Art & Activism: Guest post by Marybeth Holleman

Twenty years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Has that much time really passed? Just in time for that dark anniversary, Marybeth Holleman — author of The Heart of the Sound — brings us her first post as the March Featured Guest Author.

In college, I read Edward Abbey’s Monkeywrench Gang, and sat up late nights with friends, plotting ecotage on the nuclear power plant under construction a few miles from campus. Should we pour sand in graders’ gas tanks? Bury spikes in construction roads? Spraypaint messages on new cement? In the end, all we did was make banners, pile into a van, and join the No Nukes rally in Washington, D.C..

It took a few more years—during which I finished my degree in Environmental Science and worked for the state’s alternative energy division (the first time around that we tried to kick our oil addiction)—before I realized what Abbey’s book had to say to me. Words have power. Literature is a primary force for instigating change. Think Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Think The Golden Notebook. Think Silent Spring.

So, yes, I was an environmentalist, and an environmental scientist, before I was a writer. It was just a matter of time before I put all my loves together: reading, nature, wildlife, justice.

Still, the primary tension throughout my writing life has always been whether to pick up the pen or the banner. I oscillate. I try to do both. In some ways, they help each other. In other ways, not so much. So I’ve learned a few things about working in the intersections of writing and activism. (Caveat: These are, as they said in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” more like “guidelines.”)

1. I can’t escape it. I don’t have the patience to write about subjects that don’t engage me, and what engages me are those where I believe something vital is at stake, and I have some new thing to add to the conversation. It’s the only way I can sustain the effort it takes to bring a project to completion. The driving force for Crosscurrents North was political: to amplify voices who speak for Alaska’s wild. This carried co-editor Anne Coray and me through many travails with the publishing industry. Susan Griffin once told me, follow your obsessions. They’ll lead you to your best work. I believe her.

2. I get my message off my chest right away, and then keep writing, researching, thinking, so the work (hopefully) moves beyond my initial assumptions into new territory. As Robert Frost wrote, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Open-mindedness allows for wonder and imagination, as I try to illuminate my own blindness. How to do this when I also come to the subject with a burning passion to save polar bears or prevent the next oil spill? In “What Happens When Polar Bears Leave,” I expressed my astonishment immediately, and then dissected the ways in which their fate haunted me, with hope of some solution or at least some new comprehension.

3. I avail myself of all forms. On the oil spill, on Prince William Sound, I’ve written radio commentary, op-eds, poems, essays, and my book, The Heart of the Sound. On polar bears and climate change, I’ve written essays, poems, a short story, a white paper for Defenders of Wildlife, and a talk on “Climate Change and the Literary Imagination” (a livestream video, introduced by Sue Ellen Campbell and with Linda Bierds). Multiple forms allow me to approach the subject from different angles, like a prism, generating more illumination with each turn.

4. I don’t force resolution. As a writer and teacher, I’ve seen how forcing a resolution can damn an essay faster than you can say “rejection.” As a culture, we like the quick fix, the clear solution. But increasingly, in the complex world we have created for ourselves, there are no easy answers. At least, not to the questions I am obsessed with asking. (This is also my excuse for why I’m such a damn slow writer.)

5. Sometimes I drop the pen, but not for long. It’s easier when there’s an end date, like an election: when Sarah Palin got nominated for V.P., I campaigned for Barack Obama. It’s more tricky when the issue is never-ending. I often think about Nigerian novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa: he dropped his pen for political action, only to die for the cause. What new light might his novels have shed?

In the end, they’re the same—writing is action. It’s in the interplay between the two that I’ve arrived at my favorite work. Immediately after the oil spill, I was driven to sop up oil, rescue birds, clean sea otters. Much later, in Heart of the Sound, I wrote about those experiences and what they meant—for the otters, the Sound, and the Big Picture in which we all stand.

My moral obligation is the same as it is for anyone: to leave the world a better place than when I found it. As an artist, a writer, that way is through understanding something that hasn’t been understood, seeing what hasn’t been seen, illuminating something that hasn’t been lit.

When I get overwhelmed by all that remains in the dark, I recall what a Buddhist monk advised: you can’t enlighten the entire world, so just shed light on your little corner.

10 thoughts on “Art & Activism: Guest post by Marybeth Holleman”

  1. Wow. She has a more complete understanding of why she writes than most people have of life. It is what drives her, and she is very clear about why she does it. She has found her voice, her joie de vivre, and we can all benefit from what she says. Because, it comes from that clearest of places, that place where there is no turmoil, no encumbered mess. It’s just straight from the heart, and it is undeniable truth. It’s what the Buddhist monk was talking about. We could all use a little more clarity in everything we do.

  2. Such an inspiring column, Marybeth. No one should underestimate the power words wield, and what a great feeling to know that sometime our words make a difference, however small it might be. It’s a lonely pursuit most of the time, but certainly worthwhile. Your image of illuminating our little corner of this tumultuous world is perfect. If more of us realized and accepted that, our lives would be less complicated and more fulfilling.

  3. I love your topic, Marybeth, and the passion that you bring to it. As you (and Susan Griffin) note, our obsessions really do lead to our best work. The tension, the push and pull of getting too close and needing to step back, of caring passionately and caring too much, energizes our work, regardless of topic or genre.

  4. Thank you Marybeth.I will look back at this wonderful piece often because you state so beautifully the wisdom you have gained in the journey for change. Sand in the gas tanks is an energetic impulse and a great way to attack the enemy! But, you so clearly describe your path to deeper more thoughtful approaches that have a greater effect. Your writing is reaching and effecting people. That is clear. I count on you to show me the view from your eyes and heart, and I am always grateful for it.

  5. Thoughtful, heartfelt reflections by a writer who consistently puts her heart and good thinking into her work. I like the idea of following our obsessions; another way to think about it is to follow our passions. I continue to believe that the very best writing (and, I would guess, art in general) is produced when we write about what we care about most. The question of art vs. activism — or art AND activism — has been taken up by some of America’s finest writers, including David James Duncan and Rick Bass. Not coincidentally, both of them, like Marybeth, frequently work in the genre of nature writing (whether or not they consider themselves nature writers). If in fact you are a writer and care about our species’ relationship with the wider, wilder Earth and its inhabitants, there is simply no way to avoid “activist” writing. And why would you want to? Thanks for some clear thinking and good ideas, Marybeth. And more power to you and your good work.

  6. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Marybeth wrote: “I often think about Nigerian novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa: he dropped his pen for political action, only to die for the cause. What new light might his novels have shed?”

    That was the question I was trying to raise in my novel, The Spanish Bow, in which I have a cellist who becomes such an activist that he turns his back on music, his original joy.

    I think we shape the world both by our outright activism and by our art, even when it seems our art doesn’t have a direct political link. (Really, all art does.) Thanks for including the question of balance in your original post, Marybeth.

  7. “…so just shed light on your little corner.”

    This brings to my mind what I’ve always thought of as a continuum of personal-to-political writing, and my struggle with the concept of “personal as political” as it might apply to my essays. What strikes me in reading Marybeth’s post is that some writers start with the overtly political, but why do they do that? Obsession, which is deeply personal. Others of us start with what feels like the personal. In the quest to reach out to the reader, it inevitably moves toward the political. It turns out that the two are so intertwined it becomes impossible to write purely one or the other, though our points of entry may differ.

    Thanks, Marybeth, for this most excellent and thought-provoking post. It gives me much to ponder as I continue trying to shed light on my own little corner.

  8. Marybeth, what a great reminder that writing and action are not in separate boats. Even knowing that art is a powerful form of activism, a writer can fall into the trap of thinking it’s too little. Following obsessions is the easiest thing to do and the hardest. For me, working with hands in the soil alongside others immediately gratifies. Working with thoughts at my desk demands steady self-validation.

    Your point about availing yourself of all forms is wonderfully tangible. As one who has appreciated your essays, your poems, your book, your op-eds, your emails and spoken word, I’m listening. And now you’re here in this online forum. I’ll always love newsprint, glossy print, books in all shapes and sizes and genres. But online activity keeps me alive when I feel, literally, that I am living on an island.

  9. Oh, it’s so heartening to hear from so many others who are following their obsessions (their passions), who are working with that balancing act of art and activism (while maintaining joy, always maintain joy!), who are shedding light on their “little corners.” Shehla’s right, writing can be such a lonely pursuit – which is just one reason why this forum is so wonderful.

  10. Priscilla Feral

    I’m president of the animal advocacy group, Friends of Animals, and so grateful for Marybeth’s activism, the justice she seeks, and the bar she raises for critical thinkers inside and outside Alaska. Also, I love her writing!

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