Friday, April 13, 2012

Delivering on Promise

One of my first roommates told me:

"You're kinda like a Chucky doll, Q. You're cute and innocent on the outside, but inside you just want to stab the hell out of a soccer mom."

I mean...yeah, kinda. I'll be the first to admit that I get frustrated sometimes. My frustration is usually directed at people who violate the rights of others. Don't get me started on Wisconsin. Seriously. The fact that our country is regressing to the point that women are losing rights like they're car keys?

My dad has this great line that he's used as long as I can remember. I don't know who originally said it, but it's still true. What you permit, you promote. Regardless of what your views are, if you stand idly by while wrongs are committed all around you, you're just as guilty as the perpetrator. For permitting it.

There's a great Desmond Tutu quote that says much the same thing:
"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." (Emphasis mine.)

What does all this venom and angst have to do with writing or art? Well, writers and artists have a pretty unique power. They can change minds. They can open minds. Not to get all spidey on you, but with great power comes great responsibility. When you have thousands, sometimes millions, reading your words, you can actually do something with them. Subtly, of course. No one wants to be hit over the head by some proselytizing albeit well-meaning author.

(There's a reason Dr. Seuss is one of my favorite authors and the proud owner of 99% of my favorite quotes. That man was a genius.)

But this authorial power over minds is one of the things that frustrates me the most when I'm reading. A lot of books with the potential to inspire never deliver on  that promise. The books I loved as a kid are ones I still love today. The Giver. His Dark Materials. I was and still am drawn to books that force me to question authority and evaluate my place in the world. My choices. I love books with (subtle) messages: Question the government, learn and understand your rights, stand up for them before they're systematically stripped away from you.

That's not to say every book needs to have a deeper meaning, or that every theme needs to be heavy. But when a book about revolution or resistance or overthrowing the government doesn't explore the themes at its heart, it's sort of a let down. There are scary things going on in this country right now. If we don't start paying attention, we're going to end up wondering where all our rights went...because we permitted it. So yeah, I'm pretty disappointed when a book doesn't follow through that has so much power and potential and promise to actually make readers care about the world around them.

My two favorite quotes pretty much say the same exact thing. One of them (surprise, surprise), is  a Dr. Seuss quote. (From the Lorax, actually. I really need watch the new movie). The other is Gandhi.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.
Dr. Seuss

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. 

So this is a call to action for the writers out there:

Please, please, make sure your words mean something. It doesn't have to be heavy. But if I read 100k words and nothing has changed inside me, you haven't done your job. Figure out what's meaningful to you, what gets you up in the morning, and yes, what pisses you off. Then use it. Write it. Make your readers care. Twenty years from now, people are going to remember the books that made them cry, that made them think, that made them throw the book at the wall then pick it up again because they just can't stand not knowing what happens. 

And the way you get readers to care? By giving them something to care about.

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