Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Step Off the Edge

It's the morning of November 9th, and I'm reeling from the unexpected election results. 

Last night as I lay awake at 2 a.m., I wondered if I should cancel all my writing classes' assignments for the next couple of days. I remembered another big event in my adult life that shocked so many people: 9/11. Afterwards, the idea of writing anything seemed pointless. How could I care about fiction in the face of national tragedy? 

I've lived and grown a lot since then, and one of the things I learned is the reason I didn't want to keep writing that year was that my heart wasn't in it. I wanted my novel to be "good." I would have happily settled for "acceptable." I didn't want to mess up. These things were foremost in my mind. Which is another way of saying that, in large part, I was motivated by fear, not by an honest openness, a desire to apprehend mysteries that don't have solutions, to feel and explore things that are uncomfortable. 

All of that meant that the thing I was writing that year was ultimately shallow, and so of course it didn't matter in the face of a national tragedy. Of course it didn't matter at a time when everybody was snapped back to the reality that we are frail and mortal, that our experts can't predict the future, that our leaders aren't always the grownups-in-charge we want them to be. That we are all standing at the cliff-edge of time right alongside those experts and leaders and everybody else, looking toward a future that's just a big empty space, with the wind blowing in our faces. 

I wanted a world, and a book, where things were controlled, reasonable, okay. But that is not what art is about. Art is about going to that place where you go when you almost die, and realize death's been this close all along. The place you go when you learn something that pulls the rug out from under everything you knew. The place where you're transported and split open by love and then discover the one you love isn't who you thought they were. The place where you're asking questions that don't have answers. 

This is true of fiction, even when it feels like you're just playing, making things up like you did when you were a kid, having imaginary friends and pretending they're real. The point isn't to approach it like a serious adult who knows exactly what to do and what comes next, but like a child standing before a vast and unknowable universe. If you're working on something, don't let today's events stop you. Let them remind you to do it honestly. Be vulnerable. Write about the stuff that hurts. Be scared, be thunderstruck. Be brave. Grab the hand of the person next to you, even if it's someone you made up, look out from the cliff, and step forward into that wild blue space.

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