Let’s get the cliche out of the way: we’re living in polarized times. There seems to be a heightened sensitivity in the world these days in general, and even words and ideas that may not once have been seen as controversial can be perceived as incendiary.
Story’s noblest purpose is to get to the heart of some of the deepest and most complicated human emotions, thoughts, topics. To forge a path through the thickets of thorny ideas. To reflect and hopefully shed light on our society, human nature, and readers’ lives.
Yet in times like these, doing so can inflame some of your readers, even alienate them. There are two schools of thought on what that means for authors, as well as agents, publishers, and marketing people. Some choose to walk the middle of the road in the interest of not limiting readership or risking a slew of angry reviews. Some decide to carry their torch off the trail and into the darkness despite the risks of all that may lie within it.
I don’t believe there’s any right path. As with so much of writing, the right approach is the one that’s right for you, as a person, as an author, and as a businessperson.
But I do believe that every author should consider this question for themselves and make deliberate choices. A sort of life and creativity mission statement, if you will.
An example. Every week, when I decide what to write for these blog posts, I find influence and inspiration from what’s going on around me. It may be a podcast I’ve listened to, an article I’ve read, a concept I’ve been thinking about–or current events in the world.
Because my purpose and conscious intention with this blog and all of my work is to find ways to help writers, I tend to examine all of these prompts through that lens, as with this post about conflict and tension in writing, inspired by the infamous Oscar slap, or this one on why telling your stories matters, inspired by the war in Ukraine.
Or like my recent post inspired by the school shooting in Uvalde, which I used as a springboard to talk about why it’s not meaningless to write in the face of human suffering.
I am not a political pundit, nor have any of you come here for my personal ideology and views, so I keep everything focused on my core mission of helping authors.
But I am a human being, as we all are, and I’m a creative, both of which mean that I am profoundly influenced by the events around me, as are we all. None of us exists in a vacuum, and just as I always talk about being mindful of the world your character lives in and their place in it as key elements of what shapes them and their behaviors, we can’t isolate any part of ourselves from all the richness that we are as full humans.
Much of my thinking and formulating of ideas in my field of expertise, writing and editing, is in fact drawn from and influenced by everything in the world around me. That’s a key part of my process. And I have made the choice to share that with my writing community. To be my true self, while still honoring your purpose for being here and trying not to muddy my focus on that.
That’s my personal choice for how I run my business and my art, even though I know it may not appeal to everyone, and may result in some people not being receptive to my work and central message. I’ve carefully considered that and it’s a risk I’m willing to take because it makes my work feel more organic and whole to me, and that’s important to me.
But there are any number of other industry professionals who may feel that doing so is not a risk they’re willing to assume, or that it unnecessarily limits their audience, or that it’s not their place to weigh in on topics outside of their specialty. I recently saw a reader comment on one blogger’s post about a current event that they appreciated that this person “stayed in their lane” for the most part, meaning not venturing outside the parameters of their work. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
But the writer’s job is not necessarily to be everyone’s cup of tea.
Who are you as a writer? What do you want to say? What’s important to you? These are the kinds of questions you might deliberately ponder, if you haven’t already, in determining how far out on a ledge you want to go with your writing. How personal you want to be. How definitive you want to risk being.
There is no right or wrong answer here, and no path is better than any other. But it’s part of finding your voice as a writer, as an artist. It’s about knowing what drives you creatively. It’s about knowing your purpose, with every story, and with your entire career and art. These are not casual choices. They will shape you as a writer. They will define you. They will define your message and your readership.
My personal decision was based on the fact that I wanted to be able to fully express who I am even in my writing about craft, and that I wanted to be cohesive in my career with who I am as a person. Despite that this may narrow my potential audience, I love the fact that those who do vibe with me are my “people,” and create a writing community that nourishes me. It lets me feel more authentic, and it frees me.
That may not feel right to another editor or writer or agent, who may prefer more of a separation of church and state, so to speak–their business pursuits entirely separate from their personal lives. And that’s an equally valid choice, as is anything in the full spectrum in between.
They key is to make whichever path you decide your deliberate, thought-out choice, one that best fits your personality and purpose, your goals and values for your career and your life.
And then commit to that with your whole unbridled heart and mind. That’s how you create your individual style and voice—and how you build a career with meaning.
Your turn, authors—are you cognizant of your personal views finding their way into your art? Do you embrace that or curtail it—and in either case, why? Do you like reading (or watching) stories with a clear point of view, or do you prefer your art “neutral”?