I have been thinking about the purpose of writing recently. One common thread I hear from some fellow writers is that they are writing for themselves and it doesn’t bother them if they are never read. I find it strange but fair enough, I suppose. It doesn’t fit in with my idea of writing. Making a living with it would be good but I struggle to see why I should write if not to be read. Otherwise why not just think? But if that’s your bag then alright.
For those of us who want to be read the issue remains why? Are we there to just entertain, or are we trying to influence. I believe books influence whether we set out to or not. Like any media, the written word changes people, for better or for worse. The influence of written material from the Bible to Mein Kampf, from To Kill a Mocking Bird to Animal Farm all cause changes in the reader. Sometimes slow, maybe subtle but always a change.
So what are we passing on? Here’s a few ideas:
“I’ve always felt, in all my books, that there’s a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence – providing they have the facts, providing they have the information.”
“I feel deeply my responsibility to teach sacred things. I am so aware that the world is changing and will be vastly different from the one I have known. Values have shifted. Basic decency and respect for good things are eroding.”
James E. Faust
The above quotes show writers prepared to set an example towards decency, one showing what they believe already exists within us and the other trying to pull people back to what is perceived as a better time. Writing is such a powerful medium for engaging someone with a message like this. By taking time aside to read, the person is also taking time to think whether they consciously desire that or not.
“Our scientific age demands that we provide definitions, measurements, and statistics in order to be taken seriously. Yet most of the important things in life cannot be precisely defined or measured. Can we define or measure love, beauty, friendship, or decency, for example?”
Maybe the importance of writing is in trying to explain and promote these qualities that cannot be measured but have to be shown. Whether we write non-fiction or fiction we portray these qualities, or lack of, in our characters thereby asking our readers indirectly who they are closest to. Is this not why reading is sometimes uncomfortable. A solemn duty as Prager describes these things as “the most important things in life”.
“Never assume, no matter how strong the temptation, that other people are low-life lying manipulators without a shred of human decency.”
Here, D’Souza pleas for hope in all people, saying we all have decency to some degree within us. Is our writing therefore a heat lamp, a drop of water, seeking to grow that seed.
“I’m under the impression that this notion of decency is disappearing from our society where conflicts are made worse on cinema and on television, where people are nasty and cruel on the Internet and where, in general, everybody seems to be very angry.”
Helen Mirren relates how she thinks that creative arts can actually create the opposite to the decency we have talk about. It is quotes like this that make me believe we do have a responsibility in what we write in that we know it will influence, for better or for worse. Where your lines of good and bad are drawn may differ from mine but let us never entertain the idea that our work is standing alone in this world. It will provoke a reaction, in manner and belief, not just in words.
Last word to Mary McAleese.
“That past is still within our living memory, a time when neighbour helped neighbour, sharing what little they had out of necessity, as well as decency.”
So is your writing decent enough to promote decency whether by showing the benchmark or the poor example, consequence or folly? Or do we just entertain? I don’t believe so.