Writing Right with Dmitri: Changing the Conversation
This week's rant…er, advice column…er, rambling set of tips and queries is sort of a follow-up to last week's musings on audience sympathies. You see, in the intervening week, I've been writing modern world history lessons for high schoolers. I covered topics as diverse as 'How bad was Stalin?' to 'Why should we study history?' (a personal favourite) to 'Can one person make a difference in the field of human rights?' (The answer, obviously, is yes, but you'll have to quit your day job.)
While composing this week's Post Quiz, which is about Nobel Peace laureates, I had occasion to go hunting in the Edited Guide. What I found was somewhat encouraging: we actually have Entries on these topics:
But just think: how many Entries do we have about war? Hm. And then there's the question of, 'If we aren't writing about peace/justice/human rights, what are we writing about?'
I think you know the answer to that. Check the Guide: we're writing about books, computer games, films, computer games, leisure activities, computer games, babies, and computer games… Okay, I exaggerate. But not about the computer games. And all of those topics are, no doubt, interesting enough to warrant our attention in moderation.
But what we talk about, and write about, reflects our real interests in this world. If we don't write about people who make a difference – and if we find that subject a major yawn – then the chances are 10-to-1, say I, that we're not really into that sort of thing. We know that a certain Researcher is a major booster for his native island. Why? Because he won't stop telling us about it. And we love it, and him, and are proud that we now know more than is reasonable for a non-resident to know about the Isle of Wight. Thanks to the Edited Guide, you all know more about Pittsburgh than you ever asked for. Hey, it's an interesting place. This area also spawned a comparatively large number of otherwise humble individuals who tried to make a difference. (That reminds me, Ida Tarbell, the bane of Rockefeller, was born in Erie County…)
So if we aren't writing about it, we aren't interested in it. Or we think it's not worth our time.
What are you saying? I hear you ask. Are you trying to get us to make a superhuman effort to be Goody Two-Shoeses? Are you demanding Uplift and suchlike? Do you wish us to renounce our Zarquon-given rights to be snarky and frivolous and talk trivia to death?
Not a bit of it, my friends! If anything, I am demanding more snark, more frivolity, and even more trivia. Just…
…change the subject. We can talk about music. Or computer games. Or ridiculous publicity stunts. Or whatever. But, just as Bluebottle keeps bringing it back to the Isle of Wight, let's keep bringing the subject back to where it matters: our Number One concern in this world.
What's wrong, and who's trying to fix it.
Does this cover…
- …pop culture? Sure, it does. 'Is this stuff I'm watching/listening to/passively consuming good or bad for my brain/the environment/the future of humankind?' is a question you wanted to address, anyway.
- …historical oddities? Of course. Because those weird little factoids help us understand what those people who were messing around on the planet before we got here thought the heck they were doing. (Don't try to parse that sentence, move on quickly.) As the students will hopefully write, 'We need to learn history so we figure out what not to do.'
- …talking about our heroes? Natch. Most of them, anyway. Could you really admire someone who didn't pray Shepard's prayer on a regular basis? I thought not.
So what am I saying? I'm saying that by choosing topics, we can control the dialogue on the interwebs. Okay, our corner of it. Okay, maybe steer it a little. Don't be negative. I say we ignore people who urge us to write 'trendy' stuff, and write what's on our hearts. We can cover any topic under the Sun, or even beyond it, and still trumpet forth the lesson, 'Be excellent to each other!' That's a hoopy thing to do, and totally within the scope of h2g2's mission statement.
You remember what Don Draper the ad man said? 'If you don't like what you're hearing, change the conversation.' It's astounding what wisdom you can get from an alcoholic fictional character with a shady background. But then, we quote Zaphod Beeblebrox all the time…
Let's help change the conversation. Don't like where the political trends are going? Have you any idea what you could do to them by simply telling the truth about things in an entertaining way?
- …provide stimulating and enlightening background to current political issues by writing about Where Europe Came From, or How the EU Got That Way, or Why Scotland Is/Isn't Supposed to Be Part of the UK. More topics suggest themselves. All have plenty of room for snark.
- …show how artists/creative people have responded to international challenges of the past. Like the time Georg Büchner the playwright was on the lam from a charge of insulting some king or emperor, and had to cross 200 different passport controls because there was no Germany yet. (He got away, because the camera wasn't invented yet, either.) Or casually mention exactly how many grants and organisations from how many different countries it took just to get Kenneth Branagh's Magic Flute on film? (Haven't seen it? We have one thing to say to you, 'The Queen of the Night has a BIG tank.')
- …pick your favourite song, painting, film, book, etc, and explain it in the context of its time, place, political/cultural setting, and Intention to Mess Things About.
I'm not saying this is easy. Not at first. If you're used to taking the framework of the space/time that's in it for granted, you might find it hard to spot the openings. But practice and persistence have their payoffs. Keep at it. Change the conversation.
Friends, we 've got to do something. The politicians and mainstream media obviously aren't going to lift a finger. And it's our planet, too.