May 22, 2014

Notes on Two Types of Writing

During Stig Dagerman’s assignment as a foreign correspondent in postwar Germany, he wrote to Karl Werner Aspenström:
A journalist I have not yet become, and it doesn’t look as if I’ll ever be one. I have no wish to acquire all the deplorable attributes that go to make up a perfect journalist. I find it hard to meet the people I meet at the Allied Press hotel — they think that a small hunger-strike is more interesting than the hunger of multitudes. While hunger-riots are sensational, hunger itself is not sensational, and what poverty-stricken and bitter people here think becomes interesting only when poverty and bitterness break out in a catastrophe. Journalism is the art of coming too late as early as possible. I’ll never master that.
The italics are mine, not Dagerman’s (nor Steven Hartman’s, the translator). I stressed that line because I sympathize with Dagerman. In March 2013, I officially joined the world of online media. I’ve spoken to a number of people during my first year on the job. I asked questions and used the answers to write a series of articles. I did my research, met my deadlines, and dealt with reoccurring feelings of dissatisfaction—I could’ve phrased this idea better, I should’ve included more details. And yet despite the “journalistic” nature of my work, I still can’t—and perhaps even refuse to—call myself a journalist. I much prefer the term “writer” (though even that fails to convince me sometimes).

Like Dagerman, I’m not exactly comfortable with journalism; I try my best to form and present my perspectives without a journalistic template. And like Dagerman, I’m aware of how journalism is measured against time and vice versa. To me, it resembles a race. In fact, it is a race—even though nobody ever really comes out as a victor. The texture of the news influences the race, but it’s not what drives it. Hard news. Soft news. Both are secondary to time—or rather, a more specific form of it: timing. The temporal context of literature is just as important as that of journalism, but the latter calls for a different kind of attention. And it is not only the abstract idea of time that sets them apart, but also the order of time that constructs the substance in the first place. Chronology is crucial in journalism—without it; there is nothing to report on. In literature, chronology is only one of the many techniques that can be used to describe a situation. Events that have never happened, but might happen in the future, could easily find their way to the page.

The two forms exist/were created for different purposes, of course (this much I understand). But perhaps Dagerman and I are allies here. In the short story, “To Kill a Child,” Dagerman demonstrated his ability to raise awareness regarding road safety issues through a fictive—though by no means implausible—accident involving the death of a child. It’s possible that many similar accidents took place prior to the publication of the story. But the main purpose of the story is not to announce that an accident had happened—but that it could happen. And that it could happen again and again.

Journalism informs people. Good journalism does it accurately, and therefore confirms a reality that was formed in a particular order. Literature, on the other hand, takes people away from that organized reality so that they can see it from another angle. But good literature doesn’t stop at offering just one new perspective—it offers several so that people can compare and contrast in the hope that they will become better human beings.

All of this leaves me with a dilemma. Because how I see my role as “a person with a pen” clearly affects how I perceive my surroundings, how I perceive—for lack of a more accurate word—reality. Am I a journalist or a writer? Is it possible to be both without getting any responsibilities mixed up? Perhaps the only way to find out is to keep writing as neither of those, but as a person who is capable of being equally attached to and detached from the world.

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