Finding the Courage to Write
“If you are reading this, and you’re a writer, and you, like me, are gripped with despair, when you think you might stop: Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write. And when war comes—and make no mistake, it is already here—be sure you write for the living too. The ones you love and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there?”
- Alexander Chee, “On Becoming an American Writer”
In the age of COVID 19, I have turned to books that emphasize the importance of literature in times of distress. I am rereading works such as Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury) and Station Eleven (Hilary St. John Mandel). Being an academic, this project has quickly become a syllabus of sorts for an imagined reading group that may or may not ever materialize. Depending on the audience, it might also include more theoretical works like Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception and Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury.” I found the essay by Chee quoted above on the recommendation of a colleague whom I have never met in person but who shares my passion for higher education.
Chee captures something that I suspect anyone who writes anything has sometimes felt: despair. What is this despair exactly? That sinking suspicion that none of it really matters. The feeling that all the struggle, the wrestling to put ideas or experiences into a communicable form, is for naught. When I write, I get up and pace around the room. I bounce a tennis ball. I palm a baseball. It is hard work. George Orwell, whose novel 1984 might well go on my list of books about the importance of art in a state of emergency, called writing a book “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness.” The metaphor sounds different under current circumstances, somehow indecorous, but also missing what Chee acknowledges in his essay – that as solitary as the suffering we undergo when writing may be, its purpose and joy is the most human of connections.
Chee’s encouragement for those in the desperate throes of trying to make meaning out of experiences and trying to connect with others in the process fully acknowledges and embraces loss. In asking the dead to hold us accountable, he crawls into the sorrow that comes with our helplessness in the face of suffering and grief. He instructs us to write from this place because it connects us to those whom we love but no longer see in person, and this connection is vitality. It is the vitality we are going to need when the war comes, as he says. He wrote this piece just before the most recent Iraq war began, another time of national and global uncertainty. This vitality is ultimately what we have to offer. It is what we have to show for ourselves. The hope to be found in the grief and the loss, in the struggle and fear, is that we will no longer be able to ignore what once seemed tolerable.
If you are like me, the dead are hovering around the edges of your world right now. Though one of my oldest friends and her family all had the virus, they have recovered. I have a salaried job that is unlikely to be cut in the near future. I can work from home, and though zoom has proven exhausting, being an introvert, I am a happy for the relative dearth of human contact. Many people I have talked with welcome the collective pause and the time with children, even as these can put an enormous strain on already busy schedules. But just beyond the edge of those who largely share my experience are many others. Our graduate students have rallied to get grocery giftcards for as many of their peers as donations will allow. They are not losing their funding, but the Modern Language Association has begun a fund to support contingent faculty and graduate students because we all know that they are likely to be affected before those with tenure. Even the experiences of many of my students are radically different from the impact on so many others. Since the pandemic began, the weekly community meal I share with about forty people from many different social locations has become a delivery service for one hundred and fifty. They are not being evicted but the rent is still due.
COVID 19 did not cause the problems we are facing. It only exacerbated them. It has pressed the limits of what is tolerable. How much isolation can we stand? How sustainable do our global financial and food networks actually look when some us can have groceries delivered to our doors and some put themselves and everyone in their immediate family at risk to sustain an income? There are no easy answers to these questions, but I will keep writing my way through them. I will keep reading literature that makes me think about value in ways that cannot be easily quantified. Reading and writing are acts that presume that we want to connect with each other across barriers of time and distance, that we are better together. I find the courage to write relying on the vitality of these connections to illuminate and untangle what we find intolerable.
So if you are trying to imagine a future, don’t imagine a return to normal. Imagine a future accountable to the dead, accountable to the authors you love, accountable to those who are far away and to those who are close by but too often remain invisible. And then, write. Connect. Find others, as many others as you can, and write against the despair.