Writers can use words that others want or need to say, but who can’t or won’t. Our greatest writers have been philosophers (or thinkers) too; though few are recognised as such. What are writers if they don’t put their words together to make us think? Writers are observers, they stand apart, take an overview, and can show us all what we are doing whether it’s good, bad, ugly, or stupid.
Philosophy is the study of fundamental questions regarding reality, language, the mind, identity, logic, perception, freedom, space, time, and morality. All these can be examined within fictional frameworks, making them more accessible than the academic studies of recognised philosophers. If you can illustrate breathtakingly truthful things in a way that encompasses a strong logical viewpoint within a wide overview, then your writing will have literary clout.
Sometimes the most effective philosophic revelations are made through comedy, parody, or symbolism. A writer can find the words to describe examples of behaviour that show the issue for what it is, and gets us all thinking in agreement. Laughter itself is an acknowledgement.
The famous philosophers in the past became so well-known because they wrote down their thoughts and presented them to the world. Many writers are philosophers without really knowing it. They think about words even when they’re not writing, so it comes more easily to them to present a sound argument in words on a page.
If all that sounds a bit out of your league, read on, because by the end of this piece I hope you’ll see that you can make good use of your ability with words, even without international acclaim. You, too, can contribute to philosophy.
Be a Grand Inquisitor
The fascinating thing about philosophy is that every subject normally placed under its umbrella tends not to have an answer!
- What is the meaning of life?
- Who is God?
- What is art?
- Is there life after death?
- How did the world begin?
You will have your personal answers to these, and as a writer you’ll undoubtedly be able to produce statements answering these questions and many more. This is fine – for you. Writing is a tool of thought and it’s great for sorting out your own stance on a subject. (See Writing for Therapy.) Yet there is more to it than that.
You can use your gift with words to persuade the population and the powers-that-be to follow an idea that might improve life for many people. You can have clout. We all can. There’s synergy in finding common cause, and that energy can, of itself, engineer change.
Look at Achievements in the Past
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, was written in 1939, when World War II was only beginning. It was a powerful study of the Californian labouring class, and it had a huge effect on the way society thought about slavery.
Within a year he was looking at ways to write effective propaganda. The result, The Moon is Down, was banned by the Nazis but it so captured the national mood in Norway and other occupied countries, that it sold in tens of thousands. It was made into a play for Broadway and Steinbeck himself, by now also a filmmaker wrote the screenplay.
When asked how he knew so well what the resistance in Norway was doing he said, “I put myself in your place and thought what I would do.” Steinbeck was renowned for his sure sense of audience and his empathy with the oppressed.
These are skills you can learn. There are some suggestions to play with in the Style chapter as well as in Experimental. Observe, consider, experiment. You, too, can learn to empathise with predicaments (Plots) and pinpoint the sentiments that readers look for in believable fiction.
Bertrand Russell said:
“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind,” in Autobiography.
Bertrand Russell and Canon John Collins were instrumental in the launch of CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) in 1958.
Though a mathematician, Russell was a life long pacifist and spent six months in prison for an article he published objecting to the First World War.
Question: What binds each of the following?
- Victor Hugo – French novelist
- Henry George – author of Progress and Poverty
- H.G. Wells – author of The Time Machine, 1895
- Gore Vidal
- William F. Buckley
- Norman Mailer
- Jeffrey Archer
Answer: They have all stood for public office, with varying degrees of success. The list of writers who have dabbled in politics is endless. Unfortunately not as many as lawyers.
Children are free to write and publish what they think because they won’t be taken seriously. If they express something that’s uncomfortable for those in power then it’s generally regarded that “they’ll grow out of it”. They are easily dismissed. As an adult and experienced writer you can make sure you’re not ignored!
We are all free (or like to think we are) to write and publish what we want to say, but there is usually too much at stake for us to take a shocking risk. To lose material wealth or even our lives may be worth it, but on second thoughts, the potential suffering of our loved ones is not.
Your Voice among Thousands
In any week we can be shocked and dismayed by the inhumanity reported by the media. There’s an immediate subject for discussion: what is news? How can our education and societal structures influence our world? This in a week when it is reported that some Year Eleven children are incapable of forming a sentence. That requires some discussion, doesn’t it?
The shock and knowledge of ‘the news’ is often too much for most us to comprehend, and only time can help us. Writers will be the first to get a distance on events and the way the world changes.
Bill Thompson writes in the regular Dispatched Arts Newsletter:
“In the months and years to come it will be through our art that we begin to understand what this all means. As the political and – no doubt – military consequences work themselves out and boundaries are redrawn, battles fought and barriers erected between the west and Islam fundamentalists, the way we think and feel about these changes will be shaped by the responses of our writers and playwrights and painters and sculptors and filmmakers. It will not only come in high-action movies about hijacks and US military might (although we can expect a new Rambo-like figure to emerge in the multiplexes by year’s end) but in the way that new paintings quote the tangled metal of the south tower, in the way that New York is written in next year’s novels.”
That statement was written well over a decade ago. What’s changed?
Quality of Child Mind
The innocence of childhood is an example to us all, and it’s something we could all aspire to. (Go to Liberation and Creative Frolics for a breath of fresh air.) Could you write a novel making the following children’s ideals come to life?
In one of Richard & Helen Exley’s compilations of children’s thoughts, Dear World…
An Indian child says, “It should be a compulsory task to produce food. Every man must care for plants.”
“Anyone who goes on strike should be replaced by someone on the dole,” says a boy in the UK.
“Respect women – they are the builders of society,” says a boy in Trinidad.
“If everybody appreciated great people’s ideas the world would be better,” says Didem Uzumcu, a 15 year old in Turkey.
“My first rule would be that all sweet firms should be closed down to save money on dental surgery,” says an 11 year old in the UK.
The simplicity of a child’s thoughts is enviable, and as writers we strive to recapture it. We have the advantage (or disadvantage) of wider vision, however. Children’s comments reflect their parents’ attitudes, or whatever the latest project at school has been covering. This doesn’t make their opinion any less valid, but in the balance of things, priority has to go elsewhere. So the sweet companies go on digging gold out of the mouths of babes.
Say What you Think
As a writer, will you change the world through a simple definition or letter? It is hard to say what kind of knock-on effect your words might produce, but fear of the unknown shouldn’t stop you writing them.
In 1961 Belle Tutaev wrote to the (then) Manchester Guardian suggesting that mothers get together to form small nursery groups: to enhance the children’s learning, and to improve the lives of lonely parents. Thus was born the Pre-school Playgroups Association, now known as the PLA (sounds like ‘play’) – Pre-school Learning Alliance https://www.pre-school.org.uk/ Fifty years on it is an extremely large charity, having shaped many people’s lives; now with a powerful influence on Government decisions regarding education and children’s welfare, and has a multi-million pound turnover.
Was Belle Tutaev a writer? No, she was a mum, with an urgent need to give mental stimulation to her child and herself.
Be What you Are
What comes first, the study of philosophy or becoming a writer? It is another question without an answer. Does it matter? If you’re serious about writing you won’t be wasting your time on addressing unanswerable questions in academic articles. At least, you won’t be spending time on trying to get them into print any more than renowned philosophers would bother with story writing competitions. Say what you want to say, and say it now!
The big Questions of Life can be answered differently for every person, real or fictional. The ideal way for writers to address difficult or sensitive subjects is through fiction. Here you are free to ask the question you want to ask, and can explore all the possible answers before finding the one that’s right for you, or for your character, by the end.
Philosophy is thought to be a hard subject because it’s full of jargon and is peppered with Latin words. Many eminent philosophers weren’t very good writers because they couldn’t put their ideas across to ordinary people – their academia got in their way.
If fiction writing isn’t your thing, you can still make good use of your gift with words, to make a real impact on the world.
“I get so frustrated with people who can sit opposite me and tell me how painful their life is; and yet when I ask them to write it all down and they haven’t a clue what to put,” says someone who runs a self-help clinic.
Writers can do it and might consider helping others do it, because they can express the emotions that others can’t define. On the Emotions page you might find the words or examples you need for enriching the characters’ lives in your fiction. Also try Get a Life! where we examine possible ways of better understanding human nature. If you cannot move millions through your writing, it is just as valuable to help even one person through the quagmire of their misery.
I strongly believe in making a piece of writing accessible to all. If you don’t understand something whilst reading it carefully then dump it, because life is too short. Try again when you’re a bit older, or even tell the author that their work is unintelligible (politely).
I realise I’m putting my head on the block here but whatever you write make sure the words are short, clear, accurate, and hang together in as accessible way as possible; or you’ll be dumped too.
And perhaps never revisited.
Use Your Creative Energy
The urge to write raises itself especially over local and political issues. Short of sending out family newsletters to broadcast your opinions, writing to the local or national paper is an available and worthy outlet. These publications readily ask for your contributions so why not get your name known to the general public?
Budding councillors and politicians seem to learn their trade in the local press. Budding writers can get themselves known that way, and get the buzz of publication: it’s all part of the learning equation. If not in print most newspapers now have a Comments page on their web sites.
However, stop and think a moment. What chances might you be compromising by putting your thoughts into everyone’s homes? Will it meet with approval from all directions if you openly express an opinion? What if it opposes that of your employers? Regardless of content, will future employers be keen to take on someone who speaks their mind loud enough for the dignitaries to hear? It could be an advantage – or the opposite.
It’s very easy to gain a reputation, and that may be unwarranted. For me the answer is to keep going. By properly expressing your opinions even opponents can be mollified.
You will be surprised at the fear that prevails in society. Writing is powerful and if you write very easily there may be some unexpected barriers standing in the way of what you want to do.
Is it right to clone human beings?
Should animals be killed for their fur?
Should Britain accommodate all asylum seekers?
Is it right to lower the age of consent for homosexuals?
What makes a terrorist?
We have some arguments to share and you may care to oppose them, or you might try using your writing as a tool of thought in exploring what you think on these subjects and others:
Psychotherapy is a Rip-Off
Publication is Unimportant
Artists Should Receive a Government Retainer
Stop all this Grown-up Parenting
Writing Horror Stories is Good for You
You don’t have to know the history of philosophy to be able to ask ‘unanswerable’ questions and explore the answers in your own way.
Fictional characters can become your servants: give them firm character traits and let them do the talking, (Talk & Tell), the acting and the thinking. They’ll give you an answer; they’ll create a philosophy that’s relevant to themselves.
You can hone your arguing skills in challenging the politics of the day, and you can easily wade in with your opinions, sending letters to the press, if you feel that way inclined. Involving yourself in politics will surely be a useful outlet for your writing. But I suggest you only do it if you think you can orchestrate and handle some immediate, if transient, fame or infamy.
My web site at http://www.trevorlockwood.com has become an editorial allowing me to express my outrage or to comment upon the issues of the day. I no longer have to kick the dog. It gives me freedom, and I now realise that I don’t have to kow-tow to the demands of others.
If privacy, imagination, deep and personal emotions are your motivation then novel writing (when it’s published, and that includes self-published) must be the most effective way to influence society.
In between the politicians and the best sellers there’s an army of people like you and me who write well. We are the ones who can help fill the void, give words to the wordless (emotions), power to the inarticulate and provocation where argument needs fuel.