by Kathryn Heyman
“It is not enough to possess a virtue as if it is an art; it should be practised.” Marcus Tullius Cicero.
For the last few weeks, I have been writing about the classical virtues and what they mean for writing and reading. Now, at year’s end, I want to reflect for a moment on creative practice, its pleasures and its purpose.
Early in her writing life, Elizabeth Jolley wrote a letter to a friend speaking of how disheartening it was, knowing that her work was irrelevant, being certain that no-one cared what she wrote. So – given the effort and anxiety involved, given the messages we receive about the death of the book, the death of theatre, the death of cinema – why does writing of this imaginative kind matter in our culture, in our time?
Why does writing matter at all? And in particular why does it matter in 2014? Surely everything that needed to be spoken has already been said? I want to suggest that the act of paying attention, of crafting words into images and stories, the act of imagining and inventing matters enormously, matters as much as anything in the world. It is, in fact, our only hope. All our achievements come back to the ability to create, the ability to pay attention, the ability to imagine. Even scientific research is built on story predicated on the possibility of getting better, the expectation of a satisfying narrative arc.
In the same way that refusing to read or understand history dooms us to repeat its mistakes, the failure to read or engage with literature dooms us to create flawed narratives, where we fail to understand the risks and possibilities of our lives. In order to create our desired political and social landscapes we need to understand story, need to pay attention to the moment. In order to take control of our story, we need to be absorbed in narrative. Without meaning, we don’t set goals and what are goals if not the desire for a happy ending, the desire to remake the story?
When we read and are moved by stories of adults who have come from troubled childhoods and survived, transcended the beginning of their story – we are moved partly by the triumph of imagination. Surviving trauma in that way relies, at least partly, on the ability to to imagine a different future. It’s an extraordinary act, an extraordinary ability – to see something where there is nothing. Story teaches us courage, fortitude, hope. And it teaches us what happens if we don’t have these things. Without this ability we stomp over the world, steamrollering everything in our paths and ending with nothing but a pile of flattened dirt. Now, more than ever in amongst the delightful clatter of technology we need this quality of stillness, the quality of attention.
What are we to do with this age of technology? How are we to pay attention? I’m not talking about some sci fi fear of being taken over by robots but about being most fully human in a changing time. Paying attention to the present is what allows us to imagine the future and to interrogate the past. Being present, this is one of the gifts of literature – the gift of being fully human.
I’m drawn repeatedly to the question of what makes one person who survives trauma more resilient than another – over five books and eleven dramatic works that has seemed to be a recurring theme. And I keep coming back to this: it’s to do with the stories they tell themselves. If this is true for an individual might it not also be true for a culture? The phrase ‘I can’t imagine’ – spoken or unspoken – is responsible for many atrocities. If you can’t imagine what it is to be someone else, you can’t experience empathy. This is the writer’s job. To imagine for you. To walk you through the picture, the story, the other person’s shoes. I am talking here of true stories and fictional ones, of stories on screen, radio and print. It is our job to guide the reader or the viewer into an empathetic experience.
In Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, American philosopher, Richard Rorty, wrote: “Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other unfamiliar sorts of people. … that is why the novel, the movie and the the TV program have, gradually but steadily, replaced the sermon and the treatise as the principal vehicles of moral change and progress.”
Stories, let me make it clear, are the only things that matter. Only stories create culture, create politics, create imperialism or revolution. Imagination in this sense is the same as hope – it is the most buoyant form of optimism. Arundhati Roy, in On War, makes a claim for the centrality of story to our lives: “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories.”
This is why writing matters to me – it’s the argument I’ve convinced myself by. But the truth is that the reason I mentor, the reason I teach, the reason I write is to continue to discover something new, to be surprised by what it’s for, and by what it can do, and to be undone anew by the discovery and practice of the virtues of writing. In 2014 our reckless joy, our stubborn brilliance, our brilliant stories are the greatest tools we have to change the world.