a non-profit organization

Return to 1999 Program Agenda
Return to Program Menu

Programs - 1999

A Few Seed Crystals: Notes About
Writing, Responsiveness and Responsibility

Michael J. Rosen

When students pose their perennial question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I try to convince them of two things. The first is that writers aren’t blessed with more or better ideas than anyone else. We don’t receive “poetic” ideas while the rest of the public suffers along with pedestrian ones. We all get both varieties, the good and bad notions. Sure, writers practice enough so that they are less likely to spend time on the unfruitful ones. But the operant distinction is that a writer’s necessary, passionate resolve ensures that no worthy idea is ever lost to the moment’s passing and the mayhem of good intentions.

But there is something else from which I try to disabuse the kids. Rephrasing their question sometimes helps: “How do you put aside your ideas long enough so that you can really imagine a story?” A story is not an idea, though it may embody several ideas. It is not an example of some bit of personal philosophy, though after reading a completed story, such beliefs are certain to surface. It is not an argument in a metaphorical dress. It is, above all, a work of imagination that must engage that elusive faculty of the imagination: A story can’t be dreamt up in an instant of supposed inspiration and then dictated to the pencil. A story must be created in a particular medium—words. And it must do more than recount the author’s opinion about a certain subject in hopes that a reader will agree. No, it must convert a reader, if not to your beliefs, than at least from someone who glances at your written page to someone who wants to read it—all of it. It’s the writer’s job to invent a believable, convincing story for each idea to inhabit…rather like a ghost, so that the reader settles into the creation before being surprised by the spirit that lives there.

And so when I think about the valiant and lofty ideas and themes that uncomfortably fit under the rubric of “social responsibility,” I realize that although I address such topics as citizen or teacher or in some other role as public exemplar, I do not directly invite them into the writing of a story. Again, trying to begin a story with Poverty or Inhumanity as the sole motivating idea would get me nowhere. The topics are so harrowing, complex, daunting that they overwhelm the imagination. I end up feeling, Who am I to think I have anything to say about that? So, instead, I begin with a few circumstances that are troubling or uncategorical —meaning, their topics don’t begin with capital letters and aren’t so obvious that they intimidate me. I bring them together on the page, so that, as in a chemical reaction, they create a reaction…in me, and I do hope, in a reader.

Sometimes chemists introduce a tiny sample of the product they are investigating—a seed crystal—into their bubbling flasks, and around these small fragments, the rest of the unformed, suspended, sympathetic particles cluster. It’s as though, without the seed crystal, the other like-minded particles would never have figured out how to precipitate out of that murky mess. I’ll hazard this as a working model for both writing and for this issue of social responsibility. The seed crystals, if I’m lucky enough to possess any, are those samples, housings, bits of evidence that do participate in the making of a story, though not one of them, by itself, is enough for me to know exactly what the story is going to be.

But those initial seeds can crystallize all the words, characters, scenes, and images into a clear and recognizable form. Likewise, the published work has a chance of gathering around it sympathetic responses from readers, perhaps of even inspiring their own actions (stories, being one form of action) from the hesitations and haziness of daily life.

This is the social responsibility I can manage, creating work that has the potential to act as a seed crystal among readers. As for my capacity to debate the ideas themselves, divorced from the context of the stories, it’s as tenuous as my ability to write a sizable check to all the organizations I’d like to support.

When I undertook my first collaborative project, Home, I hardly thought of myself as a hunger activist. Even now, after The Greatest Table, Food Fight, and Down to Earth, as well as my other involvements with Share Our Strength (SOS), one of the nation’s largest private hunger relief organizations, I have not yet accepted the term for myself. I do know a little more about the issues surrounding domestic hunger and a lot more about the SOS-supported programs across the nation that work toward preventing and alleviating hunger. I haven’t become someone who stages protests, maintains vigilant letter-writing campaigns with members of Congress, debates passionately, donates hours helping cook or transport food at local shelters, or performs many of the other roles I am grateful others do. My work for SOS has been confined to using my own talents as a writer and editor (and board member) to work with other talented individuals, very few of whom previ-ously identified themselves as hunger activists. The genius of this agency has not only been to help those people enduring the exigencies of poverty, but also to help others cultivate their own personal varieties of social contribution. It basically taught me to let go of the inadequacy, paralysis, inarticulateness and sheepishness that I felt when facing the conglomeration of causes all demanding attention,
and to find instead some pride, confidence, joy and genuine energy in the development of my own working version of moral citizenship.

I often feel that most social problems are of the same magnitude—that is, they are nearly all beyond my individual hope of actually eliminating, but at the same time, they are nearly all equally able to be alleviated by my individual contribution to a collective effort. Specifically, I count myself lucky to have found a few chances to pledge my time. I suppose I have become involved with hunger issues and Share Our Strength for the simplest reasons: I was asked, then educated, then able to see myself being of use.

It is my best hope to continue creating these seed-crystal books, both my gathered-up anthologies with their appended philan-thropies, and those stories that inhabit the same territory of mixed peoples and mixed feelings that I do. And it’s most rewarding to know that so many teachers are able to adapt these books into springboards for their own class’s creative projects and community involvement.

Copyright © 1999 by Michael J. Rosen

© The Literacy and Social Responsibility SIG of the International Reading Association (IRA L-SR SIG)
Kaye West, Ph.D., Webmaster
Date Modified: September 8, 2003 - Feedback

Members of IRA L-SR SIG are grateful to California State University Long Beach for hosting our website.
IRA L-SR SIG, and not CSULB, is responsible for content.