Writing Fiction After Trump: How Do Writers Do It?
By Becky Tuch
Trying to write this past week, and every time I sit down to my work, I am reminded of what it feels like to go for my morning run. You see, I’ve got a 15-month-old baby at home. In the mornings, she is generally calm, happy to play around our living room, tugging on this, yanking on that. But the moment she sees running shoes on my feet and keys in my hand, she begins to cry. Forget about saying, “Bye bye!” as I head to the door. There are wrenching tears before I can even explain that I’ll be back in no time at all.
For me to go--and I must go, I must--my boyfriend has to stand in front of her, ask her questions, show her toys, sing a song, whatever it takes so that I can slowly slip away and go do my sanity-saving thing for thirty minutes. By the time I’m back, she’s fine. It’s just that moment, that minute in which she sees that I am leaving and becomes frightened. The transition is a hard one.
Right now, upon the election of Donald Trump for President, much of the world around me is crying. Literally and figuratively. My Facebook feed is full of friends expressing anger, sadness, grief, terror. I feel it. I am right there with all of you who are hurting. Though I suspected that Trump would win from the beginning, the grief of his actual win is no small thing. I feel the deep worry about hate crimes, increased policing, the deportation and harassment of immigrants, disregard for refugees, sexist policies that will set us back half a century, economic policies that will hurt the already disenfranchised, not to mention worry about our planet, our relations with other countries, the stock market, and on and on. Like many of you, I’ve felt a discomfort in my own skin that I’ve not been able to shake. A burning. What now? Where do we go? What can I do? Who do I turn to? What will happen to the people I love? How do we protect each other?
And still, always, there is the work of writing fiction. Before the election, I was in the midst of revising a short story that is part of a collection. Is this story important? I don’t know. Is it meaningful? I don’t know. I believe these are questions writers are always asking. How does this story about [family dysfunction, a broken marriage, my ex…] measure up in the face of catastrophic disease, world hunger, global wars, climate change, police brutality…
Most often questions like these lead nowhere. When I ask them of myself, I end up blocked, stifled. The answer, often, is that the story does not measure up. It will never measure up. I do not believe that the fiction I write will change how people think, or get them to behave in a certain way. Sure, it would be nice if it did. And sometimes I convince myself that it will. But I can’t guarantee that. Who knows what sort of effect one’s work will have on readers, or if it will have any effect at all?
What I do know for sure is that I love writing. I love working out the machinations of a scene, twisting and turning it so that it is finally in the exact shape I need it to be. Doing this work also clears my head, puts me in a state of engagement and alertness in other aspects of my life, in a way I wouldn’t be were I not writing. Though I do hope my work connects with readers and lightens their load in some way (perhaps complexifies it in others), I also know that, like the morning run that keeps me sane, the work of writing fiction sustains my life.
And yet. How does one turn away from the crying world in order to tend to the private task of scene setting, character building, storytelling? How does one look at so much hurting, so much pain out there, and say, “Sweetheart, I will be right back. I just need to do this thing. I promise this is good for both of us.”
The answer is surely different for every writer. And I believe there is no right answer. Your work might change in the face of political turmoil, it might not. I would hope that every writer already writes with an eye toward social justice and a sense of responsibility to speak against oppression and intolerance. But I know, not all writers do. And even if they do, this means different things to different people.
In light of all that has happened recently, I asked my writer friends, specifically those who write fiction, how they get themselves to the page, how they have been showing up for their work (or not) during these very trying times. Below are their responses. And, to all of you trying to pick up your pen, for those of you for whom it is especially hard right now, I salute you. It is hard right now. You are not alone.
I have had no trouble at all writing this week--quite the opposite. After a man on the T said to me, "Go back to your country," I thought, "Are you trying to silence me???" While I have never considered myself an ardent activist (the last time I marched in a protest rally was when George W. announced his plans to invade Iraq), in that moment I was fully reminded of how the best sort of writing is a form of activism. So I have been working on my novel with two mantras in mind: 1. I will not be silenced, never. And 2. I have to pour everything I have into my writing, everything I know to be true, to make my work as powerful as it can be. Because this is no time for whisperings and half-baked messages; rather, it is a moment to speak up for what I know to be true.
Nothing. I am in full-on depression mode. Hoping to shake out of it soon.
I can't. There's an empathy that I need that I am having trouble mustering right now. And a depth of thought. It's hard to focus.
I was supposed to return today, but I can't get off the internet.
Weirdly, as exhausted as I am by the sheer volume of feelings I'm experiencing about this election, I've been writing more, and better, than I have in months. Part of it is out of sheer stubbornness –– I was two chapters away from sending my book out and I'll be damned if I'm letting that motherfucker screw up my deadline in addition to this country. Part of it is also that, starting on Tuesday, I shut off Facebook and Twitter and haven't been back on since (until now, and I'm logging right back off after I finish this comment). Instead, I've been reading authors that give me comfort in times of upheaval, mostly Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson, authors that make me focus and think deeply (as opposed to the awful pinball game my mind became during this stupid election, with one thing after the next forcing my attention away from my writing), and force me to empathize, even with difficult people, even with total and utter monsters. And part of it is also probably that my novel is basically about political upheaval and the effect it has on relationships, so in some ways, I feel more at home writing it than now than ever. Whatever the reason, I feel less afraid to write what feels true than I did a week ago. So that's something.
I've been about 50 pages from finishing my novel for months. It has nothing to do with the election or related issues, and I've had a very hard time tearing my attention away from the world I live in to work on it. I had a few ideas about what my NEXT book might be, and the election results have helped me to make that decision. It's a project that will allow me to process what's happening and maybe, perhaps say something about it. So: now I want to hurry and finish my current project so I can get down to that.
I haven't yet, because the urgency of the political situation has eclipsed, for now, the urgency I've felt to write fiction. But I'm headed home from FL today, and will be back at my desk tomorrow, doing my best.
Yes, I have. I've been working on a novel with political ramifications. I feel more motivated than ever.
I push myself to write my 5 pages each day (of my ever-crappier first draft) because if I don't finish, I don't get paid. But I do it through incredible pain, fear & anger. It is hard to get lost in a world of fiction (reading or writing) when the world has turned so grim. A declared racist anti-semite, a man who didn't want his children in school with Jews, has been put in charge of strategy?
I am terrified for all of us, but most especially for those who've been hammered by this man and by DT. The fight or flight has been activated and fight we must. And we must beware fighting each other, but keep our eyes on the true enemy.
My writing energy has been drawn to the political. Yes. Essays pour while my poor characters beg for any stray bit of dialogue I can throw their way.
I worked on a short story that ironically begins on the day Obama was elected eight years ago... It is a happy story set during good times. Funny that I should be mentally and emotionally escaping to that "time"
I'm having a hard time even journaling, let alone getting back to fiction. It's been difficult to face reality, let alone retreat into the creative worlds I try to create. Hopefully this week will be different!
The bewilderment lingers and bursts forth without warning and recedes once more.... At a time like this I can't remember why I write. It feels useless and pointless in the face of such madness.... But I'll never remember why I write by thinking about how I should be writing. Just as I can't enjoy of getting the blood going by thinking about the treadmill.... I tell myself unplug Mr. TV, open that file, and get back to work, son. The work soothes the terror and transforms the absurd into a kind of insane serenity. The work allows me later today to be a human being with other human beings who are suffering through this much more than I am....There is some good thing in each of our lives, something that evil would love me/you to stop doing, to find futile, to see no point in, so take heart... If I want to vanquish the haters, if I want to restore justice to the country and the cosmos, open that file and write, friend, write as if my life depended on it, though I write about something as seemingly inconsequential as an angry girl going into Trader Joe's for a smoothie, because I know my life, in the deepest sense, does depend upon it. And oh, I'll find myself at some point miraculously finding joy while I'm at it. And as always, writing a little tiny bit is a zillion times better than writing nothing at all.
I had been on a big roll and that came to a total stop. Anything productive has been a challenge.
I had to go out of town the morning after the election for a reading and talk at the University of Michigan (my alma mater). It turned out to be a great place to process what had happened--what is happening--to our country, and to reaffirm to myself what the role of being a writer, especially a writer of color, in these times is. I didn't plan to write last week, because of my travel and because I'm doing edits for my new novel. But the election and everything after has made me more aware of the political ramifications of the new book, and some new ideas are slowly sparking too. No words yet, but I trust they're coming.
I've never written fiction in my life until Wednesday and I can't stop. Tump is one sexy muse.
I feel conflicted. I didn't write a word last week, and the project of my novel (set in 1930s Paris) didn't feel urgent or timely, which was depressing. After a wonderful meeting with my writing group yesterday, though, I am now feeling more energized. I know that what is going on politically right now is going to change my novel and the rest of my writing for the better.
I say: journal first. The fiction will arise from it.
I'm just getting back to writing this week. I was feeling terrible about the state of our nation and feeling terrible about not writing. I decided to cut myself a bit of a break and just set my work aside. I was preparing to write a YA fantasy novel, but am now switching to an idea that I've had cooking that is darker and more relevant to our current situation. Deciding to pursue this other project has relit the fire for me a bit.
I put aside a novel I've been planning for some time (the third in a kind of trilogy), because to continue the tone of the previous books would require quite a dollop of humor - and I'm too out of humor. Instead I'm revising/final-editing a bunch of short stories that are all pretty finished. Short stories have always been the "art of the possible" of women writers.
I haven't written at all this week though that isn't out of the ordinary. Right now I've been more concerned about the short term--a lot more. I've just been protesting, talking to my family about it, and making plans to call up representatives. Morally engaged literature, I think, is crucial to preserving a free, humane society in the long term (like preserving a person's body by eating healthy and exercising) . But right now it feels more like we're trying to get a person to jump out of the way of an oncoming freight train. Or at least to be aware of the train.
I think I'd never have been able to except one thing: this is my last week before I'm in the window where I might give birth at any moment, and so it feels like my last chance to get the final revision done on the novel I've been working on for over a decade. Also helped that the book already has a pretty marked political/social justice underbelly so I've been able to funnel some of my rage/hope/despair/optimism into that. And, super oddly, a quote from Alan Rickman really helped... "The more we're governed by idiots and have no control over our destinies, the more we need to tell stories to each other about who we are, why we are, where we come from, and what might be possible. "
Yes! But was only able to get back to edits today. My novel out in June is about racism and my God I feel more motivated than ever.
I have only written a few sentences of my novel over the past week. Specifically, I tried to capture the sort of physical grief I've been feeling, because my character experiences grief also, and I felt like I was able to really access it. But other than that, no. I know I'll get back to it soon, though. My novel is largely about class, and like Julia Fierro, knowing how relevant this issue is right now in our national conversation, I feel extremely motivated -- in the abstract, anyway. I just feel like I need a little more time to regain my emotional equilibrium. I'll get there.
I can't stop writing! I think I might crash, but right now my hypervigilance looks a lot like low-level mania, and it has infused new energy and clarity to my writing. But I've also completely changed gears--both the academic and the nonfiction projects I'd been working on are totally on hold for a series of blog posts about trauma and politics.
I find it weirdly comforting - like I'm in a bubble where there are lots of problems, but not the current ones we're all dealing with. I've been writing more as a result.
What about you? How have recent political events changed your writing or your writing practice?
Becky Tuch is the Founding Editor of The Review Review.