Writer’s Desk: Look Around, Write That

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Nina Simone, c. 1982 (photo by Roland Godefroy)

Nina Simone famously said this:

An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times … We will shape and mold this country, or it will not be molded and shaped at all anymore … How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?

There are writers whose hackles will bristle at the mere suggestion that they have a “duty” of any kind. That idea has been abused, of course. Some would make writers produce only government-glorifying propaganda. Others would snark that any writing which falls outside strict revenue-producing genre parameters is navel-gazing artsy nonsense.

But listen to Miss Simone. When she talks about an artist’s duty, that could be taken as reflecting an activist’s sensibility. Which is obviously not everybody’s cup of tea—though it would be difficult to argue that our society needs more escapist entertainment.

What she’s saying here is keep your damn eyes open. It matters. Look around. Listen. Feel. Use that when you write, not just what’s in your head.

Because if your writing doesn’t reflect the world around us in some small way, then truly what is the point? As Capote sniped at Kerouac, that’s not writing, that’s typing.

(h/t: Jenna Wortham)

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