What to Write in Troubled Times? Whatever You Want.

curiousgeorge-375x455For the past two years, I’ve been steadily working on a middle grade novel about a lonely 12-year-old girl in small-town Wisconsin who meets four siblings with a dangerous fantasy world. While I was under no illusions that I was writing an IMPORTANT book, I was happy with the world I had built, enjoyed delving into it every day, and hoped that if I was ever lucky enough to have it make its way to a young reader, she might feel encouraged to find her own voice. And that was good enough.

Then I woke up on November 9, 2016, gutted, shaken to the core, in shock. And my novel no longer felt like enough. In light of this massive threat to everything I value, writing, especially my writing, felt trivial. How dare I write at all when I should now be devoting all my time to volunteering, protesting, marching? And, if I must write, shouldn’t it be a big brave book that speaks truth to power and sheds light on injustice, like Things Fall Apart or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? Or, at the very least, shouldn’t my protagonist take down a big orange monster with little fish lips and bitsy hands?

As the weeks went on, the first blow of post-election grief turned into a dull ache. But I still wasn’t able to shake the feeling that writing anything at all, much less a middle grade novel about fantasy worlds, was a hollow endeavor. And so, because I’m always looking to history for comfort, I began researching what writers of yesteryear did when faced with horrifying political circumstances.

Here’s what I learned:

  • In the first years of World War II, Virginia Woolf wrote Between the Acts, a story that examines how people of all classes in an English village are connected over the course of single day—because the personal is always political.
  • In Soviet Russia, under the constant threat of censorship and arrest, Mikhail Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita, a satire of Soviet life featuring Jesus, the Devil, and a fabulous evil black cat—because laughter is one of the most powerful weapons against oppression.
  • Zora Neale Hurston wrote Her Eyes Were Watching God during the Jim Crow years, a novel that explores and celebrates the complexities of the rural black community at a time when many of her fellow writers of color were embracing respectability politics—because writing what you want to write, beholden to no one, is liberating.
  • While on medical leave during World War I, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote the story that was the basis for The Silmarillion—because in times of trauma, people need to escape to another world.
  • When German-born Jews Margret and H. A. Rey fled France in 1940 on bicycle, they carried with them the manuscript of Curious George—because children deserve joy, no matter what.

Ultimately, any writing is important—because in oppressive political times, if those in power had their way, everything that people speak, think, write, and even take joy in would be regulated. The very act of creation—from a picture book about puppies to a world-changing novel that spotlights the plight of the oppressed—is subversive. Though I may spend a little more time on activism and a little less time writing, when I do write, I won’t do it with apologies and guilt. I’ll write because I want to.

7 comments

  1. Jean Gogolin

    Great column, Anna. It made me think of the two 12-year-olds who stabbed a classmate in obeisance to Slender Man. Could anything useful possibly be written for kids about that?

  2. Carol D Gray

    Thanks Anna. I’ve been feeling the same way since the election and questioning the worth of writing, especially my middle grade fantasy. Great to see what others have written in troubled times.

  3. Lisa Birk

    What a great piece, Anna. Loved learning what other writers did under duress. I’ve felt similarly distraught and sometimes immobilized. Thanks for the encouragement. Looking forward to reading your book!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *