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How America’s writers are joining forces in hopes to bridge divides
Judy Woodruff: A group of prominent writers wants to help us heal in the pandemic.
Jeffrey Brown reports for our Canvas series.
Man: I'm curious about how history might serve this particular moment.
Jeffrey Brown: It's a simple format, two or three writers reading their work and talking to one another about words the writing life, the role of literature today.
It's called Write America.
Roger Rosenblatta: I started it because of the divisions in the country that became so evident and so violent that one asked, what could you do about this?
Jeffrey Brown: Write America is the creation of journalist and author Roger Rosenblatt.
Roger Rosenblatt: I asked just a basic question: What can writers do for such a situation? Is there something writers can do?
Jeffrey Brown: And what's the answer to that?
Roger Rosenblatt: We reach into our minds and hearts for the things we write about, the suffering of people, the injustices that people go through, the happinesses, the treacheries, the heroism, all the things that are available to writers.
And we share them with others. So, if we share them with other, the others must find commonalities in what we are writing. Of those commonalities, make healing rather than divisions.
What matters most?
Jeffrey Brown: Rosenblatt is familiar to longtime "NewsHour" viewers for his 23 years as an essayist on the program.
Roger Rosenblatt: The "NewsHour," where the only bottom line has been to try to find the truth.
Woman: Welcome back to another episode of Write America.
Jeffrey Brown: Write America has now featured some 90 established and emerging writers.
Natalie Diaz, Poet: All my loves are reparations loves.
Jeffrey Brown: There are poets, such as recent Pulitzer Prize winner Natalie Diaz, novelists, including Meg Wolitzer.
Meg Wolitzer, Author: That is the thing about writing, of course, is because, we do it alone, but we're responding often to collective experiences.
Jeffrey Brown: Unexpected pairings such as Carlos Fonseca and Rose Styron.
Carlos Fonseca, Author: To think that Faulkner led to Garcia Marquez and to Toni Morrison is just lovely, right?
Roger Rosenblatt: Two things happen which has been very gratifying.
One is to see the camaraderie among the writers themselves.
Man: Do you think of a novel as an inquiry?
Roger Rosenblatt: Every week, writers all chip in, in that column of chat that you see on the right of the screen when you do one of these things. And they are asking questions of one another and applauding one another.
And that, I never saw before, because writers, as you know, are not a group. We're usually mavericks or hermits or worse. The general audience then latches on to what is being read.
Woman: She says, call if you want to talk. We can do that as the start.
Roger Rosenblatt: If there is sadness in something autobiographical, there's beauty in a poem.
Woman: How can I count my blessings when I didn't know their name?
Roger Rosenblatt: If there's something about honor or there's something about loneliness, they latch onto it and they comment.
Jeffrey Brown: There's a clear play on the word write, W-R-I-T-E, and the word right, R-I-G-H-T.
Roger Rosenblatt: Right.
And the whole idea of it was a kind of -- I guess a sort of bad pun on the idea of making America write. That is not right-wing and not that there was one view of right, but making it realize what its own potential always was.
I mean, this -- the country was founded on words, after all. People a long time ago put some words together and said, this is America. So, this is America.
Jeffrey Brown: But, Roger, still, help me understand the position of literature and politics as you see it, because I'm guessing that most, maybe all of the writers that you're featuring come from one side of the political spectrum.
Roger Rosenblatt: That's true.
And it was one of my concerns that we'd be just preaching to the choir. But we're not preaching, for one thing. Auden has a wonderful quotation: "Truth, like love and sleep, resents all approaches too intense."
What we wanted to do was to just do our business and deal with the feelings that writing then celebrates and makes evident.
Now, you say, all right, well, OK, you are preaching to the choir after all. And I think, largely, that may be so. However, you cannot tell me that a conservative responds to King Lear much differently from a liberal, that, when you have really great literature, as most of our writers produce, available to any side, they respond not to the politics of the situation, but to the humanness of the situation.
Jeffrey Brown: And what's next for this?
Roger Rosenblatt: I'm happy to say we're going to a second season in 2022, having discussions in libraries and in book clubs following each reading for Write America, so that we, in a sense, extend the effect of the thing.
Jeffrey Brown: All right, the project is Write America.
Roger Rosenblatt, thanks so much.
Roger Rosenblatt: Thank you, Jeff.
Judy Woodruff: Great idea from Roger Rosenblatt.