Sometimes, when there is a particularly emotive issue making the rounds in the news and social media, I find it hard to write about it. Last night, I reblogged my post from last year, because I thought it was relevant, but also because I wanted to say something about the flood of refugees and their treatment, and I didn’t think I had the ability to write coherently, given how difficult I found it to see some of these pictures, and how easily I could imagine myself in the same situation.
It’s not just my inability to be able to write quickly, though. I also feel vaguely uncomfortable about writing something which might be perceived as cashing in on the crisis. Obviously I’m not literally ‘cashing in’, because even if a post of mine were to go viral, I don’t make any money from the blog, and the best I might hope for is a few more followers. But I still find it somehow distasteful. It’s as if I’m taking advantage of a tragedy, for the sake of a few moments of relative internet fame.
I’m not a famous blogger, by any means, so my concerns are generally unfounded. My insights into world events are read by few, and shared by fewer, but I still do wonder about how to reconcile this. After all, surely this is one area where those who make news their profession also struggle with ethics. Journalists rely on big stories for a living, so how do they balance out the fact that running a story (and picture) such as the drowning of a small child refugee will be widely shared and ‘popular’, against the tragedy of such an event?
However, I also know that when something happens, and I feel strongly about it, then my instinct is to write about it. I feel almost pressured to write; it gets under my skin and I want to put it down, lay it all in front of me, make sense of it. I could easily do all that, without sharing it with anyone, but I suppose the exhibitionist in me wants others to read it. That’s a huge part of what story is: telling it, so others hear. And story is how we make sense of the world. If nobody reads what I write, then I don’t feel as if the writing is wasted. But of course, I would like it to be read, rather than not. How am I ensuring that I’m not just riding the wave? How can I be certain that my words are going to contribute something, rather than simply adding to the noise?
I suppose I can’t ever guarantee that. And I suppose journalists feel the same. They need to make choices all the time about what they will and won’t share with the rest of us. We look down on them and we distrust them, because they ask questions and follow leads, but we also read and view what they publish. With that kind of fame and power comes responsibility, and I’m sure it weighs heavy on many. I can escape some of that, given my tiny voice among the billions on the internet, but I still feel the need to pause, before I hit ‘publish’ on the post. I still need to ask myself: what is to be gained by posting this?
I edited a book a few months ago where one of the characters was talking about how artists steal from others. And I remember telling the author how much I loved that concept, because it’s true. People are always interested in where writers, painters, designers get their ideas, but the truth is (for me, at least), it’s outright theft. Wherever there are people talking, wherever there is sound or silence, or a certain kind of smell… I steal all of it and stash it away for later. For my non-fiction, I read stories and opinion pieces and watch footage on a topic, and then string it all together to write a blog post or pitch an article somewhere (for which I will get paid, if it’s accepted).
For my fiction, I take the lisp of the customer service manager at my local supermarket, which reminds me of one of my closest childhood friends, and suddenly I’ve woven that into the tale of a young woman, travelling through Argentina and struggling to cope with the language and her recent breakup with her boyfriend. Or I smell the way the air is changing, getting warmer now that spring is (apparently) on its way, and it becomes a story about siblings meeting again for the first time, and the way they hide behind their childhood personas, even though all of them have changed and grown so much.
I admit it, I watch and listen and breathe it in, and I take it all to use for myself.
The least I can do, then, is treat it with such careful respect, hold the stories of others gently, and do my very best to not break them as they unfold before me, and I show their beauty, their sadness, or their rage to the world. The least I can do, is to be humble, and write my strongest writing, and hope that I can do them some justice.