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Part-Time Writer: Affect the World

Iceberg partners at their (previous) day jobs.

For more posts in the ‘Part-Time Writer’ series, click here.

Stories can change the world.

They let us know what has happened, they help us imagine and empathize, they give us a window into what might be. They entertain us, make us feel better –– or worse –– when we need them to. They bring communities together, change perceptions, give hope, or stoke fear.

Any story has the power to do this. Every story ever written probably has the potential to change the reader, the reader’s perceptions, and as such, the world.

But if you’re the sort of person who wants to have an impact on something happening in the world right now, a story may not be the tool you’re looking for.

We live in contested times. You don’t have to try very hard to find people who disagree with each other, and who are convinced that those they disagree with are evil. Stories have the ability to help resolve this –– the reason I love science fiction as a genre is because it can remove people from their current context, situate the issues they’re debating in a neutral space, and give them a chance to identify a true solution that’s free of cultural and social baggage.

Of course, this is how Star Trek built such a loyal and passionate community: it was a show about solving problems and respecting different points of view.

I know many writers who hold strong views about the state of the world today. I know people who self-identify as being on the left, others who are very principled members of the right. They have an enormous amount in common with each other, but that only becomes apparent when you move certain conversations to neutral ground.

At their core, it seems to me that most people just want things to be fair. The trick is making sure that each side understands how the other comes to their definition of fairness, what they include in their fairness framework, and to discuss whether pieces are left out.

You can do that in a story –– assuming you try.

The problem comes when you try to turn a story into a fast-acting tool of change. It’s an understandable instinct; time is tight, the world is at risk, so use the story to discredit those who disagree with you, and present your side as most virtuous. Then, when people read the story, they will be swayed to your point of view. Surely this way you can change the world?

Well, propaganda works, sometimes. Unfortunately, it tends to become an artifact of the time in which it is born, and most writers I know want to deliver narratives with a much more lasting quality. Those rich, thoughtful, often subversive stories offer so much, but they’re rarely configured to be a quick antidote to any issues in the world today. So for a writer who sees the world going wrong, and wants the tools to help, are stories enough?

Not for me, which is the biggest reason I’m a part-time writer.

Whether you’re talking about altering the grand sweep of human civilization or the simple act of helping someone in need, you can have a much more immediate impact by getting up every morning and going to your job than you can by diving into a fictional world.

You will become a more credible and compelling storyteller because you’ll have real-world experience in the things you care about. You’ll have a better sense of what works and what doesn’t. You’ll know, without a doubt, that you’ve done something that truly affects things that matter to you. And you’ll get paid –– perhaps not much, but still –– to do all of these things.

The fiction you write will be one of your legacies to the world. Perhaps, like Homer’s epics, it will outlast not only you but the civilization in which we currently live. Future readers may try to extrapolate what the world was like in the time when you wrote, but in the end your work will be remembered best for the quality of its characters and story.

Your daily actions will be another of your other legacies to the world. Those actions can have an immediate impact, and as a part-time writer, you have time and incentive to make sure their impact is meaningful. Search for a job that teaches you something, empowers you, and allows you to make a difference. Not every job is like that, but use your skills as a writer to hunt for one that does, and don’t give up.

Most importantly, don’t despair that you’re working as well as writing. At the beginning of this series I cited the lament of the New York Times that part-time writers couldn’t make much of a living. Think of it differently: part-time writers are making a living, while earning extra money to tell stories about that living and the way they see the world.

We’re a fortunate bunch, and I’m grateful.