Why Write Fiction When the World Is Going to Hell?

In the past couple years, my son has been keenly interested in learning about natural phenomena, and particularly natural disasters. It’s a universal human impulse to want to know how things work, why things happen, what conditions must be present to form a cave or create a diamond or spawn a tornado. This desire to learn means we watch a lot of documentaries — old National Geographic VHS tapes from my own childhood, DVDs given as gifts or bought from the video rental place going out of business, online streaming programs found on Netflix and YouTube.

You won’t find me complaining about this. Documentaries are generally my genre of choice when scrolling through Netflix. Before streaming, I used to say to anyone who would listen that if they let me customize cable service so I got the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet and nothing else, I’d be pleased as punch. But I have noticed that my experience watching disaster documentaries as an adult is far different from it was when I was a child.

As a child, I watched clip after clip of the aftermath of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods with a sense of detachment. I didn’t know any of these people. I’d never been to these places. I didn’t know anyone who had been to any of these places. The often grainy and sometimes black and white footage put distance between the disaster and me, in my real life, placidly going to school and eating dinner and squabbling with my sister. Nothing bad ever happened to me, and so I didn’t consider that it could.

But as an adult, with a husband and a child and a home with my name on the deed, I watch these documentaries with a lump firmly lodged in my throat, my hand hovering around my mouth. I say out loud, “Oh, my,” and “Oh, those poor people.” Because I imagine what it would be like if it happened to my family. I imagine the unfathomable grief at losing a loved one, the terror of an unstoppable force bearing down on us, the brokenhearted relief of surviving in body yet losing the entire contents of my home.

I feel much the same way when I read memoirs or diaries written by survivors of war, or when I see pictures of despondent refugees trying to get their children out of harm’s way, or when I read articles about the few doctors left in Syrian cities under siege, desperate for supplies and forced to prioritize patients who have the best chance of living while they must let others die.

I look at dates and try to recall what I might have been doing at that time when people were suffering. When this city was burning, was I up in my apple tree, wrapped in its pure white perfumed blossoms? When that city was underwater, was I filling the tub with more hot water because I didn’t want to get out yet? When this woman’s husband was executed, was mine bringing the steaks in off the grill? When that woman’s child died in an explosion, was I kissing mine goodnight?

We are not guaranteed happiness. We are not even guaranteed the time to pursue it. Sometimes my own blessings weigh on me because I know it is nothing I have done that makes me deserving of an easy life, just as there is nothing the victim of a natural disaster or a war has done to deserve a difficult one.

The world is broken and the consequences touch every corner of humanity. I wish this shared plight caused us to look to each other more often as brothers and sisters, fellow sufferers, fellow sinners in need of forgiveness and restoration. Instead it too often causes us to look upon each other as rivals in a zero sum game for power, prestige, and possessions, as though for some to win, others must lose.

Every good and perfect gift is from above. A blessing is a gift. It is not earned. It is not a gold medal awarded to you because of your years of dedicated practice. It’s not something you are competing with other people in order to obtain. It is a gift from a Giver with an infinite store. It is a manifestation of grace. And it’s something we can pass on to fellow bearers of the image of God (i.e., everyone on the planet).

What can I give the one who is suffering? My time, my listening ear, my prayers. A blanket, a stuffed animal, a note of encouragement. My love, my understanding, my care. A ride, a hug, a job. I can volunteer for the relief effort. I can help a newly settled refugee family understand their mail. I can teach English, invite the new neighbors to church, make a hot meal for the guy under the bridge.

I can raise a child who has great compassion, who thinks of others far more than I ever did at his age.

I often go through periods of wondering if writing fiction is a waste of time in a world that needs so many more practical things. Why contribute a novel when what is needed is potable water, enough healthy food, more medical supplies, and safer buildings? What is the point of fiction when reality is so pressing?

Invariably I am reminded that stories have power. Because it’s not just our physical needs that need to be met in this life. We need to know that we are not alone. We need to be reminded that restoration and redemption are possible. We need to remember what hope feels like. We need to believe that there is another future for us beyond our current situation. We need to dream. We need to encounter the divine.

Fiction can be an escape, but it’s more than that. It’s about processing reality. When we dream our mind is working to process bits and pieces of our waking life, to categorize and make sense of all that we experience. In the same way, fiction processes the experiences of all of humanity. It collects and observes, it arranges and interprets, it posits and enacts. Fiction is the REM sleep cycle of real life.

So, writer, whenever you or others are tempted to dismiss your creative work as a pointless extravagance, a waste of time in a world that needs concrete help and boots on the ground, remember that human beings are not flesh alone. We are flesh and spirit, living souls, created by God as part of his grand story and pre-wired for storytelling.

What can you do for the suffering person in addition to all the humanitarian efforts I listed above?

You can tell their story.

Because it snowed 10 inches the other day, and I need this…

BlandfordinSpringSkinny
A Light Exists in Spring
by Emily Dickinson

A light exists in spring
Not present on the year
At any other period.
When March is scarcely here

A color stands abroad
On solitary hills
That science cannot overtake,
But human nature feels.

It waits upon the lawn;
It shows the furthest tree
Upon the furthest slope we know;
It almost speaks to me.

Then, as horizons step,
Or noons report away,
Without the formula of sound,
It passes, and we stay:

A quality of loss
Affecting our content,
As trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a sacrament.

A Good and Joyous Day

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb.Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

~John 20:1-18

One Morning In March

Spring is a time for poetry. And so I share with you what I wrote this morning.

One Morning in March

It is March,
still winter,
and the white sky
seeks to remind us of it,
hunching low over the bare treetops
like a fog.

Yet this day we recall
that we did not
settle upon a glacier
or the icy moon Europa,
but upon earth.

Grass,
brown and bored,
peeks from beneath
the serrated grimaces of soiled snowbanks,
so reluctant to give any ground
to spring.

Traffic lanes and parking spots
we had forgotten
grow at the margins of this white world
like the black beaches of some volcanic island
still forming.

The wreckage
of the ice storm emerges
like an ancient ruined metropolis.
Oh, yes, we say,
I remember that storm.
Only the snow made me forget.

I pick up the keys
I dropped in the driveway—
the first dirt
to work its way under my fingernails
since November.

Inside
the dog’s muddy prints
on the kitchen floor
don’t raise my ire.
I don’t sigh and say, “Sasha!”
as I might have.

We shake ourselves awake
at the birds.
Birds.
That’s right, we say
in wonder.
There are birds.

Pointing Out Pain, Then Pointing Toward Beauty

I spent some time tonight working on a new short story. It’s hard going, not because the words are not coming–they are, and fast–but because some stories are just hard to write. Stories that tackle uncomfortable or difficult subjects, especially when those subjects are part of our own personal history.

Writing from life can mean re-experiencing something you wish you could leave behind in the forgotten past, something you thought you had already buried. It can mean coming to terms with the fact that an event from your past, perhaps even just a few unforgettable moments from your childhood, shaped you in ways you didn’t realize until you started getting it all out on paper.

It can mean pain.

And sometimes, writers stop there. They lay out their painful experiences, looking for some sort of catharsis, perhaps, or a bit of sympathy, and then leave it there in all its depressing fullness.

What do you do with that as a reader? What can you do with it? Honestly, beyond trying to sympathize with a writer, there’s not a lot you can do with it. You close the book and move on to the next one.

It seems to me that the really good, memorable stories we read are the ones that honestly point out pain and then point us toward beauty. They expose a negative, maybe let us stew in it a bit, and some may even appear to leave us there, but at some point they offer at least a glimmer of hope or at the very least a lesson, an admonition not to go down that same bad road that a character did, showing us the points at which we can choose a better path.

I have read a number of stories that wallow in sorrow and angst, giving no hint of redemption. I’ve read a number that really only present the reader with fake problems encountered by characters that are less than authentic. But between the bitter and the saccharine are the stories that stick–the bittersweet ones.

Certainly there are readers for any type of story that can be written–even the Pollyanna, the pouting, or the painful–but I’m comfortable making a value judgment here. Depressing stories that revel in the moribund and never climb up out of the mire of despair are, in my mind, self-indulgent in precisely the same way as that girl you knew in high school who cultivated imagined personal tragedies to get attention.

Don’t get me wrong; I actually do like depressing stories provided I get a little comic relief and even the faintest glimmer of hope. I think some of our more authentic expressions of deeply felt human emotions come through tragedy. But at the end of the day I have a cautiously positive view of the world–not because I think the best of people, but because my worldview is formed by my religious belief. I believe God works out all things to bring glory to himself and that I’m part of that plan. It helps me put things into an eternal perspective. We all have our lens, and that’s mine.

So even as I write through the parts of my own personal history that seem ugly and unfair, I look for the glint of good that must lie within them. The negative events of our lives are rich deposits of literary iron to be mined, the tough, blackish parts that hold within them the conflict we need in order to make our stories interesting. But don’t miss the thin veins of gold or silver running through them because you’re so focused on the negative.

It’s the dark parts of our lives that make those bits of beauty shine so brightly.

It’s the winter that makes the spring such a miracle.

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Life Lessons from an Injured Bat

I realize that not everyone loves bats. In fact, the photo below may make some of you shudder involuntarily. Forget all the arguments for their usefulness and their harmlessness, they just give you the creeps. But bear with me a moment, because I think there is a lesson to be learned from this particular little bat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI found this little brown bat on the ground when I was putting out some yard bags this past weekend. He was lying on his belly in a dirty bare patch on the still-dormant lawn beneath the lone ash tree on our street (perhaps in the entire city of Lansing) that has thus far miraculously survived the onslaught of the insidious emerald ash borer and getting run into by a car.

I could see this little bat was breathing and, knowing a little something about bats, I knew first of all that it could not fly from a ground position (bats must drop from a height to fly) and that I should by no means touch it, even begloved in thick leather, because if it bit me (which, being frightened and/or hurt, it surely would) I would have to get an expensive and painful series of shots to ward off rabies. So I went to the garage to get a long-handled flat shovel, not to bash the poor thing to death, but to pick it up safely.

I carefully scooped it up, eliciting a threatening display of tiny white teeth but little more in the way of resistance. Then I walked it to the large mostly-dead sugar maple by the garage, well away from the road and any possible contact with unsuspecting children or adults with no sense. I placed the blade of the shovel against the tree and let it slowly grip the bark and huddle against the rough bark. It crawled around a little to find a place sheltered from the wind and remained. A day later it was still there.

I wanted so desperately for it to fly away. I wanted it to leave the shelter of the tree and fly off back to the group of bats it must have wintered with. I suspected that that might be at the top of the very tree I put it on since it has hollow parts. But it hunkered down and did not move. Perhaps it was injured and could no longer fly. Whatever the reason, despite my efforts, it remained frozen in place.

Here’s why I bring this up here on a blog that is mostly about writing. Sometimes as a writer you get knocked down, whether you are a bestselling megastar or someone who has shared your work with only a few close friends or a bunch of strangers on the interwebs. You get a bad review (or maybe lots of them). You get a rejection letter (or maybe lots of them). You get silence (which is sometimes worse than negativity). You’re face down in the dirt wondering what hit you.

I hope that each of you have someone in your life who cares, who scoops you up, talks tenderly to you, and helps you get back on your feet. That person may not have the power to make you fly again, but maybe just knowing that there are those out there who care about you and your work will give you some sense of camaraderie, some feeling that you matter. Because you do. Whether or not you ever sell that screenplay or ever capture an agent or ever make a dime from your writing, you matter.

Then, once you’re back in the shelter of that tree, that place of safety, I hope you will take off and try again. Don’t hunker down and give up. Because your best days are waiting for you up ahead. Create your art. Share your stories. Take flight.

A Cruel and Gentle Month

Sugarbush 2013Oh, March. You fickle month. You bringer of sunshine and rain, then ice and snow. You can’t decide whether to reveal the toll the winter has taken on the earth or to cover it all back up again. The birds sing, the red-winged blackbirds and robins and turkey vultures have returned, the very first crocuses have bloomed and frozen. The sap and the rivers are running, but I am sitting inside with my coffee wondering just how much longer until I can get out in the gardens and start cleaning up your mess.

Here’s a poem about March I wrote in 2007 and have been modifying ever since. I think I may have it how I want it now.

March

Month of crows
Driven rain in slush-filled gutters

All the flotsam of winter’s rage—
Empty bags whipped in wheezing wind

Parking lot valleys in the shadows of
Mountains formed from filth and snow and abandoned shopping carts

The frail sun pretends to shine
A sudden squall and all is beaten down again

But then
quietly
pushing up
through mud
comes the green

Stretching
reaching
hoping
comes the green

The sun shines stronger
the days grow longer
and all my fondest hopes of spring
see fulfillment in one blossoming
flower