Writing About Damaged Communities

People have been attempting to alter the course of human society through writing for centuries. Charles Dickens arguably brought the attention of the world to bear on the plight of the Victorian poor in Britain, and the newly awakened social consciences of his audiences help to push through various reforms which improved the lives of street urchins, prostitutes, and those in the workhouse. Or so the theory runs. According to some social historians, the ‘Dickens Effect’ can’t be credited with nearly as much social reform as we tend to believe. So can writing really be a means by which a troubled communal psyche may be healed?

‘Talking Cure’, ‘Writing Cure’

As with everything, it probably depends upon how it’s done. We all know that ‘talking cures’ can be hugely beneficial to certain people struggling with individual psychiatric issues. Writing can also help these people. It helps to express what we’re feeling and, by so doing, work our way towards the heart of the matter. While such things won’t work for everyone, for some they bring about revelations, self-awareness, and reveal the path to healing. Such ‘talking cures’ have been attempted on a communal level with things like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed people on both sides of the nation’s divides to come together and tell their stories – with no small degree of success in raising awareness of the other point of view, and healing rifts. However, it requires a good degree of self-awareness already on the part of the troubled society to set something like this up. Before we can reach this point, this awareness needs to be triggered. Some people feel that writing is a good way to go about this. And sometimes they’re right – but it has to be done properly…

Agenda VS Audience

A great many people have attempted to bring the fractures in a community’s psyche to the attention of those both within and without that community via writing about them. Fiction has since time immemorial served as a parabolic way in which to explore our personal and societal truths, foibles, and conventions. Indeed, many traditional shamans use the power of story and myth prominently in their healing ceremonies – by using well-known stories to illustrate the complexities of the human psyche, they can bring the unconscious into a state of self-awareness. And by using trusted characters as proxies for the suffering individual, they can guide the sufferer through their own psyche as they guide the character through the story. Some writers attempt to do this kind of thing on a wider scale through the power of agenda-driven fiction. The trouble with this, however, is that if the agenda is displayed too overtly, readers lose interest. Nobody likes to feel that they’re being accused, or preached to while they’re trying to enjoy a good book. A very skilled and popular writer may get away with wearing their agenda on their sleeve, but others will have to hone their craft to get their message across and raise societal self-awareness without alienating their audience.

Engage And Educate

Let’s go back to Dickens. Plenty of historians have, as we mentioned, pointed out that his influence upon reform may not have been as great as we assume. No single piece of reformist legislation can be traced back to him or his influence. However, we still believe him and his literature to have been a reasonably big factor in the social reforms of the nineteenth century. Why? Because his characters stick in our minds, as do his stories. The adjective ‘Dickensian’ is still used to describe a situation in which the poor are exploited and mistreated. Because of Dickens, we are aware of what went on back then, and fully believe in preventing such situations from arising again. While Dickens may not have directly influenced legislation at the time, he has certainly ensured that we are self-aware enough about the potential ‘Dickensian’ cracks in our societal psyche to defend ourselves against such horrors in future (or so we hope…). He did this by not only educating people regarding parlous situations about which they may simply not have known, but by weaving his social lessons into engaging stories borne by memorable (and loveable) characters. It is his style, and the ability of readers to engage with his tales and his characters which keeps them in the forefront of the public imagination – not the lessons he seeds them with. If, therefore, you wish to enact a ‘writing cure’ for your particular communal troubles, be sure that people are engaged enough with what you’re writing to develop that vital self-awareness you’re aiming for.