How Writers Are Getting Back to Work
Celeste Ng, Sara Novic, Morgan Jerkins and others on How Catastrophe Affects Daily Practice
Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and my hooked feet
–Ted Hughes, Hawk Roosting
The morning after the election felt as if it should have been met with air raid sirens and the warnings of church bells. Instead, many of us retreated in various states of grief or shock or mourning, to our beds, and hoped that when we re-opened our eyes, it would be to find out that, in the worst—but at this point, welcome—plot cliché ever, it had all been a terrible dream. It’s December now, and Donald Trump is still on track to be become President on January 20.
Coming out of the last few weeks feeling very much alone, I finally decided to reach out to other writers about their own responses to this grim election, particularly in terms of how they’ve managed (or not) to keep going with daily writing practice. What follows is a kind of conversation about coming to terms with grief in a moment of crisis.
Darin Strauss wrote to me about his sadness and what it’s like living in grief-land.
Saul Bellow said that we can’t master change. “It is too vast, too swift.” Tell me about it, Saul. Progress was going to float over to us with a servile grin. (“Phew—what a close one.”) But that’s not what happened, of course. Progress was stopped. Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States.
At every step that first post-election morning I was discombobulated, in the way of someone returning home and finding their house a touch less recognizable. Everything, actually—the neighborhood, the trees, the streets—felt twilight-zoneishly altered.
In the aftermath, it has been hard to write fiction—to write anything about regular characters doing regular things. V.S. Pritchett asked, Doesn’t calamity make nonsense of the distinctive individual; doesn’t its stamp make us all alike? That sounds gloomily right to me, at the dawn of the Trumpiad. Sad!
The writing block I’ve been dealing with since the Trump election has felt cruel. After my father’s death, what I wanted most was to write the pain away, and, for a while, or at least during certain stages of grief, I could write. But during the period of numbness, I was an enormous blank. I managed to scribble in my journal, but it was as if I’d had a kind of peculiar stroke: my fingers remembered how to go through the mechanics of writing but damn if I could figure out how to get all of that movement to mean anything.
That frustration about writing also applies to all those words writtne prior to the election. It was so f*cking clear that a child could see not to vote for the unclothed emperor pretending to run for president. If our words hadn’t worked then, what were we supposed to say now? Lauren Groff assured me I wasn’t the only one asking myself that question, that this election had shaken her basic beliefs about what it means to be human in America.
I haven’t been writing well, at all. I’ve been deeply depressed, probably because you have to be a bit of a utopian to be a writer and we can hear all around us the sound of our most deeply held ideals crashing down. The narratives we used to tell ourselves in hard time have been proven false—that people are essentially good, that Americans are deeply generous, that truth matters and liars get what is coming for them, that democracy matters and the arc of history is toward progress, that morality and kindness are rewarded, that our elections are fair and un-stealable—on and on, these have all been proven wrong. When you make your living in narrative, to see that false, incoherent, deeply destructive and cynical narratives are winning out makes you feel as though your faith in the essential goodness of humans has been obliterated.
J. Robert Lennon felt that same sense of disappointment in the Americans he voted with:
I’ve been kind of numb since the election, and haven’t been able to write. But I will. The election can be seen as a failure of the imagination—the electorate’s incapacity to, or unwillingness to, imagine the actual consequences of a Trump presidency. I have too much faith in the character of the American people to believe that many voters actually thought this through—that their health insurance might disappear, or that still more of their money might end up in the hands of the ultra-rich, or that other powerful nations might be goaded into war. Already, Trump voters are regretting their decision, and Trump’s pre-inauguration approval rating is the worst of any president in history.
The night before I started asking other writers how they were feeling, I went out for a walk with my partner. He’d been quiet and withdrawn for the past week. As I finally got him to open and start talking, I steeled myself for yet another discussion about our financial issues. Instead, he confessed to me that he was embarrassed. He was embarrassed at how grief-stricken he felt, he said, how this election had made him sadder than he’d felt when both his parents died. He thought there was something wrong with him for feeling the way he did, until I confessed I had gotten almost no work done either, that I felt locked in grief. So there were at least two of us who felt this way.
I think there’s quite a few of us who feel entombed in caves along with Antigone; many have talked about how this election has made them feel so hopeless that they feel suicidal. A friend of mine got into trouble when she rage-posted on Facebook about a friend of hers, a transgender man, who had committed suicide the day after the election, sure that he would end up in one of Mike Pence’s conversion camps. In her post, she blamed Trump, but she holds a public position, and was forced to apologize when her job was threatened. The rage I felt about that event was enough to make me think about just… leaving… I try to keep in mind what Nietzsche said, that thoughts of suicide can be a comfort during our dark nights of the soul. And while most of us are not suicidal, it turns out that the reason some of us still can’t write is because we can’t stop crying.
Phyllis K. Myung wrote to me:
I’ve had so many thoughts swirling in my head since the election that I’ve felt frozen. I don’t know where to begin because of the constant stream of stories about attacks against marginalized groups. And when I go to write, buckets of tears just drop. I’ve been using my delete button a lot because I don’t feel so safe anymore—even with my words. To me, it’s been a battle of words and the election felt like an utter betrayal by those who I thought were safe—from family to friends. All the words that have been coming out of me are filled with so much anger that I feel I need to temper it. Otherwise, I feel like I will just become another woman with a rant and it seems like nobody really wants to hear a woman’s voice these days. One of the ways that I’ve been coping is by trying to find other ways to express myself—whether it is through video, poetry or music—something different than my usual writing. It’s helped to move me forward, but also allowed the chance to let me hide under my pile of blankets without guilt.
In my Facebook feed, I hear a lot of my women friends saying the same things, that mixed in with their grief and their inability to get things done is the sense that the election was a repudiation of women, of the idea that a woman could be president. For many of us, the fact that this country chose a man whose views are anathema rather than vote for a woman was, as my eldest daughter said to me on election night, through tears, “the proof of the truth that I didn’t want to face, that America really hates women so much.” But to hear a writer say that the realization that women have been told to sit down and shut up, and that it’s affecting her ability to write, adds to my own grief, which is everywhere.
Grief and rage. And the fear of inaction that accompanies grief.
It’s there in what Celeste Ng wrote to me.
Your comparison to grief is right on, for me—it reminds me greatly of how I felt after my own father passed away suddenly, the kind of aimlessness of it, the feeling that if I could just wake up, this could all be different—that hope I keep clinging to that a different world still exists with a different outcome.
I’m horrified and furious at what’s happening in our country, and feel that I have to speak out about it and do things to help. That takes time and brainspace away from writing, even though it’s valuable too. I’m afraid for myself and for many people I know—you can’t write when you’re thinking about survival. And of course, I struggle with feeling that writing is frivolous. When people are marching in the streets, and I’m at home tweeting or struggling with a plot point, I often feel that I’m not doing “real” work.
But as writers and as citizens, are we stuck in this dire space for the next four years? No. Of course not. We’re all aware of that. And while the criticisms that we need to move forward and start fighting Trump are apt and correct, we must remember that grief follows its own timetable. Some grieve quickly. For others, the grieving doesn’t even start until the shock has worn off.
Rhian Ellis has had a difficult couple of years, even before this disastrous election. But in the course of her letter, she showed me how you start to work your way out of it while acknowledging just how shitty it is to feel all of this.
Well, I know exactly where you’re coming from. I, too, cried more the week or so after the election than I did when my mother died.
I think you’re right, that the block comes from a sense of helplessness … I couldn’t do any of my “real” work. It did indeed feel pointless.
And I think that there’s another related thing going on, too. When we write, I’ve come to believe, we do so from a position set squarely in our identities, our sense of ourselves. It’s almost as if our writing builds on this identity; it’s an extension of it. When things happen like your parents dying or an evil clown/con man bizarrely winning the election, they’re not just sad or scary or weird—they shake the foundations of who you are. When you lose track of who you are, it becomes impossible to write. It’s like the sand is shifting under you and you can’t get a footing. That’s how I feel, anyway.
Somehow, this election shook us—liberals—to the core. I knew I would be shocked if Trump won, but I somehow didn’t expect to be devastated. Maybe, because the polls were so certain Clinton would win, I never took the time to speculate about how I’d feel if she didn’t. Trump is so obviously a con man, so clearly without a moral center—he’s a freaking billionaire who’s pretending to be a populist!—that his candidacy seemed like a joke. It was a joke. But it became real, which means the world I kind of thought I had a place in doesn’t actually *exist* anymore.
So yeah, writer’s block! I haven’t written since the election, and lots of people I know seemed to have retreated into silence.
Another thing: it’s almost as if our future has been stolen from us. Of course, that future never existed—it was just an assumption. But it was a reasonable assumption to believe that things would continue roughly as they have. Now: who knows what the fuck is going to happen. Anything can happen! A buffoon who throws tantrums will have the nuclear codes! He’s hired people hell-bent on destroying the government! He is basically following some kind of fascist-leader handbook—and how can we write if our future is so uncertain? Because, you know, we do write for the future—even if it’s just an hour or a week in the future—what can we possibly say to those people we don’t understand?
Some writers offered their strategies for moving forward through the pain. Morgan Jerkins was in the middle of a couple of deadline-driven projects and that helped, even though the emotional effects of the election showed up in her body with overwhelming back pain and exhaustion. But necessity dictated she push on through:
I remember I had to do a reading about the election about a week after it ended, though, and I couldn’t write anything specifically on this topic. Instead, I spoke extemporaneously and it worked, thankfully. What this election has forced me to do is to dig deeper within myself and figure out what does not serve me or give me peace. I believe this is what happens when you’re in a pressure cooker: You have to preserve your energy and maintain your space.
So since then, I’ve been implementing small changes like having more internal dialogue, repeating certain self-affirmations throughout my days, and laughing daily. The laughing part is what I did before November 8th but now I realize how important that is. This all serves me as a person and therefore as a writer.
Bruce Smith gave me the gift of poetry:
“Poetry always, always, always is a key piece of democracy. It’s like the un-Trump: The poet is the charismatic loser. You’re the fool in Shakespeare; you’re the loose cannon. As things get worse, poetry gets better, because it becomes more necessary.” –Eileen Myles
This Eileen Myles quote is a gift. I’ve kept it before me after November 8th as reminder to be [even more] foolish, to be free from my moorings [and my judgments] rolling around on the deck during a storm, to be the loser [sore, tender, vexed, inflamed, afflicted]. Right now I’m entrenched, [being entrenched is not release, as the Buddha said] but the digging for defensive purposes serves me right now to make a place part grave part fortification from which I can watch, and then match outrage for outrage, tweet for tweet.
Other friends admitted to sadness, but insisted that it just made the writing work more crucial. How are writers using their rage, their disappointment, their grief to get themselves moving? Mixed in each of the letters I received, even the ones where the sadness felt the most crippling, the writer recognized that action must emerge from the sadness.
Grace Hwang Lynch told me that Trump’s election reminded her of events that she now felt compelled to write about:
As a journalist and essayist, I find myself in the unusual situation of both trying to chronicle events that are going on and also trying to make sense of my personal experiences during this unprecedented time. It’s been easier for me to do journalistic writing these past weeks, although with a new level of awareness of the importance of how we use words, whose stories are told, and having to ask more questions and not assume that the institutions we’ve grown up with will always be the same. Also, the constant news of post-election hate crimes has prompted me to spend some time editing a story on based on an event in my childhood which was my first experience with public racism.
And Matt Gallagher told me that despite his feeling alone, but he felt inspired by reading one of the greats:
Writing is lonely, bedeviling work in the best of days, and the potential betrayal of the American republic hardly qualifies as that. But I’ve since found resolve in a Richard Wright quote: “All literature is protest.” Our country needs smart, lucid stories and ideas now more than ever. I’m a writer. So I’ll write.
Sara Nović started to call her writing back to her by starting with a different sort of writing.
I’d been walking around with a sort of sinking feeling that Trump was going to win in the month leading up to the election, while still hoping and doing my best to be sure it didn’t happen. Still, when it did, I felt grief and fear that knocked me out of my writing work literally and mentally. At first I spent all my time reading the news and absorbing each new horror, producing nothing. Then I started writing again, but only about the election—I wrote about what a Trump administration might mean for the Deaf community; I wrote letters to representatives about Trump’s business conflicts of interest and started posting them online so other people can use them, too. It’s a different kind of writing than I’m used to—difficult, more serious and staid than fiction, but it’s more important than ever, and I believe it’s our responsibility.
Now, slowly, I’ve returned to my creative work and find that what I’d planned for the characters in this manuscript makes no sense. I thought I’d had most of the major plot points sorted, but the book is set in the present day and filled with traditionally marginalized voices, mainly Deaf people, and their hopes, dreams and worries would have totally changed post-Trump. To ignore that and continue writing in an alternate, non-Trump world could, I’m sure work for many projects and writers, but not for this one.
I’ve always believed that writing is a political act; writing, raising awareness, and activism have long been all tangled together for me. In a way the election results are a challenge, daring writers to look beyond the safety of our literary and academic communities. It is already pushing me to the limits of what I say I am already doing in my work, so that’s a tiny good thing midst a whole lot of darkness.
I’ve found myself thinking about what my working-class father, an immigrant, would have thought of this election, and I am certain he’d be horrified. My partner echoes this, in talking about his own machinist dad, who had been a proud union-member and a leftist intellectual, telling me “this election repudiated everything my father stood for.” Part of my grief and anger is the feeling that the last vestige of “peace, love, and understanding” was killed on November 8, and how that might have killed my father if he weren’t already dead. And then I heard from someone I hadn’t previously met, who gave me the advice that I think my dad would have given me.
Manjula Martin wrote to me:
It’s ok to allow yourself to be in shock, to be scared, to cry and mourn the world that was. But it’s not ok to stay there. So even though I want to never work again, some mornings, and even though the thought of entering into a whirlwind of promotional activities for my book (it comes out January 3! Buy it!) seems not only exhausting but petty, in the larger scheme of what is happening in the world right now, I try to tell myself: Look, Self. Suck it up. Your life is pretty ok; you’re not in jail right now. Writers throughout history have been at the forefront of politics, opening minds and hearts and changing nations and worlds—and often paying very steeply for it, sometimes with their lives. Be one of those writers. Take the time you need. But get back to work. Don’t think about how this changes everything; think about how this changes your work, and then help make that change happen.
It’s kind of funny. During the course of the writing of this essay, I have suddenly gotten busy writing again. I have just finished an overtly political piece—on the effects that Mike Pence will have on abortion rights—but I’m also writing about literature. Conversing with other writers, finding out that many of us have been struggling with the same issues, has actually made me feel less alone. The writing that I’m producing may not set the world on fire, but I feel like the book of matches is back in my pocket, and I’m remembering what I’m supposed to be doing with them.
And the writers who spoke of their depression and inaction also know that times like these call upon writers to do their best work. They wrote and told me so.