In Stalinist Russia, poet Anna Akhmatova’s husband was shot and her son imprisoned. Every day for months she stood outside the prison walls begging for word about her son’s fate.
Recognizing her, one of the other women in similar circumstances called out to ask, “Poet, can you write this?” She responded, “I can.” And then did.
George Saunders, author of the brilliant and deeply human Booker-winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo tells this story in a new podcast by Wild author, Cheryl Strayed. In the interview, Saunders also shares the contents of a recent email he sent to all of his writing students. In it he encourages them to use their gifts of observation to bear witness to these extraordinary times… their powers of description to catalogue our daily lives… their emotional sensitivity to help make sense of the disruption we’re experiencing. To tell the kinds of stories that will point to a better future.
Most of the women in Informed Opinions’ network no doubt see their primary professional identities not as writers, but as academics or advocates, executives or entrepreneurs. Even if they occasionally write op eds, or often author work-related reports or journal articles, the focus of that work is more likely to be on the substance of the research or analysis, rather than the crafting of stories.
But storytelling is critical to all effective communication — especially if the intended audience is broad and the purpose of speaking or writing is to enlighten or compel. So like good fiction, the best media commentary substitutes concrete examples for conceptual descriptions. The most desirable interviewees make problems and their proposed solutions vivid through stories the rest of us can picture. Because it’s those pictures that engage us emotionally, enable us to remember, and motivate us to act.
I believe that finding a way to tell stories about what’s happening in the world right now is an essential service — not just for those who are living the fear, isolation and anxiety today, but for those who will come after and need to act on the lessons we’re learning.
Last week during one of the online media engagement clinics we’re offering, a participant asked if she should be writing now about what needs to happen after this crisis is over. Although we may be self-isolating and socially distancing for many months, my answer is an emphatic “yes!”
I often encourage women in commentary workshops to “write early, write often” — even knowing that they all have many other pressing responsibilities making that advice hard to implement. But now some of us do, in fact, have more time. And the biggest silver lining to these dark and disrupted days is the opening they offer to start deliberately shaping the tomorrow that will eventually arrive.
If we don’t begin actively promoting alternative futures now, it will be too easy to slip back into old realities. Many are speaking about how much more devastating the coronavirus is on the millions of people living in refugee camps, prisons or shelters… on those who working freelance, earning minimum wage or dependent on tips… on the health care workers and cleaners and grocers providing essential services. They don’t have the choice to stay home, the headspace to reflect, the platforms to amplify ideas.
So I’m writing to echo Saunders’ advice… To encourage all of those with unique insight into any aspect of the coronavirus crisis and the ways we are — or should be — dealing with it, to share those insights if they can. To leverage the privileges of education and experience, time and space, to help us not only deal with our terrifying current reality, but envision, seed and plan a more desirable future.
One that collapses income inequality, strengthens our social safety net, and prioritizes the health, safety and sustainability of this remarkably resilient but vulnerable planet we have too long taken for granted.
Over the past 10 years, we’ve built up a rich storehouse of free, how-to resources aimed at supporting people with informed opinions to share them more effectively. Our Learning Hub gives you access to blog posts, videos and strategies on writing commentary, responding to media interviews, and becoming a more compelling presenter.
You can also find Strayed’s podcast, Sugar Calling, here. George Saunders is a beautiful human being — warm, funny, thoughtful and full of grace. Eleanor Wachtel’s live interview with him about Lincoln in the Bardo will make you happy to know he’s alive and sharing that grace through fiction. It’s available on CBC’s Writers & Company here.