Step One: Toss out your agenda

For the past ten years, I have been writing—and trying to write—about climate change. It’s a topic few of us really want to think about it but, as a Mom, I worried about what it would mean for my children’s future. Doing something felt like part of my job as a parent. And if I could inspire others to get engaged in climate action through my writing, I thought, that would be one, small good thing.

I was so wrong.

No matter how much I learned—about what can be done about climate change and, more significantly, how to use psychological, communications and brain science research to overcome the obstacles to our focusing on this issue—something in my writing just wasn’t working.

The problem, I discovered, was my motivation. By trying to inspire other people to get engaged in something that I was concerned about, I was caught in the trap of writing with an agenda. And while that might be appropriate for activist communications, it is not appropriate for personal essays, which is what interests me. There, few of us trust or, more fundamentally, like it.

To write effectively about any social issue (and perhaps especially one as controversial as this) I had to change my focus. I offer the three insights I uncovered here as guides to anyone else who might be struggling with a similar writing challenge.

1. Toss out your agenda.

I once met the poet Wendell Berry while reporting on a protest against mountaintop removal coal mining. It was a small, unusual protest. Berry and about three-dozen writers, farmers, former coal miners and activists were planning a sit-in in the Kentucky’s governor’s office. It was interesting, I thought, but from a practical standpoint, hopeless. So I asked Berry directly: “Do you really think this will make a difference?”

“I don’t know if it will make a difference,” he said. “But that is the wrong question. The right question is: Is it the right thing to do? I know it is the right thing to do.”

It was a simple, wise and empowering way to think about any action, including writing. And I took it to heart. Having an agenda—specifically, a goal of persuading others—meant my definition of success rested on something I could not control: how others responded. The better guide, I realized, was that simple question: Is it the right thing to do?

2. Be more humble.

To give myself a goal of influencing other people to take action on an issue I believed to be critically important made me feel as if I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. It also made me feel ridiculous, since I wasn’t, in fact, having an impact. This is a trap that both activists and people trying to write about social issues can easily fall into. It’s also as off-putting (and ineffective) as trying to address a relationship problem by trying to change your partner’s behavior instead of your own. If I hoped to write well and freely, I had to give up the arrogance that stemmed from focusing on other people and take a closer look at myself.

3. Be more honest.

In a moment of despair bred of one too many rejections, a wise friend asked me: Which is more important to you: To do something about climate change, or to be a writer? I didn’t have to pause to think. I am a writer, I said. And instantly, I realized I needed to approach the topic differently—not by trying to move other people to some desired end but by exploring as deeply as I could my own story about being a mother in the dawning age of climate change. This was a story of what it feels like to know that people we love are at risk of something we feel we cannot control. It meant diving deeper to be more honest, more real and more vulnerable.

So this is where I am at now. I do not yet have a finished product, or a sure-thing success story. But it is good to know the true story I want to tell—and to be reminded that a writer’s touchstone should never be persuasion but truth. And, for me, for now, that is enough. 

This post originally appeared on JaneFriedman.com

2 thoughts

  1. Thank you. This advice is so pertinent to me (another Berkeley mom trying to write about climate change, though I’m much newer to the game than you.) It reminds me of the old writing adage that in order to achieve universality in one’s writing, focus on the particular. In other words, if you want your story to resonate with–maybe even change–others, really delve into the specific details of your own experience.

    It also makes me think of a quote I read recently from George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It: How Our Brains Ignore Climate Change. The quote at first seems to recommend an opposite tack than the one you’ve adopted, but toward the end, supports it:

    “All of us have an immense capacity to influence the people around us. Because remember, the emotional side of our brain is constantly looking for signals of what the people around us are saying and doing, and that’s what we build our own values on.So I ask you to go out into your life and spread your conviction. Hold it up high and say ‘this is what I care about, and this is why it’s important to me’ — and show people above all the process by which you got there. Because these things don’t just suddenly happen to us. They come through a process of struggle, of uncertainty, sometimes of revelation, sometimes of things which open up new ways of thinking… Go out and make that difference.”

    Like

    1. So good to connect, Jessica! I checked out your site and see we are also Columbia alums. And I appreciate you sharing this quote and the insight that it at first sounds like an opposite path to mine but ultimately resonates. Best of luck in your journey, and I’m going to bet we connect in person one day.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s