It’s been a crazy season in what increasingly seems a world turning mad. Here in Australia we’ve had fire, we’ve had flood, and now we have pestilence in the form of the COVID 19 virus, which has caused extremely varied responses in different parts of the world, from the rapid, drastic and effective (China) to the inappropriate-verging-on-ludicrous (Australian shoppers fighting in the supermarket aisles over supplies of toilet paper.) Underlying all is the looming threat posed by climate change – odd how many people are super-stressed about the virus but give no thought to the fate of the planet. Human behaviour is indeed weird. At times like this, we see the best and the worst of it.
Writers are observers. We use our observations to put flesh on our characters and make them real, from the individual who responds to a crisis by becoming a hero, a guardian, or a wise nurturer, to the person turned by challenge into a shouter, a denier, blind to all but their own perceived needs or entitlements. Ever since the first tales of wonder were shared around the fire to keep the shadows at bay and to help people live their lives bravely and wisely, stories have grown from the raw materials of real life. And boy, do they contain the good, the bad, and the ugly.
What message would I put in a story to tell around tonight’s camp fire? Sometimes the shadows press very close. Sometimes those who bear responsibility for supporting us through our challenges – certain world leaders, I’m thinking of you – seem entirely inadequate to the task. Sometimes genuine wisdom is ignored. Often, fear renders people deaf to reason. There are fine human beings among us. Every day we hear wise words, see brave actions, discover unselfish, caring souls. Here and there we see shining examples of leadership. Balance that against a cacophony of voices fuelled by political or business agendas, entrenched prejudice, personal resentments or plain terror of the unknown. There should be a perfect story for this time in history. Aren’t those old tales all about facing the monsters bravely? Aren’t they designed to open our minds to possibilities and help us learn?
I’d love to find the perfect story, one that would acknowledge the reasons for people’s fears, convey the complexity of their lives and the barriers they face, recognise the efforts so many people make to heal our ailing world and shore up our fragile society. A story that would offer hope, despite all our failings. A story that would help us find answers. I’m still looking for that story. In the meantime, I do what I can in my own fiction. Even my darkest stories contain a note of hope. I haven’t yet given up on the human race. I write about flawed individuals, people struggling not only against external threats, but against the demons within. Yes, my work is mainly historical fantasy. But those demons are common to any time and place. I write about people who meet challenges bravely and people who come unstuck. People who retain hope in the darkest situations, and people who cannot rise up without the help of others. Fearful people. Courageous people. Good leaders and bad.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: your writer’s voice is your most powerful tool for change. It doesn’t matter what genre you write in. You have magic at your fingertips. The wise elders by the camp fire might pass on their message about understanding the Other in a tale about a traveller meeting a monster and, instead of being devoured on the spot, finding herself trading a rabbit skin for a bag of root vegetables. The elders might frame their cautionary tale about flood, fire and pestilence as a human interaction with three powerful gods, stressing the need to listen carefully to their instructions. You can write your fable, your parable, your entertaining or disturbing or creepy or heart-warming story any way you like. It may be a romance, a thriller, a detective story, a literary masterpiece. A poem. A memoir. A picture book. You will put your own wisdom into it. Your story and characters – human, uncanny, ghostly, whatever – may bear only the subtlest resemblance to what you see around you. But the heart, the learning, the message in your story, whether stated plainly or hidden away, will reach your readers. If even one reader acts on that message, you’ll have taken a step toward mending our beautiful, flawed, irreplaceable world.
My fireside story for our times would carry a message about learning how to walk in the other person’s shoes, even if they pinch your toes a bit. And how to listen; listening is vital. What would your story be?
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