Societal decline has derailed my writing practice. With all of the tragic events that seem to occur daily as the new wretched norm in our country, I grapple with the aftermath of debilitating emotions. To fathom picking up my notebook to write fiction at times seems futile and unimportant. I’ve been wondering if there are any other fiction writers out there currently facing the same dilemma.
Last weekend, I traveled to Boston to take the Speculative Non fiction class taught by an inspiring writer, Sari Boren. I’m in the beginnings of exploring my work as a speculative writer & filmmaker, and the title of the class alone inspired me to make the trip. It’s a luxury to spend all day with other writers, and I returned home full, ready to tackle a speculative fiction story that I have been working on for the past several months. Instead, I arrived home to sketchy details of a merciless attack that had taken place on the Water Protectors at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. I know people who are out there, and I immediately turned to Facebook for news to view factual livestreaming from the people on the ground. For the next few days, I was glued to livestreams, and connecting with friends, all in painful shock from the brutality committed by North Dakota police forces who have created what is now an illegal militarized occupation, a violation of the tribe’s peaceful right to assemble (on their own treaty land). Livestream feed from citizen journalists bore witness to police officers who shot water cannons upon peaceful demonstrators in the middle of a 20 degree night. Unarmed citizens were hosed with freezing water, reminiscent of protest footage from the 1960’s, with many Water Protectors being seriously wounded by rubber bullets and concussion grenades. All work on my writing ceased, though in the back of my mind, I wondered how I could productively make it back to the page while trying to wrap my head around police use of concussion grenades, shocked that this new weaponry vocabulary is what our children will now associate with peaceful protest.
This past week wasn’t my first time facing creative derailment. I am reminded of two summers ago when I attended my first writing retreat. After the first day of the retreat, I went to a local cafe for dinner. There was a CNN broadcast on the cafe’s flatscreen television breaking news of a lone shooter in Charleston, South Carolina, who had murdered nine black people at a bible study meeting that evening. When I returned to my room, I struggled through my writing assignment, and once in class the next day, this incomprehensible tragedy was on the minds of every writer in the room. How could we move forward with perfecting our prose when the weight of such insane violence left us grieving and bewildered? Racial violence continued day after day for the duration of that summer, and instead of finding joy in immersive writing, I simply shut down. I didn’t write. I couldn’t. I went into a groundless space of what I felt was near psychological ruin, asking myself the question, where is my place as a creative citizen in all of this? In what context can I function responsibly as a fiction writer when things are falling apart?
It was last year that I decided to commit to fiction writing seriously, a decision I’ve been waiting to make for years. Now, the fulfillment of this aspiration feels untimely. I struggle to justify writing fiction as I grapple with the feeling that this pursuit is possibly an indulgence in a world that is now hinged on civil war. I’m not a political writer. I’ve had no wish to be. How does a creative writer psychologically compartmentalize a cyclical version of 19th century oppression that is being played out under a 21st century American plutocracy, and still find the mental space to maintain creative sovereignty? Do I pull a James Baldwin to become an expat, just to clear my head to get the work done? Am I being an irresponsible citizen by wishing to find a way to shut out the insane so that I can continue my writing, when I could possibly be elsewhere using my days to actively make a difference during such a critical time?
Artists of the past have had to endure societal collapse, so I know that a writer attempting to grapple with a nonsensical, violent paradigm isn’t new. There are countless writers I can think of who wrote during the apex times of revolution in their countries, including here in America. Many of those writers fled their home countries. Now, the fate of the entire planet is at stake. I think of a statement the Buddhist teacher, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, made last year when he spoke of the human desire to abandon Earth to travel to Mars. When it comes to potential Mars colonization, he said, “What we don’t realize is that wherever we go, we’re just going to wind up running into ourselves.”
There is no place to escape, really. All I have to hold onto after questioning my devotion to fiction writing are the words of James Baldwin. In his essay, “The Creative Process,” he wrote that the role of the artist is to “not lose sight of its purpose, which is after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.” It is within his words that I find solace, and purpose, knowing that the act of creating, writing fiction, has its place that is meaningful...and necessary.
Asata Radcliffe is a fiction writer & independent filmmaker. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, and is the Creative Director for Little Thunder Films. Her first essay was recently published in the anthology, Dawnland Voices 2.0, Indigenous Writing from New England (2016). Originally from California, currently she lives in the blue state of Maine, that at times feels very red.