Finding my Spine

A tragic reality of today is reflected in the true plight of our spiritual existence: we are spineless and cannot stand straight.  Ai Wei Wei

I set my alarm clock last night, and I deliberately chose a radio station that I find obnoxious because if the music and talk is pleasing I tend to stay curled up in bed. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I awoke to the annoying voice of a young DJ exhorting me to follow Katie Holmes on Twitter. Why on earth would I want to follow Katie Holmes? Why would anyone want to follow Katie? Then I remembered. She’s a celebrity. She’s from Hollywood. She escaped Tom Cruise. While I don’t bear Katie any personal grudge, I do begrudge the media machine that pushes us all toward the vapid and the meaningless. I begrudge the infotainment industry for trying to keep us distracted from what is really happening out in the world. We have so few hours that are available for leisure, for learning, for relationship. It seems to me a great pity to waste them on trivia like celebrity news, which is analogous to living on Hallowe’en candy—a steady diet of mental crap that will rot your brain.

But it works. I think if you ask the average person, we know far more about Oprah than we do about Aung San Suu Kyi, and we know more about the new trends in fashion than we do about the contents of the latest omnibus bill that’s been jammed through parliament. I find this very frightening. I find it depressing that there is so little interest in real arts or real politics.


In Canada, I believe that we live in a bubble of denial. We believe that the erosion of civil rights and democracy that has occurred in other regimes is not possible here. We don’t object when newspapers are bought out by huge corporate conglomerates and stories are provided by content generators versus local writers and real journalists. People seldom bother to read the papers anyway. We don’t pay attention when the government quietly makes sweeping legislative changes because the news media only seems to be able to keep track of one scandal at a time. Corporate powers are happy to provide us with schlock to keep us entertained, while they have their way with our rights and our resources. Fracking anyone? People can’t object to what they don’t know about. They can’t protest what they don’t pay attention to.

As writers, we have so much power to make a difference. Writers change the world, for better or for worse. Dickens’s Oliver Twist was partly responsible for the elimination of poor houses; Hitler’s Mein Kampf was partly responsible for mass genocide. The type of writing does not matter. Fiction can be just as influential in changing public perception as non-fiction.  Every writer has an agenda, but he or she can be transparent about that. Writers can make debate and public discussion possible. Writers are people who question authority, or at least they should be.  In Mount Albert we have the good fortune to have an independent publication called the Bulletin Magazine. John Hayes, a local businessman, occasionally buys space to express his concerns about what the town council has been up to. I often do not agree with his opinions, but I admire his tenacity, his honesty and his willingness to stick his neck out. He’s certainly opened my eyes on a couple of issues and reminded me that complacency and blind trust are dangerous.

We live in a culture that believes that politics and religion should be avoided in conversation. We take for granted that the right to debate will be enshrined forever. We fail to heed the lesson that Edmund Burke described: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Last week I attended Ai Wei Wei’s exhibit at the AGO called “According to What.” The show was moving and inspirational.  Wei Wei is the designer of the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium in Beijing, a well-known visual artist, and an outspoken critic of the Chinese government.  He has suffered beatings and imprisonment as a result. They would execute him if he weren’t so famous. Ai Wei Wei argues: “Everything is art. Everything is politics. I want people to see their own power.”  His definition of art has always been “freedom of expression.” He says “I don’t think anybody can separate art from politics. The intention to separate [the two] is itself a very political intention.” (

I once had a creative writing teacher who used to say that even if you never make a dime from your writing at least you’ll be able to write persuasive letters to the editor. Using your talent to promote positive change in the world is that simple. You don’t have to write an opus. You can use one of your writing practice sessions to write a letter for Amnesty International. You can write something about the street person in the local bus shelter, or bring awareness to a dangerous intersection. By writing about the real, with specifics, and details, and nuances, you are combating the sweeping generalizations and simplifications of infotainment.  You can stand up for something or someone who needs your help.


Our next writing retreat will take place on Sunday, November 3rd. We hope you can join us.

If you enjoyed reading this post, why not subscribe to our blog? Just enter your email address in the “subscribe” box at the top right hand corner of this page.  The names of new subscribers in October will be entered in a draw to win a copy of On Writing Well by William Zinsser.  Our September winner was Brenda Harper who wins a copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

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1 comment Write a comment

  1. I saw that you mentioned the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression on your page here :, so I figured that free press is a subject you care for.

    This is not an easy time for journalists all over the world, with the discoveries of surveillance on citizens, which includes journalists and their sources.

    I’d like to ask you to share a guide, written by one journalist to his colleagues all over the world. The guide can help them protect their work and fulfil their mission.

    If you can add it to your page, as well as share it over social networks, it would be a tremendous help to the free press.

    Thanks in advance,

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