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.

And Speaking of Tornadoes…

We Shall Sometime Come to Somplace

Within a few minutes the first drops began to fall, sing-songy, on the roof of the car. The tempo and volume increased quickly and steadily as the sky overhead blackened. Inside the cab it got darker and darker until it was like twilight. Then Ted saw tiny white balls bouncing off the hood in front of him. He turned on his hazards and craned his sore neck to the southwest. And he knew that staying in the car was the wrong choice.

An angry cloud seemed to be stretching its fist toward the earth, slowly circling, grasping, clutching. Ted sat mesmerized a moment. Then a finger began to emerge from the fist and Ted searched frantically for the door handle. He burst from the car with no thought to the hail or the wind or his aching jaw and scanned the fields. Where was the bridge? The farm? So far away that in the black of the storm he could no longer make them out.

But there was the ditch.

Wondering what happens next? Click here.

Just Because It’s Good Doesn’t Mean It’s Bad

For much of middle America, spring is a mixed blessing as the same warm air that brings the flowers back also brings severe weather.

Living in an area with only mild tornado activity and no hurricanes or tropical storms (one of Michigan’s many excellent qualities), I love a good rainstorm and I especially love the sound of thunder. When the skies darken and the atmosphere rumbles and tumbles around me, I get a feeling in my gut that is hard to describe. A bizarre sort of mixture of deep awareness of the season and of the power inherent in nature, fond childhood memories of watching storms with my dad in the open garage, and that vague nagging instinct to seek cover. Just a pinch of terror to season it all. Gives me goosebumps just writing about it.

There have been times in my life when I have worried about the weather. A few tense cross-state car rides in whiteout conditions (once with a vanload of youth groupers for whom we were responsible). The first tornado warning I experienced with my infant son in the house. I recall our Little League coach telling us not to hang on the metal chain link fence while menacing clouds glowered and jagged lightning danced on the horizon lest lightning strike, travel through the metal, and kill half a dozen of us in one fell swoop. But during most storms I am safely tucked away inside with a plan worked out for staying that way in case of emergency (interior basement room, away from the windows, stocked first aid kit, etc.).

However, I remember vividly a summer storm when I was 13 or 14. Our softball and baseball games were all canceled and parents were whisking their ball-capped kids from the field and driving down country roads bordered by ditches, heading for basements at home. The reason I remember this day is two-fold.

First of all, the air was different. Whereas a winter storm might cause a whiteout, what we were experiencing as my mom drove me back into town after dropping a friend off at his house was a greenish-brownout. The air was thick with dirt and organic matter that was being stirred up by a supercell not far from us. The thing about those videos of tornadoes on YouTube is that you can only see the actual tornado if it is a good distance from you. Once it’s close, you can’t always see it. That’s the scary part.

Second, and much worse than the eerie air swirling around the car, my sister was unaccounted for. Well, we knew she was at a friend’s house, but that was not good enough for my mother. She needed to see her eldest daughter, to have her in our own basement, not someone else’s. So we cut through the dense air to pick her up and bring her home. As a mother now, I can more easily imagine what my own mother must have felt during those soul-tense moments.

The rest of that day is a blur. The next morning trees were down all over town, but I don’t actually remember the worst of the storm. In fact, I don’t even remember actually seeing Alison get into the car or rushing inside our house or going to bed at night. But I remember that car ride between the softball fields out in Hampton Township and the house-lined streets of Essexville.

When you read really good fiction, the same thing happens. You are left with a feeling, sometimes hard to describe but real nonetheless, that you can’t get from mere recounting of events. There are a number of books that I adore that I could not easily summarize for someone else because what happened in the book is not what I remember. I remember how I felt when I read it. There are other books for which I could give a plot synopsis to a friend who asked what it was about. But if I’m recommending a book it is almost never because of plot and I tend to say little about what happens (which always sound so sterile when recounted to another) and more things like, “I can’t explain it to you. You just have to read it.”

A good storyteller can cause physiological reactions in a reader’s body through black marks on a white page. The process is astonishing and awe-inspiring to me. Letters are arbitrary. Phonics are meaningless. Words alone convey some form of reality, but not in whole. But when those letters and sounds and words are strung together in an artful way, more than meaning is produced.

I’ve read a lot in recent years about how authors should remove the parts of their writing that they think are the best because they are probably overwritten and self-indulgent. Not so fast! I’m here to declare that not every story is best told with spare language. Granted, some certainly are and the most talented writers (in my mind) can use very little language to convey deep emotion. Still I would not recommend arbitrarily deleting those passages just because it is currently popular to do so. Maybe have some beta readers test them. Find out what clicks and what doesn’t. Some probably are overwritten. But some of them really may be excellent writing that works and helps to tell your real story. What I mean by the “real” story is not the plot, not what happens, but what you want the reader to feel, what you want him to remember long after that last page.

It’s the difference between this…

Photo credit: Weather Wiz Kids (http://www.weatherwizkids.com/weather-tornado.htm)
Photo credit: Weather Wiz Kids (http://www.weatherwizkids.com/weather-tornado.htm)

And this…

Photo credit: I dunno. It's sort of fuzzy where this originated, but I found it here: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/national-geographic/images/6968510/title/tornado-wallpaper)
Photo credit: I dunno. It’s sort of fuzzy where this originated, but I found it here: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/national-geographic/images/6968510/title/tornado-wallpaper

Strive to write in such a way that your deeply held emotions and experiences are made alive and immediate for your readers. Pick out the details that say more than you could say in a paragraph of words and make those details hardworking representatives of the whole. This will keep your good descriptive writing in your story without overdoing it.

For example, in my story of the car ride to get my sister and get home before the tornado struck, I could spend paragraphs describing the weather, how tornadoes form and the destruction they can cause, my own thoughts and the thoughts of my mother, spelling out everything for the reader so there would be no mistaking what happened. But that’s not what made the ride memorable. I don’t remember my own thoughts and I don’t have access to my mother’s thoughts. I was not thinking about the physics of tornado formation at the time. I don’t know if my sister was worried at her friend’s house or whether she was relieved at the sight of her mother pulling up in the driveway to get her.

What I remember is the way the air looked and that feeling you get in your gut when you don’t feel safe. That’s it. So if I were to tell that story, that’s what I would focus on. And if I did it well, I would hope that I could get a reader, even one who had never been in a similar situation, to know what it felt like. And I could probably do it in just a few sentences if I worked hard at it. It might start as a couple overwrought paragraphs, but being a copywriter by trade, I think I could get it down to three really hardworking sentences. I certainly wouldn’t discard it altogether.

You’ve read scenes like that, or even entire books. They make you forget you’re on your couch or tucked under your covers. They pull you in completely. That’s great writing. And that’s what I hope we’ll both create–and keep.