The International Writers Magazine: Comment

Writing and Political Responsibility
Eric D. Lehman

"Talent is luck. The important thing in life is courage."
- 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. "He’s 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 I’ll open it to all three writers." Vonnegut began, stating clearly and firmly, "To make the government work the way it’s 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 don’t we tell the truth? Why shouldn’t 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 writer’s point of view, fear of being on the wrong side of the issue, of being forgotten by history, of inciting anger in those who don’t 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 didn’t 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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