I came to the public events at the Squaw Valley Community of Writer’s Fiction Conference this July with the big question:
How can creative writing remain relevant in a world that is self-imploding?
I mean, my little human brain honestly can’t comprehend the amount of suffering crisis and destruction happening right now on the planet.
In light of the crisis that surrounds us, does storytelling really matter?
Answer: a resounding yes.
The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley: Creativity and Politics
At the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley Conference, many of the authors touched on the political. I was thankful to know that I was not the only one grappling this question, and I received a lot of confirmation, comfort, and the fire to keep on going. I want to share that with you now!
Joyce Carol Oates and the Jerusalem Prize
Joyce Carol Oates was one of the headliners for the conference, and she has just won the Jerusalem Prize. She spoke a lot about the commonweal, how we are all connected, and how our stories can help us bring morality, understanding, and solutions. As she said in her acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize,
“The Jerusalem prize crystallizes these obligations for me even as it celebrates the enduring art of literature. To speak for those who cannot speak for themselves; those who have been silenced, out of poverty, fear, intimidation; those who have lost their birthrights, and perhaps their lives, through no fault of their own.”
–Joyce Carol Oates, from the Jerusalem International Book Forum
Oates has been one of my favorite writers since I was a teenager, so it was especially powerful to hear her read and share her thoughts.
Amy Tan and Relevant Writing
Amy Tan also spoke about her work and the political climate. She shared that she had a fully fleshed out idea for a novel, but when the 2016 elections hit, she had to put it aside. It just didn’t feel right to her at that time. Instead, she decided to take another angle and write a different book that felt more politically relevant to her.
Tan’s writing hit home for me when she read at the Saturday night event. Her story was about a Chinese immigrant, how she felt other and unique, and I was struck how the personal can be so political from that reading.
I just started reading Tan’s new memoir. Spoiler alert: it’s fantastic.
Hector Tobar on “The Assassin Next Door”
I also became acquainted with a new author, Hector Tobar, professor of English and Latino studies at the University of California, Irvine. It was incredible to hear him read from “The Assassin Next Door” about how his life as an immigrant was intertwined with that of his neighbor James Earl Ray, Martin Luther King’s assassin:
My parents hovered over me, their only child, telling me stories about our heritage and their courtship in Guatemala City. I did not know that my father was having an affair with the woman he called on the phone in the afternoons, or that my mother would soon bring her new boyfriend home to meet me. I did not see that the brick and stucco apartment blocks around me were a magnet for American drifters, like those Jack Kerouac describes in “On the Road,” recently arrived in what he called “the loneliest and most brutal of American cities.” I had no idea that one of them, a hard man named James Earl Ray, lived on the other side of our back-yard fence.
–Hector Tobar, The New Yorker
Though the author never met the man, he makes compelling parallels between the life of poor immigrants and the life of an outcast, angry white man who ends up committing the unspeakable.
Hector closes by saying that he has sought to understand the white society he lives in as a means of survival. “Like many other Latino residents of this country,” Tobar writes, “I derive a sense of power from observing the lives of people who cannot see the full measure of my humanity.” His piece awed me, and I highly recommend reading it!
Poetry Can Transform the World
All of these ideas were swimming in my head while I had dinner with my friend and poetry mentor Eugene Burson. We talked about writing, the state of the world, and why poetry and the written word can be so powerful and transformative.
He demonstrated it by sharing a powerful poem with me, written by Robert Haas, from his book, Time & Materials:
Ezra Pound’s Proposition
Beauty is sexual, and sexuality
Is the fertility of the earth and the fertility
Of the earth is economics. Though he is no recommendation
For poets on the subject of finance,
I thought of him in the thick heat
Of the Bangkok night. Not more than fourteen, she saunters up to you
Outside the Shangri-la Hotel
And says, in plausible English,
“How about a party, big guy?”
Here is more or less how it works:
The World Bank arranges the credit and the dam
Floods three hundred villages, and the villagers find their way
To the city where their daughters melt into the teeming streets,
And the dam’s great turbines, beautifully tooled
in Lund or Dresden or Detroit, financed
By Lazard Frères in Paris or the Morgan Bank in New York,
Enabled by judicious gifts from Bechtel of San Francisco
Or Halliburton of Houston to the local political elite,
Spun by the force of rushing water,
Have become hives of shimmering silver
And, downriver, they throw that bluish throb of light
Across her cheekbones and her lovely skin.
—Robert Haas, from Time & Materials
The poem gave me shivers, and I began to have hope that writing is still increasingly relevant. Our stories, our words, have the power to rock the world! And I firmly believe that.
Lighting a Fire Under My Fingers: Writing Check-In
In my work, I have set aside my romantic comedies in favor of a young adult fantasy novel that’s about healing family trauma. It just felt more relevant and more satisfying. I’m sure I’ll come back to the romantic comedy. But for right now, I want to work on something a little closer to my heart and something I think the world needs.
In my professional work, I’ve been writing PR pieces for community colleges, many of which feature underrepresented students. Many are immigrants, the first in their families to attend college, and veterans. It’s inspiring to use the craft of writing to tell stories of every-day heroes.
How do you use writing to rock the world?
Let us know in the comments below!