Writing is a type of freedom. It allows us to choose which portions of the world to highlight and which ones we want to discard. Telling stories also forces us to create boundaries. We can’t focus on everything, can’t follow the lives of every single character, can’t describe the layer of dirt on every doorstep. Instead we decide what matters, or at the very least, we decide what matters to us.
Writer and activist Susan Sontag (1933-2004) had much to say on those points. Jonathan Miller once described Sontag as “probably the most intelligent woman in America,” and though the accolade continues to haunt her memory, Sontag was much more than simply intelligent. In an article for The Guardian, Suzie Mackenzie describes her as simultaneously bossy, insulting, dismissive, playful, spontaneous, and as “one of the warmest, funniest, most generous, and silliest people I have ever known.” Perhaps Sontag’s multiplicities aided her as a writer. Her writing against the Vietnam War, her critiques of American society, and her discussions of art suggests that she saw the world as a complex place. It would take some doing to unweave all of life’s intricacies.
Sontag devoted much of her writing to discussing the work that writers must do to unravel these issues. In At the Same Time, a collection of her essays and speeches, she writes:
“To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.
To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.
When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.
The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.
But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.”
Here, Sontag asserts that the way storytellers sift through that information is related to morality and ethics. Not all stories are equal. Not all stories matter. Someone needs to look at them and decide what is most vital to tell. At the same time, however, there is the terrible likelihood that by focusing on certain stories rather than others, writers are ignoring some aspects of the world. Since not all people have the opportunity to tell these stories – women and minorities are still highly underrepresented in the literary world for example – large chunks of humanity fall through the cracks.
Though these statements are all relevant for writers, they also help explain how we process any type of art and, indeed, how we process our lives and the world around us. We constantly curate our own experiences of the world, and we do much of this work subconsciously. People can only process so much information, after all, before they start making bad decisions and become unable to handle new input. It makes perfect sense that telling stories would rely on the same mechanisms.
All of this leaves storytellers with a single question: how do we make sure that the stories we tell truly are more important than those other stories we could be telling?
Maybe you’ll be able to come up with an easy answer. I certainly can’t.
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For more on Susan Sontag, see:
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Image Attribution: Juan Fernando Bastos, “Susan Sontag,” Gay & Lesbian Review, 2009.