High Stakes Motivational Writing
Are You Looking to Inspire Improvement or Just Seeking a Soapbox?
I really struggled while writing this post. It was nearly done and ready to publish when recent events in Minneapolis and elsewhere became increasingly juxtaposed with it in my thoughts. Previously, I’d talked about the motivational power of literature, but this time I intended to deal a little more with the temptations of the “Dark Side” — the pitfalls of preaching, telling, and being perceived as “getting on a soapbox” — but current events have shone an increasingly intense spotlight on issue-based writing and the vital need to just stand up and speak out sometimes. What I was about to explore and question had suddenly become much more pressing and relevant. My initial approach pled for a change of direction.
I recently read a 2014 blog post by author and composer Rebecca Belliston, in which she interviewed her father, LDS author Gerald N Lund. Amidst the excellent counsel that he shared, I rediscovered this quote from spy-novel author, Eric Ambler:
“A novel, whatever else it may do for the reader spiritually, emotionally, or intellectually, ought to entertain; otherwise it is just a tract.” — Eric Ambler
When I’d first read this quote, years ago, I interpreted it to mean that all writing needs to be enjoyable or amusing in some way, or else the writer is just lecturing the reader. However, as Gerald Lund points out, the word “entertain” comes from the Greek root tenere, which means to seize, grab, or hold fast. Often, this is done using humor or thrilling content, but there are many ways that authors and poets can grab their readers and hold them fast, including motivational tools like the ones we discussed last time.
When we write poems or stories or songs, or paint pictures, or make movies, and we have the objective of inspiring a change in the hearts and minds of our audience, we move beyond mere entertainment, and potentially step into the realm of what some would call, “agenda”. I say “mere” entertainment because providing amusement and enjoyment is a powerful mode of persuasion that few people would protest and oppose.
It’s one thing to conventionally “entertain” our audience, but when we come to the actual threshold of inviting and inspiring changes in their behavior or beliefs, some readers may get defensive. Fans and viewers are often thrilled to find their favorite artists publicly share their beliefs and opinions, but then rise in wrath and resentment when other celebrities and artists (or sudden-former-favorites) “stray from their lane” and “abuse their platform” by disagreeing with them. They may question the authority of artists to lecture their audience on sensitive matters.
A homespun metaphor I first heard decades ago seems apropos here: “Hit birds flutter.” Conventional wisdom proposes that those who feel the sting of truth most keenly are likely to be the ones who protest against it the loudest, yet need to hear it the most.
Sometimes Truth Hurts, But “It Has To Hurt If It’s To Heal.”
Sometimes, the truth hurts. However, the book (and movie) The Neverending Story contains a line of wisdom that we all would do well to remember: After Atreyu loses his horse, Artax, and escapes from the Swamps of Sadness, Falcor the luckdragon takes him to Urgl the healer. When she asks Atreyu how he feels, Urgl is dismayed to hear that his wounds aren’t causing much pain. “It has to hurt if it’s to heal,” she says. As we have seen for many years, ignoring and denying unpleasant realities, nurturing enmity and promoting division, and maintaining the status quo have only postponed the healing that must come. Through pain, we learn the lessons we need to become better and to leave past mistakes behind us.
Truth May Hurt, But It Doesn’t Harm
Thus, the dilemma. Truthspeaking, in art and actuality, is not always tame and docile. It can sometimes sting and spark resistance. However, just because the truth may hurt to hear, that doesn’t mean it has to harm. Pure truth never does. There is a difference between being honest, and brutally honest. The pain of truth and learning, like the pain of growth and exercise, only lasts for a season and leads to greater strength and virtue. The harmful use of truth is no better than a deliberate falsehood. Both invite resistance and leave needless scars and brokenness that require much greater time and mediating intervention to heal. In the end, the necessary pain of healing is not avoided; it is only postponed until the pain of needless harm has been addressed.
In my prior post, I outlined several characteristics of writing that sparks and inspires positive change; but the changes brought about by such tools can also be negative ones. In such cases, authors can create bent and warped stories instead of whole and healing ones. Such twisted tales prey upon our passions, emotions, and desires; inflame our anger and prejudice; and lead us down “forbidden paths” until we become lost. By misuse of polished style and technique, these tools of motivation can turn darkness into light and make wrong appear right.
Thankfully, most agenda-driven writing does not descend to the level of outright propaganda or pornography. Yet, the temptation persists to make our stories overtly “about” our message when that message is close to our hearts. That is why our literary methods and motives are so vital. When we “tell” instead of “show”, or make our message merely an expression of our own pain, we have a greater tendency to be preachy, self-righteous, and “ruffle feathers”. Truthspeaking is vitally important, especially in today’s climate of division and resistance to the truth. When we show and reveal true principles, the still, small, voice of truth speaks for itself without having to grind the message into the face of the reader and invite rejection. As they say, “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.”
Emotional methods of reaching out to audiences are powerful forces for both good and ill, but they must be earned and deserved. Please, no needless “blind lame puppies on the freeway in the rain” — such exaggerated pathos and drama can descend into what my high-school drama teacher called “sentimentalist drivel” and weaken the impact of the truths you seek to share.
The Big Questions
In my first post for Kentstead Media, I talked about “conscious intent” and I said, “When your conscious intent is to inspire and uplift your readers, you feel a natural responsibility to get it right. You want your truth to be clearly understood.”
Throughout this current post, a question has lingered on the sidelines: Should we go into the writing of a story with the goal in mind of getting onto a proverbial soapbox; in non-fiction books and fiction, is it appropriate to have an overt agenda?
The answer, I hope, is becoming obvious: your “conscious intent” is your agenda.
It’s not about whether or not you have an agenda, it’s about what that agenda seeks to accomplish, how you hope and seek to advance it, and what your end result will be. Is it morally, ethically, humanely, and truthfully appropriate to have a purpose and agenda in what you write? It depends:
If your objective is to advance and speak truth, your methods are worthy and inspiring, and your result is to make yourself and others better (even if it hurts to become so), then I am with you.
If your objective is to assault the truth, your methods are manipulative and abusive to my spirit, and your goal is to divide and do harm, then I will oppose you side by side with other Truthspeakers.
To put it another way, writer and filmmaker James Fleck has stated: “If religious-minded people can’t use the media effectively, then a-religious and anti-religious factions will form the value systems of the world.” In quoting Mr. Fleck, I don’t intend to say that only religious content should be shared; but his point is sound. If the goodness that faith has to offer the world is not spoken and promoted, then only its opposite has a voice. If only racism and division is heard in the media, then unity and love will never take hold. If positive and uplifting “agendas” are not published with love, then only those of hate and destruction will have the stage. That is why we must create reading experiences that, even if they do not directly target the choices and changes provoked by bent and twisted stories, at least provide a safe source of ultimately uplifting content that fills the world with light and Truth.
Literature has a long history of “agenda” books and stories that have motivated change in some way, sometimes becoming lightning rods for controversy in the process. Such books from our past still inspire debate and conversation. More recent stories powerfully address current issues, and tales of the future will surely continue in this tradition.
So, what is your objective — your conscious intent — your agenda? Do you write to inspire new thoughts that may change the world? Do you create with the goal of causing discomfort and exposing falsehood? Or will you set out to seize your reader and “merely” provide an entertaining (gripping) escape? In one of her poems, the Canadian author Margaret Atwood has written, “A word after a word after a word, is power.” Whatever your purpose is, choose your words well and use them worthily. The power of your voice, in print or in the air, can ring from sideline or soapbox — and both are valid platforms.