It’s Malcolm X’s birthday and I’ve been thinking about him since this morning. His life’s story has had a pretty big impact on my white-girl-growing-up-in-Detroit narrative. I think his words have a lot to teach us about writing and living. I mean, they have taught me a lot.
One of the greatest gifts anyone ever gave me was the assignment to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in high school. I think it was my senior year but I can’t remember. Could have been my junior year. I had the same teacher for both. I was one of a handful of white students in a predominately black school. We watched the Spike Lee film in that same English class and there’s this scene in the movie (and if I remember, in the book, too) where this white woman comes up to Malcolm and asks what she can do help his cause. He looks at her directly and says, flat-out, “Nothing,” and walks away from her. She is flabbergasted. Then a bunch of eyes fell on me for my reaction. Fell on me and on the other white girls in the class. I can’t speak for the other white girls, but I know I was devastated when I read and watched that.
That moment, and the book in general, has taught me a lot about compassion. It forced me to spend hours with words that challenged me and made me uncomfortable; and this is a big part of what compassion is, I think: the willingness to engage with a different perspective.
If you know the book, you know it is about transformation. Granted, I read it a long time ago, but I think I remember that Alex Haley met with Malcolm X at various points in his life for him to articulate the story. Between meetings, Malcolm’s opinions changed drastically. Each moment in the book is like a blazing light in a different color. Blazing, because Malcolm X is so convincing, so articulate, so courageous in his word choice. Each argument mesmerizes the reader.
The book ends up being a testament of a person who was always hungry for the truth, who was always ready to stand up and serve the truth as he knew it at various moments of his life. This dedicated search required that he learn new information from time to time. He never stopped looking for the truth and as a result, the truth changed for him.
Malcolm X’s story is the story of what happens when a person believes something as hard as he or she can believe it, gets more information, and actually has the rare courage to change that belief. Not only change the belief, but speak out for that new belief.
Okay, so here is where our writing comes in:
I already wrote an entry earlier this month about how a writer needs to be open to transformation, and so today’s writing thought takes it a step back from that to say that in order to be transformed, we have to allow ourselves to sit in the room and listen to people who disagree with us. We have to engage with our characters when their story makes us uncomfortable–goes to a place we don’t want be. This is more than tolerance—tolerance is sitting in the room with a different perspective without allowing that perspective to change us. Tolerance is cold and has little use for a writer.
Instead, we must learn to be uncomfortable, we must learn to acknowledge another person’s perspective in such a way that we let it transform our own perspective. Meanwhile, we also have to know when to speak up. It’s a hard balance. It’s probably the most challenging aspect of being an artist.
You might be asking, why? Why do we need to embrace discomfort? Because great writing, I believe, involves a lot of tension and transformation. You must have both of these things to tell a great story.