Creatives in profile – interview with Laura Potts

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Follow Laura Potts on Twitter @thelauratheory_ 

Laura Potts is twenty-two years old and lives in West Yorkshire. Twice-recipient of The Foyle Young Poets Award, her work has been published by Agenda, Aesthetica and The Poetry Business. Having worked at The Dylan Thomas Birthplace in Swansea, she was nominated for The Pushcart Prize and became one of the BBC’s New Voices last year. Laura’s first BBC radio drama aired at Christmas, and she received a commendation from The Poetry Society in 2018.

In the following interview, we talk with Laura about creativity and inspiration, writing style and poetry, West Yorkshire, Donald Trump, Joan Crawford and hats.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

POTTS

Laura, 22. Writes much; reads more. Lives in a city that has been largely lost ever since last century coughed and dropped a war (or two). Born in Yorkshire. Bred on books which always took me further. Fond of rain and winter, the solitary nights and the comfort of the dark. Alone but never lonely and content to be that way. Poet and writer of radio plays. Terminal wearer of hats.

INTERVIEWER

Is poetry your first love, or do you have another passion?

POTTS

I have always looked at living like this: life is one great passion, too vast to reduce to the four short lines I just wrote above. My life is many loves. I have never set out to chase just one of them. That would be to exist and not to live. The darkest days and the longest nights; the quiet of a sleeping house; the kindness of another; the seasons, always leaving; anger and its blackness; fire and its warmth; the world unfurling in the hands of ministers and mobs, and all before me. These are just a few of my loves and poetry is their legacy. It has never been art for art’s sake; never poetry for poetry. It is always in the service of my own private chaos that a poem, as the very best medium, comes to be.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

POTTS

Assuming we’re talking poetry, then quite a few haunt me. There’s Dylan Thomas, whose music is truer to ancient verse than winds are to winter; Leonard Cohen, with all the darkness of his heart; John Foggin for landscapes amorphous and Saxon; Clare Pollard for the humour of youth; Peter Riley for Hushings; Ian Parks for desire; Jade Cuttle for what she gives us back; the grace of Phoebe Stuckes; and Sasha Dugdale to the last, whose Joy has stayed with me.

And if we’re not talking poetry, then Joan Crawford. I like her class and taste in hats.

INTERVIEWER

As a Yorkshire-born poet, do you feel that there’s an element of your place of birth and home town in the poems you write? Or do you seek to separate your personal writing from your personal geography? (Is that even possible?)

POTTS

It was Matthew Arnold back in the nineteenth century who famously wrote that the best work comes from the disinterested mind – that is, from those who actively separate themselves from the bright world around them – and I’ve always believed that that ethos should stay firmly in the Victorian era. I disagree with the social ignorance it promotes, nor do I think it is even possible. Such a person would surely be devoid of language and its histories; of human contact and sexual impulse; of feeling altogether? Each poem, whether consciously or not, is the code of my history; each word is the product of past and present. I’ve never thought art can exist in a vacuum. Only a cypher could make that.

INTERVIEWER

Your poetry series Sweet the Mourning Dew for BBC Radio 3 focuses on the experiences of those individuals who have lost loved ones to war. What drew you to this topic?

POTTS

My grandfather, mainly. He was an old war veteran and fiercely proud of the fact. He mimed the memory of war each day in a rigid routine; in a noble walk; even in his Brylcreem slicks and the same old comb from 1940 before the morning mirror. Most of all, he wanted to write his memoirs before the cancer came. In that alone he knew defeat. Sweet The Mourning Dew was my testament to a man who was proud of himself, and who wanted the lost to live on from the page past his own small place in time. It was never a passive claim on the tales that others have to tell. It was simply fulfilling a promise.

INTERVIEWER

How do you view the connection between poetry as performance and poetry as a solitary, personal act of reading poems upon a page?

POTTS

I have always believed that a poem can have many lives. Its life on the page is different to its life on the stage, but both are integral to its existence. It is true to the ancient roots of verse that it should be read and shared aloud; that its metre and music should be known to the ear as well as the eye. I am, however, distrustful of poetry as performativity: is emotion so scripted, so fabricated, so brief? And I am nervous of those who shout too loudly: in the most literal sense, in the beginning is the word and no end of spitting or swearing on stage will ever beat that. That is just a sad failure of the imagination.

INTERVIEWER

As a young ‘Gen Z’ poet who has come of age during years marked by the Iraq war; the global financial crisis and recently years of Brexit and Donald Trump, what is your take on the world around you? How can you use poetry to connect with the world as is?

POTTS

Quite frankly, I think the world is creeping dangerously close to repeating those centuries of war and hatred it said it would leave behind. It makes a mockery of those who died for the sake of democracy; for gender and racial equality; for decency; for rights. It laughs in the face of all those who tried and believed in peace. And all for a headline in the New York Times come morning or, better, a few more followers online. I’ve always thought poets are the quiet scribes of history. Like confessional voices to the past, they can speak with a passion which the history page never will.

INTERVIEWER

What has your personal experience been of trying to break onto the ‘poetry scene’?

POTTS

Well, I never tried to ‘break onto’ it as such. I read and wrote and wrote and read, and found the joy in that alone. I never had a formal plan to stand on stage and tell the world that I, self-titled, am ‘a poet’. It was never as scripted as that. But talent alone will always out, or that is what I’m content to think. And it is mainly due to the kindness of friends – of fellow writers, fellow thinkers – who listened and spoke well of me that others hear my voice today.

INTERVIEWER

In terms of writing poetry, what do you think is most important to keep in mind when writing your initial drafts?

POTTS

Most of all, I’d say that time should be forgotten. Little will come from a hurried mind, and what does is often stillborn. It’s a gift to hold a finished verse but only when it’s right: more joy comes from a well-worked line than a whole verse with no life. Or that’s my belief at least. I can easily spend a week or more just looking at one line. It’s really a very kind process for the mind to let time alone be the catalyst: the thoughts may be intense, yes; but I give them all the open space to grow and romp and play for months, if they need it. It’s a crucial part of my writing style to let the words live with me for hours, or days, or even weeks. If they haven’t settled in by then, I know they’re not to be.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ or audience in mind when you write?

POTTS

Yes. Excepting the times when I write for commission and must fulfil criteria, I am the audience I write for. The joy has always been in seeing myself reflected back from the page, and never for the approval of anyone else. If there is a time when that should change, I will put down my pen for good.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

POTTS

An expressive quality by which the mind can translate imagination into reality.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘poet’ mean to you?

POTTS

That’s a much-contended one! I’ve always tried to reserve that title for a rather select group: that is, for those to whom writing is the defining constant of their lives. Perhaps it is their living; perhaps they’ve been well-published; perhaps they did a whole lot more than stand behind a microphone that one time in the pub. Otherwise, I’ll just go chop myself some wood and call myself a craftsman. No, that will never be enough. I think of it like this alone: if you want to align yourself with those who could, with confidence, call themselves ‘the poets’ in the epic annals of Literature, you have to do much more than that. You must be worthy of the name before you make the claim.

INTERVIEWER

Since Percy Bysshe Shelley penned the Masque of Anarchy, poetry has been used by writers and artists as a means of revolt against the status quo and to champion causes, giving voices to those who perhaps would not otherwise be heard. What are your thoughts on poetry as protest?

POTTS

I have always believed there is something intrinsically restless to poetry: in its formlessness, its shapelessness and its lack of formal laws, there is a freedom unfound in prose. Unlike most other areas of our lives, rules do not exist. And so the union between poetry and politics is a natural one in which the chaos of the latter can find its freedom. And, of course, it always helps that rhyme makes particularly memorable music.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

POTTS

Really, I’m happy enough just to write when I wish and read to widen my mind. But the next natural step is the first collection for which I have a manuscript; for which the time must be right and I must be ready. Other than that, I’m in the early stage of a full-length play for BBC Radio 4 and I’d like to write for the stage someday. But the plan is to be how I’ve always been and just write for the love alone. So we’ll see. When not writing I am reading, and that will be enough.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 tips for writers?

POTTS

  • Always have an accessible medium. Notebook, diary, tablet, phone. The back of your hand will do. Just make sure your mind never meets a barricade.
  • The best writers are the best readers. You’ll find your voice by listening to others and gauging your own place in the annals of literature.
  • Read your work aloud. At its ancient roots, poetry was an oral art form often set to music. By reading aloud you’ll remember its heritage and notice its flaws. A poem has a different life on the page to its life in the mouth, and it’s easy to know when a writer does not read aloud: their rhythm could be markedly better.
  • Be kind to yourself. Writer’s block is a terrible friend but one we must endure. Take your time. Sometimes the mind works best when at rest.
  • The only regrets you’ll have are for the times you didn’t try. So why not send that submission today?
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Shallow Creek and the crowdfunding paddle

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The literary creatives behind STORGY, who publish and promote new literature across genres and classifications, are crowdfunding an anthology of speculative and horror fiction dedicated to all things that go bump in the night.

Shallow Creek is an anthology of new horror stories, strange and speculative fiction with a sting in its barbed tail, edited by Tomek Dzido. It collects together 18 brand new unsettling stories from new and emerging writers that draw upon the ethereal landscape of quiet towns just short of the outskirts of infinity for inspiration. Some of the stories within this tome explore the realms of the supernatural, whilst others are firmly rooted in gritty realism, but they all engage the reader with terror in abundance.

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Tales of the macabre

A spokesperson for STORGY explained what makes this literary creation unique among horror anthologies:

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“Think The Twilight ZoneTales of The Unexpected, Castle Rock and Creepshow all rolled into one. What makes Shallow Creek unique? Authors were all summoned to the town via our short story competition and given a character, location and item to create tenebrous and twisted tale to disturb your thoughts and tickle your ankles from underneath the duvet at night. You will most probably when reading the anthology find stories where certain characters in one story may pop up in others, which was our original aim when creating the competition, to construct an interwoven tale told by many authors – you may also read a yarn that will shake the very core of your being…

The quiet town of Shallow Creek has a long history of ghost stories and tales of the macabre. Every few generations this strangeness crawls out from the dark places of the quaint settlement’s imagination, seeping into our own reality. We are living through uncertain times now. Let the Creek lure you quietly to the safe place…”

Kickstarting a new anthology 

STORGY are looking for £3,500 to help cover the cost of printing the book. They are offering backers a number of Kickstarter exclusives, including T-shirts, bespoke-made bookmarks from illustrator Amie Dearlove and a chance to have your name in the book as part of the amazing community that supports indie publishing – whilst also the opportunity to have a location on our town map named after yourself.

Nothing in the Rulebook’s Professor Wu said of the project:

“As a (generally) cold-blooded amphibian without eyelids, I’m a fan of anything that includes a touch of cold-blooded murder and makes you sleep with at least one eye open.

This latest endeavour from STORGY once again strives to give a voice to new and emerging writing talent – something that cannot happen enough.

We exist at a time when the mainstream publishing industry seems to insist only on publishing novels of novels that are copies of commercially successful novels. This model not only denies opportunities to aspiring creatives; but also denies readers with the opportunity to discover new literary voices. I’d strongly encourage all of our readers to get involved in the crowdfunding campaign and support the project – either by purchasing a perk bundle or spreading the word to those you know.”

Get involved 

You can contribute to the Shallow Creek Kickstarter online –  while aspiring writers can also submit their work to STORGY directly, too. 

The crowdfunding trend

Authors, publishers and literary journals are all finding new ways of connecting directly to their readers – and their wallets – on online platforms such as Kickstarter. Think The 8th Emotion, a unique speculative fiction project by Josh Spiller (read our interview with Josh about the project here on NITRB). Why not check out this excellent article by writer and editor Dan Coxon, who examines how the social financing model can bring new book ideas to life.

 

 

 

Found in the Crowd – the case for crowdfunding anthologies

Authors, publishers and literary journals are all finding new ways of connecting directly to their readers – and their wallets – on online platforms such as Kickstarter. In this article, Dan Coxon examines how the social financing can bring new book ideas to life. 

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Image by tai11/iStock

Recently there has been a lot of chatter about the future of the short story. Some feel that we’re seeing a resurgence of the short form, citing as proof the phenomenal success of George Saunders, or the unlikely appearance of Tom Hanks’s debut collection. Others feel that the popularity of stories has steadily declined in recent years. In his generally positive introduction to The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, even Philip Hensher was forced to admit that ‘reading short stories rewarded by competitions, I was struck by present-tense solitary reflections, often with characters lying on their beds affectlessly pondering… There was nothing there at all, apart from a fervent desire to win £30,000.’

What everyone appears to agree on is that publishers don’t know what to do with short fiction. Occasionally, the larger publishers will humour an established author – Hilary Mantel, Lionel Shriver – by allowing them a collection between the novels, but you’re unlikely to see many debuts. (Hanks is the obvious exception – but there’s no need to explain the marketing decision behind that book.) New authors are finding that only the smaller, independent presses are willing to take a punt on their genius.

The same is also true of anthologies. I’ve now crowdfunded two anthologies on Kickstarter: Being Dad: Short Stories About Fatherhood (Tangent Books), and most recently This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories), a collection of stories inspired by British folklore and local history. Increasingly, independent publishers are turning to crowdfunding as a viable option, and in particular it’s something that seems to be working for the humble anthology. Might there be a future for the short story after all?

In many ways, my experience with Being Dad was typical. Several medium-to-large publishers expressed an interest, but said that anthologies ‘didn’t sell’ (how they would know this when they didn’t actually publish any is one of life’s great mysteries). Eventually, I secured the interest of Bristol-based Tangent Books, who had the foresight to see that this was a book which had both a market and some great stories. There was one proviso: we had to raise the initial costs via crowdfunding.

I’ll admit, at first I was reluctant. There is still an element of resistance to the crowdfunding route, especially among older writers and readers. It’s sometimes seen as being worryingly close to vanity publishing – you go cap-in-hand to your friends and family, beg them for money, and then pay a publisher to print the book. At one end of the scale, this is certainly the case. As in any industry, there are unscrupulous businesses that are only too willing to take your money.

But in all the cases cited here, it wasn’t a matter of funding a book outright via ‘donations’, but rather a means of generating publicity and interest ahead of publication to ensure its success. I find it useful to think of the new crowdfunding model as a kind of inverse marketing: whereas the publicity campaign usually kicks in upon publication, here we did all our marketing in advance. I like to think that most of these people would have bought the book anyway – but by doing it ahead of publication, they helped reduce the risk to both publisher and authors, and therefore made the book possible.

I won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say that crowdfunding a book is a long and arduous process. What has struck me most forcibly, however, is the interest we have received – and not just from people we knew. Yes, many of my friends backed the books I’ve crowdfunded, for which I’m hugely grateful. But we’ve received pledges from complete strangers from all corners of the globe – some of them extremely generous – and in the final accounting these constituted the vast majority of pledges. With both the books I’ve been involved in, we were able to pre-sell much of the first print run and the projects very quickly went into profit.

My experience is by no means unique. Last year Unsung Stories crowdfunded 2084, an anthology of short stories inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and they had a resounding success. Their funding goal was reached within eleven hours of the campaign launching, and the final total was almost ten times the original target.

I asked George Sandison at Unsung Stories why they’d decided to crowdfund the book, and this is what he had to say:

‘One of the things an anthology gives you, that a single-author book doesn’t, is a chance to reach the fans of every author involved. Between support from contributors with promoting the launch, and a larger group of people who may be interested in the project, you’ve got a healthy customer base to call on. And one of the things crowdfunding does really well, is get people involved in a project – they get their name in the book, collectible editions, artwork, special stuff they’ll want to keep. So combine those two things and you have a lot of people, who are empowered and made part of the process. Quite literally, they help make the book.’

This is what I’ve found too, and it suggests that there’s a very real business model that’s starting to emerge. Anthologies benefit from having several authors involved, and with their combined fan bases they are able to spread their appeal more widely. Having one or two well-established authors on board can also make it more appealing, especially to an audience that might not have taken a chance on the lesser-known writers.

Of course, it’s not just anthologies that are reaping the benefits of crowdfunding. Independent presses in general are gradually coming to realise its advantages, and many now have a success story to tell. Influx Press crowdfunded their own anthology, The Unreliable Guide to London, which has gone on to receive critical acclaim and was shortlisted for a number of awards. Following that, they also ran a crowdfunding campaign to fund the next year’s publications, which met its target with ease. Dead Ink and Dodo Ink have also turned to crowdfunding to get projects off the ground in recent years, and all are going from strength to strength.

Interestingly, Unbound enjoyed a huge crowdfunded success with Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant. While this was non-fiction, rather than fiction, it once again suggested that crowdfunding works for multi-author projects. I’ve since been told that Unbound will no longer consider anthologies, a decision that seems to undermine the idea of crowdfunding anthologies as a strong business model. It starts to make sense, however, when you bear in mind that Unbound are now part of the Penguin Random House behemoth. Clearly the mainstream publishing mantra that ‘anthologies don’t sell’ has already seeped through to the Unbounders.

Within the independent field, though, the anthology may actually be thriving, and crowdfunding is looking more and more like the way forward. Yes, short stories are a niche market – but they’re a market nonetheless. By targeting and actively involving readers who have an interest in short fiction, projects like Unsung’s 2084 and This Dreaming Isle are looking remarkably prescient, a glimpse into what the future might hold for anthologists everywhere. Publishers would do well to look to crowdfunding when they’re considering turning an anthology down. The market is still out there – you just have to search for it in the crowd.

About the author of this post

Dan Coxon author picDan Coxon edited the anthologies Being Dad (Tangent Books, 2016) and This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories, 2018), and is a contributing editor at The Lonely Crowd. He also edits and publishes a bi-annual journal of weird and eerie fiction, The Shadow Booth. His writing has appeared in SalonPopshotThe Lonely CrowdOpen PenWales Arts ReviewGutterThe Portland Review and Unthology 9 amongst others, and he was long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2017. He runs an editing and proofreading business at www.momuseditorial.co.uk, and can be found on Twitter at @dancoxonauthor.

 

British phone box libraries

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Books and bookshelves in a famous red British telephone box. Photo credit: Steve Muir via Flickr.

Across the UK, people are turning famous British red telephone boxes into micro libraries – casual book exchanges where there is no registration, and no fines. Anyone is free to take home a book, provided they bring it back or replace it with another.

It’s a novel, if simple idea, and one that has sprung up in response to a sustained threat facing the UK’s public libraries. The first such telephone box library was set up in Westbury-Sub-Mendip in Somerset was founded in 2009 after the local council cut funding for the area’s mobile library.

The parish council purchased the box, a Giles Gilbert Scott K6 design, for £1, and residents in the Somerset village of Westbury-sub-Mendip put up wooden shelves inside and donated their own books.

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The phone box now houses titles from cooking books to the classics and blockbusters to children’s books

A similar story can be found in South London, where a local man named Seb Handley purchased a run-down telephone box from BT for £1, then used his own money and handyman skills to renovate the box and turn it into one of London’s smallest libraries.

“It’s definitely given people an excuse to stand around chatting,” Seb told Londonist magazine, “and in that sense, I suppose it’s really failed as a library.”

The micro-library exchanges operate on a system of trust. In local villages across England, where everybody knows everybody, this seems to have been a relatively simple sell. In some larger cities, however, the micro-libraries have on occasion had to rely on the local community to step in when the libraries have been vandalised.

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This is a concept familiar to library curators across the globe. As Anne Beate Hovind, curator of the world famous ‘Future Library’ project, told us in an interview: “It’s all about trust […]I have no choice other than believing in the project. And there’s also trust the other way – because the coming generations have to trust us that we do these kinds of thing for them. They have to trust that we will do things that take care of the planet – that we create work of arts for them.”

Little free libraries

The entire ethos behind these libraries bring to mind the global phenomenon of the ‘little free libraries’, set up by a Wisconsin man named Todd Boll, who sadly passed away in October this year.

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As a tribute to his mother, Boll made a small wooden house, just large enough for 20 books, and put it on a post at the end of his drive. Above it he wrote: “Free Books”. Before long, his idea became a book-sharing movement across the US and now little libraries appear all over the world.

While BT have said they will not be selling any more of their famous red telephone boxes for the foreseeable future, people looking to do something similar and set up their own mini-libraries can look to Boll’s legacy and create their own little free libraries. There’s even handy instructions on how to create your own library box on the Guardian.

Happy reading, comrades!

 

 

The duty of writers

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Our world faces catastrophic climate breakdown. True facts are now described as ‘fake news’, and biased media reported hailed by pseudo-Nazis as gospel truth. Political turmoil is growing as inequalities deepen across so many dividing lines in society. In such times, a challenge facing us all as artists, creatives and writers – but also simply as human beings – is to examine what role we ourselves have to play.

We have previously written about the need for writers to tackle the subject of climate change in their poetry and novels and non-fiction accounts – while we have also paid tribute to Ursula Le Guin’s rallying cry for all writers to imagine new alternatives to our capitalist system.

But what exactly is our duty, in these times, as writers and creatives? What stories do we need to tell?

What is the story of the world?

Fortunately for us, guidance on this question can be found from the minds of great writers – living and dead – who have pondered this precise topic. In East of Eden, for instance, Steinbeck opens the book’s 34th chapter with a mediation on the most fundamental foundation that sits beneath this essential question: if we have a duty to describe the stories of the world that matter, what exactly is the story of the world? Steinbeck writes:

“A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?”

Understanding human beings

In an earlier journal entry, Steinbeck even suggests that tackling the injustices in the world is not even possible if the writer first doesn’t understand the human beings who exist within it. He opines:

“In every bit of honest writing in the world… there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”

In a similar vein, the novelist Zadie Smith argues that to believe anything can bring about fundamental change is in fact naïve – and to honestly understand what drives the world forward (and how to subtly shift perceptions) you have to first appreciate the motivations of humankind. In a speech given in Germany in 2016 after receiving a literary award, she says:

“People who believe in fundamental and irreversible changes in human nature are themselves ahistorical and naive. If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. At this moment, all over the world — and most recently in America — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. Here in Germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. But there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. Those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.”

Yet within this, Smith sees no reason not to use art – and writing in particular – to reshape narratives, to influence others, and ultimately keep striving for that which we are all searching for, especially in these sometimes dark times: human progress, and illuminating the path ahead on which we can strive to make a better world. She says:

“History is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”

On the protection of democracy

Smith’s line of argument calls upon all of us to continually work to reimagine and challenge existing political and social structures. This calls to mind the thoroughly excellent arguments of that legendary titan of literature, Walt Whitman, who, in his collection Specimen Days, calls on all free-thinking people to continually challenge and probe the status quo. Whitman writes:

“I can conceive of no better service in the United States, henceforth, by democrats of thorough and heart-felt faith, than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

What it interesting here is how Whitman lived through times that do not sound dissimilar to our own. He saved lives through the Civil War, witnessed the “miserably-waged populations”, the corrosion of idealism and collapse of democratic values into corruption and complacency. Yet the great American poet faces this dispiriting landscape with a defiant optimism, arguing that this is in a way the most countercultural act of courage available to us:

“Though I think I fully comprehend the absence of moral tone in our current politics and business, and the almost entire futility of absolute and simple honor as a counterpoise against the enormous greed for worldly wealth, with the trickeries of gaining it, all through society in our day, I still do not share the depression and despair on the subject which I find possessing many good people.”

Ultimately, Whitman notes that the only way to preserve democracy in America is also to preserve nature (to hark back to our call to tackle the catastrophic breakdown of our climate for a moment here). And, as current US President Trump and his collection of lunatic criminals in the Republican party continue to show flagrant disregard for the planet and its natural environments, this is a thought that is well worth revisiting. Whitman writes:

“American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices — through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophisticated life — must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with out-door light and air and growths, farm-scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will morbidly dwindle and pale. We cannot have grand races of mechanics, work people, and commonalty, (the only specific purpose of America,) on any less terms. I conceive of no flourishing and heroic elements of Democracy in the United States, or of Democracy maintaining itself at all, without the Nature-element forming a main part — to be its health-element and beauty-element — to really underlie the whole politics, sanity, religion and art of the New World.”

Truth above all

Of course, it is easy to present arguments in favour of protecting the world and become downhearted when these are dismissed by the despots around the world – from Trump in the US through May in the UK, Putin in Russia to the incompetent National Liberal coalition in Australia – and ignored as being part of some fabrication or over-exaggeration of ‘progressives’ (as though we would feel foolish if we were to accidentally be fooled into creating a better world for nothing). ‘Fake News’ is everywhere, as we are all told. Here, it feels fitting to draw upon inspiration from legendary journalist Rebecca Solnit, who presses upon us our need to continue to stick to accuracy and truth when writing stories. In her collection of essays, Call them by their names, she writes:

“Precision, accuracy, and clarity matter, as gestures of respect toward those to whom you speak; toward the subject, whether it’s an individual or the earth itself; and toward the historical record.”

In an era of ‘alternative facts’, where language is increasingly used for malicious purposes, Solnit strives to persuade us of the importance of calling things as they are:

“To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.”

More than a century after Nietzsche contemplated truth, lies, and the power of language to both conceal and reveal reality, Solnit writes:

“There are so many ways to tell a lie. You can lie by ignoring whole regions of impact, omitting crucial information, or unhitching cause and effect; by falsifying information by distortion and disproportion, or by using names that are euphemisms for violence or slander for legitimate activities, so that the white kids are “hanging out” but the Black kids are “loitering” or “lurking.” Language can erase, distort, point in the wrong direction, throw out decoys and distractions. It can bury the bodies or uncover them.”

Breaking the narrative

Ultimately, Solnit calls on writers to continue to strive towards that goal of truth – for exposing the truth, using language that is accurate, that lays bare the reality of situations. Through truth, she argues, we can break and reshape narratives and stories that have been spun by the powerful against the powerless – and hopefully move toward a world where the only thing that is fake is Trump’s hair. She writes:

“The writer’s job is not to look through the window someone else built, but to step outside, to question the framework, or to dismantle the house and free what’s inside, all in service of making visible what was locked out of the view. News journalism focuses on what changed yesterday rather than asking what are the underlying forces and who are the unseen beneficiaries of this moment’s status quo… This is why you need to know your history, even if you’re a journalist rather than a historian. You need to know the patterns to see how people are fitting the jumble of facts into what they already have: selecting, misreading, distorting, excluding, embroidering, distributing empathy here but not there, remembering this echo or forgetting that precedent.

Some of the stories we need to break are not exceptional events, they’re the ugly wallpaper of our everyday lives. For example, there’s a widespread belief that women lie about being raped, not a few women, not an anomalous woman, but women in general. This framework comes from the assumption that reliability and credibility are as natural to men as mendacity and vindictiveness are to women. In other words, feminists just made it all up, because otherwise we’d have to question a really big story whose nickname is patriarchy. But the data confirms that people who come forward about being raped are, overall, telling the truth (and that rapists tend to lie, a lot). Many people have gotten on board with the data, many have not, and so behind every report on a sexual assault is a battle over the terms in which we tell, in what we believe about gender and violence.

[…]

Future generations are going to curse most of us for distracting ourselves with trivialities as the planet burned. Journalists are in a pivotal place when it comes to the possibilities and the responsibilities in this crisis. We, the makers and breakers of stories, are tremendously powerful.

So please, break the story.”

You heard it here first, comrades. So, what are you waiting for? Get breaking!

If youd like to contribute to our site – and show off how good you are at breaking narratives – please contact us.