It strikes me how conflicted we become when there is great tension between our inspiration and the circumstances we feel a civic duty to pay attention to. And this stress is not unique to 2020. From her concerns of WWII to her last diary entry, which states her need to leave the page to prepare a dinner of “Haddock and sausage”, Virginia Woolf remained cleaved in two by passion and obligation:
“No, I can’t get the odd incongruity of feeling intensely and at the same time knowing that there’s no importance in that feeling. Or is there, as I sometimes think, more importance than ever?” – regarding her attachment to writing Roger Fry during the time of war (Spring 1940), pulled from Auden’s New Yorker essay
We are not without our own internal scrimmage as we pine for creative space while compelled to speak to Black Lives Matter, respond to the Covid-19 crisis, and maintain some semblance of normalcy with children unschooled and jobs furloughed or absent altogether.
We, quite expectedly, think my personal writing life has no value in the face of more devastating and paramount issues.
It’s here that I must reinsert Woolf’s question: “…is there, as I sometimes think, more importance than ever?”
Consider how we consume information — our senses. Whether tasting, smelling, seeing, hearing, or touching, we are consuming something created (organic or otherwise) so we can learn. In order to process, we need something our senses can eat. Without substance, there is no gain.
This is where writing and other creative expressions absolutely matter in the reality of complicated times. We cannot interact and collaborate with our circumstances if there is no input from minds we can’t possibly occupy. Mike Reynolds, Professor and Department Chair of English at Hamline University recently stated in a Covid-19 related interview that “My belief—what I write about, what I teach—is that literature is a way of making sense.” He goes on to list historical moments with literary charge such as the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 and concludes: “I think literature, even in its most escapist forms, helps us grapple with the complex, confusing world we live in.”
Now, you may argue there are too many voices already speaking on matters. There’s no room for me.
You have just as much say as anyone. Do not mistake other’s listening as approval for you to speak. If you stay silent for fear of not being heard, then you make no sound at all. Does this mean you should only speak to the stuff of trends and political stress? God no. And this is the heart of Woolf’s confliction. What words matter?
In short—all of them.
Intentional or not, our worldview, our language, our hometown and life story bleed into our writing. So much of the task is directed by our subconscious that we often cannot realize the matter weaved between the lines. We thread life into the syntax, dialect, and vocabulary as a representation of history and people, so ingrained in who we are that it doesn’t seem novel or relevant. Yet, it’s the stuff of linguistic dreams.
No matter genre or form, your writing can’t help but be a time capsule. You don’t have to address directly the major concerns of your time to showcase their influence on your story. It will flow naturally into your words, regardless. Reynolds addresses this with a Hunger Games example —
“My argument is that we tell (and constantly retell) such stories to give shape to the world we want to live in. I’m not saying we want to live in The Hunger Games. But I do think the tremendous popularity of those novels is tied to the robust ways those fantasies capture real anxieties about mass media and economic inequality, reaffirm a sense of common cause and purpose even in the midst of what feels like a competition.”
The details, planned or not, effectively turn our stories into metaphors beyond the scope of the basic plot and leave behind cultural markers. If such a happy accident required genius level articulation, literary critics would have little material to argue about. Your writing can’t help but be just as complex and unique as you are. Because you made it.
Thank goodness our brain is so much smarter than our awareness of it.
In conclusion, I postulate this (for those still unconvinced): It is undoubtedly an extra unease to add the struggle of writing to current living, though not undue or without necessity. We want to come out of this with far more than the musings of those who argue for noise. We want to survive with our voice intact, our muse untethered, and our history conveyed.
So, write. Please. For all our sakes.