Wednesday, December 24, 2014

To Be (Or Not To Be) a Socially-Conscious Writer

Michelle McGill-Vargas
I don’t consider myself to be a socially-conscious writer. I haven’t blogged about the recent grand jury decisions in the Missouri and New York police brutality cases. I haven’t tweeted about Bill Cosby’s guilt or innocence. I haven’t used my experience as a teacher to write short stories about the educational system. The last thing I want to do is chime in about the good, the bad and the ugly of the world. As a fiction writer, I want my stories to entertain; to be the escape readers like me need from the realities of the world. I want publication, not polarization because of my personal views, no matter how many social media “followers” I might gain in the process.
So no, I don’t write about social issues.
Or so I thought.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had members of my critique group or a beta reader point out a theme or issue in my work I had no intention of addressing. I remember writing what I’d thought was just a short story about an agoraphobic woman plotting to kill her new neighbor. Turns out, my critique partners preferred to discuss the emotional scars of rape victims, a theme I was surprised they’d found throughout my piece. One of them asked, “Is this what you meant to say?” I had no answer because I hadn’t meant to say anything. I’d just wanted to tell a story.
Writing may be a solitary activity for me, but I don’t live in a vacuum. I can’t help having an opinion about what I see and hear in the daily news. Sometimes, those opinions find their way into my work whether I want them to or not. As a black woman, I tend to people my fictional world with characters that look like me. And with most of my stories occurring in the past, I can’t disregard the treatment people of color endured in those time periods.
I’ve learned that one can address social issues in stories without banging the reader over the head with it. This past summer, I attended a writers’ conference where author Daniel Jose Older discussed using world building as a way to address social issues. His book, Salsa Nocturna, is a collection of ghost stories set in New York City. Through the setting, Older was able to bring up the issue of gentrification while still telling compelling stories. For me, my storylines have been borne from some pet peeve or an unpleasant experience I’ve had.
In retrospect, my stories have included themes of interracial relationships, graphic violence in movies, school segregation, and even preparing for the end of the world. So while I still don’t consider myself a socially-conscious writer, I’d be foolish to think that social issues won’t appear in my writings from time to time. I’d also be foolish not to use those opportunities to not only change my characters by the end of the story, but also to change those who read about them.

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