Writing in Upheaval

Understanding story focus through the lens of exclusion and inclusion

I began writing this blog, Writing in Upheaval, as the Covid-19 pandemic was shown to be spreading, and lockdowns and self-isolating began, because so many writers expressed having difficulties working. They had lost their focus, they said, in and for their writing.

Shift upon shift, jolt upon jolt

Before I’d finished the first of these new blogs, came the widespread and profound grief and anger at racist police violence with yet another murder, that of George Floyd, in one of the places I know as home—Minneapolis. Then, the committed national and global response, and the long developing visionary work to begin implementing transformative change in how the police exercise brutal power against Black people and other people of color; against the poor and unhoused; against the mentally ill and neuro-divergent; and how they wield violence against the new rainbow of committed protestors. (The state of this work in September 2021 is challenging, varied, with some advances and a holding pattern of the same injustices.)

I’d originally set out to “focus” on the effects of Covid-19 on our writing, holding my breath every day mourning the numbers, and enraged at the disastrous stupidity of many in power. The blog’s focus shifted with the current and constant murders, the lynchings, of Black people emerging into the national consciousness. (National is also global.)

And, of course, with the upheavals of climate change, climate catastrophes and economic catastrophes, and—you can complete the list… with all this, and with the clear knowledge that many people have lived their whole lives in a state of upheaval, catastrophe, loss, threat, violence, injustice, I say it is a good time to re-examine the craft of writing, of story, the use of language, and just how the craft itself might be intricately tied to the crafting of justice.

So, let’s start with a look at this thing that many people say they lost as Covid-19 thrashed their lives and societies:


What is focus?

Focus can tend to mean the exclusion of enormous amounts of information. It can also imply the exclusion of the emotional—for example:
Focus! Focus!
Don’t let your emotions distract you from the task at hand!
Don’t let “old wounds” get in the way!
Don’t let that delivery person driving up to the house next door distract you from your focus!
It’s the surgeon’s scalpel that’s the point, not the EMTs that got you, alive, to the operating table!
It’s not the story next to the story.

FOCUS, like a warrior, like a soldier told to focus on taking down the enemy though knowing nothing of the “enemy” or their country, their history, their conditions—
Doesn’t matter, the story behind the story, or underneath it.
Keep out what is “not pertinent”!

Does this sound like good advice? Efficient perhaps, but should this be the way we write or even understand story?

How does focus affect story?

Clearly, whoever is in charge of shaping the focus that is “acceptable”, is also setting an agenda, whether purposefully or unconsciously, as to who and what is important; who and what is to be included, placed in the center of the story; and who and what is to be dismissed, ignored, hidden, marginalized, excluded.

For example, we see a whole different story, a different set of events, when the police’s body cameras are turned on, and those once hidden and excluded parts of a narrative are present, illuminated, included.

We then receive a different story, a different view of the “characters”, a different understanding of causality and of plot.

I say that focus is not simply what you must do to write, or where you must look to tell a story, but it has everything to do with the story you will tell.

And everything to do with how you understand the story you are told.

More on Focus in future posts.

Anya Achtenberg

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