Pen as Sword

(on Election 2016, art, and fear)

I hate fights. Avoid them at pretty much any cost. The idea of dealing with an angry person – especially if they’re angry at me – sends me into a tailspin of panic. I don’t argue, rarely stand up for myself, and have a hard time coming up with opinions (sometimes even on things like “What do you want for dinner?”). I have political views, pretty strong ones, but I don’t talk about them much. Putting a bumper sticker on my car feels like a big act of daring.

My fear of conflict carries over into my writing life. Stories need conflict to come alive, of course, but I have a tough time putting characters I love into bad situations and watching them get hurt. (And killing them off? Never.) I want my good characters to be happy and my bad ones to be punished. Writing can be an escape, a chance to dive into a cleaner and more peaceful world.

I deeply admire writers who use their words as weapons to strike out against the wrong they see in the world. A lot of us, though, get into writing because it’s a safe way to tap into our truest selves. We’re very private people and we love our solitude. The irony, of course, and the challenge, is that we then put our words out into the world for other people to treat however they want.

As I said, I don’t often talk about my politics. I’ve been glad to keep this real world out of my writing. Now, though, as I watch our presidential election playing out, I’m thinking about what it means to be a writer, or any kind of artist. I’m thinking about a quote that most of us have heard: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” And I’m thinking about another quote I ran into recently on Facebook: “Demons run when a good man goes to war.”

My first novel was literary fiction. In my second, I’ve gotten into fantasy, with a completely imaginary world and a main character with a superhuman ability. I’m very attached to that character, who – in spite of his formidable power – is a gentle soul, more patient than I could ever be. His world is cleaner than this messy one we live in. It’s been a joy to travel there and spend time with, yes, a good man.

Back in our real world, I look at this election and am staggered at the role that fear plays in it. I’ve never seen a candidate like Trump, who uses fear like a sword and plays on people’s basic instincts so devastatingly. It’s normal to be afraid of what you don’t know: but we’re being told that we should turn against it. We should lash out and hurt. We should split the world into us vs. them, and we should do whatever it takes to save ourselves from them.

The fear is visceral and real. The people who listen to that kind of talk know what scares them, and they’re ready to rip it to shreds. They’re told that’s the only way to make the world safe. They believe it.

We all want to be safe, but I know what scares me too. If the world is all us vs. them, at some point, every one of us is them. As a woman, I’m there already. I can see a world – and it’s awfully close – where I don’t have to say a word or do a thing before I’m judged and condemned because of my gender. Look at the way Trump talks about women: we’re weak, we’re ugly, we don’t deserve even the most basic respect. Countless people in this country deal with that same kind of condemnation every day, because of their skin color or religion or sexual orientation or any number of other things. I know how lucky I’ve been, so far, to avoid it.

Not anymore. I hate fighting, and I’ll do anything to get away from it, but it’s coming for everyone. All of us will be them eventually, if we let fear make our decisions for us.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I do as a writer. I write quiet stories about people, and these days I write fantasy novels. How does that help with what’s happening to the world?

This is what I think. When we tell stories, we get people out of their own heads, for a little while, and send them to a different place. Maybe it’s a gentler and brighter place than this one we live in. Maybe, sometimes, that breath of fresh air is enough to help someone push back against fear.

If “demons run when a good man goes to war,” then I will send my good man out into this messy world. I’ll send him, and all the others like him, who live in that cleaner place in my imagination. Maybe it’s a small thing to do, but it’s what I have. If it changes things for even one person, maybe it’ll be enough.

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