One of the realities for me of being a writing teacher is that I spend my life reading: reading books, reading craft theory, reading student drafts, reading the work of my writing group. I find myself frequently in a place to discuss with others their ideas and their opinions and their storytelling—whether they are writing fiction or essays, observational summaries or argumentative articles. And the one thing I have noticed in a lot of the things I read, but most especially in student work, is the prevailing perception that things are separate and disjointed. That objects are not connected to other objects, that people are not connected to other people, that ideas have no influence on other ideas. Although this lack of imagination can be mildly humorous in fiction when a main character loses track of the necktie that somehow becomes a sock by the third chapter, when applied to the way we relate to others, it has become problematic. We have isolated ourselves from the ideas of community—of the possibilities of a society in which we see the impact we have on others, and welcome their influence in our lives. A place of interconnectedness and appreciation for the uniqueness of every individual.
So if you will, indulge the writing teacher in me for a moment.
It has always seemed strange to me, the saying that conflict is drama. The sense that to be good a book has to be full of gothic tropes and black and white, evil versus good—and yet we see it all around us in popular culture. Books create love triangles and family feuds. TV and movies are filled with baiting, biting criticism. Social commentary attempts to paint anyone with a different opinion as ‘other,’ and because we have been taught that the other is not to be trusted we immediately stop looking for the ways in which we are the same—our fundamental humanity. It seems to me that most conflict created on the page is empty—serving to heighten a false sense of the tragic or melodramatic. This conflict only seems to heighten the isolation which is seeping into our lives as this sense of high drama has migrated from the pages of our books, to the screens in our homes, and into our personal relationships and interactions with others. But let’s look at freeing ourselves from this contention.
It seems to me that most good storytelling serves not to heighten a sense of conflict, but of dissonance. That good writing and good storytelling comes from a place of dialectic—a juxtaposition of influences and personalities, an examination of the things we share—and the stories that make us unique. A contrast. And a conversation. When we isolate ourselves from what we do not understand, or from people with whom we disagree, everything begins to fall a little bit flat.
Artists know this. When you play in shades and tones and dimension you have to have an understanding of the way the depth of shadow on a face can bring into the light a cheekbone or the line of a forehead. The way dazzling deep greens and magnificent muddy browns can let light yellows and whites shine all the brighter. I am drawn to art that is stark in its contrasts—that lets the shades and shadows speak the beauty of the light. This is why I take my writing classes to the museum to write—to see in concrete ways the techniques that artists use to create interest without creating conflict. The attention paid to the most ordinary of objects in a way that tells a story—as if you can look at a painting of a kitchen table, at the place setting laid out, waiting for a family to come in to dinner, and absorb the feeling of expectation and anticipation. Or loneliness and loss.
When we approach the world from the attitude of dramatic isolationism, we lose sight of the fact that the people we are interacting with are flesh and blood—we lose our empathy for one another. We forget that we are inherently worthy of respect, safety, goodness, and love. No matter what we look like, no matter what our beliefs, there needs to be a space for each of us to feel safe. To feel compassion. To feel love. But much of what we are taught comes straight from mass media, where the bigger the conflict, the more drama, the more shame—the more interesting the program. The higher the ratings.
We need to avoid falling into the trap of believing that conflict should be our goal. Thought-provoking, productive conversation should have room for diverse opinions and points of view—for more than someone who looks the way we look and feels the way we feel. We should be aiming for ‘big-tent’ sisterhood—a place where we support one another and try to develop empathy for the places that life has taken us. Sandra Day O’Connor said, “We don’t accomplish anything in this world alone…whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of our lives, and all the weaving of individual threads from one to another to create something.” When we understand the beautiful possibilities of this type of creating we can start to form relationships built on the strength of our differences instead of our sameness, a rich collage of community that speaks harmony out of the different notes we all sing.