What’s Writing Got to Do with It?

I remember once upon a time having a conversation with a board member for an organization for whom I was working. I suppose he assumed that I had a degree in sociology or international relations. After I explained the career journey that started with a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, he gave me a quizzical look and asked, “But what does creative writing have to do with community development?”

He wasn’t questioning my skills or background in strategic planning, program development, communications, fundraising, or any of the other things I was doing for them. He just didn’t see the connection between my training and years of toil as a fiction writer and what appeared to be my day job, which centered on program design, monitoring, and evaluation, and entailed a lot of canoe rides to Amazon communities.

It’s a perfectly reasonable question. Without trying to define what writing “is”  (which would be futile and reductionist and would invite justified complaints from writers reading this blog), I will go out on a limb and say that one of the fundamental activities of a writer is to analyze and synthesize information. Writers are taught to think critically, a skill necessary for determining whether qualitative and quantitative data adequately reflect the impact of a project, for example. Or for helping community leaders frame their objectives so funders can understand how the community’s project might fit their funding priorities. In other words, a skill necessary for the everyday work of development.

Writers, especially journalists, novelists, essayists or others whose primary subject matter is people, also learn to observe. We’re trained to try to understand what motivates people: to ask questions, listen to answers, speculate, and consider. I first began traveling to Latin America to gather stories for newsletters and donor publications, so my mission was to listen. I got to know folks gradually, learn about cultural expectations and contradictions, compare and contrast, and discern. The more I set aside my preconceived notions of how people’s lives could be improved, the more I discovered about what could actually work based on what people told me.

In other words, writing about people challenges you to relate to others on their terms rather than superimpose your values. It challenges you to be honest: to neither romanticize nor condemn, to find the line between respecting different attitudes and actions and speaking up when you see something that violates your integrity, as opposed to your ego.

Again, skills necessary for the everyday work of development.

This is not to say that people with other academic training do not have these skills, but training in the complexity of the human condition from an artistic rather than scientific perspective gives these skills a unique hue in a field like international development. The contribution of science in all its manifestations has been enormous and indisputable. At the same time, the contribution of people working together, understanding other points of view, humanizing the systems that create conditions of suffering, injustice, lack of access, environmental destruction, racism, sexism, you name it . . . that contribution cannot be overlooked. In fact, it may become more necessary as we move into a new area in which the people “receiving” aid start driving the agenda for the change they want to create.