Creating Art Matters More Than Ever

Writing and art in the wake of the U.S. election.

Posted Nov 11, 2016

November 9 wasn’t a great day to get things done. With the news of the presidential election results still unfolding, I tried to focus on work, but everything seemed impossible to separate from the events of the prior twenty-four hours. As I looked over sketches for a book for six-year-olds about a little African-American boy who’s an underdog at sports, I thought, What kind of world is this child going to grow up in? His world is fictional; ours may feel that way at moments, but it’s all too real.

I’ve heard many people talking about how trivial everything seems in comparison with national events and their global reverberations. Many writers were a week into National Novel Writing Month at the time of the election. To resume as if nothing has changed seems impossible; to focus on our own work when such massive changes are going on all around us can feel solipsistic and naïve, or the work can seem trivial.

But it’s not.

An article I read said that, while many of us may have believed that history was over, something to be read about in books and watched in documentaries, “history never ends.” This is perpetually true, but for most Americans, it became impossible to ignore on Tuesday night.

When you write, you create a record of history. Anything you write is a reflection of the era you live in and captures that moment in time the way no later historian will ever be able to. You may not recognize this while you write; often, it’s not until later that we can look back and say, for example, that Superman emerged out of World War II fears.

Making art does more than simply record the period, though; it can also shape it. Fiction has more power over hearts and minds than almost anything else humans create. Problematic though it is on many levels, the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” spread the importance of the abolition of slavery far more effectively, and on a much bigger scale, than any of the tracts, preachers, and activists of the day managed to.

But you don’t have to write agitprop. You don’t need to create characters who are thinly veiled analogues of public figures, their plot an allegory for real life events. In fact, please don’t.

Instead, write from your heart. Write from your values, your experiences, your view of the world. If you believe it’s possible for love to triumph over fear, write about that. If you believe justice comes to those who deliberately harm others, write about that. If you believe people who’ve been marginalized can overcome those oppressing them, write about that. Write about it in fantasy, science fiction, realism, humor, poetry. Write about it through the lens of our past, like Lin-Manuel Miranda did in Hamilton.  When you write from your core values, your audience sees the world through your eyes without your explaining a single word about your specific views.

And people need your worldview. Children and adults, whichever you write for—they need to see the world through your eyes because they need to see many perspectives.

People say, “Write what you know.” To me this means you should write the emotional truth that you know. So if your emotional truth right now is that you’re afraid, write your fear. If you are angry, write your rage. If you feel vindicated, write that, too.

Fiction is a carrier for empathy; it can’t help but spread it. And if nothing else is clear right now, it’s certain that, to borrow from Diana Ross, what the world needs now is empathy, sweet empathy.

You have the power to give the world what it needs. Please do it and don’t stop.

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