes how we experience the outer world.

Stories, poems and articles make their way into our subconscious and transform how we interact with the world and impact on it.

By being writers who take this seriously we open up a world of new thinking and new ways of being, for ourselves and for those who engage with our writing.

Writing is an awesome thing to do and we do it best when we become people who take our freedom and imagination seriously.

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Young People Today

This weekend we’ve been celebrating my youngest son’s eighteenth birthday, which has caused me to muse on how we perceive young people.

Society at large seldom seems to have anything positive to say about youth and the whine that begins “young people these days…” never seems to get old. It’s not easy being young. When I was young I didn’t have to take on debt in order to get an education or worry about finding work. My ex-husband and I got a mortgage aged 24 and 21 on the strength of him having an interview for a job arranged and I paid for my PhD with ease – even taking inflation into account, the few hundred pounds fees were much more affordable than the fees my older son is about to embark on. In the area where I live it’s particularly hard for young people to find work or afford housing. Those who want to stay in education beyond the age of 16 also have to be incredibly dedicated – my daughter had to travel over four hours a day to the ‘nearest’ tertiary education college, getting up a 6am to get to the bus and not home till 6pm with a mountain of homework after her twelve hour day. Life is not easy for lots of people in a recession and there are certainly examples of privileged young people to counter my argument, but the young people I know are making their way in the world with grace and optimism often against unpromising odds. We don’t make it easy on them, as Suzanne Moore argues in her opinion piece provocatively starting “Youth are rubbish…”:


Margaret Atwood puts it even more pithily:

I’ve never understood why people consider youth a time of freedom and joy. It’s probably because they have forgotten their own.

The youth of today don’t just have to think about how to afford education and housing, how to find employment, but also how to ensure ecological sustainability, how to forge communities that will endure. And the young people I know care about these things. When Todd Swift was editing the anthology Lung Jazz in aid of Oxfam he had no shortage of incredibly talented young poets queuing to donate work and willing to organise and participate in readings to raise funds.

This weekend I’ve had conversations about the health service, romanticism in documentary photography, historical revisionism and the ethics of portraying graphic war scenes in film. These young people, like any young people, don’t know it all, but then neither do older people. We all keep learning by our mistakes and need to hold knowledge tentatively and with some humility – as Zora Neale Hurston puts it in Dust Tracks on a Road:

Grown people know that they do not always know the way of things, and even if they think they know, they do not know where and how they got the proof.

The truth is that age is a fraudulent thing. We accumulate experience as we age, but it isn’t always useful experience and we often learn as much from the blind alleys as from anything resembling ‘wisdom’. We accumulate knowledge, but don’t necessarily become more rational or creative in our thinking. The truth is that we’re all in this together, whatever our age and need to stop deciding who we take seriously on the basis of how many years they happen to have clocked up. The last word to Milan Kundera:

There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless.



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