Writing in Hard Times
Dear Questioner who writes Love Poems, who writes Poetry: I love you for this. I love your question and I love your willingness to ask it. You say you are an old woman and that you are disillusioned by the behavior of your fellow humans, and I want to ask: are you really? For if you have lived a long time, you have lived through terrible times, yes, but you have also seen change happen, positive change. The road to beauty is pocked with holes and sand traps, but it’s always there. That’s not to say that I, too, am not also disillusioned. I am out of my mind at the current moment. And I am something I’ve never been before in my life. I am somewhat panicked. I calm myself by looking around, by grounding my reality, by drinking the coffee my husband brings me, by gazing at the olive tree in my yard. I am okay, right now. I am here. And I am communicating with you, you lovely old woman, who worries for the future. I extend my hand toward yours, right here, right now. I tell you we will get through these awful times. I imagine you writing a love story right now. It is the story of your life. It is a long, intricate poem, with many ups and downs. And it sings in harmony with my story, with my long, intricate poem. Am I crazy? Or are we here, together? I hope you will write what you will write, as George says. There is no right or wrong, only the page and your heart on the page. Be well.
Just when I get tired of calling Story Club Therapy Club, a situation arises that makes it inevitable. This place is so incredible. I have tears in my eyes after this one. Thank you gifted and sweet questioner for allowing yourself to be so vulnerable in public, to share this with us, thousands of your closest friends. And thank you George, you incredibly f---- wise and insightful teacher and observer of life, who can take someone's wail of pain and reflect it into a song of hope and beauty. I mean really, how did I get here? I am too lucky. This place is too good.
A (slightly) alternative view (although maybe it’s really just another version): sometimes despair can be liberating. When you drop all pretenses of hopefulness, you can become grateful for everything, and move forward, perhaps without hope, yet with love, and resolve.
Such a wise, wonderful question and such a thoughtful response from George. I’ve lately not been able to engage with fiction and read/write as much and therefore the external world and despair from world events hits harder these days - couldn’t have asked for a better response than this as a salve for this moment from George. I might actually print this and put it by my writing desk to remind myself to read/write - especially when the world bears down:
“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.”
Recently, I've been thinking about writing a story about the Columbine shooting in order to give it meaning in my head. The story touched my family directly--three sons/stepsons at Columbine (none hurt), friends killed, one of the killers having attended prom with one of my sons, funerals, profound sadness, and a dozen kids hanging out at my house trying to make sense of it all. (They never really did.) It was also a brutally difficult time for me.
This is not a confessional, I promise, but I think some of the craziness in the world today is what's making me want to write about Columbine as a form of sense making.
My best to all of you. We write, we read, we live, we cry, we hug, we pray, we love.
There's a Talmudic teaching that when it comes to making the world whole: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Your answer, George, reminds me of this and of how we as writers, by writing honestly and from the heart, with self-knowledge and self-questioning are, at our best, at least not desisting from the call to work toward wholeness.
"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." Thank you dear questioner and dear George--this is such an insightful, wise way to frame the world, the necessity of fiction in finding and imagining deeper truths, and of reckoning with a world as it is. Fiction lets us imagine a different reality--not as an escape but as seeking, inventing, learning, thinking about the world that might better match our minds thinking. I love this post so much and am so grateful to be in community with writers and readers like this, who ask vulnerable hard questions, and for a response that meets it with such care and wisdom. Thank you George. 💜
As one of my writing teachers always said, the story is smarter than you are. We don't do much decide what to write as decode what we have written, by trusting in our gut and seeing what comes together.
I have a newsletter about this coming out in a couple of days, but stories are kind of magic, the way they can connect people through space and time. And in the worst of times, that magic, whether creating it or receiving it, can be such a balm.
I loved this: "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."
My father wrote a book called the 'Look of Distance - Reflections on Suffering and Sympathy in Modern Literature'. He died before the internet but I want him to be part of this conversation, so I'm sharing some of his words. In his introduction he wrote: "...the debate is about whether the reading and teaching of literature can be decent occupations in a universe so much ordered by suffering as this one and about the appropriateness of various responses to suffering--by authors, fictional characters, and readers.... it is about whether in my reading and teaching I am performing something ugly, voyeuristic, and evasive or am doing one of the best and least harmful things I know how to do."
I decided when in college that I couldn't be a world leader and save the world or even part of it, but I could be nice to the people around me, and in writing (and reading) fiction, it is important to me that there be a glimmer of hope somewhere no matter how dark the material. I am continually inspired by the memoir of a holocaust survivor who was a child in a concentration camp. I don't remember her actual words, but one day in the camp, she walked past a beautiful tree and she saw the beauty of the tree and was glad of it.
Oh, dear questioner----anybody with the heart & strength to ask such a question as to how to get through already has the answer within her! I, too, am an old woman---oh, let me correct: old-ish, my dotage far ahead of me, if my calculations are right---and I've seen & experienced, like you, lots, and, in unequal measure, joy & heartbreak & everything in between. Through it all, reading & writing have been my sustenance, as, clearly, they have been for you. What gets me through, every time, is beauty. By which I mean I read a beautiful sentence. Which, because it is beautiful, is already true. And then I try to write one. Just one. I fail more often than I succeed, but it is in the attempt that I'm sustained. I think we've all been through too much, and it seems as if this might be recently so but I think that the awful times have always been with us, that there's really no escaping them so much as there is abiding. We may, as "old" women, or older humans of whatever form, have come to our full measure of what we can bear, the horribleness of it all, and maybe that's what's wearing you out, wearing us all out. But I say again, that if you can find one thing of beauty, just one---and I, as I believe you also, find this thing most often in the written word, one beautifully written sentence, and that if you try, within your poetic powers, to answer with your own beauty, you will be if not saved, exactly, then certainly buoyed, made able to survive. Beauty, in all its various forms, is what I believe it comes down to, what keeps us all.
To the questioner - if you ever doubt the power of your words to cast light, just look at George's answer, and the conversation below. You have - with just 200 words - helped us see what a community we are, how at times we share the same feelings of despair, how we persevere despite of it. Just sharing this stuff - and realising we are not alone - eases the burden, just a little.
Becoming a writer - perhaps inevitably, and by necessity - involves an increase in empathy. With that increased empathy, if we all look at every aspect of the world that needs to be addressed, we will be overwhelmed. But to know there are such caring people out there - writers who are trying their best to write stories that matter, that move people - helps me accept on a truly deep level that I don't have to address every aspect of the world that needs addressing.
If I attempt any of this whilst (mistakenly) imagining I am alone, it will be like being the only blood donor in the world. If I give all of my blood in one go, that's it, I'll never give blood again; and even giving all of my blood will only help a tiny number of people. Knowing that there are other donors means I can give a little blood, take the time for my body to replace it, then give again.
Thank you, thanks George, and thanks to you all for helping me see this. It is a precious gift, and one I appreciate very, very deeply.
This is one of the most beautiful and astute observations I’ve read about the nature and purpose of literature, perhaps because you’ve delivered it with such warmth and caring. And a beautiful question as well. I am so enriched by this conversation.
Garrgh, this: " Iwonder 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." I think this is so true, and that's where stories are a salve and why they have to focus in on the specific, the detail, and through the grain of sand reveal something of the universe to us, because we can understand so little, which is both our flaw as a species and (I hope) our saving grace. The world is too big for our little brains but stories become a filtration system for us - both in by stories we hear and read and out in the stories we tend and grow and put out on the page. Thank you for all of these words.
What a profoundly important question!
I too feel the pull of despair if I engage too closely with the darkness in the world.
What I tend to focus on are images and thoughts of hope. As someone [I forget who] told their child, 'Even in the worse disaster, if you look, there are people trying to help'.
The truth is, I don't watch the news on television, I don't listen to the news on the radio, I don't read newspaper articles about any of the horror and darkness in the world. Not because I don't care, but because to open the door even the slightest crack to any of this darkness is, for me, to be overwhelmed. It will infect my heart, my mind, my body, my soul.
I will drown in it.
I will be lost.
I still have a sense of what's going on in the world; I just avoid engaging with it in a way that makes me feel like a direct witness, who is doing nothing about it.
I guard my mental, emotional and spiritual health rigorously. Spending time with family and friends; doing tai chi; getting out for walks, preferably in the countryside; not drinking too much alcohol; protecting my sleep patterns - there's quite a list. Given how isolating being a writer can be, I find it absolutely essential to find things to act as ballast and counterbalance.
Not engaging with darkness is an absolutely vital part of that list.
I do not ignore completely what's going on in the world. This is part of the reason I write: I can engage with a single issue for a time, as long as I feel I'm doing SOMETHING about it. I don't fool myself that writing a play will make any real or lasting difference in the world; I just merely try to shine a little light.
That is all I can do. I can only look at one issue at a time, and even then not forever. I am not built to wrestle with darkness. This is not a choice; if I even try, the darkness will win.
And sometimes - just sometimes - you find out you have made a difference. Someone really 'gets' what you were trying to say with a piece of work, or someone thanks you for taking their struggles seriously enough to put pen to paper, even though that issue doesn't affect you directly.
I've even had questions asked in the Irish Parliament, because of some of what my research for a play about the Irish mother and baby home system uncovered. It's not much; but it's not nothing.
The little things we do, do make a difference.
"Human beings - we don’t know what they are. Not yet, not fully. The day we do, I suppose, all fiction writing could stop." It is comforting to know that we will never fully know. Or else, or and, the human portrait can change in a nano-second. I love creating a character I think is "good," and then have him or her turn and do something truly damaging. Or vice versa. And I also love getting a character at a crossroads of understanding. And duck. Maybe a seed of comprehension has been planted. But as in life - maybe not.
Thank you for helping us along the road of recovery in our violent and estranged world. I have long believed that writing should provoke thought and, when needed, be a call to action. It's good you have reminded us that writing can also be other things, important things, which are to be valued.