Stay Sane, Stay Righteous, Stay True to Your Voice.
The truth is: Many of us have not written one word since March.
2020 is defined by conversations about power, race, culture, and rights. At this writing, there are still people in the streets of every major city in the US, risking their lives to demand justice and safety for Black communities and Black lives. Those protesters are still being assaulted and arrested in the hundreds and thousands. The pandemic is throwing systemic medical racism into sharp relief - and exposing personal bigotry deeply ingrained in the ranks of medical professionals. Public attention has been demanded for the wrongs done by both individuals and institutions at every level and in every corner of our society. Our industry is not immune. Black authors have famously used #publishingpaidme to put the public eye on unfair standards and practices they faced when publishing. But industry professionals in many other roles have spoken about the inequities they faced trying to make careers in the book world.
Racial justice is not the only flashpoint for cultural conflict in this season of heat. (Though it’s worth remembering that each and every one of these issues does disproportionate violence to people living at the intersections of societal injustices). The rolling public reckoning with sexual violence has exposed another clutch of comics luminaries as abusers. JK Rowling’s ever-boldening transphobia has emerged fully into the light, cracking her stranglehold on public conversations about her legacy. Trans activists are desperately scrambling not just to capitalize on this moment to communicate the needs and realities of some of the most vulnerable communities in the world, but also to protect those communities from the backlash created by the anger and vitriol of Rowling and her allies. COVID triage standards are being decided on and published across the nation, many of them explicitly identifying the lives of disabled Americans as worth less than those of abled citizens. Economic hardship is throwing America’s often-overlooked class divides into sharp relief and there is, as yet, no answer to what will happen now that tens of thousands of American families are newly facing homelessness.
And here you are, in the middle of it all, trying to figure out what to say. What to write. And how to write at all.
I hope you’re being good to yourself. I truly do. In the face of societal violence, of irreconcilable rifts opening between you and your neighbors, your friends, in the face of the pandemic and the new world that’s coming, no matter what we do, I hope you are drinking your water, and eating what you can, and hugging your cat as close as they let you before the claws come out. Because that’s where it all starts. It starts with the small acts of self-compassion.
I Want to Be Writing
Of course you do. We all want to be doing what we love, especially in times of strife. I’ve been queen of telling you to give yourself a break for months now, but we’re artists and we don’t thrive when we’re not working. Start by forgiving yourself, once again, for how long it’s been. It doesn’t matter when you last wrote. You’re going to write now.
Try fixing your media consumption, too. You’ve been reading whatever kept you afloat, and that makes sense. Focus back in on the books, the articles, and yes, the TV and movies that inspire and inform your current projects. I’m not saying you can’t keep one eye on the news, but I am saying that the other eye should be back on the book world.
When the time comes to first get words on the page, it might help to unplug. You can just literally unplug your internet (or turn off the WIFI on your computer). You can also go full analogue with a pen, paper, and no temptation to open a browser window for just a second.
I Want to Be Proud of What I’m Writing
If you’re just talking about prose quality, you’re going to have to give yourself another break. You’re rusty. You’ll get back into a rhythm. Maybe you’re not a world-beater, a torch-bearer. Maybe you don’t feel called to save the world. That’s good work, but it doesn’t have to be yours. I hope this crazy, messed up year has shown you, at least, that storytellers can do amazing harm in this world. Or they can do amazing good. There’s not a single artist whose work gets into circulation who has literally no effect. Even if all you want is to tell a good story, I hope you’re learning that a good story has to be compassionate, respectful, and written with love.
If you want to write a book that will make a difference, that’s harder. The desire to be an artist of the revolution, to be someone who changes hearts and minds, who heals the wounded and supports the cause, burns hot and bright. It’s heavy, the knowledge that there’s a whole world of wrong out there that you want to speak against, a whole world of right you want to champion. The very idea can be exhausting, can drive you to distraction. Especially in chaotic, dangerous times like these. It’s important to be realistic. You’re not going to write one book and save the world, no matter how passionate, how beautiful, how kind your book is.
You can write a book and: save lives, inspire new artists, give people new tools for critical conversations.
It takes dedication and diligence. Do your research, question your ideas and your assumptions. Be in conversation with other thinkers, other writers, with activists and with people living in the trenches of our cultural battles. You might change the world with a book that doesn’t challenge you, that’s lazy, that’s casually cruel. But that’s not who you want to be. You want to be more. I know you do, or you wouldn’t still be reading this.
Hey, guess what?
I believe in you.
I Want to Do More
This isn’t really the place for a primer on activism, but it is a place where we talk about the health, and the responsibilities, of our professional community. So, if you, as a writer, want to do more? I’ve got some advice.
With Our Platforms: Building a successful career as a writer means building a public presence, both digitally and (at least before COVID-19) with in-person appearances and networking. The practical issue at the heart of the JK Rowling fight is how we, as writers, use these platforms to reach and influence people. There’s a broader conversation happening, too, about our responsibilities as artists, and whether there are ways we should behave publicly. The first step is just acknowledging that when you’re building a platform, what you’re doing is developing power and the skill to wield it. When you build yourself a network of people who are listening to you speak, what you say becomes important, by intention. This is the old Spider-Man problem. You know, the power-responsibility relationship. Only, your power isn’t accidental, it wasn’t granted to you at random. You sought it out. You cultivated and grew it.
So, be conscientious of your platform. How did you build it? What did you want people to know about you? Did you promise that the space you’re creating will be safe for marginalized fans and colleagues? And are you keeping that promise by blocking and banning people who harass and do harm? Do you stay out of the fray when discourse appears, or do you stand up for what you believe is right? When you join the fight, are you careful that your words and assumptions aren’t doing harm to the vulnerable or confusing the issue? If you’re trying to be an ally, are you taking care not to speak over the people whose lives are on the line?
In Our Community: Read and support the work of marginalized writers. Share their announcements, boost their blogs. Reblog their tumblr micro-fictions. Drop a little cash in their Ko-fi accounts. Don’t just do it for form, or because you feel like you have to. Do it to build your community, because they’re your metaphorical neighbors, and you care how they’re getting by. Do it because you love their work and you want to hear more from them. Keep your heart open, make real connections. Make friends who don’t look or sound like you. Listen when they’re frustrated, lift them up whenever you can. Make friends who do look and sound like you. Listen when they’re frustrated, lift them up whenever you can. And encourage everyone you meet to do the work of making our community better, more inclusive, more just.
Navigating the complexities of a chaotic, dangerous, and unjust world is hard and exhausting. I want to leave you with the same words we began with:
Stay sane. Stay righteous. Stay true to your voice.
The world is listening.