The unexpected impact of writing

Writers don’t usually the see the impact they have.

On Saturday, some friends who were visiting Mexico wanted to see the Frida Kahlo museum. It has gotten pretty intense since I visited it in 2009: now you either have to pay for your tickets online first, or wait in a very long queue. There are strict rules about what you can bring in (the five year old was told she couldn’t bring in her butterfly-on-a-stick toy that she’d become utterly attached to), and quite the shuffle-line to move around. Even when I visited  years ago, I felt the experience was commercialised, expensive (ie inaccessible to many Mexicans) and too much.

When Frida died, in that home that is now a cafe-museum, she wasn’t that well known. It was the art movements that took place well after her death, as well as *that* movie, that made her a Mexican icon, respected around the world. Kahlo would never see those long lines outside her home, with people frantically tapping away at smartphones in order to pay a few days of minimum wage to go inside her home and peruse the museum. She wouldn’t see the ambulantes outside making big bucks selling her image printed on to singlets and t-shirts. And she probably would have been concerned that people weren’t quite getting her message.

In a similar vein, in the book Write on Rise Up a teacher described going back to her job after eight years away in a different one. A student remembered her, and thanked her for her encouragement, though at the time she’d taught him, he’d been frustrated, distant, and “difficult”. She described the “unexpected impact we have on students long after class…is over”.

From artists, to teachers, to writers, journalists and activists – a lot of the impact we have will be like that: unexpected, unseen by us, not quite what we hoped, and delayed.

It can be hard for us to commit to what we do when, unlike many other workers and creators, we don’t see the outcome of our work. It can take many articles, novels, and classes to have an impact on a person’s understanding of the world, their perception of themselves, and on their protagonism in society. It can take a lot of writing and protesting, by a lot of people, to change the world just a tiny bit for the better.

So it seems to me that the reason we write, or teach, or paint is because we have to. Not for reward, applause, fame, inspiring feedback, a moment of change witnessed – none of these things are guaranteed or even likely – but because if we don’t tell the stories that aren’t being told, if we don’t offer the kids a chance to learn to write, if we don’t hold that protest – then without a doubt the mainstream, rich-person’s view of the world will be the only view available.



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