Writing While the World Burns

Lately, I’ve had apocalypse on the brain. A strange duality exists between my near-daily practice of creating, i.e. writing and revising, while chaos and catastrophe swirls as a near-daily occurrence in the world at large.

This is not an upbeat advice post, so I apologize in advance. Feel free to skip this if it’s not what you’re looking for. The change of seasons often brings on a reflective mood for me so as Fall and Samhain season comes on, I am just going to ramble a bit today about hope, escapism, and creativity as a means of survival.

There is no easy fix.

I’m not here to argue that creativity is a balm that heals everything, or an easy solution for anything. It’s just plain hard to create something new when the world around you seems to be falling to pieces. The cortisol soup of stress and uncertainty does not make for an ideal headspace for art.

Especially in our current era of news hypersaturation, in which social media allows us to experience global disasters with searing immediacy, the act of focusing on creative work can feel self-indulgent, small, even pointless. It can feel like “fiddling while Rome burns.”

The whole point of that saying, of course, which isn’t even historically accurate, is that Nero was derelict in his duties to save Rome, for which, as Emperor, he was arguably responsible. As I am not Empress of the World as of this writing, accusing myself of this is probably my overdeveloped sense of responsibility rearing its head. Also, y’know, good riddance to empire, as a rule.

From Game of Thrones, a dragon burning down an army against a stormy sky.
Some things should burn.

We are living through communal loss.

I am fortunate so far to have not experienced any major personal losses in the pandemic. But my home state of California has experienced severe drought and a merciless fire season again this year, with horrific air quality keeping us locked indoors. Around the world, extreme climate conditions have caused terrible suffering, from hurricanes and heatwaves to apocalyptic flooding. And of course, we are creeping up on two full pandemic years. And meanwhile, here I sit at my desk, writing and rewriting books about supernatural creatures and space captains, time loops and lovers’ trysts.

A blonde, perky teenage girl with long bangs holds up a 90s-style pager and says "If the apocalypse comes, beep me."
I feel like Buffy gifs are particularly apt for the subject at hand.

On the one hand, I feel driven to continue pursuing my passions. Trauma tends to make one feel that time is growing short. To be honest, I keep writing in part because if the world is ending anytime soon, I want to say I went out doing what I loved. But on the other, there are days when the enormity of the times we are living through stuns me into a sense of helplessness.

Even at my level of relative privilege, I can’t stop the march of disease or the degredation of our body politic. I can’t stop the beautiful places and ecosystems I love from falling to fire, pests, or storm, a staggering kind of communal loss that we are just beginning to name these days: it’s called climate grief, eco-anxiety, or ecological grief.

These problems are bigger than me. I alone cannot solve them. I can stand witness, I can speak out, I can send money, I can offer my support to those affected. But I can’t save a world groaning under the stress of multiple existential threats.

Creativity is an act of resistance.

Writing is an art particularly focused on finding and creating meaning, and in a time of great destruction and loss, I believe we need that sense of meaning more than ever. And connecting with creativity is life-affirming.

A white-blonde man with dark eyebrows and stunning cheekbones (James Marsters as Spike of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) tilts his head and says (sings) "Life isn't bliss. Life is just this. It's living. You'll get along. The pain that you feel only can heal by living. You have to go on living."
From the mouths of problematic faves…

Years ago, I got my first and only tattoo, a black rose on fire between my shoulderblades that represents for me the alchemy of creating beauty from pain and light out of darkness. That principle is still true for me today, perhaps even more so. Although I do write escapist fiction, themes of survival, trauma, and hope always wind their way in.

A brunette woman with pale, freckled skin, half-updo, and jeweled headdress faces away from the camera, showing a backless wedding dress with a tattoo between her shoulderblades of a black rose with flames rising from it.
My body art seen in a picture from another act of joyful defiance in the face of catastrophe.

To put it another way, survival is an act of resistance. If creativity helps us survive, even in a small way, it is meaningful. I would propose that creativity is also inherently a hopeful act, building something incomplete now for full realization, an audience, another draft in the future. And hope is a right we must protect, especially in the face of despair. (It might even literally save us from the disasters we face.)

Your work doesn’t have to save the world.

At the same time, as the pandemic forces us all to spend more time in our homes, we have more “free” time, which is anathema to a productivity-obsessed culture like mine in the U.S. Hence the infamous Twitter exhortations reminding us that Shakespeare wrote some of his most famous plays while quarantined in plague times, with the implication we should be producing great works as well.

I reject that mindset, but I also am a product of it. If I don’t have a project, I get restless and depressed. That’s probably why I’m revising my third book in two years right now. But I have also struggled with the feeling that my work is not “big” enough or good enough, that I’m wasting my time on fantasy when the real world’s problems demand a serious response.

But the reality is that we don’t have any duty to write Shakespeare in the plague. In traumatic times, many people will look to art, their own or others, to fuel their survival. And not any specific kind of art, but all kinds: escapist and realist, low and high, distracting and discerning.

And let me just say, for the record, escapism does have a real value in stressful times. It’s ok to take a vacation from the doom machine.

A blonde girl with long bangs and a ponytail (Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy Summers) says, "I'm taking a holiday from dealing. Happily vacationing in the land of not coping."
We all deserve a break from reality sometimes.

So just remember, writers and artists, your work doesn’t have to save the world.

It’s enough for it to just save you.

2 thoughts on “Writing While the World Burns

  1. There is something to be said about feeling depressed when you don’t make the best use of your time. I too have increased my creative output, not because I want to be part of the hustle crowd, but because having written is a great way to sum up the day. It irks me to no end if I’ve spent an entire day NOT pushing the needle forward. Anyway, thanks for this awesome post, Erin!

    Liked by 1 person

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