With the change of the year, two friends and I shared how we felt about our writing lives in 2013, and then set 2014 goals. Not resolutions of the self-improvement variety, but concrete goals requiring the kind of work that sustains, develops, and enriches every aspect of our writing lives. While zipping emails back and forth about our goals, the term “integration” came up. We all strive to integrate, especially since as artists we cannot rely on our art alone to pay the bills, and therefore must coordinate our art with less artful ventures and activities. Plus, we’re interested in lots of things and responsible to lots of people.
This morning, I opened the December issue of the Writer’s Chronicle and found an excellent, thorough interview with activist and writer Diane Lefer conducted by poet Natasha Sajé. Diane mentored me through my important critical thesis semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and we remain in touch, so I was keen to read the interview.
Almost immediately, integration comes up. Natasha Sajé: “You’ve spent decades combining social and political activism with writing fiction, nonfiction, and plays. Could you speak to how you achieve a balance between those two kinds of work?” Diane explains that she used to “seesaw” between the two, until she met a Canadian writer who, concerned about exploitation, kept the work she did in a women’s shelter completely separate from her writing. Diane was inspired to follow suit, but later spent time as a witness to the injustice and cruelty faced by international torture victims seeking asylum in the U.S. Her hands-on work with detainees led to playwriting, stories, and a nonfiction book called The Blessing Next to the Wound co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, a Colombian exile. Diane “knocked down the self-imposed wall.” She integrates. It’s one reason I was eager to study with her. Diane’s activism on behalf of torture victims and others who are oppressed informs her writing. And her writing, which often gets her onto platforms with audiences who may be able to enact change for the good, informs her activism. Of the book with Aristizábal, Diane says, “Writing it gave us the opportunities to talk about so many issues we cared about.”
The issues I care about are rooted in education. I believe in the power of literacy. I believe it’s a basic right rather than a privilege. And I believe that all people everywhere deserve to read and write in their native language, to have access to translations of all genres, to express their opinions, and to share themselves through literature. I can hardly call myself an activist. But I am an advocate. And I’ve chosen to teach my students, all of them of all ages over the years, that literacy can and should be used for social justice and the common good. I teach them to tell their stories.
Since I primarily write nonfiction, I’ve wondered if I should erect my own firewall between my work as a literacy instructor and my writing. But no matter how much I wonder it, I still spill the stories I witness. When a student used the term “Indian” in my classroom without a sense of its history, I was compelled to write about it. When a father nearly missed an important school event for his kid due to his big-bank job just as the stock market was crashing around us and our “family values,” I was compelled to write about it. When teacher candidates used strict boundaries in writing projects to release their students’ inhibitions and achieve an atmosphere of vulnerability and trust, I was compelled to write about it. All that I witness in the classroom accompanies my writing. And all that I write comes into the classroom with me.
Like most of us, I’ve read many opinion pieces that deal with writing about real people and events. Consider the purpose: to find closure? to purge? to satisfy? to enact revenge? to entertain? Consider the tone: exhibitionist? exploitative? emotional? Consider all the ways to conceal the truth while revealing the truth, from simply changing names and details to leaving out crucial aspects of who, what, and why. Spice things up or water them down. Or just don’t write.
I don’t presume to have an answer to the question: should we keep our non-writing work out of our writing? Considering how many writers, bloggers, and critics keep asking, there is no answer. I choose to integrate. And Diane, still mentoring me through the pages of this interview, offers a wonderful bit that helps me find peace with my inevitable storytelling: “Truth doesn’t seem to matter unless it’s connected to powerful emotions. So I do believe in art, that as artists, we can at least some of the time make that connection for people, between the head and the heart.” No revenge or exploitation. Just connection. I have seen something, and I would like to tell it to you, and the reason is, I think things in this world can be better.
Integration is a key part of my hopes for 2014. I will integrate my professional life with my personal life with my writing life until the lines are so blurred I can only call it my life and get on with living it.
Visiting with Diane in L.A.