If It's Heavy It's Ripe: On Writing and Political Sentiment


Writers and students often ask how to marry the personal and the political in their work. While I have no good answer, I did have an aha moment a few days ago that struck as I lifted a striped watermelon at the local market: if it’s heavy it’s ripe. The same holds true for the personal and the political. If it’s heavy, it’s good. But too much weight and the watermelon – the work – becomes unmanageable. So, to lift a phase from the poet Fred Marchant: beware the tipping point.

And yet…

Isn’t that the point of writing? To tip readers into a new space? But what is new space, and how do we write about it? How do we blow away apathy as a moral sentiment and explore inner lives that are rarely discerned but warrant explication? My solution is to be shameless, to chat up everyone I meet, find out what moves them, what hurts them, what gives them joy. Dogs, coffee, cleaning – that’s what’s on my mind now. By nine o’clock this morning I’d talked to three people: a barista with back problems who has health insurance but can’t afford to take time off for surgery – lost wages would mean unpaid rent; a waitress at a diner who wanted to adopt a dog and was stunned to find the local shelters overrun by abandoned pit bulls – a breed feared by many; and finally, a housekeeper who felt the sting of being looked down upon – class warfare writ small.

Their faces stay with me, the taut smile, the dismissive twitch, the upward gaze, as if the morning sky held an answer to a problem. As Lea Carpenter, author of Eleven Days, said, “What we love defines our interests.” The same holds true for what we don’t understand. The world as we know it beggars questions, and writers do their bit to answer. We begin with an impression, imagine a response, and sometimes we research a thorny detail. (Best not to get too caught up in a grand Google search – fascinating, though, that pit bulls are not naturally vicious?) More important, though, is the discipline required to sit down and write. We mine our capacity for abstract and worldly thinking, sharpen our tools, and get to it. We take the knowledge of what we have gone through in order to understand how little we really know.

I return, then, to the housekeeper. Shoulders hunched, she stood outside her assigned building. “Who do they think they are?” she asked. “Would it kill them to put trash in a trash can? Who do they think I am?” In three sentences she laid out social, environmental and political questions. And then I saw it – a small tear quickly wiped away, and off she went to do her work, and I to mine.

Back in my office I wrote down everything: the grayer than gray of her t-shirt, the rip in her sneakers, the tattoo on her ankle. The freckles across her nose, the hair tied back with a black elastic, the missing tooth. The rasp of her voice, the drag of her right foot. There it was: the personal and the political. There she was—and I didn’t even know her name.

I fired up my computer and watched the video of a recent panel sponsored by Consequence Magazine (full disclosure: I’m the senior associate editor) and searched for Bob Shacochis’ lines, which run like this:

…each person has a history, every individual has a context, and if you care to understand that person and her motivations you must understand his or her history and the context in which that history operates. So it is with nations and their populations, their collective history and collective culture, and America’s history has been both honorable and dishonorable, and our context throughout the past decade or so has been too often shameful and unworthy of us, top to bottom.

Shame washed over me. Staring at my computer, I thought: I will name the housekeeper. Instead of googling girls’ names, I closed my eyes and focused on her face – and it came to me. Natalie. While the shame did not lift, I felt closer to a woman I’d met and her story. I wrote her story, I will keep writing her story – culture and consequences is, after all, what I do.

Yet, and I remind myself daily, to read people closely requires inquisitive, empathetic and compassionate ears and eyes, and lest we forget, bodies, too. The language we use to talk about matters of injustice, violence and power changes our course – take a left, take a right, walk on by. Good writers stop and pause. The political is never far from the personal. To give shape to life on and off the page we reach into dysfunction and salvage people and places from oblivion. It’s the language of the heart that opens us to possibility; and as writers, we jot ideas in a notebook, amemento mori voucher: roughly translated as “remember you will die,” but words, our words, live on, for human experience is narrated by necessity.

It’s worthy work.


Catherine Parnell is an independent consultant and occasional university lecturer as well as an instructor at Grub Street in Boston. She’s the Senior Associate Editor for Consequence Magazine. Her non-fiction chapbook, The Kingdom of His Will, was published in 2007. Recent publications include an interview in apt, and stories and reviews in Spaces, Post Road, The Baltimore Review, Slush Pile, roger, and other literary magazines, as well as various newspapers and newsletters. When she’s not attending to matters of consequence, Catherine can be reached through her website www.catherineparnell.com. This piece originally appeared on BeyondtheMargins.com.