‘Why Writing Matters’ Panel: Responsibilities of the Writer

I’ve been looking forward to the Emerging Writers’ Festival for months and the conference was great. I wish I was physically well enough to join in on the social aspects of the festival, like going to the festival hub at Thousand Pound Bend to chat with other writers. I’m not normally a social person (I’m working on it, I swear!) and being weak from a weird cold makes me even more anti-social.

I enjoyed all the panels I attended. Some of them were quite dense like the discussion on Literary Criticsm. Others are more accessible, like the one about writing residencies and fellowships. My favourite one was “Why Writing Matters”. I expected it to be a general chat about why we should write but it turned out to be a rather fiery discussion about the political aspects of writing: the responsibilities of the writer and the ethics of writing.

The panel was really diverse: Ellena Savage, Jacinda Woodhead, Ginger Briggs and Peter Polites on the panel with Ali Alizadeh chairing.

It started off as a general overview of why it’s important to write, and touched on issues like giving a voice to those who are unable to tell their story and privacy issues when writing stories about people from marginalised communities. Peter Polites said it is a problem that some people are unable to tell their stories and we need to question why they’re unable to tell their own stories and we need to do something about it. He then emphasised we have no right to tell other people’s stories. I agree with this to an extent.

Everyone should have the opportunity to express themselves and tell their stories, but it doesn’t take into account of the people who can’t, and how they can benefit from having their story told by someone else. Is it an issue about literacy or opportunity? Is the community so oppressed that telling their stories can put their lives in danger? Giving oppressed groups the skills and platform to express themselves is an opportunity to highlight and challenge their oppression. Whether we’re giving them the skills to tell their stories or we’re telling the stories on their behalf, it is an opportunity to be heard and prompt change. The experiences of refugees are rarely published to stop us from identifying with them.

Ideally, it would be great if everyone could tell their own stories. What about people who are no longer alive? Ginger Briggs’ book Staunch is a biography of a man called Andy, who was in and out of institutions and foster homes. Ginger’s friend asked her to write a biography on Andy, who had passed away, creating an opportunity help others understand him and his situation.

Similarly, My partner is doing a Phd on Chinese cabinet workers in Melbourne during the early 1900s who went on strike to demand equality. This story is important because it challenges the stereotype that all Chinese workers in the 1900s were passive scabs. Telling this story proves not only were they not scabs, but shows there is a history of strong union activism amongst the Chinese community in Australia that is unheard of today.

If we take the position that we shouldn’t tell other people’s stories then there’s no progress, understanding or knowledge and we don’t learn shit.

The problem with telling stories on behalf of people is the writer has power over the person they’re writing a story about, as well as the story. The final story is separated from the original and becomes the writer’s version of it. In turn, the “glory” of the story fixates on the writer, reflecting a relationship similar to a film maker and their doco subject. Is this another kind of oppression, that the stories themselves are at the mercy of the writer? Perhaps this is what Polites was trying to address, give back control to the person telling the story by providing them the tools to do it on their own. This can explain why he doesn’t think anyone has the right to tell another person’s story. Perhaps we need to see more collaboration between the writer and the story teller?

Anyway, that’s just my 2 cents (HOW DO YOU END BLOG POSTS?).

What are your thoughts?

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3 thoughts on “‘Why Writing Matters’ Panel: Responsibilities of the Writer

  1. In ancient Greece, for example, Socrates would have been a hero or villain depending on whether you asked Plato or Diogenes respectively. So when it’s said that, to the extent that it doesn’t impinge on other voices and rights, people have the right to liberty of speech, the main point that I take from this is that everyone has unbiased (or minimally biased) access to a given voice or voices.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for your thoughts. I think we also need to take into account why someone is telling this story and what they aim to get out of it, especially if it’s not their own story. Like a lot of things, it’s subject to the circumstances. I do want to see a more collaborative process where everyone’s skills are shared and the end “product” is a joint effort. I think groups like Sweatshop are trying to encourage this.

      1. There wasn’t much at their about page. However, even though I tend to think more individualistically, based on what you’ve said, it makes sense that collaboration could presumably allow for greater input from disparate groups in societies and its acknowledgement.

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