Managing the Risks of Socially-Conscious Writing

Megan Mayhew Bergman

The Kenyon Review Credos

I’m not sure if it was becoming a mother, or publishing my first book—because these events happened in essentially the same year—but when it comes to my writing career, all I can tell myself is: make it matter. Make it count. My concerns are nearly always environmental, and this environmental anxiety brings me to the page every day, and stays with me even as I try to shoo it away in lieu of less idea-driven work.

As I try to write, the following questions often dominate, or even suffocate, my creative impulses: what kind of world have I put two children into? Should I have had children? How soon will global warming change my way of life in Vermont? What will be lost? What will quality of life look like in twenty years? How can I prepare? How will I change? How will I protect what I love, and ultimately those I love?

You don’t want to read the answers to those questions as posed, and neither do I. There is more than a kernel of hysteria there.

While nearly all writing observes and processes the world around us, overtly socially-conscious writing is risky. No one wants to read shrill, righteous work, and I don’t want to make it. I think readers are all too quick to sense a writer’s agenda in the wings. Writing-with-a-cause often begins with an overly confident writer, and certainty (which I’d say is different from authority) can be garish on the page. Exploration and discovery are more appealing, honest, and have better narrative arcs. Better for the writer and protagonist to quest than to hand down a commandment.

That said, I think the road is wide open (and increasingly traveled) for writers to show us the physical peril and moral failure of environmental degradation. But how might writers offer alternatives to oversimplified polemics and single-note, fear-mongering dystopias?

Insight generation is part of the writer’s job. In an era when everyone and their mother is in the business of content creation, everyone is essentially a writer, an observer of life on this planet. It seems to me that the “distinguished writer,” whoever that may be, and whatever platform he or she may use, must offer a hard-won perspective. Hence, I think writers should spend more time away from the page, and the Internet, and focus more on the active, or living, part of the writing life—earning that perspective. I think of Rachel Carson in the fields, Hemingway on the warfront, Steinbeck walking past sardine canneries with Ed Ricketts, even Cheryl Strayed hiking the Pacific Trail. Expertise, first-hand experience, true knowledge of place, and passion—these things transcend stories.

Moreover, half-hearted literary environmentalism is armchair activism at its worst. How can I mourn, truly mourn, the destruction of our natural resources from behind a computer? How can I learn the sight, taste, and sound of environmental degradation? How can I serve it up to others on the page and honor the complexity of the issues without participating and investing myself in them? How can I rise above the alienating political nature of environmental issues and get into the more fascinating root causes and ripples? The unexpected? The way these root causes tie in with human choice and human nature?

It can be done, certainly, with research and an imagination. But should it be?

I don’t want to be cheap. I don’t want to play with a readership’s easy feelings and anxieties without earning it. A writer’s shallow grasp of an important issue is an occupational hazard, and one I work each day at preventing. I think writers must stay in touch with the fundamentals of life around them in order to render problems powerfully on the page, to offer up what others may be missing, and might need to see. Writers must get our hands dirty before we go on shouting.


More about The Kenyon Review Credos
In the early 1950s John Crowe Ransom, founding editor of The Kenyon Review, invited some of the most celebrated public intellectuals of the day, among them Northrop Frye, William Empson, and Leslie Fielder, to offer their personal credos on their professional philosophies and aspirations. (These essays, still fascinating, will be reprised on the KR website throughout 2014.) In marking The Kenyon Review’s 75th anniversary, sixteen poets, essayists, and fiction writers, authors who have published in our pages on our website from early in their careers, will present their own contemporary credos. Four will appear in the print journal and twelve in KROnline. —D.H.L.

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