As my first year of graduate school comes to a close, I stare at the collection of texts I’ve accumulated over the year, astounded by how much I’ve been able to read and experience in a mere eight months.
As I look at each book, I can’t help but think about the endless connections I’ve begun to draw between the words on these pages and the ethical and social justice connections that these narratives provide. Coming from a creative writing background, I have to ask myself if these writers knew the extent to which their texts would have not only literary impact but also social and personal impact.
Through writing, I’ve had the opportunities to mentally and physically travel around the world, across the universe, and outside of time and space. I’ve stepped into and empathized with the lives and narratives of countless individuals completely removed from my day-to-day privileges. Stories take me from scribbling on parchment in the corner of a dust-coated pub in Galway to examining the cuts and bruises of a bullied Midwestern boy to embodying the ambivalence and confusion of a man in transition to becoming a woman. Writing has led me to shelters in Philadelphia, the back corners of Tijuana, Mexico, the middle of a sweat lodge on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, all while pushing me to stand in solidarity with people identical and foreign to me. Writing has given me compassion above all else. It forces me, time and time again, to step outside my assumptions and prejudices to seriously consider a new way of thinking, even a way completely antagonistic to my worldviews. Through this, I see immense potential for justice in building bridges and questioning our own narratives.
And I can’t ignore the reader’s connection to this compassion. Even if my writing is as silly as a horrifically pretentious high school poem about falling in love or a dreadfully improper story about angels kissing humans in the middle of a church, I have to recognize that readers of my work hold certain expectations for me. They give of their time and energy to invest in the world I’ve created for them to work through and explore. We owe our readers stories that mobilize them and give them the ability to engage and react. I’ll never forget one of my introductory workshops when my fiction professor told all of us aspiring and star-gazing wannabes, “You make a vow to your characters, to your readers, and to yourself every time you put pen to paper. For the love of Christ, don’t disrespect them. Those vows are sacred.”
Think about your favorite stories, whatever form or genre they may be. What do you love about them? The way they perfectly reflect your daily struggles? How they force you to think through modes of injustice that incite you to action? The awkward snorting and laughter they can cause in you at the drop of a clever wordplay or embarrassing plot twist? How you can cry over and root for the triumph or failure of a person who doesn’t necessarily exist? Maybe how a simple word combination can perfectly articulate an experience you’ve struggled to vocalize for years? This is all justice in my eyes. These moments when you’re simultaneously aware of your own needs and desires while thinking about them in relationship to world around you. And, even more simply, justice comes when we’re fully allowed to enjoy whatever we’re experiencing. As writers, we have the power to provide all of these things with the scratch of a quill or flick of a pen or tap of a key.
One of the things I love so much about Lehigh’s Literature and Social Justice program is that we have plenty of opportunities to work through this kind of creative justice, whether writing it ourselves or listening to the creations of others. We have public readings available through the Drown Writers Series, opportunities to submit pieces to Lehigh’s Literary Magazine, Amaranth, and events to connect with working writers and hear the recent work they have produced through Notations. We’re also trying to start a creative writing workshop group on campus in the Fall of 2014, so be on the lookout for details!
So, go ahead and pull out those typewriters, ink and quill sets, or laptops and get to writing! If you need some inspiration, just look to Calvin and Hobbes for some guidance…
Oh, and if you do happen to write the next great novel, you know who deserves the book dedication.