After the 2016 election, I heard a lot of talk in literary spaces about the role of storytelling in fighting authoritarianism. We need to share our stories with each other, now more than ever. I was working on my first book at the time, and I very much hoped it would matter to at least some readers once it was out in the world. But I also remember thinking that whatever the coming crisis would require of me, personally, it probably would not begin or end at Do exactly what you were going to do anyway. I remember talking with a friend and fellow editor who seemed to share some of my anxieties: Are we rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, so to speak? It’s a question I continue to ask myself.
I know that writers and artists will not always and immediately be able to grasp, describe, or otherwise point to some overall forward or positive momentum in moments like this. I trust that many of the thoughtful writers I read will get to Where do we go from here? in their own way, in their own time, not necessarily overnight, and in the meantime not every take that’s produced is a helpful one. I spent much of the weekend struggling (and largely failing) to find adequate words to express my anger and fear as we face the grim reality of a post-Roe America, unable to focus on any other projects. It certainly doesn’t feel like my place as a reader to demand that others experiencing rage or anxiety or grief either produce art or crank out guiding wisdom just as our rights are stripped away. I also think we ought to be aware that when we look to writers, especially those threatened and marginalized, in the expectation that they will identify and illuminate a possible way forward, we are asking for labor that people under direct threat cannot always do.
Still, if you spend a great deal of your time writing stories or making art, it’s worth considering what it means to you, personally, to do this creative work amid the cataclysms and crises we continually face. Something my friend R. O. Kwon told me not long ago has stuck with me: If I’m writing my book … that means on some level I believe in a future where this book could exist. Yes, it can be difficult to focus on or care about writing and sharing stories as we reel from outrage after outrage, and of course there is always more to do: We need to ask ourselves who in our communities is most vulnerable and in need of support, who is already doing necessary work to reduce harm, and how we can offer aid to these people and networks. Much like writing, these actions do not require us to feel positive, or secure in the hope of future victory—I realize that is beyond many of us at the moment. I find it marginally helpful to remember that I can choose to act and work and, yes, write as though there is a future, a more just one—and if I do that, perhaps I’ll be one small step closer to believing in it.
It’s okay to be scared and angry, and it’s okay if you can’t find the right words today or tomorrow; that doesn’t mean you won’t find them at all. Writing happens piece by piece, day by day, as we make decisions about what feels most urgent, or simply possible, at fixed points in time. And yet a piece of art or writing doesn’t necessarily exist to meet or react to one particular moment—often it will speak to many different people in many different ways over the duration. Think of how frequently you’ve identified with or found new meaning in something written by someone who never saw the time we’re living in. As a reader, you might find what you need in one of the many pieces being published right now. Or maybe you’ll find sustenance or solace in something written a hundred years ago, as if those words were waiting for you this whole time.
Since Friday, I have been unable to stop thinking about that conversation with my friend, when we wondered whether those of us engaged in this type of work are just rearranging chairs on the Titanic. Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder if that’s what I’m doing when I work on my next book, or when I write about grief, or craft, or the care we ought to have for ourselves. The answer is complicated, because I know that so much more than this is required of me, of us. But I also recognize that there is a place for imagination and creativity and storytelling when our rights are eroded or threatened, as indeed they always have been. We need to be able to expand and nurture our imaginations in order to imagine a different world.