If there’s a Church of Emotional Truth in Writing, I’m a founding member. “Write the truest version” is my mantra, and I’ve written novels exploring fear and loss and shame and passion and love and I’ve written essays on the importance of vulnerability in writing. Yet as I struggled with the start of a new novel recently, I realized that I don’t really want to write my emotional truth right now, because I am in a dark and difficult place, as many of us are. All I really want is to be somewhere, anywhere, else. Give me an escape.
Since mid-March, I have watched the entire Lord of the Rings extended edition movies all the way through (twice!). I’ve seen all three seasons of the British sitcom Miranda (also twice). I’ve read ten or more novels (who can keep track of anything these days?) that have taken me from 1960s Louisiana (Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half) to Narnia (yes, I re-read C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) to mid-20th-century New York (Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn).
But here’s the thing: escape has not dulled my need to create. “To make art is to wake up in a state of craving, a craving to discharge resentment, rage…And the making of art has a curative effect. A tension you are under disappears, dramatically.” (A comment by visual artist Louise Bourgeois, as quoted by writer Jamie Attenberg in one of her #1000wordsofsummer blogs).
And it’s true. I may long to immerse myself in the respite of other eras and other worlds, but I still have to live right now in this one. And as writers we have the ability to escape into the worlds we create and what’s more, to bring others with us. Writer Ursula K. LeGuin wrote (echoing a remark by Tolkien), “…fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? The moneylenders, the know-nothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can.”
So I am escaping, but I’m also creating. I’m writing poetry, a new discipline for me. I’m working on the opening pages of a novel that has elements of magical realism, a new genre for me. I’m cooking more frequently which, believe me, is an act of creation. All those things transport me someplace else. Is there value in escape? I believe so, for these reasons:
It provides perspective. Yes, these are hard times. But they are hardly the hardest times. Read (or write!) about the 1918 flu pandemic, the Civil War, or the plague (one of my favorite reads is Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, about a woman in 14th-century Norway). Stories of how people have faced catastrophe and endured or even bloomed are road-maps of a sort for all of us now.
It offers respite. We are all pandemic-weary. Some of us are mourning those who have died, struggling with the after-effects of illness, facing economic hardship, fearing getting sick, and missing such simple pleasures as hugging a friend or sitting at the bar in a crowded restaurant for a drink and company. Give yourself a mental and emotional break from all that.
It fosters gratitude. Here’s an escape exercise: Imagine you have 24 hours in which the world is back to normal, in which the pandemic has never existed. How do you spend those hours? What do you do first? How many of those things are things you never even realized were meaningful before now? My imaginary no-pandemic day includes a lot of hugging (my grown daughters, my friends); dinner crowded around a table with people I love, sharing food and laughter; celebrating my niece’s bat mitzvah or my friend’s wedding at a big, raucous party, with lots of hugging and dancing; and getting onto an airplane to travel someplace I’ve always wanted to see. I had no idea how much those things meant to me before.
It stretches your boundaries. As I’ve mentioned, it can be hard to do the things we’ve always done these days, whether it’s writing or exercising or eating well. If you’re stuck writing fiction, write a poem, a memory, a personal essay. Make art. Do something that pushes you outside your comfort zone a little. It will make you better when you do go back to practicing your usual craft.
So, dear reader, I am telling you: Get yourself out of here. Write every glowing thing you love about our pre-pandemic world. Create your own Middle Earth or Westeros or Oz. Transport yourself (and your readers) to 17th century France, Shackleton’s Antarctica, Egypt under Nefertiti. And don’t feel guilty about any of it. Good luck. I’m right there with you.
What do you think about escape and creativity? What forms of escape have you pursued over these last six months? How has it affected your writing?
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