3 Insights Into Writing about Social Issues

by Jason Long

by Jason Long

Today’s guest post is by author Lisa Bennett (@LisaPBennett), author of Ecoliterate.


For the past ten years, I have been writing—and trying to write—about climate change. It’s a topic few of us really want to think about it but, as a Mom, I worried about what it would mean for my children’s future. Doing something felt like part of my job as a parent. And if I could inspire others to get engaged in climate action through my writing, I thought, that would be one, small good thing.

I was so wrong.

No matter how much I learned—about what can be done about climate change and, more significantly, how to use psychological, communications and brain science research to overcome the obstacles to our focusing on this issue—something in my writing just wasn’t working.

The problem, I discovered, was my motivation. By trying to inspire other people to get engaged in something that I was concerned about, I was caught in the trap of writing with an agenda. And while that might be appropriate for activist communications, it is not appropriate for personal essays, which is what interests me. There, few of us trust or, more fundamentally, like it.

To write effectively about any social issue (and perhaps especially one as controversial as this) I had to change my focus. I offer the three insights I uncovered here as guides to anyone else who might be struggling with a similar writing challenge.

1. Toss out your agenda.

I once met the poet Wendell Berry while reporting on a protest against mountaintop removal coal mining. It was a small, unusual protest. Berry and about three-dozen writers, farmers, former coal miners and activists were planning a sit-in in the Kentucky’s governor’s office. It was interesting, I thought, but from a practical standpoint, hopeless. So I asked Berry directly: “Do you really think this will make a difference?”

“I don’t know if it will make a difference,” he said. “But that is the wrong question. The right question is: Is it the right thing to do? I know it is the right thing to do.”

It was a simple, wise and empowering way to think about any action, including writing. And I took it to heart. Having an agenda—specifically, a goal of persuading others—meant my definition of success rested on something I could not control: how others responded. The better guide, I realized, was that simple question: Is it the right thing to do?

2. Be more humble.

To give myself a goal of influencing other people to take action on an issue I believed to be critically important made me feel as if I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. It also made me feel ridiculous, since I wasn’t, in fact, having an impact. This is a trap that both activists and people trying to write about social issues can easily fall into. It’s also as off-putting (and ineffective) as trying to address a relationship problem by trying to change your partner’s behavior instead of your own. If I hoped to write well and freely, I had to give up the arrogance that stemmed from focusing on other people and take a closer look at myself.

3. Be more honest.

In a moment of despair bred of one too many rejections, a wise friend asked me: Which is more important to you: To do something about climate change, or to be a writer? I didn’t have to pause to think. I am a writer, I said. And instantly, I realized I needed to approach the topic differently—not by trying to move other people to some desired end but by exploring as deeply as I could my own story about being a mother in the dawning age of climate change. This was a story of what it feels like to know that people we love are at risk of something we feel we cannot control. It meant diving deeper to be more honest, more real and more vulnerable.

So this is where I am at now. I do not yet have a finished product, or a sure-thing success story. But it is good to know the true story I want to tell—and to be reminded that a writer’s touchstone should never be persuasion but truth. And, for me, for now, that is enough. 

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Guest Post.

Lisa Bennett

Lisa Bennett is co-author of Ecoliterate, a contributor to The Compassionate Instinct, A Place at the Table, and other books. Read her blog here or find her on Twitter at @LisaPBennett.

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23 Comments on "3 Insights Into Writing about Social Issues"

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Ed Cyzewski

You can’t quote enough Wendell Berry for my taste. Also sales numbers, social media shares, and accolades can be deceptive, and if we seek them from a false foundation, they’ll never be enough to satisfy us.

JoAnne

I like to believe that if I get to plant a seed that might motivate or change just one person, it’s worth the effort. But this perspective is even better. It’s the right thing to do regardless. If I plant a seed for change, that’s icing on the cake.

brvogt
I totally agree and totally disagree — and that’s what good thinking / writing does, creates a nexus of duality. Yes, story gets at the heart of the matter, and for some, story — especially personal story — can be a better persuasion. But for others, story is not enough; this is why I blend science, psychology, art, philosophy, and history in my personal writing. I write about the ethics of native plant gardens in a time of climate change and mass extinction — I see supporting ecosystems and wildlife with native plants as an ethical response to caring for… Read more »
ileftmyheartinuganda
Thank you Lisa for this timely post. It struck as chord as I am writing about my involvement in a primary school for orphans in rural Uganda and know exactly what you mean when you say there are times you feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. I learned early on that I can’t change the world, but if I can make a difference in the life of one child, it’s still infinitely rewarding. And if my experiences are written without an agenda, humbly and honestly, they are much more likely to touch people. Thank… Read more »
Carolyn O'Neal
I don’t really understand the fine line between having an agenda and having a passion. I read somewhere that JK Rowling has a passion for racial and social equality so she portrayed prejudice via wizards and muggles. Isn’t that an agenda? What about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? That seems very agenda driven but yet is classic American literature. If you are writing about climate change and that doesn’t interest me, I won’t read your book. But eco-fiction is MY passion so I gobble that up. Why not be clear with your motive? I’m confused why the idea of having an… Read more »
Ronnie Citron-Fink

Wonderful post, Lisa. As someone who reads, writes and activates around climate change every single day, I really took to heart your story about Wendell Berry. The right question to ask IS: Is it the right thing to do? I also feel it is the right thing to do. We all approach this from whatever angle appeals to our sensibilities. So glad you write from heart. Thank you!

sarahwbartlett

So the right thing to do is humbly speak your truth. YES!!! Thank you so much for this affirmation.

Lynda Cramer

This post arrives at just the right time for me as I consider beginning a blog and am writing some sci fi Thank you all.To be real and honest and present truths the best I can is my plan.

Maureen
What I like so much about your post is that it resonates with others who are writing and reading about climate change, including me and in my case, its evil twin, ocean acidification and sustainable fisheries. It is hard to write green or blue all the time, especially in light of what’s popular and streaming online. Case in point: the blue/black, gold/white dress. Although I was delighted to see it take on the #StopAbuseAgainstWomen on Twitter a few days ago, but no mention of THAT in mainstream media. Sigh. The common threads here-authenticity in writing, agenda-focused writing, touching one person… Read more »
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[…] For anyone writing about social issues, Lisa Bennett shares what she has learned about writing successfully about social issues. […]

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[…] This post originally appeared on JaneFriedman.com […]

Phoebe

I have to say, your point really reached me. I’ve realised that social conflicts should be ingrained in the book as conflict, part of the story, not as subtle persuasion. First and foremost, it is still a novel. Pushing an agenda can come across poorly. From that I’ve been able to imagine some exciting subplots for the novel I’m working on. Thank you so much!

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[…] Today’s guest post is by Lisa Bennett (@LisaPBennett). Read her earlier post, 3 Insights to Writing About Social Issues. […]

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