As a privileged white woman I sometimes wonder what to do with my strong commitment to racial justice. Much as I want to join the Black Lives Matter movement on the streets or participate in my church’s educational programming around white privilege, as committed as I am to supporting my native brothers and sisters in their fight to protect their land from pipeline invasions, I know that’s not where my energy belongs. My money, yes, and my whole-hearted support, but not my energy. My clear calling is to write, teach, mother my child, tend my home, and tend my partnership.
Despite this clarity, I sometimes regret that I’m not doing enough. Recently, however, I got some insight into how teaching writing and writing well myself might further the work of racial justice—in ways however hidden, however small.
When I first heard Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” I knew her wisdom regarding stereotypes applied to writing. Adichie explores how “single stories,” or simple, limited versions of a people or country, become damaging stereotypes. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” In an earlier blog, “Undoing the Single Story,” I wrote about how revision insists that we reject the single story in favor of layered, complex, and contradictory stories. Just as intimacy and awareness break down our stereotypes, intimacy with and awareness of our material break apart our over-simplifications and half-truths.
A single—that is, unnuanced, unstudied, unrevised—story is inevitably a bad story. I use the word “bad” sparingly for fear of the wrecking ball of judgment, but in this case I believe it’s warranted: Single stories have no layers of meaning, no subtext, no complexity, and therefore function as stereotypes. They are incomplete. Consider how easy it is in an early draft to write with clichés. The discipline of eliminating those “single stories” from our prose forces us to research the reality they hide and then articulate it accurately. Or consider the work of developing a viable character, how the fullness of human strength and weakness are both necessary for a character to come alive on the page. The journey from rough to final draft takes us from a single story into a story rich with diversity and contradiction. The journey from beginning to advanced writer follows this same trajectory.
I’m starting to understand that as writers break apart single stories on the page, they also exercise this muscle of multiplicity, strengthening their capacity to withhold judgment and embrace paradox and remain open to new layers of understanding. Just because a writer exercises this muscle doesn’t mean he or she applies it to other arenas of life. Nor does a nuanced text mean that every reader will apply complex thinking to the real world. But in both cases it’s more likely. If we come to love a character for all her rich and contradictory facets, we’re more apt to love our neighbors for theirs’. We’re more apt to see the falsehood of single stories. We’re more apt to be compassionate. This is no longer the wishful thinking of English majors—it’s scientifically proven.
The inner life of stories is intricately connected to our public lives. Work for justice can happen in every dimension—if we choose. I invite you into the fullness of this effort. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
The Orison Anthology is now out! I’m grateful to Luke Hankins for placing my essay, “Dark Night of the Nursery,” alongside writers I greatly respect, such as Christian Wiman, Li-Young Lee, Jane Hirshfield, and Alison Gopnik. Please check it out!
Are you hungry for time to dive deeply into your project? There’s still room in the Alone Together writing retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts September 12-16.
Memory is a rich place of interior listening and a source for creative inspiration! Support your exploration of memory, writing, and spirit at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality this fall:
October 8, 2016: Saturday Spiritual Memoir Introductory Workshop.
Second Fridays; 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions.
September 9: Journeys
October 14: Holy Play
November 11: Place
December 9: Symbols & Metaphors
Third Fridays, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Seed Writing group–an opportunity to write and share writing in a supportive community. The Seed Writing circle is led by Liz Olds and Vanessa Ramos.