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We Are Unsafe

The world is not a safe place.  Our leaders cannot protect us.  Our society is not fair.  The ones who are supposed to take care of us are slaves to profit, or drugged with power.  Repression is the norm and corruption goes unpunished.  We speak of injustice but are dismissed.  We are keenly aware but nothing changes.

We know that feelings of futility already mean defeat, so we resolve to do our part.  We listen.  We march.  We donate.  We change what we can.  We vote.  Our voices are hoarse but still our eyes sting with images of tear gas.  Leaders full of hate have locked in their power and keep their knees on the necks of our fellow citizens.  Meanwhile, our untended planet withers.  Our oceans choke on plastic. Pandemic scythes down the elderly and disadvantaged.  Ever more guns are in the hands of those who would kill us.  We no longer laugh at those who foretell our doom.

It doesn’t get better.  Our efforts to help feel pathetically small.  The echo chamber reaches only our own ears.  Our “mindfulness” has no force, and we “woke” in ourselves only an empty righteousness that cancels us out.  Our individual hearts may reach out in compassion, but how far does that go?  What can we do to protect others?  Put on masks?  How ironic!

Has there ever been a time in which we felt more powerless?  Has there ever been an era less kind?  Wartime was better!  Even the brainwashed masses living in dictatorships have leaders in whom to believe!  The existential despair of the Atomic Era at least threw humans back on their own courage!

And now?  We have freedom but no agency.  We have megaphones that broadcast truth into an uncaring void.  The police are not our friends, and our friends police us.  Democracy isn’t dying, it’s worse than that.  It’s been sold to the highest bidder.  Our future is full of despair.  Our anger has hardened into granite resentment.  Our whole society is sick and stuck.  Our courage has nowhere to go.

Or does it?

The Threat That We Need

In these times, many writers have found it hard to write.  That’s understandable.  The horrors in the news are worse than any horrors we can imagine.  By comparison, our stories feel small and their effect smaller still.  Writing seems self-indulgent, even trivial, no matter how much we tell ourselves that it is otherwise.

But think.  The worst of times have produced the best of stories.  You cannot top the news, but that’s not the point.  The point of a story—one of the points anyway—is to invoke a feeling of threat beyond all bearing and then to bear down on a helpless and powerless individual, one isolated and incapable and utterly alone.

Why do stories do that?  Because that is how we feel.  If there is a challenge in horrific times, it is to capture in one’s stories the despair of characters living in their own horrific times.  Powerlessness is our current condition.  It’s also our story premise.  And premise is only a beginning.  It’s where we start.  A story doesn’t stop there.

If you feel helpless in our troubled times, remember this: times change.  Our world does not stay the same.  It never does.  If powerlessness is our premise, then change is our story’s promise.  That is the message spoken by our voices.  That is our strength.  That is where our courage goes.  It’s where our wisdom gains force and our despair transforms into action.

To not write stories in times like these is to wave a white flag.  Are you ready to surrender?  I’m not, and I’m pretty sure you aren’t either.  The lethal weapon we have in our fight is despair itself.  Portraying powerlessness is how we grip readers and get them on board for the journey of change.  We first capture how we all feel and then, cleverly and convincingly, show readers what a lone individual is capable of doing.

The Power of Unsafe

Each of us make a difference.  Maturity is not in avoiding horror but in how we deal with it.  How will we know what kindness is without first knowing cruelty?  How will we know how grace feels without first knowing torment?  How will we find courage unless we squarely face death?

Terror is nourishing.  Fear is story food.  Helplessness is a banquet.  Times like these are good for storytellers.  They bring us back to the basis and challenge us to be brave.  Here are a couple of challenges to help you, in your current story, rise to meet our times:

As humans, we want to be safe.  As storytellers, we want to be unsafe.  That is where power is.  That is where story starts and hope begins.  If we weren’t unsafe in the world right now, we would have little to write about.  So, thank goodness for our horrible times.  It’s okay.  We know that things won’t stay the same.

Stories don’t stay the same, and what are our times if not a story that we are telling ourselves?  So, go on.  Write it.

How are you being unsafe in your WIP today?

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].