It’s a conversation I seem to be having all too often these days. An author tells me what a difficult time she’s had writing since the 2016 election.
“All the projects I was working on before feel meaningless or no longer relevant, and I can’t find a way to get excited about any of them,” she says. “It’s like we’re living in a different world now—I look back at my old ideas and they seem to belong to another era. And even with new ideas, I don’t feel the same way about writing as I did before.”
She’s not the only one. I have heard this from writers at all levels of experience and success, from friends and colleagues in publishing, and from literary agents and editors worried about their authors’ emotional state and ability to produce the next book.
“Of course, for the first few months after the election, nobody got any work done,” one agent said to me recently. “But I thought it had to end eventually. Now I wonder when—and how.”
Numerous cultural commentators and mental health professionals, including the American Psychological Association, have spoken about the stress and anxiety that Americans—across age groups and party lines—have felt during and since the 2016 election and the potentially long-lasting impact of that stress. We’ve read about the damage done to Americans’ productivity and to sexual and reproductive health. Even coverage of how stress has lessened since the high level it was at a year ago makes it clear that the ripple effect hasn’t stilled.
If you’re a writer or artist whose work has taken a blow since the 2016 election, you’re not alone. There are many other creators, across disciplines and experience levels, going through the same paralysis and frustration.
And it is frustrating indeed to look at the work you were doing before this apparent seismic shift in our society and to feel that none of it is relevant anymore, that the stories you had been focusing on may not have a place in our current world.
But it’s worth asking yourself: has the world actually changed that much, or am I now simply seeing it more clearly? Does the world need different stories now than it did fourteen months ago, or has it needed different stories for a long time?
Could this moment in your creative life become an opportunity for you to sweep away the comfortable, the familiar, the tropes and patterns and rhythms that have become rote to you, and to make something entirely new?
If you keep trying to write as if the election never happened, you will likely remain frustrated. But if you allow your new work to be fueled by what has changed in you, even the parts that feel painful and ragged, you may discover a false bottom in your previous work and break through to previously untapped depth and richness.
I’m not suggesting making your writing polemical or allegorical. You don’t have to write about current events to write about the emotions they elicit in you. And digging into those thorny emotions on the page—rather than trying to evade them or gloss over them—will create space for your audience to feel and express those same emotions.
Writing with fresh, raw emotion is difficult and doesn’t always happen quickly or on schedule. Some deadlines will be pushed or blown; some careers will see a lull, and that’s scary, especially if your writing is also your livelihood. You’ll need a game plan for how to navigate this time, and that plan may deviate from what you’d mapped out before the election.
But the work that will ultimately come out of this time of struggle, of grieving the world we thought we lived in and discovering who we are in the face of this moment in history, will be work that challenges writers and readers alike, work that triggers internal and external change.
And if there’s one thing writers and artists can thrive on, it’s change. After all, it’s what every story is about.