It is barely 24 hours since Donald Trump became the next President-elect of the United States of America. Protests have started. Social media has gone nuts. Personally, I hold grave concerns for the next four years, and I am deeply disturbed that somebody like Donald Trump could win so much support, even though I understand – in part, at least – how it happened.
But I’m not here to enter the political fray. I’m here because I can’t stop thinking about a keynote speech I heard at the inaugural New Zealand Writers’ Forum a few weeks ago. Delivered by British author Chris Cleave, it was titled “The Clocks Are Striking Thirteen”, and I think you can find the whole thing online somewhere. But if you want a condensed version and an explanation of how it relates to the U.S. election and what we may or may not be facing in the next four years, keep reading.
In his speech, Chris outlined five things writers could do to “combat the hate”. The hate expressed so quickly and so easily on social media. The hate of political rhetoric. The hate expressed by human beings who are scared, or disturbed, or lost. Hate, Chris said, is quick, and it feeds on itself. Like a shark that has to keep swimming to keep itself alive, hate never stops. Social media platforms like Twitter can disseminate hate to millions before a writer can issue a considered opinion piece that might go some way towards exploring an issue with sensitivity and depth and open-mindedness. Hate can be tweeted in an instant. Hate doesn’t take time to think. It doesn’t take a breath.
So what can we, as writers, do? What can we do to help those who are feeling disturbed and disillusioned, and perhaps a little afraid of what one human being might teach other human beings about how we should treat one another and how we should live together? What can we do to combat the hate?
First, Chris said, we have to stand for something rather than against everything. It won’t be enough, nor will it achieve anything, to write opinion pieces about why Donald Trump is a dangerous bombastic bully, even if that’s what we would like to do. We must stand for something, and we must do it articulately and clearly. Choose what you will stand for as a writer. Choose how you respond to media reports. Choose how you respond to the political rhetoric that will emerge over the coming days and weeks and months. Choose what your next short story or blog or novel will be about. You don’t have to become an apologist; you just have to take your responsibility as a writer seriously.
Second, Chris advised us to stay open and curious in spirit. Not to shut down, but to continue to look outwards, to be open-minded and open-hearted.
Third, he reminded us how important it is to keep our sense of humour. Laughter, he said, is a very strong antidote to hate.
Fourth, he reminded us that as writers, our only job is to tell a stranger a story. We are storytellers, and storytellers are the most powerful opinion informers that we have. So use that power, he said, but use it to tell the gentle human story, with empathy and sensitivity and honesty.
Point five was, to me, the most important one. Cherish one another, Chris said. He urged us to help each other out, to learn from one other, to respect one another. He reminded us that sneering reviews of books and stories are often written by other writers. He encouraged us to make our egos small and our eyes and ears big. To remember our place in the scheme of things, and to know that that place is not bigger than anyone else’s. This, he said, will bring gravity to our work, and will draw people to our more thoughtful words.
Chris ended by telling us that when we act like human beings, we write like human beings. Let’s pledge to do both, over the next four years and beyond.