My creative writing lecturers always stressed the writer’s role as researcher. They told us to record stories, collect words, gather conversations, chop up newspapers. Observe. Eavesdrop. Write EVERYTHING down.
We were also encouraged to create a filing system to keep our snippets safe and although I still record and research obsessively, my filing system falls rather short. But my lack of organisation means I get to enjoy the spontaneous uncovering of lost pieces of information. Often scrawled on napkins or old shopping receipts, these snatches from another time make me feel the way I imagine a dog does upon discovering a long-lost bone. It’s like finding a $20 note forgotten in the back pocket of an old pair of jeans.
Yesterday I uncovered one of these bones, a piece of notepaper buried in the bottom of my suitcase, the below words jotted carefully in pink ink …
Yu Jie – Chinese Writer living in exile. “Where freedom is motherland lies”
How difficult would it be to write words when the very same words risk your freedom? I remember writing these words, maybe a year ago, after coming across an article in a newspaper.
This morning I became a modern-day Nancy Drew. I punched the words into Google, trying to piece my pink ink story together and uncover lost clues. I found that Yu Jie wrote a book in which he criticizes the Chinese prime minister and after being arrested and beaten by police he escaped with his family to America. Apparently police arrested other Chinese for writing similar sentiments in online articles.
In the novel 1984 George Orwell imagined a world where writing words (or even having thoughts) had become a form of terrorism. Orwell’s Winston risks punishment by death, simply to keep a journal, to write words on a page.
I wonder if the arrested Chinese writers felt like Winston, battling through a momentous internal struggle before writing – to risk death for the sake of their voice. Did their words flow freely or did each word meet with painstaking resistance?
I wonder if Orwell could have imagined a world where almost the opposite is true. Because when it comes to freedom with words, the country I live in feels separated by more than just ocean from that of the countries of writers like Yu Jie. I live in a world where people write freely on (Facebook) walls, blogs, status updates, notebooks, napkins and voting ballots. Inner thoughts have become like bulls in a china shop, they run wild and erratic.
It is easy to forget about the freedom we have, perhaps because it is an abstract concept, not something we can touch with our hands. Today I’m thinking about my freedom, simply because 12 months ago I scrawled down a few words about the very lack of freedom of another human being.
Freedom comes with perspective.
What is the role of a writer? Why write at all? To entertain? To tell? To make a noise? To provoke thinking? To comment on society, as Orwell did?
What does freedom mean for your writing?