When the conference was over, Laz gathered the handouts and picked up his notebook and walked out of the assembly hall into the brilliant Carolina midday sun. Everett emerged from the darkness at the same moment and the two old friends found themselves walking together.
“So what did you think of the conference, Laz?”
He shrugged. “You first.”
Everett laughed. “That pretty much answered my question. I’m about the most idealistic person I know, but I have to tell you I got a little tired of the ‘high-and-mighty’ tone of the speakers.”
“All of them,” Laz agreed, nodding.
“I guess there’s something wrong with me,” Everett continued. “They were saying all the right things and I know I was supposed to agree. Intellectually I’m pretty much right with them. Only . . . well, it’s hard to put into words. Somehow all that righteous indignation put me off.”
“They were self-conscious,” Laz said.
“Self-conscious? How can you say that? They did nothing but brag about themselves and drop names for the whole two days.”
“I mean they were self-conscious not in the ‘shy and embarrassed’ sense, but in the ‘I’m going to put myself in the limelight so you all will admire me’ sense.”
“Ah. Yes, everything they said showed they were mostly conscious of themselves. I think that’s it, Laz. Despite the fact that I agreed with them almost completely in principle, their constant ingratiating attitude just sapped all my enthusiasm. Listening to all those speakers pat themselves on the back, I got to where I thought this was a bragging contest.”
“You know what I kept thinking, Everett?”
“I kept thinking, ‘This is why I’m a writer. This is why I write fiction.’”
“. . . What do you mean?”
“Well, I feel just as strongly as all those speakers did—and pretty much in the same way. And maybe I want to express some of my strong ideas. Only, when a person gets up and makes a speech about a controversial issue, half the potential listeners have already tuned him or her out. And two thirds of those who are on the same side as the speaker are only listening to hear things they agree with.
“On the other hand, when you write a story—if you do it right—you can draw in any reader. You can express your ideas either in what your characters say or in what happens to your characters and how they respond. As a writer you have the ability to show a realistic grasp of both sides of any controversial issue. Most public speakers forget there are two sides to any issue because they’re so busy trying to prove their side is the valid, important one.
“When you write about a controversial issue, you don’t have to make it the center of your story to express it fully. You just work it in. For instance, when I wrote The Medicine People, I deal a lot with the quiet underlying bigotry Native Americans and Western European descendants still harbor for one another but never express out loud. And while it was essential to the story, it didn’t overwhelm the novel. Stories have the power to make an issue live in the mind of the reader the way a speech never can.
“And the best thing about being a fiction writer is, you don’t have to brag to get your point across. The best writer is one whose reader gets absolutely lost in the narrative and—oops! Watch out for the curb, Everett! Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Just clumsy. What were you saying?”
“I don’t remember. Let’s go get lunch.”