Does Writing Make a Difference?

A look at whether personal writing practice makes large scale, social or political difference.

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A little while ago I was talking to a fellow poet about the current state of affairs. During our discussion we covered the rise of the far right and the times we had been let down by the health system, amongst similar issues (we are both fully pro-NHS, just disappointed by the forces that undermine it). As we talked, my poet friend said, “And that’s why I think poetry matters.” She was trying to say that despite how bleak things appeared, in our own small way we were rebelling. To her, we were even making a difference, albeit a small one.

This got me thinking: does my modest practice of writing poetry make a difference, as my friend believes? Does it help to contribute to raising awareness and causing change?

Without a doubt, your own writing practice gives you great personal and emotional gratification. I would say that my practice has changed my life and allowed me to become more myself. I would even say that it’s perhaps saved my life, and I think most writers would say this about their writing. However, while writing is undoubtedly helping people on an individual level, this does not prove that writing is helping to make social, political or environmental change to the world. Although, one could argue that if it’s helping keep people alive and positive one by one, perhaps it is.

Writing also helps to create communities. This is a positive thing for many reasons. Writers coming together helps create more of an impact, and therefore more change, than an individual. Communities of writers also help attract other writers and increase visibility and reach. Communities can then go out, locally or nationally, in order to make a difference. A lot of writers that I know use their practices to draw attention and funds to issues such as mental health, homelessness, women’s issues, and the LGBT+ community, to just name a few examples. Therefore this shows that when writers come together, they surely make a positive difference. However, my initial question of whether or not writing was making a difference was perhaps followed by other, silent, more specific questions, such as whether writing was making enough of a difference, and whether this difference was sustainable? Is it greater than the damage that is being done in the world?

I can immediately think of very famous poems that I’m sure have made a difference to the world, such as ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou. Music is perhaps better at causing what one would consider change however; I am thinking of songs like ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon and ‘Hurricaine’ by Bob Dylan. I also love the idea that a lot of people have poems that they could instantly say made a difference to them personally, for me the poems that did this were ‘Stop All the Clocks’ by W. H. Auden and ‘Onion’ by Carol Ann Duffy. This makes me think that something, something that is hard to describe, is getting out there and helping in some way.

Sometimes it seems that literature, poetry included, is the consciousness of society. I take a lot of pleasure in pointing out to friends which work of literature their favourite film, video game, or song is referencing or inspired by. For example, the time machine used by the character of Time in the film adaptation of Alice Through the Looking Glass is based on the one described by H. G. Wells in his book The Time Machine. Writers are rebellious by nature, and whether through fiction like Orwell’s Animal Farm, or non-fiction like Marx’s Das Kapital, with the right amount of fame, writing can cause a huge amount of change.

Should we all keep writing with the hope that perhaps our piece of writing will be the one to change the world? Perhaps every small effort is needed for one piece to succeed. I would say that it’s best not to take on such a mentality, that writing for yourself is more than enough. Anything beyond this is an added bonus. For me, writing is about hope: you release it into the world because you believe in it, and believe that there is at least a possibility that writing can make a difference.

Setareh Ebrahimi performs regularly, and is a poet working in Faversham, Kent. She is the author of In My Arms from Bad Betty Press.

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