Your art is always a responsibility. – Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros
On the Shalom Sistas podcast yesterday, when my friend Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros said, “Your art is always a responsibility,” I took a deep breath and held it against my ribs. Yes, this. I had been forgetting this.
Responsibility can feel burdensome, weighty, too heavy for the fragile spines of words, too much for the tired soul of writers. But in the moment that Carolina spoke, I felt lighter because I was reminded that my words matter, that they are not selfish, that they do work in the world.
The word responsibility comes from the Latin respons, which means – of course – to answer or to offer in return. Maybe the way to think of our responsibility as artists is that we simply offer what our words and our stories as responses to the questions and gifts life has given us.
Defining Our Responsibility
For some of us, responsibility is about fighting oppression, about speaking truth to power, about shining light into darkness, about making change in the world.
For some of us, responsibility is about holding up laughter, about laying out a gripping story, about sketching characters so quirky we can’t help but love them.
For some of us, responsibility is about finding the raw truths of the human experience, about shaping those experiences into sentences that balance weight and lightness.
For some of us, responsibility is to guide through processes and goals, through information and explanation.
All of these responsibilities are important. All of them worthy. All of them worthwhile. All of them equal. All of them purposeful and meaningful to the readers of our words.
The Responsibility We All Share
No matter what we choose as our primary responsibility, no matter what we want our words to do, we all share two things:
- A responsibility to fulfill our contract with the reader by providing what we say we are providing in the way we say we will provide it. So we don’t misrepresent fiction as fact. We don’t promise one type of reading experience and then let our own agendas outweigh the readers expectations. We don’t take advantage of the people who read our work to serve a purpose beyond that which the reader agrees. In short, we are respectful of our readers.
- A responsibility to ourselves to be truthful about who we are in the moment in which we write, to be as honest as we can through the words on the page, and to relinquish responsibility for how our words are received because that is – always – beyond our control. In short, we are respectful of ourselves.
For me, responsibility lies in the work of speaking truth to power and in the work of guidance. For you, the responsibilities may be in other purposes. But hear me now – Don’t let anyone tell you that your writing needs to be something you don’t feel good about producing. You don’t have to write novels or produce self-help books. Your blog posts don’t need to call out the latest social injustice or even include photos you took yourself. (I use unsplash for my photos, fwiw.) You don’t have to write that book about your life (or anyone else’s life) just because people keep saying you should.
Your primary responsibility in this world is to be the best writer that you can of whatever you write. That’s it. That’s all.
So pick up that burden of responsibility with joy, my friend, because it means you are free to be all of who you were created to be without guilt or manipulation or the expectation of some success that you didn’t set forth. Be honest. Be kind. Be you. That’s it. That’s all we need.
If you’d like, tell me a bit about what you see your responsibility as a writer to be. I’d love to hear.