Bob Dylan's Nobel Speech: "Are My Songs Literature?"

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Bob Dylan receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom May 29, 2012

When Bob Dylan was named recipient of the The Nobel Prize in Literature, response among writers and cultural critics was mixed. In “Why Bob Dylan Shouldn’t Have Gotten a Nobel,” editor and author Anna North argued from the New York Times opinion section:

 

“Yes, Mr. Dylan is a brilliant lyricist. Yes, he has written a book of prose poetry and an autobiography. Yes, it is possible to analyze his lyrics as poetry. But Mr. Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer.”

Conversely, cultural critic Sean O’Hagan believes those who dismiss Dylan’s literary credentials because he is not a writer in the traditional sense are missing the point. Writing “Fascinating, Infuriating, Enduring: Bob Dylan deserves his Nobel prize” for The Guardian, O’Hagan contended:

“Bob Dylan exists in a world of his own, stubbornly out of step with the prevailing culture just as he once singlehandedly defined it. He is not a songwriter in the classic sense, nor a poet in the traditional sense, nor does he create literature in the accepted sense of the word; that, in fact, is the whole point – he has sidestepped these definitions on his singular journey. He’s Bob Dylan.”

For his part, the reclusive songwriter and musician did not immediately acknowledge the honor, announced in October, and ultimately did not attend the December 10th Nobel Banquet to receive it in person. But in the acceptance speech he penned, which was delivered by the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji, he squarely addressed the question surrounding his worthiness of the award.

“Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature?'” he wrote, citing Shakespeare as a playwright who, in the bard’s day, was likely preoccupied with the mundanities of producing and staging his work rather than whether it would one day be received as literature. Dylan, however, closed the speech expressing gratitude to the Swedish Academy for the time they spent preoccupying themselves with the question, and “providing such a wonderful answer.”

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Azita Raji, U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, delivered Bob Dylan’s acceptance speech at the Nobel Banquet December 10, 2016. (Photo via NewsInfo.Inquirer.Net)

Read the full transcript of Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech, published by the Nobel Foundation, below:

Good evening, everyone. I extend my warmest greetings to the members of the Swedish Academy and to all of the other distinguished guests in attendance tonight.

I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but please know that I am most definitely with you in spirit and honored to be receiving such a prestigious prize. Being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature is something I never could have imagined or seen coming. From an early age, I’ve been familiar with and reading and absorbing the works of those who were deemed worthy of such a distinction: KiplingShawThomas MannPearl BuckAlbert CamusHemingway. These giants of literature whose works are taught in the schoolroom, housed in libraries around the world and spoken of in reverent tones have always made a deep impression. That I now join the names on such a list is truly beyond words.

I don’t know if these men and women ever thought of the Nobel honor for themselves, but I suppose that anyone writing a book, or a poem, or a play anywhere in the world might harbor that secret dream deep down inside. It’s probably buried so deep that they don’t even know it’s there.

If someone had ever told me that I had the slightest chance of winning the Nobel Prize, I would have to think that I’d have about the same odds as standing on the moon. In fact, during the year I was born and for a few years after, there wasn’t anyone in the world who was considered good enough to win this Nobel Prize. So, I recognize that I am in very rare company, to say the least.

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

When I started writing songs as a teenager, and even as I started to achieve some renown for my abilities, my aspirations for these songs only went so far. I thought they could be heard in coffee houses or bars, maybe later in places like Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium. If I was really dreaming big, maybe I could imagine getting to make a record and then hearing my songs on the radio. That was really the big prize in my mind. Making records and hearing your songs on the radio meant that you were reaching a big audience and that you might get to keep doing what you had set out to do.

Well, I’ve been doing what I set out to do for a long time, now. I’ve made dozens of records and played thousands of concerts all around the world. But it’s my songs that are at the vital center of almost everything I do. They seemed to have found a place in the lives of many people throughout many different cultures and I’m grateful for that.

But there’s one thing I must say. As a performer I’ve played for 50,000 people and I’ve played for 50 people and I can tell you that it is harder to play for 50 people. 50,000 people have a singular persona, not so with 50. Each person has an individual, separate identity, a world unto themselves. They can perceive things more clearly. Your honesty and how it relates to the depth of your talent is tried. The fact that the Nobel committee is so small is not lost on me.

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

My best wishes to you all, 

Bob Dylan

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The 2017 PEN America Literary Awards Longlist Is Here

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Rion Amilcarr Scott

On Friday December 9th, PEN America announced the books longlisted for 2017 PEN America Literary Awards. Finalists will be named on January 18, 2017, and winners on February 22nd, in advance of the awards ceremony on March 27th at The New School’s Tishman Auditorium in New York. Here they are:
PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize ($25,000): For a fiction writer whose debut work represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise.

*Insurrections: Stories by Rion Amilcar Scott

*We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams

*The Mothers by Brit Bennett

*The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang

*When Watched: Stories by Leopoldine Core

*Hide by Matthew Griffin

*Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

*Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

*Hurt People by Cote Smith

*Wreck and Order by Hannah Tennant-Moore
PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay ($10,000): For a book of essays that exemplifies the dignity and esteem of the essay form.

*The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood by Belle Boggs

*Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

*Against Everything by Mark Greif

*A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and The Mind by Siri Hustvedt

*The Girls in My Town by Angela Morales

*Soul at the White Heat by Joyce Carol Oates

*Becoming Earth by Eva Saulitis

*Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter by Peter Singer

*Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change by Andrew Solomon

*Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner

 

PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction($10,000): For a distinguished book of general nonfiction possessing notable literary merit and critical perspective.

*Drinking in America: Our Secret History by Susan Cheever

*Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

*White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

*Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help by Larissa MacFarquhar

*Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips

*Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones

*The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez

*The Train to the Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II by Jan Jarboe Russell

*Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran by Laura Secor

*Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship by Anjan Sundaram
PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award ($10,000): For a book of literary nonfiction on the subject of the physical or biological sciences.

*The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

*What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe

*Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets by Luke Dittrich

*Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight over Controlling Nature by Jordan Fisher Smith

*Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History by Dan Flores

*How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of a Private Spaceflight by Julian Guthrie

*Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

*The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

*The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

*The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish by Emily Voigt
PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing ($5,000): For a nonfiction book on the subject of sports.

*Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution by Jonathan Abrams

*American Pharoah: The Untold Story of the Triple Crown Winner’s Legendary Rise by Joe Drape

*The Last Innocents: The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers by Michael Leahy

*Catching the Sky by Colten Moore with Keith O’Brien

*Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA by Joe Nocera and Ben Strauss

*Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre by Jeff Pearlman

*Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town by S.L. Price

*Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcom X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith

*Fastpitch: The Untold History of the Softball and the Women Who Made the Game by Erica Westly

*Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop and Street Basketball by Onaje X.O. Woodbine
PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography ($5,000): For a distinguished biography published in the United States.

*Jean Cocteau: A Life by Claude Arnaud, translated from the French by Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell

*A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century by Jerome Charyn

*Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

*Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman

*Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary by Joe Jackson

*A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley by Jane Kamensky

*Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer by Arthur Lubow

*Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White by Michael Tisserand

*American Luthier: Carleen Hutchins–The Art and Science of the Violin by Quincy Whitney

*Louise Nevelson: Light and Shadow by Laurie Wilson
PEN Open Book Award ($5,000): For an exceptional work of literature by an author of color.

*Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett

*Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt by Yasmine El Rashidi

*The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

*The Big Book of Exit Strategies by Jamaal May

*Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

*What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

*Look by Solmaz Sharif

*Problems by Jade Sharma

*Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair

*Blackacre: Poems by Monica Youn
PEN Translation Prize ($3,000): For a book-length translation of prose into English.

*Confessions by Rabee Jaber, translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid

*The Fox Was Ever the Hunter by Herta Muller, translated from the German by Philip Boehm

*Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

*Between Life and Death by Yoram Kaniuk, translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav

*One Hundred and Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin, translated from the French by Christiana Hills

*Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap, translated from the German by Tess Lewis

*Justine by Iben Mondrup, translated from the Danish by Kerri A. Pierce

*The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas

*The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

*Limbo Beirut by Hilal Chouman, translated from the Arabic by Anna Ziajka Stanton

 

PEN Award for Poetry in Translation ($3,000): For a book-length translation of poetry into English.

*Pearl: A New Verse Translation, translated from the Middle English by Simon Armitage

*Abyss by Ya Hsien, translated from the Chinese by John Balcom

*Voronezh Notebooks by Osip Mandelstam, translated from the Russian by Andrew Davis

*Building the Barricade by Anna Swir, translated from the Polish by Piotr Florczyk

*Algaravias by Waly Salomão, translated from the Portuguese by Maryam Monalisa Gharavi

*Preludes and Fugues by Emmanuel Moses, translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker

*Tales of Ise, translated from the Japanese by Peter MacMillan

*In Praise of Defeat by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson Smith

*Absolute Solitude by Dulce Maria Loynaz, translated from the Spanish by James O’Connor

*Twenty Girls to Envy Me: Selected Poems from Orit Gidali by Orit Gidali, translated from the Hebrew by Marcela Sulak
The recipients of the following awards will be announced on March 27, 2017:

*PEN/Jean Stein Book Award ($75,000): For a book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit, and impact.

*PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature ($50,000): To a writer of any genre for his or her body of work.

*PEN/Jean Stein Grant for Literary Oral History ($10,000): For an unpublished literary work of nonfiction that uses oral histor to illuminate an event, individual, place, or movement.

*PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Awards ($7,500 & $2,500): Three awards which honor a Master American Dramatist, American Playwright in Mid-Career, and Emerging American Playwright.

*PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing ($5,000): For a writer whose body of work represents an exceptional contribution to the field.

Lydia Polgreen is the new Huffington Post Editor-in-Chief

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Lydia Polgreen

Lydia Polgreen, a former New York Times associate masthead editor and editorial director of NYT Global, is succeeding founding editor Arianna Huffington at the Huffington Post. In an interview she gave the news and opinion site, Polgreen indicated how she plans to steer the content focus in the wake of the media echo chamber the 2016 election exposed and exacerbated. She said HuffPo has the “potential and the possibility of really meeting this populist moment that we’re living in and meeting people where they actually are.”

Polgreen added, “just as there were moments when the Washington Post or The New York Times or the Times of London during World War II had a huge mission, we, too, have a huge mission. And that is to listen, to report, to tell stories, to seek out the stories and voices that aren’t being heard, even ones that might feel uncomfortable to us.”
lydia-polgreen-is-the-new-huffington-post-editor-in-chief In a 2014 report commissioned by A.G. Sulzberger, son of Polgreen’s former employer New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, the Times’ Newsroom Innovation Team acknowledged that HuffPo “in just a few years has eclipsed The Times in total readership.” The report cited advice from “a former leader of The Huffington Post… [who] told us that if we want to improve our reach, we must think differently about what it means to publish a story: ‘At The New York Times, far too often for writers and editors the story is done when you hit publish. At Huffington Post, the article begins its life when you hit publish.'”

National Book Awards 2016

UPDATE: The 2016 National Book Award Winners are:

FICTION
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

NON-FICTION
Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

POETRY
Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human

YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell’s March: Book Three

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Arlie Russell Hochschild

The National Book Awards, set for November 16th, has named the 20 authors who earned a spot on their 2016 shortlist. Among them, 2002 MacArthur Fellow Colson Whitehead, former Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Mellon Fellow Arlie Russell Hochschild, and Jacqueline Woodson whose book Brown Girl Dreaming earned the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

FICTION
Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special
Paulette Jiles’ News of the World
Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad
Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn

NON-FICTION
Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War
Andrés Reséndez’s The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America
Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy

POETRY
Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human
Rita Dove’s Collected Poems 1974 – 2004
Peter Gizzi’s Archeophonics
Jay Hopler’s The Abridged History of Rainfall
Solmaz Sharif’s Look

YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE
Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell’s March: Book Three
Grace Lin’s When the Sea Turned to Silver
Jason Reynolds’ Ghost
Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star

On Validation

0849772fdfc614ba5b0fd66d5b9ef808_400x400I co-lead a monthly writers group as part of the Center for Faith and Work, and before we break off into small groups to workshop our pieces, one of the members leads us in a discussion on a topic centered around the writing life. Last month, Brooke Obie, author of Book of Addis: Cradled Embers (Vol 1), led a talk on validation, a subject that has been coming up for me from a few different directions as I wait for word from my agent on a new manuscript, my birthday approaches, and I take a procrastination break from a new piece I’m working on to write this post.

A few weeks ago, during a Saturday cable watching marathon I stumbled on the movie 5 to 7. The film, about a young writer’s affair with a married French woman nine years his senior, ended with a comment I’ve been pondering since: “Your favorite story, whatever it might be, was written for one reader.” The writer’s reader was his now former lover, and the point he was making was that whoever the writer’s reader is, it is her or his validation that matters most.

As I noted in a previous post about this quote, my reader often changes. Sometimes it’s a client, a boss, an editor, an agent, social media followers. Sometimes my reader is me. And for the purposes of the piece I am pushing out into the world for this reader, their validation is everything.

Brooke directed us to unpack validation itself and how it shapes what and why we write. Here are the questions she invited us to ask ourselves:

  • What role does validation play in your writing?
  • Who are you seeking validation from?
  • How has/does rejection impact(ed) your feelings of validity as a writer?
  • How do you determine which criticism is valid?
  • What are your goals as a writer? (What and who shaped these goals?)
  • When do you feel most validated as a writer?
  • Have you ever felt the presence of God when you’re writing, or felt that you’re “in the zone” when you’re writing? Does this feeling validate your writing/make you feel valid as a writer?
  • What fears do you have that undermine your feelings of validation? How do you deal with these fears?
  • What are your intentions for your writing? What do you hope to achieve? If you achieved it would you feel validated as a writer?

Is it possible to ever feel validated as a writer? Is validation-seeking in and of itself a trap–an indication of a hole that can’t be filled with the expected markers?

Both J.K. Rowling and Elizabeth Gilbert have remarked that validation in the form of bestselling status doesn’t quell the desire to write, or the hope for validation that’s stripped from the expectations, jealousy, and effusive praise that can come with success. And recently, the author of In Her Shoes and other bestselling books Jennifer Weiner bared her heart and admitted her jealousy in a now deleted Facebook post when another writer’s book  was chosen over hers for Oprah’s Book Club–a validation that has eluded her for now.

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, also a bestselling author, has written about finding validation in the work itself. In a poignant post on her blog, she expressed the importance of maintaining perspective on the accomplishment that completing a piece of writing is: “…I’d internalized so much shame about how my books had performed, that I’d completely forgotten to be proud of the fact that I’d written and published two books in the first place.”

Validation is such a personal quest, determined by ever-shifting internal and external factors, that even trying to unpack it feels bottomless. I think that’s why I appreciate having the above-noted questions handy–a way to spot-check when the insecurities rise, and a reminder to focus on why I write in the first place. I hope the questions are helpful to you too.

6 Writers Earn 2016 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grants

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Gene Luen Yang

Today, graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang, journalist Sarah Stillman, artist and writer Lauren Redniss, poet Claudia Rankine, writer Maggie Nelson, and playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins were named among 23 artists and scientists receiving 2016 MacArthur Fellowships. Nominated by a committee of “external, invited nominators,” MacArthur Fellows are ultimately selected by 12 jurists to receive a stipend of $625,000, paid in quarterly installments over five years. The FAQs section of the MacArthur Foundation website details: “The fellowship is designed to provide recipients with the flexibility to pursue their own artistic, intellectual, and professional activities in the absence of specific obligations or reporting requirements.”  Last year’s class included Ta-Nehisi CoatesBen LernerLin-Manuel Miranda, and Ellen Bryant Voigt.

 

We Need More Empathy in the PC/Cultural Appropriation Debate

On September 8th, Lionel Shriver, author of a dozen novels including 2005 Orange Prizewinner We Need to Talk About Kevin, gave a speech about identity politics at the Brisbane Writers Festival. During her talk, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an author, mechanical engineer, and the founder of Youth Without Borders, walked out. Abdel-Magied says she did so because Shriver was making light of the issues that have given rise to the frustration and ire many have around cultural appropriation.

Here’s a synopsis of both positions: Shriver (pictured left) argued that fiction is inherently about appropriating cultures and experiences of all kinds, and exploiting them to serve the story. It’s about wearing other people’s hats, she said. To drive the point home, Shriver wore a sombrero as she made her argument.

Abdel-Magied countered that Shriver’s “but it’s fiction” excuse is obtuse and insensitive. She pointed out that the peoples whose cultures and identities are routinely appropriated so rarely get a chance to tell their own stories to a mass audience because of a racist dominant culture and the enduring legacy of colonialism that shuts out or marginalizes these voices. Abdel-Magied added, this same racial prejudice and colonial history leads to many an author writing myopic and/or offensive fiction about an experience or people s/he knows nothing about.

I can identify with some of the frustrations Abdel-Magied and Shriver expressed, but, mostly, I’m frustrated by the demonstrated lack of empathy on Shriver’s part, and to a lesser extent, Abdel-Magied’s.

In her speech, Shriver claimed that a writer’s attempts to inhabit and portray the experiences of others who aren’t like them are inherently empathetic. She went on to argue that effort itself should be applauded, and that failure to get it right should be accepted as collateral.

“Efforts to persuasively enter the lives of others very different from us may fail: that’s a given,” she said. “But maybe rather than having our heads taken off, we should get a few points for trying. After all, most fiction sucks. Most writing sucks. Most things that people make of any sort suck. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make anything.”

Shriver expressed zero sensitivity to what it feels like to be the one whose life has been, and is being, entered (over and over again); and she demonstrated no curiosity or care about the stakes of failure. She did not mention the fact that the authors of color are reviewed far less by the New York Times, and other publications, than their white counterparts. Nor did she discuss the fact that far fewer writers who aren’t white even get the chance to be published.

Whether she failed to communicate this above hoped for sensitivity, or neglected to note the facts about identity disparity in publishing because she does not or cannot identify with the experience of seeing her story become more profitable when a white person’s name is on it, or because she doesn’t believe these factors are relevant to her thesis, or because she has little to no respect for those who raise objections about their cultures and identities being misrepresented is the debate.

As, Abdel-Magied aptly articulates:

It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.

I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point. I don’t speak for them, and should allow for their voices and experiences to be heard and legitimised.

But part of Abdel-Magied’s response irks me too.

Though I wish she had stayed to listen to Shriver’s whole talk so she could assess the argument in real time in its entirety and participate in a post-lecture Q&A to engage Shriver in a face to face, I respect her decision to walk out. As she explained in her essay, for her, staying implied agreement with–and legitimizing–what Shriver was saying. Leaving in the middle, Abdel-Magied wrote, was her statement of resistance. I get it. There are times when you just can’t grin and bear.

My issue with Abdel-Magied’s reaction is that, while she chose to exercise her right to exit the room mid-lecture, she made blanket assumptions about those who opted to stay and hear Shriver out. Deciding the chuckles coming from the audience amounted to “reinforcing and legitimising the words coming from behind the lectern,” she labeled the audience “compliant.”

It’s a seemingly small judgment, but it bears the whiff of insensitivity she ascribes to Shriver’s position. It asserts there is only one right way to react to a point of view you disagree with, and that the same reaction means the same thing for different people.

Abdel-Magied describes a packed room, and people laughing in complicity at Shriver’s obtuse remarks. We don’t know if some of the chuckles in that full house were uncomfortable, or whether there were people who were having sharply whispered conversations of dissent outside of her sightline and earshot, or if there were attendees who were quietly reserving their judgment until Shriver’s talk was over. Abdel-Magied doesn’t know either, all she can do is guess.

When it comes to discussions about representing identity, particularly in writing, merely guessing is one of the main problems.

Yes, as Shriver lectured, writing necessitates guessing at the emotions of characters in situations the writer may or may not have experienced. But good writing requires we add to guesswork research, close observation, deep contemplation, the feedback of generous souls who will read or listen to early drafts, and, eventually, professional editors and fact-checkers. And even when a writer feels s/he has done this due diligence to authentically write a story or character that is personally foreign, s/he can still get it wrong because racial and cultural biases are so deeply embedded in Western, and global, culture.

This doesn’t mean anyone should steer clear of trying to write about certain topics or people, it just means we should try harder to humbly listen to those who have had an experience we haven’t–especially when there is overwhelming consensus among said group that we have misrepresented it.

Furthermore, if we truly want to tell the stories of people and places and cultures we don’t personally know, and if we want to see them told well, we will have to make way for writers who are intimate with the experience to tell their stories themselves. And we can’t be satisfied with just one or two writers, but many. So many we can’t associate a group with a trend or type anymore and push it into a pigeonhole.

Most writers don’t have control over our publication destiny, let alone another’s, but those who have written bestsellers, or have publishing experience have some leverage. Whether it’s the relationships necessary to put in a good word with an agent/editor; or reading the work of an aspiring writer telling a story we want to try and offering feedback, there are ways to support a diversity of writers and stories if that’s what we truly want.

Conversely, those of us frustrated with seeing our stories exploited and appropriated, and tired of being dismissed by the dominant culture for expressing our pain and anger about said appropriation, should be cognizant that our fellows in the struggle have the right to express their dissatisfaction their way. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached non-violence and Malcolm X advocated a “by any means necessary” approach to combating racism in America. Both were assassinated.

It’s not about methodology. It’s about compassion, and a continual commitment to seeing past ourselves.

For example, Shriver said, “Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.”

While what she says is true on its face, I wonder if she has deeply considered why and how we got to the point where membership in an identity group means so much. Though white Americans, for example, may not think about or be aware of racism as much as a person of color might, they exist in a hyper-racialized nation along with everyone else in the country, and experience certain aspects of life in way that vastly differs from a person of color’s experience. Whether Shriver believes it or not, racial identity means as much to whites as it does to people of other races.

Membership of a larger group is not the sum of an identity, but in a world that sorts and shelves people based on identity groups–and specifically disadvantages those outside the dominant group–these memberships have shaped experiences and existences for generations. They have become culture and memory and life, providing spiritual and material refuge to those who leverage the power of their shared community. If history were different and prejudice non-existent, these identities might be treated incidentally, but they aren’t.

What if, concurrently, Abdel-Magied considered that Brisbane’s giving Shriver a speaking spot may not have been borne of an intention to personally harm her, or endorse a point of view she disagreed with? What if she moved past her assumptions of what her fellow attendees were thinking of her when she left, or why they stayed, and instead engaged a few of them after the event about how they felt about the proceeding?

Our collective lack of empathy keeps us trapped in our polemicist poles, paralyzed by the fear that if we acknowledge the merits of another’s position we will cede holy ground, unable to progress. Ironically, it also leaves us vulnerable to even more egregious appropriation, and makes for bad writing people think is good just because they tried. Perhaps most frustrating of all, it leaves us pretty much where we started: frustrated and isolated, the gap between our understanding, care, and consideration of each other only widening.

Writing Can Lower Your Blood Pressure

medical_writingHere’s a story at odds with the stereotype of the depressed, ornery writer: psychology professor James Pennebaker has done research that shows that people are less depressed after writing for just 20 minutes a day for three days.

In her book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, excerpted on nymag.com, Dr. Susan David, PhD writes of Pennebaker’s work:

In each study, Pennebaker found that the people who wrote about emotionally charged episodes experienced marked improvement in their physical and mental well-being. They were happier, less depressed and less anxious. In the months after the writing sessions, they had lower blood pressure, improved immune function, and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported better relationships, improved memory, and more success at work.

Dr. David makes clear the results are not only tied to putting finger to keyboard or pen to paper, but about doing the work of expressing yourself. “Talking into a voice recorder, for example, can deliver the same results,” she writes. She adds:

But after showing up, there’s another critical aspect of agility: Stepping out. Deeper analysis over the years shows that unlike brooders or bottlers, or those who let it all hang out in big venting rants, the writers who thrived the most began to develop insight, using phrases such as “I have learned,” “It struck me that,” “the reason that,” “I now realize,” and “I understand.” In the process of writing, they were able to create the distance between the thinker and the thought, the feeler and the feeling, that allowed them to gain a new perspective, unhook, and move forward.

Not sure what the book has to say about how writing on deadline or writing professionally impacts mental health, but you can read the full excerpt to find out.

Who Do You Write For?

I will promise you this. Your favorite story, whatever it might be, was written for one reader_peoplewhowriteThe movie 5 to 7 ends with this quote as a way to explain the muse behind the main character’s bestselling first novel. It got me thinking: what and who were the main catalysts for different stories I’ve written?  They’ve never been the same, but they have been there. I wonder how my story/ies might be different if I changed “the reader.”

Is this quote true for you?