To the Shapers of Culture

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.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “To the Shapers of Culture

  1. 1. Yes. I think that what I write will outlive me – even if it is only read by my children. A reflection of culture? I don’t know about that but my children will probably see it as a reflection of me. If it reflects me, then in some way it affects them and has the potential to shape them. It isn’t that I preach in my books but I’m there nonetheless, behind every single word.

    2. Good question but a hard one to answer. It’s like trying to identify every shape in a kaleidoscope. Even books that I didn’t enjoy reading have affected my writing.

    3. No, but I probably should. But I won’t. I love a good piece of fluff every once in a while.

  2. My answers:
    1. I don’t know about a sharpener, but I initially was drawn to YA because I wanted to write encouraging literature for teens. That was probably a little more ego-sentric then it sounds though.

    2. One of the books which has recently stuck with me would be 13 Reasons Why. Terry Pratchet’s works have also affected me, partially because he writes 3rd person and it still has a distinct voice.

    3. Yes, in a way. I read from the Salt Lake County Library list as well as a few books that Stephen King recommends. He said that good literature is the best way to hone your craft.

    That being said, I think it’s still important to enjoy what you read and write. When books get too hung up on a point it can come across as harping or beating the reader over the head with it. I think it’s a fine line. Kudos to those who have perfected it.

    • Kim Reid

      Good points, Deb. I went to a class once where the author whose name I forget (TAKEN BY STORM author) said that didactic writers set out to teach a truth while good writers set out to discover it. So, yeah, I don’t know how to find that line. You can’t set out to be messagey, but at the same time I don’t want to end up writing total fluff all the time.

  3. Julie Hughes

    This is fascinating, and so well put. I totally agree with her. I would say yes to questions one and three. I like books that deal with hard stuff and show redemption.