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Added: Monday 12th June, 2017

Life writing in troubled times

Dr. Katy Massey thinks about the act of writing in the current political climate

Brexit, Trump, terrorist outrages, last week’s rushed general election – the ongoing whirl of major news events has left me feeling over whelmed by the world. My unbidden thoughts have become troublesome. ‘Who needs another pointless arts project?’ I’ve moaned, which is a problem because I run arts projects for a living.

Even my genre, ‘life writing,’ has seemed more than a little self-indulgent. Life writing takes true life events and turns them into captivating storytelling. But, in an age of information overload, I am sceptical. Who’s to say what’s ‘truth’ and what is simply an alternative version?

But truthfulness is the essence of my new life writing project with New Writing South, launching on Wednesday (14th June). ‘Who are we now?’ explores the value of life writing as a tool in troubled times, using it as a space to share life experiences, and through this create understanding and promote unity. This is no place for cynicism. But.

When the TV coverage became a blur - of blood-stained pavements and parents wide-eyed with shock, damp reporters in caramel macs, carpets of flowers, statements and speculation -  I switched off. Then, in its stead, a sense of helplessness kicked in. A sense of, why bother?

I couldn’t help asking: In a world of fake news and echo chambers, of Instagram and Facebook, is there any point in life writing? Why bother setting down what really happened in one solitary life, when it is just a pinpoint on the huge canvas of human suffering? In fact, the more I knew, the more useless I felt.

I am aware of an irony here. Why is it, when our freedoms are most under threat, should writing about everyday life – which is, after all, the expression of those freedoms - feel so pointless?

Like an invisible drum, our relationships to friends, family members and strangers bear the impact of horrible events. I had begun to feel that the skin of this fine drum - a skin comprising the entanglements, threads and networks that connect each of us to the other, made of the love alive in what academics and journalist may call society - I felt this skin began to sag, to lose tension with repeated strikes. And with this tension, I suspected something important, something vital, had been lost.

This feeling of loss may impact more strongly if you are not white, or not of a mainstream religion, or part of another minority group. On top of the terror, the grief, you may begin to miss your place in the everyday flow of life, as the tender strings of belonging and security which tied you to your home are loosened. If this has happened to you, look for the understandable fear of the wider population being manipulated and directed toward you or your community first as blame, then intolerance.

Eventually, the humanity alive in a piece of art changed my mind. I happened to hear a new sound work by Abbas Zahedi, a British-Iranian artist based in London. The soundtrack captured the feeling of Zahedi’s London home: snatched words, moments of encounter, laughter, bustle (and much more – for the work is much richer than this short description). 

And I realised that I was I wrong about the drum. In fact, I had been horribly arrogant. Because my relationship with the world had been shaken, I had assumed the drum irretrievably broken. But I had simply grown deaf to the compassionate detail of everyday life inside my bubble. In fact, the rhythm and hum of human lives lived alongside each other rolls inexorably on. The drum is the reason. It is the ‘why’ artists do. 

Because… under the political rhetoric, human nature shines inexorably through. Traffic, chat, toil, love, these are the sounds Zahedi’s world. And mine. And yours. 

Because… every tear shed for a childless mother will be matched by another generous drop for the compassion shown by a brave, solitary stranger in the direst of straights, or a whole city’s world-chiming resilience. 

Because… all of us are what we do, and continue to do. To spend a bit of time writing down your truth is an act of resistance in a confusing and brutal world. 

So, this morning, with sounds captured by Zahedi still ringing in my eyes, I re-joined the fight against damaging lies one word at a time. 

I hope you have enjoyed reading it. And I hope you are keen to hear more about ‘Who are we now?’. This new life writing project will be launched on 14th of June, so please pop by New Writing South offices between 6pm and 8pm to have a glass of wine and have a chat. 

If you have something true you’d like to write about – especially if its inspired by the political and social upheavals of the last year or so – then come to the free workshop beforehand too (between 4 and 6pm, email jade@newwritingsouth.com for a place). Eventually, writings will be collected into a modern-day version of a 17th century pamphlet, available in print and online (See tangledroots.eu for more details). I look forward to meeting you.