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On Social Responsibility

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Yesterday was the LitSalon's last meeting of a 7-week study of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it. It's about racial relations and finding your identity within a racist society in America of the 1940 or thereabout. It's fascinating if at points a bit heavy-handed.

What resonated with me most is Ellison's ideas about social responsibility. In the introduction, which he wrote 30 years after the book was published, he talks about how the artist's job is to point out injustices and give voice to the voiceless. In the epilogue, the narrator talks about his responsibility to share his experiences with others, to educate them.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. The point of all this, from where I stand, is to tell stories that might, someday, somehow, help someone out there understand something about themselves, or about the world we live in. I've put in the picture for this post the quote I have scheduled to pop up every morning on my laptop. It's my inspirational quote. It's the reason I write.

My first novel, which is almost ready to be sent out, is about postpartum depression and being a new mom. I wrote it in the hope that some mom out there would read it and say, hey, it's not just me. My second novel, Rise of the Writers (which almost certainly won't be called that) tries to do something similar to what Ellison is doing in Invisible Man, I think. It's trying to say something broader about the tapestry of society in general, and how we fit into that tapestry as individuals with various roles to play. And I feel that Ellison's observation about his idea for Invisible Man resonates with my experience: "an intriguing idea for an American novel but a difficult task for a fledgeling novelist" (p. xxxii).

And yet, it's the only way I know how to stand up to the injustices I see every day all around me. I'm not a campaigner, a public speaker, or an activist. I don't go to protests (even before the virus), I'm not particularly vocal about any cause because I find that yelling doesn't usually leave much room for the nuance I see in every issue. And that feels especially important right now.

So I tell stories about people who deal with all sorts of things: with family issues, with daily life, with mental health, with relationships. Will I be able to change minds with my writing? Probably not. But as Ellison writes, "...humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat" (p. 556).


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