Some writers believe in writing — really believe — as the religious enthusiast believes in the Next Life: it is all that matters. You eat, sleep, breathe, get dressed, make love, and tend bar, but you do it as a writer does. For these lucky few, creating literature excels, exceeds, and renders null the assaults of the actually-existing, empirical, material and social world. To the extent that they address that world, it is via writing alone (and maybe a little self-promotion, here and there). The true believers are not people who write, they are people who are writers. Their identity and vocation is literature, in the same sense that the Cistercian monk’s vocation is praying: it’s all that really matters. They may pay attention to economic inequality, ecological breakdown, or racial oppression, and may have opinions about those things; they may even write about them. But outside of that, it is, strictly speaking, none of their business — not any more than, and indeed less than, the non-writer.
I have never been able to sustain such a faith. I’m no Rilke.
For the past few years, I have been trying to “organize” faculty on campus to shore up faculty rights. I’m especially concerned for non-tenure-track faculty, who really are the “new faculty majority”: they account for the majority of student-credit hours at my institution, for instance. Anyway, despite the tedium of drafting policies that will be sliced, diced, or rejected; the difficulty of galvanizing people to join in; and the sometime nerve-wracking nature of opposing administrators, it really has made me feel better — which, I think, has made me feel better about writing and teaching.
All very well and good, Joe, but there are bigger fish to fry and mountains that need scaling (and fish that need scaling, probably): more people out of work than in 1932; more US deaths from a virus than in the Vietnam War; a pandemic that may or may not be in the process of being brought under control; millions of people without access to health care. And overarching all of these, like the 500-pound sword of Damocles, there’s the climate crisis.
But faced with those challenges, like a lot of people, I freeze up. Give me time, I need to figure it out. I try to be supportive of the Sunrise Movement young ‘uns, but they’re trying to figure it out, too. There’s no XR chapter here, and starting one would pretty much be a full time job, which I’ve already got one of. And of course, direct action would mean getting arrested, processed, time in jail, waiting; it probably would mean getting my bunged-up body more bunged-up. All of which is off-putting.
And writing is just so . . . comforting. There is something predictable and reassuring about going to your desk at the same time (more or less) every day and creating something new — even if it is about the Terrible Shape the World Is In. It feels like action — that dopamine-dispensing, ego-gratifying kind. Indeed, I am struck by how similar my current routine is to what it was before the lockdown. I write. I read. I interact with students. I go to meetings. And while the relative lack of physical contact is taxing, the routine itself is, if anything, even more comfortable, since I rarely have to change out of sweats.
I'm a writer & teacher in Lawrence, Kansas who actually believes the scientists. I wrote a book of poems called Of Some Sky that seems to have something to do with all this.