At the recent Straw Dog Writers’ Guild roundtable on writing for social justice, we were asked to consider our biggest fear in writing work that challenges the status quo. Make the fear a character, Elli Meeropol suggested, and have a conversation with it.
Primed by reading and hearing aloud the words of Patricia Smith’s poem “The Undertaker,” My Fear asks me straightaway, “Who did the poem bring to mind?”
“Darryl,” I reply. “Anthony. Saint. Carl.” All Black men I’ve known personally who died violently and way too early. The memory of Carl is especially haunting, as of the four, he was the youngest and his was the only funeral I attended. His face in death registered a look of surprise and worry that no undertaker’s skill could disguise. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Our writing time up, we share our thoughts. In this group of a dozen or so people I’ve mostly just met for the first time, there’s caution in the air. We’re expressing our doubts, our suspicions, our wounds. We choose words carefully. We listen closely. I don’t share Carl, Saint, Anthony, and Darryl; rather, I speak of the hesitation I’ve felt contemplating writing the story of an enslaved woman in 1700s upstate New York. We barely scratch the surface, but it is such an important surface to scratch.
I find myself thinking back on the discussion frequently, and also encountering the same questions in other contexts. In a fiction writers group on Facebook, a White writer asks for feedback about whether she should write a flash fiction piece she is imagining from the point of view of a Black woman experiencing microaggression. Most respondents agree that she should, taking care to do her research thoroughly, write honestly, and seek beta readers who are women of color.
A few days later I happen upon J. D. Myall’s interview of novelist Nic Stone in an old issue of Writers’ Digest. Stone quotes Toni Morrison, who offers a standard: “The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.”
I’m looking forward to our next roundtable. I hope we can deepen the scratch, and continue to explore how we can best contend with fears—our own and those of others—and test our power as writers.