by Danelle Morton
The presidential election last week was disturbing to many of my students in my weekly Finishing School class. Some reported that they were physically ill and frightened about the future. The problem, they said, was that they felt too overcome to write.
As Toni Morrison has said, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
She wrote this in 2004 after George W. Bush was elected to a second term.
The message I conveyed to my students was the same as the one that Toni Morrison spoke to her friend on the phone that day. Disruptive times when you are scared and feeling powerless are times to be grateful that you write. By writing you reclaim your power.
Those heightened feelings you have, the consciousness of your vulnerability in the world and the fragility of our interdependence, have always been with you, but now that the world seems upended they come more powerfully to the surface.
These feelings need a voice. To understand what we are going through we need words, something that only writers can provide to the world by fully expressing their personal experience. The writer has the gift of feeling these things more vividly than others do and the duty not to deny them or try to cover them over.
If you are not a political person and do not know how to express your political views in a coherent way, the feelings that are rising up can still be useful to your fiction or memoir. Describe the physical sensations these feelings cause. They are pure expressions of the soul that may be valuable in describing a character’s reactions in a nonpolitical part of your work.
As I write now it is six in the morning after a night when I slept poorly. My stomach is tight and sour. I am hungry but there is nothing in the house that I want to eat, perhaps nothing in the world that can soothe this new kind of hunger, more of a hunger for safety and kindness than for food. I’m sitting up very straight because I feel vulnerable and I want to face that vulnerability with a strong spine. I have stopped drinking a glass of wine at night because I want to be clear-eyed about what may be coming and ready to react.
In taking this inventory I recognize that my physical responses to this fear differ from others that I have had, and that is worth noting. No doubt they are different from the reactions of each one of the students at my Finishing School class.
In William Faulkner’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature he defined the artist’s role as “to help man survive by lifting his heart.” This is your call to action from writers decades past and those alive right now. I’m not saying don’t despair. I’m saying despair, fear, feel all that you feel, and write.