“Writing is really a way of thinking—not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet.” — Toni Morrison
The recent social and political developments in the United States have left many of us reeling under the weight of anger, disappointment, sadness, fear, and everything in between. To be perfectly honest, when I first heard the news that Roe v. Wade had been overturned, I felt absolutely, totally numb. That sensation didn’t last long, granted, but all the while (and ever since), one question churned round and round in my brain until I felt almost physically sick due to its constant chaotic motion.
It’s vague, sure, but that’s what makes it all the more frustrating and terrifying. As writers (a category of people notorious for playing god on a regular basis), we usually ask this question in the context of plot, or in trying to figure out how a character will drive said plot forward with their reactions, their choices. In this case, I experienced sort of the same thought process, except that it applied to the rules of reality. And, I don’t think I have to remind anyone that reality is much more volatile than a world we can control with the stroke of a key or the tip of a pen.
We’ve all experienced a myriad of difficult collective things in the last few years alone, and that’s not including the individual disappointments and heartbreaks we’ve each survived along the way. There’s only so much we can do to prevent them, or to contain the damage when we can’t. So when I wondered what was coming next after this particular blow to the real world, I wasn’t thinking in terms of what I would do, but about what else would be done to me. Or, taken away from me.
Once the fog cleared, that mindset both scared and annoyed the hell out of me. Then came the tinge of fear that keeps creeping back in at the most inconvenient times: the fear of the unknown, the fear that this giant step back is just the beginning. If any of you feel as I do, than this has been a humbling, dehumanizing experience that I wish none of us had to learn from.
This brand of negativity can seriously cripple a creative brain—I know it has mine. For starters, I made a goal to post on this blog every other month this year; this piece is only the second to be published in 2022. I was also supposed to finally finish tweaking the manuscript for book one in the urban fantasy trilogy I’ve been working on for forever and a day so I could send it off to an editor and focus my attention on completing the next two instalments. Yeah, that hasn’t happened. In fact, my masochistic, over imaginative self has even taken steps backward in order to screw around with the plot some more. One could definitely attribute this more to that control freak writer personality of mine, or even argue that because I was so close to the end I felt I had to stall for more time—both of which are super valid points, by the way—but if I’m totally honest, I think I’ve been chasing my tail on these projects because reality has wormed its way into my head and is burning out my imagination with attempts to predict a future that isn’t so bleak. Or, with contingency plans for if it is.
If so, then I hope it helps to know that at least you’re not alone in fantasizing about whacking your head against the wall and successfully shaking yourself out of a stress-induced bout of writer’s block. And, I hope it helps to be reminded that when you do break out of that mental cage, your creative outlet (writing, painting, making music, etc.) will not only be there waiting for you, but can also help you shake off that funk and tackle your reality in more constructive ways than day drinking and googling how to obtain dual citizenship.
In the meantime, here are some simple pieces of advice to get you started by going back to a few basics. These steps can apply to other forms of art, too, so don’t limit yourself to your words if you feel inspired to take them in another direction.
Write what you know…or don’t.
In general terms, some of your best work will likely stem from what you can personally attest to because you’ll be able to call on all of your senses and memories to piece the experience together so that someone else might understand it even though they weren’t present during it. But, there is also something to be said for stepping out of your comfort zone, or expanding it to allow for other stories to branch off from the ones you’ve lived or witnessed. Using your know-how as an anchor, put yourself in someone else’s shoes and explore the what-ifs that follow. Consider factors like personality traits that differ from yours or those of someone you know, cultural backgrounds and norms you don’t normally have to navigate, regional nuances from dialect to weather patterns that can change the perception of a scene with the addition or subtraction of a few small details. In the real world, thinking outside the box is necessary if we want to survive, let alone make any kind of difference. In the artistic realm, continually building on what we know is also key to constant evolution and learning to thrive in difficult or trying environments.
Write what you hope.
Deviating from the “doom and gloom” kick, remember that a complete story always ends in a resolution of some kind. It’s not always a positive one, but for the purposes of this exercise, let’s focus on that happily ever after. Fiction affords us the total spectrum of possibilities, and that includes the possibility of something better after the storm passes. So if you find yourself falling into a vortex of pain, loss, grief, anger, etc., write a different outcome than the bleak one you see barrelling toward you and figure out what it takes for your characters to get there. What decisions do they make, and what are the consequences? Is action the order of the day, or could a problem be solved with words alone? What sacrifices hurt in the moment, but ultimately help make things better in the long run? We may not live in a world where good always wins and everyone gets their just deserts, but searching for the sunniest method to tie up your story’s loose ends may be just what you need to identify the positive actions to take in your everyday life, too. It may not always work out exactly as you pictured it, but that’s the beauty of fiction. Anything is possible.
Write what you fear.
Facing our greatest fears is an inherent part of the artistic process anyway; why not use this painful practice in more than one way while you’re already at it? Looking at life through rose-tinted glasses and maintaining hope in difficult times is all well and good, but so long as you relegate your fears to dark corners you leave unexplored, they will continue to have unchecked power over you and everything you do—including what you write. You’ll always have something to be afraid of—that’s the nature of the beast—but using your creative outlet as a means to look them dead in the eye and see them for what they really are will have a positive effect on your perceptions of reality, too. We talked about letting your characters work through problems similar to your own so as to gain insight on elusive happily ever afters; now is when you let them suffer a little to gain perspective on what worse really entails. How bad can bad really be? How strong are the monsters lurking both in and outside your head? How much will the future suck if they keep winning? Is there anything to do about it if they do?
Our world is often uncontrollable and volatile, but the ones we write can only get as scary as we allow them to. Whether you choose to use your words to escape or face down your demons, don’t let reality wear off your creativity’s shine or convince you to underestimate its value. Even the worst first draft ever is better than nothing at all, and you never know—your words just might inspire others to do something about this crazy life we’re all living.