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Tracy Kidder: can a writer be a social activist?

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Then I went to Iowa, where almost no one at the time was writing nonfiction – it was fiction or poetry there. The company I was in there was pretty humbling. At the time my resources for writing fiction felt like they were drying up – the only fiction I really got off there was one short story. But I wrote this one nonfiction story about Vietnam that made it into the Atlantic Monthly. Meanwhile it seems to me there was a guy named Seymour Kramer has been working on the 'new journalism.' A writer named Dan Wakefield showed up, who was very helpful to me, and helped me to get some nonfiction into the Atlantic. At the time it was great because it was something no one else was doing. I didn’t have to compete with anyone.

What role do you – as the person mitigating the story – play in generating interest in change work, as in, say, the work of Paul Farmer?
I think there was a time when I was quite young when I thought that the written word could actually change something. I’m not sure it ever actually has. I’m told "Grapes of Wrath" did, or that other books influenced the minds of influential people, but I think that approaching writing from the point of view of thinking you’ll make change has severe limitations. I’ve written a few polemics for the New York Times Op Ed page, but that’s pretty much what I confine it to. I try to mostly keep away from writing expecting to change something when writing narrative nonfiction.

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