Now that we know President Trump’s budget outlines the destruction of the National Endowment for the Arts, which funds a range of important programs, including public television and Broadway shows such as “Hamilton,” it is important to note that the literary arts receive virtually no support from national foundations outside of the NEA, and we lag behind our peers in leveraging individual philanthropy. So the consequences of losing NEA funding could be dire.
And the timing couldn’t be worse.
We live in a time of great cultural and economic division. Strangers hurl insults at one another online, hate crimes are on the rise, and civil political exchange is a relic of the past. We have seemingly lost our ability to understand one another and consequently have no ability to define, let alone work toward, any greater public good.
This is precisely the moment to invest in reading and writing.
Over the last several years, researchers have linked reading fiction — and, by extension, vivid, character-driven narrative — with improvement in social perception and emotional intelligence as well as increased empathy and comfort with ambiguity. It’s no wonder that, in an interview in January, President Obama stated that he will spend time training the next generation of leaders on key issues like climate change while also connecting them “with their peers who see fiction or nonfiction as an important part of that [training] process.” He went on to point out that “the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Twenty years ago, I founded GrubStreet, a tiny grass-roots organization that has grown into the largest creative writing centers in the country. We teach creative writing workshops to people ranging in age from 13 to 87. In our workshops, we insist on respect and generosity in conjunction with a rigorous artistic process. We push our students to create work that has as much nuance, depth, courage, thoughtfulness, insight, and truth as they can muster. This is hard work. It takes time. It’s the opposite of the kind of knee-jerk writing and communicating that plagues the culture we share online. Moreover, our students do this in the company of others, which allows them to be seen, heard, and understood in their complexity and uniqueness, in their full humanness.
This experience creates friendships and partnerships that bridge age and background. We have seen deep connections form between college students and middle-aged business executives, cabdrivers and MIT-trained brain scientists. Recently, a young student in our advanced novel workshop wrote a thoughtful essay about poverty and the upper-class nature of the writing world. He described networking over a drink with other writers while trying to hide his worry about having enough money for bus fare home. Two days later, another student, a woman in her late 40s, having read his essay, paid the balance of his tuition. She did it anonymously. This kind of generosity and kindness has become the norm in our community.
It’s taken me quite a few years to fully understand how we got to this place of empathy. The reason has everything to do with the craft of writing itself. People come to us to become better writers, and we provide that service, but in the process of learning their craft and living up to all that it demands, they become better people.
Eve Bridburg is the founder and executive director of GrubStreet.