Dear word nerd,
The past few days we have witnessed events unlike anything we have seen in the United states, at least not in a long time. This situation has been weighing on my mind since Wednesday. In particular, I have been struggling to understand my role as a writer during times like these.
This morning I recorded an audio that reflects where I am in my thinking… at least right now. I’ve also included the text version below.
Where do we go from here?
Eighty years ago this year, we had the bombing of Pearl Harbor in World War II. Twenty years ago, foreign terrorists used commercial airlines as weapons and flew them into buildings in a coordinated attack against America. Earlier this week, domestic terrorists staged an attempted coup, stormed our Capitol brandishing weapons, and laid siege to the seat of our government. Not only was this attack an attempt to overturn the November election and disenfranchise millions of voters, it was also incited and condoned by our current President.
This morning, as I try to make sense of these events, I feel angry, sickened, and ashamed. What has become of us, and what can we, as writers, do?
I’d like to take a moment to pause and reflect on what it truly means to be a writer in these turbulent times.
Writers Are Archivists
As writers, we have a responsibility to record what we see and bear witness to current events. Human memory is a slippery beast and if we don’t hold on, it can slither away so that current events become nothing more than a hazy shadow in our minds. It’s up to us as writers to make sure this does not happen. We must be society’s archive and memory bank. Our words and stories keep those memories salient, so we can help prevent such atrocities from happening again.
When I went to sleep on Wednesday night, it seemed like the events at the Capitol were all anyone on social media or on television could talk about. The next morning, I woke up to dozens of emails in my inbox as if it were any other day. Only one colleague—a dear, trusted friend—sent a newsletter addressing those events, but aside from that, it seemed like “business as usual.”
The response—or lack thereof—made me think back to how folks reacted following the murder of George Floyd. I remember how dozens (if not hundreds) of businesses and authors put out statements in support of Black lives. For days, my inbox was flooded with beautifully crafted emails about anti-racism and the importance of equity and inclusion.
But now, just a few days after armed insurgents carrying confederate flags ransacked the seat of our government, we were already back to the humdrum of everyday life. What happened to all that talk from last spring? Did we mean what we said or was it just a performance? I don’t know about you, but I am not willing to shrug my shoulders and say “here we go again.”
As writers, we can’t simply file these events away and move on. Part of our job is to keep these memories alive, and to challenge each other and those around us to do better. When we bear witness, we no longer have the luxury of complacency. It becomes our responsibility and our duty to prevent history from repeating itself.
Writers Are Protectors
We are guardians of words and stewards of language. It is our job to protect these precious resources, and when our leaders mince words and manipulate sentences, it is up to us to see through that smokescreen and call them out.
Over the last two days I have seen far too many pundits, journalists, and leaders twist language to dance around the events of this past week. When an armed mob ransacks the Capitol, this is not a protest or demonstration. The correct term is “insurrection.” When elected officials show support for these insurgents, that behavior is not just shameful or ignominious, it is downright sedition.
In the past several years, America has faced numerous iniquities. Immigrant children have been ripped from their parents’ arms and incarcerated at our border. An uncontrolled pandemic has raged across our country with an ever-growing death toll. Black citizens have been murdered while doing regular everyday things, like going out for a jog or sleeping in their bed. Most recently, we have faced a contentious election, after which the newly-defeated incumbent has tried to overturn the will of the voters. When his baseless challenges were rejected via legal avenues, he riled up his followers to such a frenzy that it resulted in Wednesday’s attack.
After everything we have lost—everything we have sacrificed-—I refuse to sit by quietly as many of our leaders continue to bastardize the English language. We are writers. It is our responsibility to protect our language. That means we must call things what they truly are, and not use niceties or platitudes to tap-dance around reality.
Writers Are Beacons
When the world is at its darkest, one lone candle can be a bright light. When we’re surrounded by ugliness, small glimmers of beauty become transcendent. As writers, we have the opportunity to create something beautiful in the world, despite… no, because of the ugliness we have witnessed this past week.
Writing allows us to depict the world not just as it is, but as we want it to be. In our stories, we can depict the dangers of what happens when people give in to their basest, most selfish and violent instincts. And we can model what a just and kind world could look like. Even when we write the darkest dystopias or the grisliest of murders, we give our readers a window into the hearts and souls of people different from themselves.
Research has found that reading—in particular, reading fiction—leads to higher levels of empathy. Think about what that means for us as writers. It means we get to help facilitate an experience of empathy for our readers. This is a precious gift, an honor, and one that we must cherish.
This week has been a rollercoaster of emotions, and I have a hunch that all is not yet behind us. Whenever I begin to worry about what to do in the face of all this darkness, I remember the words of Rep. John Lewis:
When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something.
As writers, we have an opportunity to use our words and stories to make the world better. We can bear witness to and record what we see in the world. We can speak up against injustice or use our writing to help soothe those who are in pain. We can be precise in our language, and model for others what it looks like to be clear and accurate with our words. Finally, we can use our stories to shine light into darkness, create beauty amid ugliness, and paint a picture of humanity and hope.
This situation is far from over, and there will be time in the coming weeks or months, when we might become impatient, despondent, or maybe even lose hope. In those moments, we must do what writers do best: We must turn to the page.
For many of us, writing is our escape from a grim reality. We might not necessarily want to be politicians, or warriors, or even activists. We just want to write. And that’s fine, too. But let us never forget in moments like these, we can use our words for the power of good, and when we do, our stories can become our contribution to the fight against injustice. Our stories can become our gift to the world.
Sending you much literary love and light,