“You Must Never Put Down Your Pen,” by John Degen

“You Must Never Put Down Your Pen,” by John Degen

John Degen, Executive Director, The Writers’ Union of Canada (Photo: Claudette Boekstael)

Note from Mary: I am a member of The Writers’ Union of Canada, and have been for many years. I cannot recommend highly enough the value to writers as individuals and as a community of belonging to this organization. Some of the concrete benefits of membership are outlined here, but there are many less tangible ones as well – such as the sense of community a writer feels as a part of TWUC, and the interesting people she meets. If you are eligible, I encourage you to consider joining.

One of the interesting people I have come to know recently is John Degen, The Writers’ Union’s executive director. This past year, he shepherded my co-presenter Caroline Adderson and me across Canada on a series of writers’ workshops about publishing (soon to be available on video!).  Over our post-workshop dinners, we had some great conversations on writing-related subjects – the kinds of conversations that sustain writers (or at least they do me) when we retreat once more to our own garrets.

In addition to his work with the Union, John is a poet and a fiction writer. His deep convictions about the importance to the world of writers and their writing, and the need to ensure our ability to continue to do (and own) our work, inform everything he does. His column in the most recent (Winter, 2015) edition of Write, the magazine of The Writers’ Union of Canada, speaks to this conviction on many levels.

I read his essay twice, and then asked for (and received) John’s permission to reprint it here. I hope you find it as moving (and wonderfully written, and absolutely true) as I did.

You must never put down your pen

By John Degen

As a student, I worked for a prominent bookstore chain, and I was on duty during the early days of the Salman Rushdie fatwa. Corporate management at my employer had us remove all copies of The Satanic Verses from the shelves, wrap them in brown paper, and store them under the front counter. Our instructions were to “assess” anyone who came into the store looking for a copy of Rushdie’s book. If they looked “harmless,” we would sell them a wrapped copy. I didn’t know then how to differentiate a harmless book-buyer from a dangerous one, and I still don’t. I remember a lot of semi-embarrassed nodding and winking at the cash register. I also remember selling an awful lot of plain-brown copies of The Satanic Verses. All of a sudden, a relatively expensive book with not much more demand than any other was flying out of the store.

Halfway between work and my apartment there was a very small independent bookstore (remember the days when there might be two or more book retailers in a single neighbourhood?). The owner of that store was not one for looking retail horses in the mouth. His entire display window was dedicated to Rushdie’s book. I remember walking in and asking if he wasn’t nervous someone might throw a brick through the glass. He called that possibility “free advertising,” and laughed when I told him what was going on where I worked. I bought my own copy of The Satanic Verses from him.

I began writing this column on January 7, late in the afternoon, after a sickening day of reaction to the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, France. I have worked for and with small, underfunded political magazines for most of my professional life. I was, for a while, chair of the board at THIS magazine in Toronto. Many of my friends also work in this business. I believe I can picture exactly how informal, irreverent and alive that editorial meeting was just before masked gunmen broke through the door. Did they even have to break through? Do magazines lock their doors? When did that start happening?

The violence in Paris is an absurdity and an obscenity. People whose working tools are pens and keyboards suddenly confronted with Kalashnikov automatics? That anyone should be murdered over words and pictures is madness. I remain filled with nausea and anger. I’m also profoundly impatient to get back to my home office and write something.

On January 7, my Twitter feed contained sentiments and pronouncements with which I agreed, and many with which I didn’t. I assume the same is true for everyone reading these words, and I’m betting (maybe even hoping) our individual lists of what we do and don’t agree with might look quite different. I intentionally follow folks on social media whose opinions bother me, because I want diversity of thought all around me, all the time. I want to be challenged and annoyed. I think some of my best work comes from being annoyed.

Barely 24 hours after the attacks, many on social media were injecting nuance into their reflexive support for freedom of expression – removing “Je Suis Charlie” from their streams, and suggesting the puerile, clearly offensive cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo might not be a suitable hill to hold in the fight for free speech. Because I’ve been wandering the front lines of free speech my entire career, I value the existence of those arguments even as I strongly disagree with them.

Similarly, as someone who practices a private faith, I was distressed and even offended by a lot of the immediate anti-religion commentary that followed the attacks. The brilliant Salman Rushdie, whom I will defend to my last breath, called something I sincerely value “a mediaeval form of unreason” that “deserves our fearless disrespect.” These were hard words for me to read, but I’m so glad he said them. I’m so glad he was here to challenge and offend my own thinking. I cherish his fearless disrespect.

There’s a great deal published that I think is complete garbage. Had I paid better attention to it before January 7th, much of the work in Charlie Hebdo would likely have attracted my scorn and dismay. That doesn’t change my mind at all that those of us who deal in words and pictures are to be argued with or ignored, not violently attacked or censored.

By complete coincidence that same awful week in January, I was speaking with a respected colleague at Amazon.ca. You may recall the last issue of Write might have had a few less than complimentary things to say about the large online retailer. We were discussing the possibility of an Amazon response in Write (which I encourage), but we first took time to commiserate about Paris. My colleague became passionate on the phone and said to me, “You must never put down your pen.”

That goes for all of you as well.

© John Degen 2015. Originally published in Write, the magazine of The Writers’ Union of Canada Reprinted with permission of the author.

2 responses

  1. True freedom begins with the right to speak freely. Short of slander or death threats, people should never fear speaking openly about anything. Here in my home state of Texas, gun-rights advocates are quick to defend their precious firearms, but suddenly declare free speech has its responsibilities (meaning, if you disagree with them, you’re wrong). I have no problems with Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Islam. Like its estranged siblings, Judaism and Christianity, Islam is a vile and wicked theology. I used to call Islam a “dog religion,” before I realized how horrible an insult that is to dogs. I especially love to piss off devout Jews, Christians and Muslims; there are few greater joys for me. As writers and bloggers, we naturally have an obligation and a duty to defend free speech. And it must be defended at all costs.

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