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Literary Activism Explained

Updated: 1 day ago

September 11, 2023


This article serves as a transcription for a podcast episode featuring Margaret Beaver. The original episode is available here.

 

Abigail Meyers: So, since you're a jack-of-all-trades in between your mental health activism, writing, and all of your other activities, do you have anything else on your bucket list that you hope to accomplish?


Margaret Beaver: My bucket list doesn't really contain more objectives; my bucket list is really just to further my current objectives.


MB: So, for instance, I would really love to be able to collaborate with mental health and literary initiatives in a degree of accessibility of treatment, education, the arts, things of that sort. That’s sort of my ultimate pursuit, being able to sustain a position that is actively and directly impacting people, rather than sort of being on the sidelines, as I am right now.


AM: Absolutely.


MB: I'm also really big on LGBT advocacy, especially since I'm part of that community. And I would love to, you know, partner with agencies for good: I follow a lot about the Trevor Project. That would be amazing to collaborate with them.


AM: I love the Trevor Project.


MB: I would just, I'd love to do something to that degree, just to do more in that direction. I know I've started in that direction, but I haven't gotten that far. And I just want to further that.


AM: Yeah. You have all kinds of time.


MB: I do, I do. I'm only a part-time student so that I can work as well. Work is my main priority, and I decided a long time ago that my life wasn't about what I could do for me, but about what I could do for other people as well. So that's kind of what motivates me outside of myself.


AM: That's very interesting. And so is the topic of literary activism that you mentioned several times. Could you explain that a little bit more? Because the first time I'd ever heard that was from you.


MB: I deal in fiction primarily; I know that my first publication is technically a nonfiction since it’s a poetry collection, but in my head, I deal primarily in fiction. I write fiction stories, and so I come up with a lot of strange terms sometimes and that was just what I landed on.


MB: I am what I like to call a “literary activist”—a totally made-up term. How I define it is someone who channels their social advocacy into their fascination for storytelling and influencing—and someone who, ultimately, hopes the world will understand what they're trying to say, rather than skew what they’re saying and make them look bad.


MB: I've always been a writer and I've always been a cheerleader for social reform—but separately. And so, I decided to combine those two things, and because those two things just make up my entire personality—that’s pretty much it.


MB: And for anyone who needs a visual picture of what literary advocacy is, I always like to use Angie Thomas and her book The Hate U Give as an example, because to me, that is literary activism at its finest, or at its pinnacle. The Hate U Give, you know, that’s a written story that motivates sociopolitical thought and conversation through progressive and reformist narratives—that is it. That is literary activism.


MB: And that’s what I’m trying to pursue because A) it just totally matches my ambitions and my personality—I’ve always been kind of a cheerleader for the underdog and all that—and B) I don’t see a ton of it. You know, it’s, it’s very much marginalized. There’s just not a lot about it.


MB: I understand that a lot of times people use reading as an entertainment—and I understand that completely—but when they think of reading as an entertainment, they sort of ex-out everything that's, you know, serious. Or anything that sort of scrapes the surface of anything with more depth than what’s solely entertaining.


MB: And so, when people only read for entertainment rather than education or understanding, you know, they're not going to read things like literary activism. They're not going to tune into those channels. And so, because of that, you know, a lot of people, a lot of writers, even though they might have great ability, they don't write, you know, in the category of literary activism, because it's not very marketable as a result, because there's not many people reading into it.


MB: So I just, I don't know, I just kind of wanted to make my own thing and see how that went. And honestly, I don't really care if it's marketable. It's me, it's what I enjoy to do, and my ambition is to just do it well enough and long enough that eventually it will become marketable.


MB: So if I have to pay my own path in that way, then so be it. I mean, it's going to be a pain, but whatever; I've always been someone who makes things harder than they have to be, so I assume I'm going to take the hardest route ever. I could do something really simple, but that just wouldn't be as much fun.


AM: Yeah, absolutely. So you mentioned Angie Thomas, who I adore. I'm so glad you brought her up. How can other authors become literary activists?


MB: I know it seems like a really daunting task, but for me, it can be achieved very easily, even if you're not so in tune and you're not so familiar with what literary activism is. For me, I think that other authors, they could very easily become literary activists by simply channeling their opinions and perspectives of timely social issues.


MB: The main idea is it being timely, because what is timely is marketable. If it's not timely, and you're writing about a social problem that's already essentially been fixed or accomplished in its majority, then people don't really necessarily want to hatch out the past. So you kind of need to make sure that what you're writing about is timely.


MB: And after you choose your topic, you know, you write your nonfiction or fiction—whatever—it could be a memoir; it could be a poetry collection, like what I’ve done; it could be a fictional adaptation of something that actually happens. And you just make sure that you write it in an educational and authentic way.


MB: As an example, I would say, let's say that you're very passionate about access to reproductive care and abortion. That's a very controversial, that's a very timely topic. You could very easily play on the opposition of that social issue, and you could write—I'm just thinking of this off the top of my head—you could write this heartbreaking tale about, you know, a young girl whose life is taken from her because she didn't have access to abortion care, and she died because of it.


MB: That actually happens all the time. You know, fiction or not, it could be a memoir, something that actually happened—and that actually happens—or it could be a story with a made-up girl where you put her into that situation that, again, actually happens. You know, making an exterior argument an intimate and internal issue—that's the goal.


MB: So many people have this notion that “Oh, it'll never happen to me, so why do I need to worry about it? Why do I need to advocate for it?” But if you make a story that's so much more singular and personal, it's more easily conceivable, maybe then people will finally understand. And that's the whole point of literally activism right there: not necessarily making people agree, but making people understand.


MB: So that, that's necessarily my take on it.


AM: Yeah, absolutely. So you mentioned that you were a part-time student and that work is your main priority and everything. So what is a typical day in your life for you?


MB: This is a hard question. I know that it sounds very simple, but considering my life, it's kind of a difficult question, mainly because, personally, I tend to hibernate and isolate away from people. That's kind of just my preferred way of being and especially considering, you know, my profession is writing—writing is done primarily in solitude. You know, being an author is just an isolating profession in general. You could hear that from so many other people. So my typical days aren't necessarily eventful.


MB: My poetry collection, inkwells., which was released last year in June of 2022, that was a collection that chronicles my journey of mental health issues and self-discovery as I was experiencing them. And since, you know, I have a record, I have a track history with struggling with mental health issues, I deal every day with chronic fatigue as a symptom of the anxiety medication that I take.


MB: My mother and I, we've collaborated with so many different doctors and we’ve tried probably half a dozen stimulants, but nothing could really combat how tired it made me. So, lately, I've just been readjusting to my life of having to take one to two naps a day, just to survive and be slightly productive. I can get maybe two hours of work in in the mornings before I crash—and I'm a part-time college student as well, so “work” could mean either schoolwork or writing and editing—and then once I come back up in the afternoons, sometimes I try to get more work done or I just give up because of the exhaustion and I'll end up playing a video game or watching a movie or something.


MB: It's, it's very mellow and it's very restricting and it can be excessively irritating knowing that you're pretty barred from your own life. And when you do have energy, you feel you have to work—or I feel I have to work—for the few hours that I can just so I feel like the day wasn't completely wasted. I know that that's not a very fun thing to hear, but that's kind of my current predicament and has been for several years.


MB: I do very much enjoy my work though, so I'm not, I'm not totally miserable. You know, I'm not forced to work a job I hate; I'm very lucky in that respect. So I didn't, I didn't come on here just to complain; I just wanted to give sight to the fact that that's just the reality of people with mental illness: you get on medication and you have to deal with side effects.


MB: And a lot of people have this notion that you have a problem, you get medicated for it, and you're totally fine—that's not necessarily the case for many people. I would still very much recommend, you know, being medicated, as it's very helpful, but you do still have to cope with those side effects. And I've never heard of anyone dealing with constant fatigue like how I have, you know; I knew that it was always a side effect, but I've never heard somebody's intimate struggle with it. I've never encountered somebody's day-to-day battle with just being constantly exhausted but wanting to do so much.


MB: So it's, it's a constant struggle, but I'm very lucky to have my mother; despite it all, she still manages to make life fun and make me feel inspired. She's a fellow artist; it totally matches her personality. She's very colorful, very vibrant. She tells really bad jokes, but, you know, we've come to accept it.


AM: I'm right there with you with the chronic fatigue. Personally, it's a combination of mental health and autoimmune issues. I'm not medicated for my mental health, but I am on autoimmune medication. And so, chronic fatigue: I totally feel you. You were describing it and I was like, “You are hitting the nail on the head. This is the story of my life.”


MB: I'm glad, but I'm so sorry. It sucks!


AM: It does—you get it. You know exactly what I mean.


MB: Yeah, yeah, I had to forego my afternoon naptime to be able to be here. I'll have to take a cup of coffee after this, but yeah, it's just not— There’s so many other symptoms like with autoimmune diseases or with mental health, and so fatigue kind of gets put way down the list because it’s so silently debilitating.


MB: You know, you just think of “Oh, there's so many ways to combat it"—you know, you drink coffee, you drink energy drinks, and you’ll be fine—but, you know, sometimes it’s just so strong there’s really nothing you can do but to cope with it.


AM: I mean, I don't drink coffee or caffeine or really anything, so I’m running on total adrenaline throughout the day. Personally, I do not recommend; I really, really wish I liked coffee. I think that would really give me the feeling that I needed throughout the day, but…


MB: Yeah, well, I have to tell you: I drink one cup in the morning every day. And that one cup, I don’t know, maybe it makes me awake for about 30 more minutes a day, but when you have it so much over time, you just get used to it. And then you just feel nothing.


MB: So you just kind of now drink coffee for the hell of it. There’s no reason. You’re basically doing it now to, you know, keep yourself from having headaches because of lack of caffeine.


MB: So, yeah, I wish I said that coffee helps, but I, you know, I don't think it does. So you’re not missing out on anything.


AM: Everybody drinks it for the hell of it nowadays anyway.


MB: It tastes good.


AM: To each their own. Moving onto more of the mental health activism: What kind of inspired you to really incorporate that into the work that you do?


MB: Well, I touched on it a little bit previously as I spoke about my, uh, poetry collection, which is called inkwells. I first began collecting an interest in the subject when I was about 12 years old—I say 12 years old because that was the cornerstone of my life; that was the complete turnaround from being totally fine to completely mentally debilitated.


MB: I started really adopting, you know, severe symptoms of common mental disorders: generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder—that’s just a fancy word for depression—and, over the years, a few years later, I was diagnosed with PTSD. And across all of this, you realize the scale of hereditary illness. And you kind of feel a little bit resentful against your family because it’s almost— There’s almost a thought in your head like, “This is your fault.” Like, “You gave this to me; this is your gene. Take it away.”


MB: I’ve personally gotten passed that now, but when I was 12, I was just— When you’re 12 years old, you’re just really pissed at everything. So you always find someone to blame, right?


MB: When I started trying to pursue my recovery, you know—therapy, medication—I sort of became a student of this unconventional study. You know, when standing by during these vast explanations of my conditions from physicians, practitioners, psychologists, psychiatrists, whatever. And I endured a lot of different therapies, each with their own successes and losses. And when you just, when you're tossed around from appointment to appointment, you kind of lose a sense of self in the process. And, you know, you’re just submerged in these symptoms that you can't distinguish: you think it’s a part of your personality and then you talk to a doctor and they're like, “No, that is actually depression,” and you’re like, “Oh, but I’ve done that my whole life. I thought it was just me.” No, it’s not.


MB: So, in short, my brain accidentally introduced mental health activism to myself. I’ve always wanted to further my comprehension regarding the operation of the brain, you know, the skill of disorder, and in the process of educating myself about my condition, I’ve become aware to, you know, all the millions of other people who are enduring similar things—and at degrees that are both worse and better than mine.


MB: And my mental health activism just originated as a wanting to better understand what had become of me because I was, I was so happy. I was just a normal kid. I was so happy. And then, you know, you just, when you fade so gradually, you don't notice a shift. And, you know, when it happens just slowly over the years, you just don't notice it. It was my mother, actually, who noticed it. It just originated because I just wanted to feel more validated because genuinely no one around me understood the length of my symptoms or the comprehensiveness of my disorders. And in some cases that, that incomprehension, you know, it worsened my symptoms.


MB: And there are just people who were flat out refusing to be considerate of it. You know, the insensitivity. It’s like, “I’m already insensitive to myself. I already invalidate my symptoms. I don’t need it from anyone else.” So you have that extra external pressure that kind of makes everything worse.


MB: So, now, my mental health activism, you know, it isn't just about me. I've become educated enough—I don’t way to say I’m a master of mental health, or I’m a master of mental disorder, but I’m pretty educated now. I’m pretty stable in my understanding of my disorders, and, you know, how to cope—because everyone has their different coping mechanisms. Not the same thing works for every single person; it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. And it isn't just about me, you know; it's about the world and this massive psychological epidemic we’ve found ourselves in, and how we can better support each other and these parts of ourselves that we will always indefinitely have.


MB: You know, there's just, there's no use in denying it. Just accept it, identify it, and try to get better. That's really all you can do. And it's a lot easier than people think it is. It's not, it's not scary. It's not as scary as people think.


AM: So, kind of transitioning onto a bit of a lighter note—


MB: Now that I’ve depressed everyone who’s listening!


AM: Like, this is so, this is so deep.


MB: I’m sorry!


AM: Don’t apologize; I was totally here for it!


MB: We’re here to be depressed!


AM: Yes, and psych is absolutely, it’s an absolutely fascinating subject.


MB: I'm majoring in psychology right now at college because I'm like, “I don’t know what else to major in.” That’s pretty much been my whole life: writing and trying to figure out myself. That’s it.


AM: Yeah, so where do you see yourself in 10 years? Do you see yourself still writing or maybe pursuing psych as a career?


MB: I'm very big on, maybe, manifesting, so I don’t want to say anything negative because then I'm going to jinx it. But I think of the future in a vague sense. Of course, there are things that I want. My mother, when I was talking to her about these questions, she said, “Tell them you want to be a Pulitzer Prize winner!” Like, Mom, everyone wants to be a Pulitzer Prize winner. They don’t care.


MB: But in 10 years, I think it just all comes down to the internal: I would just want to be successful and I would want to be happy. That's just something everyone struggles with, right: happiness? And hopefully just living in a world that's in a much, much better state, so that we don't have to advocate so much. You know, advocacy, it wouldn't even need to exist if people just left other people alone. You know, people just help one another, and activism would just cease to exist. So I would like to advocate to the extent that the whole field just doesn't even have to exist anymore. That's the goal.


MB: I'd like to maybe travel a little bit. Now, I'd like to see or have seen some things despite traveling being very exhausting. And for someone who already deals with fatigue, it feels like that's impossible. But I'd like, I'd like to figure out how I could travel because there are things I'm going to absolutely have to do and force myself to do despite all the symptoms.


AM: Traveling is totally, totally worth it.


MB: I hope so. I really do.


AM: I'm very lucky; I get to travel a lot and I'm very, very grateful I get to do that. It's 100% worth it.


MB: Okay. I'll take your word for it.


AM: Honestly, like, if I'm seeing something that is on my bucket list of things that, you know, I want to see before I die or something, I lay my eyes on it and I'm like, “Oh, I'm totally normal. I’m not experiencing fatigue; I’m not experiencing X, Y, or Z.”


MB: Gaslight yourself into being okay.


AM: Actually, it gets me really living in the moment and I kind of forget about all my problems—so good stress relief.


MB: Yeah, I was, I was really nervous about this podcast and my mom said, “Well, of course you're nervous.” I was just thinking, “No, you're supposed to tell me that this is totally invalid and that this, this emotion doesn't exist.” Like, that does not help me. Don’t validate me; you’re just going to feed it.


AM: Don't invalid how you're feeling, but don't also— I don’t want you to be nervous.


MB: Yeah, don’t stew—that’s the thing. It's hard to find that balance between validating what you're feeling and also just making it worse by acknowledging it so much. I have not found that balance yet.


AM: It's a very exhausting back and forth sort of cycle and it's a struggle to find the happy medium. Do you have anything else you want to add?


MB: I didn't talk about the one thing that I actually had on my list to talk about.


AM: Go for it.


MB: Well, you asked me, you know, how I incorporate my activism work into my writing, and I know that I've mentioned my poetry collection. I've said that, like, five times. You know, it was written when I was 14—that was really the height of my relapse because I’d been ignoring my symptoms for so many years. And so, once I was finally seeking treatment, I was in the rock bottom, absolutely. Had never been worse in my entire life. And so that's how inkwells. was born.


MB: It’s a collection of about 40 poems—it’s a long, it’s a long one. I’d like to think it’s good; it might not be. I don’t know. But for how sensitive the content is, inkwells. was easy. It was a very easy, smooth, deliberate process—I came up with a poem every few days; sometimes I wrote multiple poems in one day—and then once I began feeling better and my symptoms were more manageable, I collected all those pages and those files that I'd found just strewn all over my computer. I put a random file and a random poem here and I’d find them all over the place; I’m still finding them today when I go through my files.


MB: I hadn't meant to write as many as I did. But when I had collected them all and put them all into one document, I realized that I had written 20,000 words. And I was like, “Oh, I could, I could do something with that. You know, I should do something with that. This was years of my life; I should do something with that.” So I did, and it was published last year.


MB: But there's one thing that I like to say specifically about it: for people who aren’t struggling, this collection is knowledge; for people who are struggling, this collection is validation. So, either way, no matter where you are on the spectrum, you're always going to come out with something. There's always going to be something you grasp or something you gain from reading—either from this collection or just from the memoirs and experiences of other people with their issues. It's always just so educating in general.


MB: I'm still continuing my activism on the fictional front as well. In terms of recency, my debut novel, which is called Flowers for Papa, is finally coming to—somewhere—to a press near you in either late 2023 or early 2024—no official publication date yet, but it should be on its way shortly. And very rarely am I able to be proud of what I create, but I am sincerely proud of this book: it’s an intimate and penetrating testament to the importance of men’s mental health—because men’s, especially, is very dismissed—and dismantling the negative social constructs against male expression and affection. It also succeeds in LGBT representation, which, as I said before, that’s always an endeavor.


MB: So I've also been working on a lot of other things in the meantime—because I'm a workaholic and I'm just always working. In later works, you’ll notice that I also enjoy writing very extensive commentaries surrounding humanity and how humanity just can't exist when bigotry does as well. So there's always some sort of narrative I'm perpetrating; there's always something underneath what's recognized on the surface. And that is very, very much on purpose. If you ever read my work—a book or a poem or whatever—and you think, “Oh, there might be a double meaning behind this,” there definitely is—because that's just who I am as a person. I'm very elusive, and I do that on purpose.


AM: Thank you so much for talking to you.


MB: Thank you for having me, and this magazine. I can be reached, and you can learn all you need to know, all the news about these upcoming projects, on my blog and on my website, www.margaretbeaverbooks.com.

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