And I know I am solid and sound;
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow;
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.
I’m thinking today about the enormous upheavals we have all experienced this year, and about my own fear of uncertainty, and the challenge of change.
If one more person says “This is our new normal” I’m going to punch them, but they have a point.
We are all trying to get our heads around the fact that life as we know it won’t be going back to “normal” anytime soon – if at all. How do we process that?
Some direct their fear outwards, onto others. It is often cloaked in fury. Some protest. Others cling to speculation and conspiracy theories that they hope will lend them a sense of certainty; something to explain and give structure to what has happened. Some fling accusations.
We desperately search for meaning in the chaos, because it’s too scary to contemplate the possibility that there is none; that this is simply what it is to be human, living on a planet where sometimes bad and scary and uncontrollable things happen, and we imperfect beings have to react as best we can.
So where does this leave us?
Instead of deflecting or ignoring or bottling up our feelings, or distorting them and flinging them outwards, we can choose to sit with them, share them, and be brave enough to ask for and receive comfort. We can choose to listen. We can choose community and care. We can choose, as best we can, to speak and seek truth.
We writers can choose to write.
I can’t stop thinking about a keynote speech I heard at the inaugural New Zealand Writers’ Forum in 2016. Delivered by British author Chris Cleave, it was titled “The Clocks Are Striking Thirteen”. I think you can find the whole thing online somewhere.
Chris was talking at the time about the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, which had happened in the previous 24 hours. But I think his words resonate in 2020. Maybe even more so.
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 afraid? What can we do to combat the hate?
First, Chris said, we have to stand for something rather than against everything. Choose what you will stand for as a writer. Choose how you respond to media reports. Choose how you respond to the political rhetoric around the pandemic, around the election, around events in your corner of the world. 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 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. “Writers: cherish one another,” Chris said. He urged us to help one another out, to learn from one another, 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.
All is not lost, he concluded. There is much we can do, even when we feel small and at the mercy of forces larger than ourselves. We can make a difference.
I want to leave you with a poem about change and uncertainty that has resonated with me.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.