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. 

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