On Doing What We Can
During the past several days I have started to write a post, and then stopped. Started, then stopped. And I’ll tell you exactly the thought process, verbatim, that has raced through my mind each time I sat down to write. Who cares? Why me? How can writing possibly help with the state of the world is in such profound chaos? What makes me think I have anything to contribute? Isn’t writing somehow self-indulgent? Shouldn’t I be out there in the world, at every possible waking moment, making some sort of real difference?
Sound familiar? I have felt this way twice before in my writing life. The first time was when my son was terribly sick as an infant with a rare disease, and the odds were stacked against him. Each day, as he slept, I sat in my office and stared at the wall. Why be a writer? I asked myself. It seemed the most frivolous thing I could imagine. People were out there going to medical school, or becoming nurses, or developing experimental treatments that saved lives. And what was I doing? Making things up. I stayed stuck for a good long while. I stayed stuck until one day, while having coffee with a writer friend, I was talking about my terror about my son, and she said: write about that. And so I did. I wrote an essay, and then a novel, about maternal anxiety. It was all I cared about. All I knew about. I poured my heart and soul onto the page because that’s what I am and that’s what I do. Which is to say, I am a writer. I’m not a doctor, a nurse, a scientist. I’m a writer, and a writer writes.
The second time I stared at a wall for a long time was after 9/11. Every artist and writer I knew was doing the same. How to create, from inside the devastation and the madness? How to make meaning when all felt meaningless? We walked around, shadow selves, ghost-like, as we attempted to metabolize a level of collective pain and trauma that seemed impossible to absorb. During that time, William Faulnker’s Nobel acceptance speech was circulated, sent from writer to writer, pressed from hand to hand, a reminder to get back to work despite fear, despite terror, despite a sense of futility. Get back to work. “There are no longer problems of the spirit,” Faulkner rails against precisely that sense of futility. “There is only the question, when will I be blown up?”
Problems of the spirit. It seems to me that this is what writes grapple with every single day when we sit down to work.
Love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.
Which is not to say that I am not filled to the brim with a sense of moral outrage and that every cell in my body does wish to protest during these dark, dark days. I’m doing what I can in that regard — as we all must. But there is another kind of protest, another way of refusing to succumb to despair. And so we sit down to write. We ignore the inner voice telling us that there’s no point, it doesn’t matter. We grapple with the problems of the spirit, of the human heart and all it contains. It matters more than ever.