International Writers Magazine: Comment
and Political Responsibility
Eric D. Lehman
"Talent is luck. The important thing in life is
- Woody Allen, Manhattan.
My girlfriend and
I arrived at the Bushnell Theater in Hartford, CT in a pouring rainstorm.
We had journeyed there to see the currently popular Jennifer Weiner
and literary giants Kurt Vonnegut and Joyce Carol Oates, in a panel
discussion called "An Evening With Our Favorite Writers,"
sponsored by the Connecticut Forum and hosted by writer and radio personality
Colin McEnroe. Two thousand seven hundred people joined us, packing
the theater solid, bustling in and out of the lobby, drinking wine and
eating candy. The ushers gave us question cards to fill out, a few of
which would be read to the writers after intermission.
The first half of the discussion was enlightening and informative. McEnroe
asked pointed questions and the answers were always interesting and
articulate. The three authors quarreled a bit, just enough to provide
spice but not enough to make the audience uncomfortable. Jennifer Weiner
held her own with the two legends, often giving humorous responses.
Her mentor at Princeton, Joyce Carol Oates, was incisive and often interrogated
the others, as well. Kurt Vonnegut was simply a master. "Hes
Mark Twain," said McEnroe in obvious amazement and glee.
The second half began and to my shock and pleasure, my question was
picked. "What is the political responsibility of a writer?"
McEnroe read. "This was for Mr. Vonnegut, but I think Ill
open it to all three writers." Vonnegut began, stating clearly
and firmly, "To make the government work the way its supposed
to." JW agreed with him: "Any citizen in a democracy as a
responsibility to be involved." And Joyce Carol Oates put it the
most succinctly, with: "Our obligation is to tell the truth."
"Of course," everyone says, "this is obvious and needs
no repeating." But if it is such an obvious fact, I asked myself,
then why is there so little truth in writing? And what truth are we
talking about? There are as many truths as there are people to write
about them. There is the universal truth of literature, the kind these
fictions writers are used to writing and discussing. But when I had
a little time to process these words of wisdom, I realized the truth
Vonnegut and the others are talking about in this particular case was
"political" truth. By truth, they meant "not lies"
or "not politics." In many ways, Politics is lies, by its
very nature, and truth-telling can be deadly to individuals or groups
involved in it. The writer who is outside of this arena has the luxury
of telling the truth, of shedding light on dark places.
So, if we have this luxury, why dont we tell the truth? Why shouldnt
everyone? I asked myself and listed the reasons on a piece of paper.
Many answers appeared, but the most basic and persistent boiled down
to fear. From a three-year-old child to the most respected politician,
a fear of telling the truth pervades our psyches. From a public writers
point of view, fear of being on the wrong side of the issue, of being
forgotten by history, of inciting anger in those who dont want
to hear uncomfortable truths. We fear what friends and family will think,
of the enemies we will make with our words.
Of course, we also fear our own perceptions may be clouding this always
mysterious "truth." As writers we alter, we transform, we
turn events into fiction, and thus may be just as unreliable as self-interested
politicos and pundits, though our intentions may be the very noblest.
After pondering this paradox for a while, I realized that lying, purposefully
or accidentally, is not the actual problem. The problem is not speaking
at all, and this is the heart of the issue, the message the three writers
were really trying to get across. The word that I should have focused
on was not "truth," it was "obligation." Why? The
answer came easily. People with a minimum talent for communication have
a forum for their ideas. We can reach people. And thus, with power comes
responsibility, and the writer must speak to whoever will listen the
truth of the situation.
Once upon a time, I liked to think I was above society, or at least
outside of it. But such ideas are flights of fancy, something that I
would have learned very quickly when my own interests were challenged.
Luckily, I didnt have to wait for that eventuality, and my encounter
with these three more visible and courageous authors crystallized the
essentiality of illuminating whatever truths I can find. Some tell me
to leave truth-telling to those who do it better, to those whose "job"
it is, to those who have more wisdom or perspective. I disagree and
thus must necessarily say so, out loud, again and again. It is my obligation,
though it gains me no friends. And from the most humble scribbler to
Kurt Vonnegut, we must all have the courage to tell the truth, no matter
the misunderstandings or the consequences.
Eric D Lehman April 2006
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