Writing in Hard Times
I write poems, love stories.
One thing I battle with, given that there’s a lot of hurt and a lot of help and caring,
is balancing out the anger with the caring. I don’t want to only write about the
bad stuff, the pain, the politics, the forecast, but I can’t ignore it either. I try wry humor at times, but as Billy Collins says in his workshop, if you’re not funny, don’t try to be funny.
Just read “Liberation Day” for bookclub, after we’ve read “Tenth of December” and “Lincoln in the Bardo”. Seems at times to me a deeper look at “The Semplica Girl Diaries” (which by the way, shook me to the core). I sense despite your humor, perhaps incorrectly, that you’ve wiggled down one step toward darkness in the theme of cleansing the brain, filling with orders to be slaves. Same with your NYer short story (“Thursday”). The world does weigh on us.
We want to speak truth both good and evil, but as an old woman now, I find myself greatly disillusioned by human behavior (despite the past), and don’t wanta to let it blot creativity. How do you do it?
This is a profound and relevant question.
The first answer that occurs to me – and maybe it’s the only one – lies in Flannery O’Connor’s notion that a person can “choose what he writes but can’t choose what he makes live.”
That is, inside the notion, “What should I write in these difficult times?” is the sub-notion that we get to choose – that we write to demonstrate how we feel about the times. But, as O’Connor suggests, maybe we write to find out how we feel about the times. And that might (and I’d say even should) come as a surprise to us.
That is: we don’t have to decide anything. We just have to make the story give off as much light as we can, by the process of exploring it (i.e., revising it).
The goal is to get the story to give off that “light” – that feeling of import; the sense that the story is an alert communique from what Rilke called “…that country they call life;” a country, he claimed, that we would “know by its seriousness.”
I’ve been thinking lately about what a story actually does – its limits and its special beauties. When the world is going crazy, and we’re seeing suffering every day, I think it’s natural to want to write a story “about” that, or in response to that (I often have this impulse myself).
But I think this is to misunderstand the form. The story is a wonderful source of wisdom - a sort of preventative medicine, maybe, to take in quiet moments, to bolster us for when the unquiet times come upon us. It helps us prepare for trouble. We take that medicine in the relatively sane times, knowing that, in the truly crazy times, it may already be too late.
In quiet times, literature can softly show us where the violence is hidden in everyday life – the violence that, in bad times, springs up into a wildfire: those moments when violence is first taking shape, as small misunderstandings, nascent offenses, the beginnings of a grudge, the moment of barely noticed disrespect.
We often talk about karma, which really just means “cause and effect.” Reading and writing fiction can slow down time in such a way that we see where the karmic seeds of violence first appear.
The real magic of art is, I think, that it lets us access a part of the mind that isn’t necessarily available to us on an everyday basis. There’s wisdom there and increased patience. That part of the mind isn’t addicted to “fixing” or “solving” but likes “abiding with” a situation.
And when the shit hits the fan, and things in the real world are heartbreaking and too complicated, and when the first-order reaction is to just go into a room and weep for a week, fiction has, I think, prepared us, at least a little, by giving us some training in how to abide with complexity (with unsolvable sadness, rage, or agitation). Through fiction, we have spent some time already in the land where there are no simple solutions; the land where every action has a (sometimes terrifying) consequence; the land where people are put into escalating conflict; the land of heartbreak without consolation.
Sometimes, I find myself feeling a need to protect my heart a little. I’ve read somewhere that the stomach was designed for certain simple foods and has never really caught up with, say, the Super Colossal Mac-and-Cheese Taco served on a Spicy Bed of Lard Cubes™.
I wonder if, these days, the mind might find itself in a similar fix – designed to work in small, localized settings, with input from a couple of dozen people we know and care about. And then here comes the world, via media, and the poor nervous system starts responding sympathetically, wanting to help, to solve, to intervene, suffering at other people’s hardships, as it should (as it is designed to do), feeling outraged…but because of the shift in scale, it’s being asked to do more than it can realistically do, and the result is agitation and, sometimes (in my experience) despair.
Maybe this requires us to think about how effective that agitation is; about the cost/benefit ratio of certain kinds of reactions.
Someone told me once that despair is the most disempowering emotion. It’s what we should avoid at all costs, because it takes away our clarity and our positivity. (To despair is to (already) lose.)
So: avoiding despair can be a form of positive action. And, for me, writing a little every day is one of my best ways of fighting back against despair. Sometimes, yes, it feels like a guilty pleasure (“Why am I making up a theme park when the world is going all to hell?”) But, in a way, it’s like, you know, eating, or bathing: it might not save the world but 1) it’s not making it worse and 2) it’s putting my heart into fighting shape, should a fight arise in which I can actually make a difference.
Writing and reading are gentle actions, that create subtle tides of gentleness in an ungentle world.
But, to your question:
I notice, from book to book, that different parts of my worldview are always stepping forward and stepping back. In Tenth of December, for all of its surface darkness, there was a sense that, yes, things can get bad, but we aren’t without compensatory resources. In Liberation Day, I can feel part of myself speaking to another part of myself, saying, “Let’s disallow facile peppiness; let’s look at things at their worst, when the types of ‘solutions’ that presented in Tenth of December don’t arrive on time, or at all.”
I didn’t “decide” this; it just happened, because of some complex relation between lived experience and the subconscious. I just worked as hard as I could on every story, and then decided on the order and….there it was: a view.
Both views are part of my true view. Sometimes the problems in the world are such that we have adequate compensatory resources.
And sometimes not.
Like you, dear questioner, I sometimes find myself “greatly disillusioned by human behavior” but whenever I feel this way, I try to do two things: 1) remember times when I was thrilled and moved by human behavior, and 2) attribute that surprise to my own deficiencies as an observer.
If something occurs, it was, just prior to occurring, about to occur. I, as an observer of human nature, would ideally never be surprised. (If a previously friendly dog suddenly bites me, I’m surprised because I have misunderstood his friendliness - as permanent, or fixed – and that’s on me.)
So: if we were great observers of reality, we’d never be surprised. Everything is perfectly caused, in a completely rational way, only we (limited we) can’t see the whole arc.
Well, as if. Of course, we are always (always, every day!) being surprised. And this is because the world is too big for us to ever truly understand it or be able to predict it. What a thing to consider: no matter how long we live, life will always be capable of surprising us, because of the mismatch between Mind, Thinking and World As It Is.
Human beings - we don’t know what they are. Not yet, not fully. The day we do, I suppose, all fiction writing could stop.
But until then….
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