Welcome to Spring 2020! Hoo-boy, it’s already a doozy, and it hasn’t even officially started. So far we’ve had fires, floods, and rising tides (to the point of causing houses to fall in here along the Great Lakes). Not to mention political strife (plenty!) and economic upheaval (a veritable rollercoaster!).
And now a pandemic.
There’s real fear out there. Understandably! People are suffering and dying. Whether or not we’re sick, or know anyone who is, it’s a time when we’re all feeling vulnerable and isolated. A crisis like this tends to put the fragility of life into focus. I have to admit, it’s led me to some soul-searching. I’ve found myself asking a lot of questions of late. About my writing and more, of course. For the sake of this essay, I’ll try to stick to the ones about writing. But fair warning: for me writing is tightly entwined with living life.
I’ve always been the type to question myself about my writing. The basic stuff—such as, why do I write?—hasn’t really changed. So let’s skip ahead to questions like:
*Why’d I have to start writing so late in life?
*Why does it have to take so damn long to get it right?
*Why don’t I catch on faster; see the themes more clearly and sooner; thread the changes through more completely; get to “done” more effectively?
*Why couldn’t my parents had lived to my seeing this through? Or my wife’s parents? (I think her dad—a Latin and mythology scholar—might have really gotten a kick out of my stories.)
They’re questions which lead to more questions, like:
*When will this book finally be ready?
*Will it take this long to get each of my five remaining books ready to go?
*How long will I be sharp enough to stay on top of this?
*What if I run out of time? (I really hate the idea of leaving this job unfinished.)
Dolorous questions aside, I have experienced a crisis that felt similar to this. I recall the same sort of existential edginess in the days and weeks after 9/11. Several years afterward—after I began writing—I wrote: “Such a strange and tragic day. The earth seemed to tilt off of its axis that morning, and it took a long while for it to return to spinning as it once had.” In those same few years, we experienced a series of losses and dramatic life-changes. They were tumultuous times.
On 9/11, my wife and I still ran our business in Illinois, and I clearly recall how all we wanted to do was get to our cottage in Michigan (now our residence). It was about being home, and together; nearer to family and closer to nature. You know, seeking what’s really important.
So what did we do when we got here? We read. Sure, we also took long walks, cooked elaborate meals, opened nice bottles of wine, fed the fireplace all the livelong day. But we read like we hadn’t in years. (Side-note: Isn’t it funny what we sought then is what’s being asked of us now?) For me, reading like I hadn’t in years meant reading fiction again. I’d read very little of it during our run in business (mostly periodicals and nonfiction instead).
It’s not the first time I’ve realized that this series of events eventually led to my writing journey. In spite of the tragic and sad things that helped bring it about, it’s oddly reassuring to be reminded of it now. One of the first things I read—or I should say, reread—in the wake of crisis was The Lord of the Rings. You have to remember, Peter Jackson’s take on Fellowship was due to hit theaters that December. I clearly recall sitting in the lunchroom at the lumberyard, reading about the upcoming film in the newspaper (remember those?), and wondering how long it had been since I’d reread it. There’d been a time in my life when I reread it fairly regularly. In spite of my skepticism that LOTR could be made into viable movies–or perhaps because of it–I realized it had been far too long.
Soon after, I cracked open my worn copy of The Fellowship of the Rings, and turned a page on my life.
Crisis, Chaos, and Change
I’d hesitate for any audience other than WU, but here I’m pretty sure it won’t be seen as hyperbole when I say that rereading a book led me back to my true self. Like the longing to get to the cottage each weekend, reading an old favorite was like seeking the comfort of home. But it took me beyond homey comfort. Rediscovering fiction in the wake of crisis, I saw that immersion wasn’t the same thing as escapism. Rereading LOTR led to a series of wonderful reads.
Throughout that period of crisis, chaos, and change, reading brought a new appreciation for the applicability of story to real life. It helped me to sort my feelings, and offered cathartic emotional release, at a time when I sorely needed it. Story was a balm and a bridge to understanding and healing. It became the thing that anchored me to my re-found self.
An Anxious Longing
I’ve always been the sort of reader who wants more. When I love a book, I’m left with a sort of anxious longing after I finish it. I’m a reader who not only digs into an author’s catalog, but also researches elements introduced, searches for author interviews and articles, and seeks out similar titles. During that period from 9/11 through selling our business and moving to Michigan (at the end of 2003), I had an intensified version of that anxious longing. First in regard to Tolkien, and then regarding epic fantasy in general. I wanted to know why they worked or didn’t work, which authors were inspired by what or whom. I looked for the origins of the tropes I found satisfying. I dug back into nonfiction, unsure what I sought other than more; more feeling, more comfort, more catharsis, more… answers.
It was as though story had been the taste that woke a ravenous hunger. Or maybe more like the meal that inspired the chef.
Strangely, I still hadn’t quite given myself permission to try to write one. In hindsight I can see the desire as the root of the longing. But I still felt unworthy. I suppose I didn’t want to seem absurd, and that’s how I presumed I’d be perceived. But the longing became too much, and I took the inevitable plunge.
Seeing Such Times
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”—JRR Tolkien
I have only to step back and take a good look at my body of work to see what answers I’ve sought and continue to seek. Even the setting and world-building are revealing: the decline of the Roman Empire; a prophesied tumultuous crumbling of the civilized world that ushers rebirth (the darkness that precedes the light).
Through writing fiction, I’ve grappled with questions like:
*Can discarded honor be re-earned? Can selfishness be redeemed?
*Is love born of desire or is it an essential need? How does it endure or fail? Can it truly fail, or just be spurned? Does the absence of love create hate, or merely fuel it?
*Are those we’ve lost still with us? In what ways? What do we owe to their memory?
As I say, I’m still seeking. Not just for answers, but for how I feel about–and face–life, death, and everything it means to be alive; how big and how small the world really is; and regardless of how small we are, what sort of an impact each of us can make.
Stepping back I can see that my quest was born of crisis and chaos. I wish my writing journey “need not have happened in such times.” But, of course it did. It couldn’t have happened in any other. I’m still seeking, but I’m comforted to have found the perfect vehicle for the expedition.
There is nothing good about a pandemic. The crisis itself sucks, and can f*** the hell off. We must collectively strive to reduce the impact, offer aid and consolation to those displaced or suffering, and mourn those lost. We can pray for healing and hold to hope. But we can also take heart in knowing that the darkness will give way to the light—that good can be spurred by the tragic.
May it be that from crisis many a true self is re-found, and many a quest is launched.
How’s your time of self-quarantine and social-distancing going? Has crisis and chaos ever inspired change for you? For the better? Tell us how story has buoyed you, and which questions you seek to answer through writing.