Possibly Inappropriate

If you haven’t caught the latest Canlit controversy, go Google. Look up The Writers Union of Canada and “The Appropriation Prize.” I’ll wait.

I may be the worst person to talk about cultural appropriation, because frankly, I’m not much of an activist. I’m more of a sedentarist, really. (Did that pun make sense?)

Owing to a pretty privileged life and having not had significant exposure to major publishing, cultural appropriation as it affects me, personally, to date, seems to largely boil down to a lot of eye-rolling and general irritation. (I swear, if I read one more story about a magical spiritual experience in India….) But I get that it affects other people and other cultures much more deeply and painfully. Maybe I don’t get it on a gut-wrenching level, but I can see that this has happened to other people.

Here’s the part I don’t get.

In all the crying and hand-wringing over “I’m a writer, and it’s my job to put myself in other people’s shoes, and why can’t I write about whatever I want to?”, who exactly is holding an actual gun to people’s heads and saying “Writing about a marginalized culture, eh? You feeling lucky, punk?”

No one is actually stopping anyone from writing these things. Hell, by most reports, no one is actually stopping anyone from publishing these things, either. Write whatever the fuck you want, there’s no pen and paper embargo preventing you from doing so.

But, more and more, people are saying, hey, stop that. You are hurting me with your words. You should not hurt people with your words. You should be careful with those things. Maybe instead try writing things that don’t use and damage and hurt people, mmkay?

Is that so terrible?

I mean yes, there are other power dynamics to this, and people are losing plum jobs because when the are in a position where they get to amplify certain voices, they are picking (and sometimes celebrating) the ones that are hurting other people…. but at the base level, we’re still down to looking at the words. Which ones did a writer choose?

Seriously, is all of this because some people want to write what they want to write without being held responsible for the words that they put out into the world?

They don’t want to face criticism for what they’re doing? (Clearly none of these people have a mother like my mother.)

I’m trying to understand who writes and publishes so cavalierly that they don’t understand that words have power. Art has power. Why else do we do this if we don’t think words can do something real? So when we use that power–even unintentionally–and hurt other people with it, why disbelieve that the words hurt?

Like, I get that nobody likes to be told their wrong. And the 140 characters on Twitter from people who are so damn fed up with all this that maybe they don’t have time or energy to stay it nicely anymore can be harsh. It’s upsetting. I can see why people get huffy or defensive…. heck, if I were in the midst of a tweetstorm, that would probably be my first reaction, the reaction that’s emotional and easy instead of the more reflective “Damn. I fucked up.”

Nobody likes to put their precious words out there and get told that they used their words wrong. In writing this post and putting it out there, maybe someone is going to reply and tell me that I’m privileged and naive and that I used my words wrong. But I’m still responsible for my words.

And it continues to puzzle me, in all of the “Isn’t this censorship?” and “Writers can imagine themselves in other people’s shoes” and “This my artistic choice!” You are being held responsible for your words. You may be shocked to discover that your responsibilities are much larger and more wide-reaching then you realized when you hunched over your laptop and first tapped them out. Your use of words might result in major consequences for your life. This may suck.

But you do not have a special calling that absolves you from responsibility for your words.

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Talent and a buck-fifty will get you a cup of coffee.

This is going to be one of those weird rambling posts but bear with me.

We recently got a keyboard. The piano-like kind, not the typing one. My partner has decided that he wants to try and revive his piano playing, and after tinkering around on it, I decided that I want to try and teach myself to play a little bit.

First, about him. My partner apparently achieved some ridiculously high level of musical proficiency through formal lessons when he was young, but he’s about the least musical person I’ve met. He sings completely wrong notes and can’t hear it. He has no rhythm. He doesn’t even listen to music.

The thing is, though, he passed the same music tests as people with an ear and a talent for music.

Now, about me. I did a big six weeks of piano when I was ten, and a couple of years of Viola in junior high. Nothing since. I don’t have much of an ear; I’ve been able to pick out a melody or two, but while I can hear when something is wrong, I can’t figure out how to make it right. I like to sing, though I am not good at it. I want to figure out how to play a couple of songs, but I have no interest in formal training or practice.

One thing I’ve found is that it’s so much easier to learn piano now than it used to be. It’s easy to find music for things you like in varying degrees of complexity. There are thousands of videos that can show you how something is played, apps teach you songs Guitar Hero-style. With some diligence, I can learn to play something that sounds like a song, without even really (re)learning how to read music.

What the fuck does all this have to do with writing?

First, look at him. Without talent, it’s possible to learn to play well through nothing but work. The same goes for writing. If you are sitting there wondering if you are imaginative enough, talented enough, creative enough, to really make it as a writer, stop right there. You can be good just by learning your craft and working on it.

You may not be a literary genius, but you know, literary genius isn’t clear until someone first gets through all the working of learning to be good. So put aside whether or not you are enough, and get to work.

Next, look at me. With a little bit of work, these days it’s not too hard for me to fake having some musical ability, even though anyone who knows anything about music could quickly see that I don’t really know shit. That’s also true of writing. These days, anyone can fill a bunch of pages with words and self-publish and be an author. But that doesn’t mean that they know their shit.

I’m not knocking self-publishing because there’s still a place for it, much like there’s still a place for people like me who want to learn to play a song or two without actually being any kind of a musician.

If you’re a writer watching people who don’t know what they are doing, and watching other people heap praise and kudos on them, don’t despair over the state of the world. It’s easier to learn to play a song. It’s easier to put a book out.

But to write well is still a matter of putting the work into it.

(Unlike I did with this blog post.)