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How to Write While the World’s Burning Down

Burn? [1]

This was a difficult post for me to write. I stopped and started at least five times.  I was going to post about something much lighter. Why was this so hard for me to get out?

Because I fear I don’t have a real answer.

The news is full of unrelenting turmoil and bad news. In my social media feeds lately, I’ve seen a ton of writers despairing about the current state of the world.

Many of the sentiments boil down to this:

How can we do something frivolous like write books when what we need right now is concrete action? I’m too depressed to write.

I’m not entirely sure myself how to write while the world seems to be turning into ashes around me. So first, I read some essays. I turned to greats like Toni Morrison. If you haven’t yet, I recommend you read “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear.” Though it was written in 2015, it is utterly prescient. Here she describes how despots work:

  1. Select a useful enemy—an “Other”—to convert rage into conflict, even war.

  2. Limit or erase the imagination that art provides, as well as the critical thinking of scholars and journalists.

  3. Distract with toys, dreams of loot, and themes of superior religion or defiant national pride that enshrine past hurts and humiliations.


Sound familiar?

It’s important, Morrison points out, to remember other writers from history who wrote under much more difficult situations. Through jail and torture, threatened with death and exile, writers have insisted on making sure their voices are heard.

Vision of the Truth

Next, I read a speech JFK gave at Amherst, honoring Robert Frost and the arts. In part:

We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth… In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.

Best serves his nation. That reminds me of the phrase people used to use to practice typing: Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.

Now I can try to apply these ideas to my own writing. For me, writing has always had a two-fold purpose: to make me understand my world, and to entertain.

Writing is my way of showing you a different worldview. It’s how I grab you off the street and hold up a magical pair of spectacles to your eyes that puts you into another person’s body. To live another life. To say, “Yes, but have you considered this? And this?”

So if I write with empathy and purpose, if I have a way of seeing that I want to convey, that then becomes my reason for continuing.

This is what we do.

We are here for this.

Here’s a final, inspiring quote from Morrison. She writes: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Now is the time for all of us to come to the aid of our country.

I need to write because the world is burning down.

Have you felt paralyzed lately? How have you coped?

About Margaret Dilloway [2]

Margaret Dilloway [3] is the author of the new middle grade series MOMOTARO: XANDER AND THE LOST ISLAND OF MONSTERS (Disney Hyperion) and three women’s fiction novels. She lives in San Diego with her family and a big Goldendoodle named Gatsby. She teaches creative writing to middle schoolers and does developmental editing.