what writers can do (notes towards an essay)

(A response to a creative nonfiction prompt from The Time Is Now: ‘Write an essay about your personal perspective on the role of a writer today. Allow for a fluctuating and expansive definition, one that can accommodate not-writing, playfulness, contradictions, and elasticity.’)

What writers can do, in this age, in any age, is make our selves intelligible to ourselves and each other. Spark curiosity, unother, deepen and expand our ability to read ourselves, to read each other. To see what we share, and how that is only part of the story. What writers can do is gift us words with which to do this, ways of using words that are full of care. Everyday words are good, ones that can be carried around and reused, that don’t make you stumble or lose the flow. Words in unlikely combinations are good, the way they make you pause: Words that shimmer. What writers can do is show us how to glisten. Is there a need for a word like circumvolutionisation? Perhaps for someone, somewhere. What writers can do is hold out against the policing of words.

What writers can do is tell us how they got here, how others did; encourage us to wonder how we did, who we are, where here is. Suggest that there is more than one way to answer these questions: I got here by reading. I got here by walking, by talking, by listening. I got here by gardening and by taking photos. I got here by travelling. I got here by giving up travelling.

What writers can do is notice small things, the angel in the detail: the smell of nettles. magic pies. the meaning of a particular silence. The things that never appear on maps or broad sweeps or statistics. What writers can do is make lives grievable, including those we have chosen not to see. Including those who have chosen not to see us? Including lives other than human. Try to respond to a question like this: Can we—and, if we can, how can we—make actual in our minds the sometimes urgent things we say we know?

What writers can do is remind us of our capacity for feeling, to educate that feeling. Introduce nuance or take it away, depending. Touch us in ways that unsettle numbness. Craft rage, encourage courage, expand possibilities for love. What writers can do is resist making any of this too easy. What writers can do is cultivate the imagination, theirs and ours. Invent and reinvent and wonder what happens. Wonder what does not. Not say too much. Leave space for other stories, to be told another day, by someone else. And not, perhaps, in writing.

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