When I first started writing commercial fiction, I did what every disciple of Hermione Granger does–I went to the library. I checked out every book on writing commercial fiction I could find. I spent years in my doctoral work poring over GREAT LITERATURE, but when it came to sitting down to writing a bestseller, I had very little understanding of the nuts and bolts of what makes for a compelling plot or engaging characters (arguably, I still don’t, but like everyone else, I’m a WIP). Eventually I stumbled upon Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, and there, I found the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever read or read since. The gist is this: ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen right now?” And then you write exactly that.
In the story of America, as unstable and rocky as such a narrative is and has been, it seems our plot has turned. The worst has happened. All of us who are in the business of storytelling can see all the signs of a grand design involving a great fall, the dark night of the soul, the darkness before the dawn. Yet,such tropes speak to a hero’s journey, where eventually the chosen one will rise up, smote the enemy, and make things right again. As the days go on, though, and the news from Washington grows more and more terrifying, it’s difficult to see how that narrative could be possible. For those of who are in the business of writing commercial fiction, especially for those of us writing romance, we might try to grasp onto a Frodo, a Katniss, a Clare Fraser, a Harry Potter, but increasingly these characters’ plots seem, well, like the fantasies they’ve always been.
Glancing over my twitter feed, I see writers, like me, stunted by writer’s block, paralyzed in front of their laptops, hindered with anxiety and depression. The worlds we built in our heads are crumbling, and what’s left feels like the backdrop of Beckett’s Endgame, wherein the actors recite snippets of long lost dreams over and over again, grasping at something lost. Something they can barely remember and it wouldn’t matter if they did. Writing is hard, but writing in an age of uncertainty and anxiety makes it feel almost impossible.
After the election, I talked to my father. He’s also an artist–a composer–and he offered up this advice (please imagine his Mississippi accent. It works better that way).
“Colleen,” he said. “Look at this man. Look at him. Sooner or later, he’s gonna fuck up. He’s gonna fuck up! And these four years will be a blip in the history of America. Go write your stories. Go write your stories because he’s gonna fuck up.”
Something in these words signaled a turning point for me in my post-election grief, and I’ve been trying to sort it out. Perhaps it has something to do with the juxtaposition between our POETUS’s ineptitude and my own unwavering belief in myself, my ability to do great things, to prevail. Trump will fuck up, but I don’t have to. I don’t have to make these four years about him. I don’t know if a great hero or heroine will emerge from these ashes, but one thing I do know about purveyors of bigotry, violence, nepotism, fascism, and greed is that they tend not to have happy endings. Perhaps not in one generation or the next, but eventually. Villains fuck up. You might not find that chapter in Maass’s book. But villains fuck up. Bigly.
Today, I saw a writer who expressed feeling so deeply pained and anxious about the current political state of things, but she felt it would be “cowardice” to leave America. It’s in these moments I think of writers who chose exile over direct political engagement like James Baldwin or James Joyce. James Joyce chose to flee Ireland for the Continent in the heat of the Irish Revolution so he could pursue his writing career. Can you imagine? And yet, he went on to write some of the greatest modern literature of the 20th century.
Reading through this writer’s tweets, I recalled a poem called Station Island by Seamus Heaney. Over the course of the poem, several ghosts visit Heaney who, himself, is haunted by his decision whether or not to leave Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Heaney had been very active in literary political activist groups, most notably the Field Day collective. Riddled with guilt and anxiety, at the end of the poem, Heaney visits the last station and the ghost of James Joyce confronts him. Joyce tells him:
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you do you must do on your own.
The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night
dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,
so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’
What Joyce (vis-a-vis Heaney) is saying here is there is no “common rite” to being an artist, meaning that there are no rules to this gig. The only obligation is to writing and to cultivating that “work-lust” for it. Heaney has listened to the many ghosts and speakers at Station Island, but now he has to take all that and go forward and “strike [his] note.” Joyce goes on to say:
‘The English language
belongs to us. You are raking at dead fires,
rehearsing the old whinges at your age.
That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,
infantile, like this peasant pilgrimage.
You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim
out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo-soundings, searches, probes, allurements,
elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.’
Basically what Joyce is telling Heaney is that following the rules and doing what is expected of him is keeping him from fulfilling his deeper artistic purpose: “You lose more of yourself than you redeem/doing the decent thing.” Writers need to swim out on their own, find their voices, keep seeking and searching. Like Heaney, part of that paralysis we might feel stems from having new boundaries hoisted upon us, new rules for the “politically-engaged writer,” obligations to speak up, but in ways that already seem prescribed for us. If we need to step away and find our more authentic voice, then that is what we need to do. Baldwin, Joyce, Heaney, and so many other writers learned that in their own time, and our generation under this autocrat will have to learn it anew.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t be both–politically engaged and creative–but that we need to forgive ourselves when we find ourselves needing to step away lest our writing becomes more slogans than seeking. More divisive than exploratory. After all, for many Americans in this generation we are in brand new territory without a map or even a light to guide us. If we need to go out on our own to create these new pathways, then perhaps, years from now, our children will inherit more than our fears and our anxieties. Maybe they’ll actually inherit a world worth saving.