Monday, November 23, 2015

S. L. Wisenberg: Thou Shalt Not be Political

Thou Shall Not Be Political 


And lo there is a great fear among you
among ye gathered here
for it is said 
that practitioners 
of the art 
of creative nonfiction 
shall observe, they shall observe closely,
they shall note 
the dialogue of others
and the actions of others
that they may observe or
recollect such things
and they shall manufacture the braid
the collage the mosaic the lyric and the 
the hermit crab
the spiral going up
the spiral coming down 
the spiral spiraling out of control
and back
and the spirulina—
the spiritual
the essay and the memoir—the rant
the travelogue the commentary the parody
the satire the confession the diary entry 
the monologue the nature piece
the juxtaposition and the scene, 
yes, the scene,
most holy of holies: 
and the sketch
the review, the review-essay
the essay-review
the stunt, being one year of this, or another 
of that
the stunt double
the profile
the portrait
the double portrait
the notes 
the notations
the meditation the consolation
the column the feuilleton (how European)
the experiment, the aphorism
the list the letter 
the lyric and the flash
the mini and the maxi
the micro and the macro
the hoax the mystery
the dreamy mythic and the new mythic and
the proto-new-wave mythic
the personal reportage
the fanciful and the frothy
the sportive, the investigation—
if it’s literary,
and journalism—if it’s literary
the interview—if it’s literary
the puzzle—if it’s literary
the biography, the history, the 
if they’re literary. 


the polemical the diatribe-al
the argument-ical
the political, the contextual and theoretical
the Marxist or the
feminist, neither Third Wave nor Second.

the analysis of power
the radical
the partisan-ical
the fundamental
the conserva-cal
the liberal
the neo-revolutionary
the post-revolutionary, the pre-revolutionary
the nationalist or the universalist
the regionalist or
the anti-nationalistthe public
the intellectually public
the publicly intellectual

The ‘60s are over
and to be political is to be
too political.
To be political is to be
politically correct
politically incorrect.
To be political is to be
polemical. To be polemical
is too much 
to be.
In short,
to be political is to be


Your Muse is Not Neutral.

White is not the default race.

You can’t be neutral on a moving train.

If you’re not part of the solution
you’re part of the problem.

If you do not criticize the status quo
you are supporting it. 

You don’t live in a vacuum.

We all live inside of history 
whether we acknowledge it
not. It comes before 
and after us and we follow
its stream. 


Why we can’t write politically:

I’m not a political person.
I’m too white to be multicultural.
I don’t think that way.
Everything isn’t political.
I’m just writing about myself.
Politics will make my work
will corrupt
my finely honed
will turn it robotic
and besides
I’m middle class
or upper middle class
or lower upper class
or lower middle upper class
or middle upper upper class
or one percent of the 1 percent.
I have no right
to be political.


Every ten years or so
I hear the same thing
from this former student
from a beginning journalism class,
back when first years were called
Every ten years or so 
he thanks me
because I said, 
If you state the race
of someone in your story,
you should state the race
of EVERYONE in your story.
If you identify the blacks
the Hispanics the Chinese
the Asians the African-Americans
the Chicanos the Native Americans
the East Asian Indians &
so on.
if you identify them by their color
their background their background color
if you identify them
and not the people who are
then you are saying,
White is the default race.
White is the normal race.
White is the standard race.
White is Us and everyone else
is Other.
You are saying all that
without saying
a thing.


I want to talk about
Marxism and feminism,
about how you can use
a Marxist or a feminist
to evaluate your work.
To see it in new light. To identify the power
relations—to note who has power and who
does not, to identify class, not necessarily class
struggle, but class and the status quo—
to call attention to patriarchy—
but I will ease into
by talking about


My friend the writer Natalia Rachel Singer
uses this exercise:
Write a first sentence about the year you
were born and link it with something
cultural/historical/political. Or link a 
personal event with a public event.

Her examples:
“In the year 1908, Pierre Bonnard painted
‘The Bathroom’ and my mother was born.”
—Mary Gordon, “Still Life”

“When the stock market reached its peak, my
mother came to town to buy me a bra.”
—Natalia (herself)

This is from a book I am writing
about the American South: “I used to place myself 
like this: I was born 10 years after
the end of the war (for me, The War is World 
War II). Only recently have I 
considered: I was born in a 
segregated hospital in Houston, Texas, five months
after Emmett Till’s tortured
body was pulled out of the
Tallahatchie River in 
Mississippi, twelve days
after Rosa Parks refused to 
give up her seat on a 
Montgomery, Alabama, bus.”

In this way
I am changing identities—moving
from an almost-victim
of genocide—if my grandparents
had not immigrated
to the US. In this way
I am moving from a blameless
role to that of—potential
oppressor: a Southern white
in the age
Jim Crow. A Southern white
woman led to the lynching
of Emmett Till—he either looked her
in the eye or
whistled at her
or else whistled as a way
to keep
from stuttering. The Chicago
kid did not know
his place. And the
white man 
had to teach him a


I read a fine
about a small
animal. The essay expanded
to embrace the notion of 
boundaries and ambiguity
and the nature of time.
The writer said, The habitat
of this small creature
is disappearing.
If the writer had used
a Marxist
or was informed by
the writer might have
Why is the habitat
from the munching and
gulping of the place
that this animal—this frog
or turtle or bird this
otter or salamander
or fish—
Where is the
unseen POWER?


This is Rebecca Solnit on the 
California Gold Rush museums. 
“When you tour the museums of the 
Gold Country, as the Sierra Nevada
foothills are still called, you see
children dressing up in historical
costumes and playing at panning for gold—“
is pure description, eye witness. But
the rest of the sentence
which I’ll read in a second,
is Opinion,
is Political
conveys Attitude
it enlarges the topic
and more rings
is the rest of the sentence:
“but it might be more educational for
them to play at testing for clean water,
imitating mercury-poisoning madness,
reading a corporate prospectus, or 
conducting a wildlife survey. More
educational, but less fun….” 
[“The Price of Gold, the Value of
Water,” in Storming the Gates of 
Paradise: Landscapes for Politics]


Solnit considers:
WHO has the power and
who is making the decisions and
who benefits? questions that can
overwhelm. You don’t have to answer
everything yourself. In The Adventures of
Cancer Bitch
I quoted a blog
I blame the 
patriarchy. I
quoted a book
that criticized pink-
ribbon culture. In my notes
in back—I love my notes
in back—I gave proof of
disparities in the death rates of
black women
and white women
with cancer. In the notes
I gave proof
for my claims about
the link between cancer
and the degradation of
the environment.


In my book I wrote
about gender. My aim
was to begin with the
personal and expand
to the political. I wrote:
“Once in high school a
girl looked at my fingers
and exclaimed: ‘You have men’s
hands’ because I had hair growing
on them. Hair that I must have
bleached at least once
when I was bleaching the
on my entire
arms. “We bleached
and shaved—‘a way of lying
about our bodies,’
Adrienne Rich was 
writing and thinking
at that time, though
in my teens I’d never heard of
her. It was female to shave our legs
and underarms, but still
shaving was something we did
so we wouldn’t look
manly.” In my notes
in back I quote
Rich: “We have been expected
to lie with our bodies: to bleach,
redden, unkink or curl our
hair, pluck eyebrows, shave
armpits, wear padding
in various places or lace
ourselves, take little
clothes that emphasized our


Because you have choice. Because there is a
crossroads. Because you can describe what is
right there in front of you. Or
you can Expose with Exposition
you can Expand
with Expansion
from a tiny circle
to rings and rings
of concentric circles
from it.
Then you can go
and deep
and deeper.
As deep
as you


S.L. Wisenberg performed this piece at the NonfictioNow 2015 session, "What Does Theory Have to Do with It?" Her most recent book is The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (U of Iowa Press) and she's working on an essay collection about the U.S. South. She is an editor and coach for writers near and far.

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