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Writing Our Future

From the Director

Anyone reading this magazine will likely agree that writing can help us envision and shape our future. Writing enables us to capture ideas, reflect on and improve them, and share them widely.

The power of great writing is that it can be personal and universal at the same time. It helps us see ourselves and our world in deeper ways, and is one of the great joys of being human. Writing is a gateway to insight and wisdom, and Wisconsin needs both these days.

Stories in particular help to expand our concepts of who we are and what is possible. Our brains are hard wired to process stories, an evolutionary adaptation honed over tens of thousands of years of effectively conveying information to subsequent generations.

At the Midwestern premier of her play Silent Sky in Madison last fall, playwright Lauren Gunderson spoke about the science behind storytelling. She mentioned the evolutionary advantages our species has derived from stories, and noted how fiction, for example, allows us to take risks. In fiction we can imagine a future—or any number of futures—with little fear of condemnation or recrimination by those living in the present.

Stories, said Gunderson, also enable us to see things from points of view other than our own. Further, exploring these viewpoints can foster empathy and understanding that can help reduce social conflict.

In addition to writing books about the past, historian and Academy Fellow Jerry Apps also writes fiction that grapples with contemporary issues such as development pressures on family farms, frac sand mining impacts on rural communities, and the potential risks associated with genetically modified foods.

To examine how communities are affected by conflict, Apps employs deftly drawn characters who eschew the simplistic good guy/bad guy dichotomy that dominates so much political rhetoric today. His characters resemble our friends and neighbors. Their conflicts are ours, as elegantly expressed in an editorial by Stony Field, a character in Apps’ The Great Sand Fracas of Ames County:

The little village of Link Lake in central Wisconsin has torn itself apart these past few months as it debated and then protested a decision made by its village officials to allow a sand mine to open in its cherished village park. It’s a debate that has occurred often in the country: what is more important? Economic development, or history and the environment? And why not all three of equal importance?

Stony Field’s questions are the kind our state and communities wrestle with today. And our answers to them will certainly shape the Wisconsin of future generations.

When a conflict seems insurmountable and discussion turns rancorous, sometimes writing can help us understand the issues at the heart of the struggle.

In “The Essay I began writing while walking to the Wisconsin Capitol Trying to Discern the Right Question 2/14/11,” Madison poet Wendy Vardaman reflects on her role as poet and newly minted political activist: “So what am I doing on day 11 or 12 of the protests in Madison on a marble floor, my yoga mat doubled beneath me, my sleeping bag rolled behind me, writing as fast as I can in my notebook outside the State Library Office of the Capitol’s 3rd floor at midnight?”

Her questions lead to more questions about why she needs to participate in the protests and in what ways this participation is both a form of testimony and an expression of solidarity.

“It’s not that anyone needs any of the poems I’ve written, or any particular poem at all,” she writes. “But it’s how I join my voice (the one I find while writing) to the voices that collect around me like needles needling, like marbles dropping on marble, and I need to give voice to these thoughts, as you do too. To give witness, sometimes, to the people and the events around us through our poems.”

Writers and their works help us navigate the world around us—sometimes it is as critic, sometimes as witness, sometimes as truth sayer.

Ben Logan, Wisconsin naturalist and author of the beloved memoir about rural Crawford County, The Land Remembers, once wrote, “Books can wake things in us that have been wanting to surface, tell us things we are ready to know, affirm those thoughts we have been feeling but have not yet given coherence.”

What wants to surface in Wisconsin? What are we ready to know? What will writing tell us about ourselves?

In an effort to explore these questions—and to discover some others—we’ve developed a program theme for winter and spring 2016: Writing Wisconsin’s Future. With essays in Wisconsin People & Ideas and a series of Academy Talks, we’ll look at our state through the lens of writing as an act of social engagement. Through Writing Wisconsin’s Future, we’ll tap into the creative capacities and insights of scholars, journalists, novelists, and poets to explore how the written word and the narrative process are contributing to community building, environmental literacy, citizen engagement, and other tools that can build a better future for Wisconsin.

Questions or comments? E-mail jelder@wisconsinacademy.org


Jane Elder recently retired from her position as Executive Director of the Wisconsin Academy. She brought to the Wisconsin Academy a strong background in public policy leadership, nonprofit management, and involvement in Wisconsin arts.

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