For today’s writing tip, I want to send a shout out to BYU professor Susan Howe, who was the first mentor I ever had say to me, “You ARE a writer.” This came at a time when I wasn’t so sure.
At the 2009 BYU English Department Awards Banquet she gave a speech, reprinted in the Fall 2009 issue of Humanities at BYU. I hope you’ll read it, but the short version is this:
“Don’t be shallow.”
Awesome tip, eh? Put that one to work and come back next week and let me know how it went for you.
We all know that “literary art has always reflected the age in which it was written,” but Howe’s speech made me question myself: What aspect of the modern age am I reflecting in what I write? Does it matter what I reflect as long as I’m having a good time and writing as honestly as I can?
Dr. Howe thinks it matters—that the values we incorporate into our writing should be chosen intentionally.
Howe shares two true stories, one about an American soldier in Iraq who nearly shoots a child who is approaching, not with an explosive, as the soldier suspects, but with a gift. The second story is about how the economic downturn has caused Americans to cut back, resulting in a particular spa going out of business because so many women had to “sacrifice” having their eyebrows waxed.
Howe says of these two stories:
“To consider them together is to reveal something about the culture of these United States in the twenty-first century: on the one hand there are very serious concerns being enacted in our culture, but on the other hand the excesses of American consumerism have made many aspects of our lives incredibly trivial.”
The shallow side of our culture is certainly reflected in publishing:
“There has been, for the last several years, a movement towards literature that is witty, intelligent, and playful, but dissociated, fragmented, and random; literature that refuses to assert value or even discernable meaning.”
What’s wrong with that? I enjoy me some random literature. Random movies. Random humor of all kinds. But I believe Howe gives every serious writer something important to consider:
“To trivialize people I think is the greatest danger of this type of literature.”
How can a young adult writer who happens to like randomness and getting her eyebrows waxed “resist trivialization” in her writing?
I think Howe’s advice to college students still applies to me, no matter how often I happen to visit the spa or watch random commercials on YouTube:
“I hope you students, poised to take over the production and consumption of culture, will say, ‘ . . . In my art, I will do the difficult work of indicating what I value. I refuse to represent life as so bereft of meaning that readers will experience themselves as superficial, inconsequential, and shallow.”
One way we can do this, Howe says, is in learning from art “we perceive to be significant.”
Put more simply in the words of author Alane Ferguson: “You are what you read.”
I have a bunch of questions about this whole idea.
1. As a writer, do you ever think about yourself as a potential shaper and reflector of culture? Do you feel a sense of responsibility wielding words?
2. What works of art do you “perceive to be significant” that have inspired your writing?
3. Do you filter what you read and watch in an effort to better your craft?
My answers: No, I’ll get back to you, and no. But Susan Howe has definitely invited me to rethink my strategy.