There’s been a lot to celebrate in the writing life so far this November. Since I haven’t yet configured a newsletter that will charmingly organize all the things, I will merely list them. THE NECESSARIES is out in print on Amazon, and I’m enjoying what readers have to say about it, including Robin Throne’s review in the Gold Coast Almanac. In celebration I posted an extra ending (another beginning, of sorts) to Sal and Angeline’s saga in “Unsaid,” which you can read on the website here. My piece “On Reading the Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol. 2” has been nominated by 3Elements Review for a Pushcart prize.
A story that I’ve loved and worked hard on for a long time, “The Day of the Beheaded Barbie,” is available for sale in beautiful digital form at Write Out Publishing. (On sale for only $0.99 through Monday!) I couldn’t be more pleased and grateful for that story to have such a gracious home. And the crowning honor is that the Midwest Writing Center has named me as the winner of this year’s David R. Collins Literary Achievement Award.
In addition to that, I’ve been keeping busy giving workshops: I led a workshop on flash fiction at the 5th Annual Book Bums at West Liberty Library last Saturday, and I’m giving a workshop on Master Plots and Story Structures at the MWC tomorrow. (You can still register here!) I’ve been coming up with swag to give away to celebrate the launch of The Necessaries: tote bags, notebooks, magnets on the way. Today, moreover, we woke up to the first snowfall—that gentle cloak of forgiveness that wipes away all ugliness and imperfection and makes everything look bright, pure, pristine. Hopeful.
I am humbled and happy and grateful and amazed and at the same time that I’m thinking of ways to brag all over social media, I’m also thinking of the latest mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, CA. In a town I’ve visited, where my friend lived for a long time. This days after the shooting at a yoga studio in Tallahassee, a town I lived in for two years, that took the life of a teacher and student at Florida State University—my school—in a neighborhood where one of my favorite professors still lives, with businesses friends of mine frequent. A stunning, unthinkable, horrific tragedy, a deplorable action, a truly awful loss of life.
What’s going to stop this? Gun laws didn’t help; the Borderline shooter had an illegal magazine. A mental health screening didn’t help; he didn’t show signs of PTSD or the need for involuntary incarceration. The immediate response of law enforcement didn’t help; the brave sheriff’s deputy who raced in to confront him was immediately gunned down. As a veteran he should have had access to resources and supports to help him find a job, reintegrate, adapt back to civilian life, get him through school, make sure he had what he needed to be mentally and physically healthy. Were those supports there? We keep trying all these things and they don’t stop the bloodshed.
I can’t help thinking that what we need is to change the culture.
Change the culture of fear and distrust toward those of different bodies, different religions, different sexualities. If only there were ways we could understand that difference is not a threat. Change the culture to find collaborative solutions to the problems threatening all of us: access to clean water, clean energy, sufficient food, sustainable products. Change the constant rhetoric of insult and mockery toward those of alternative political parties or ideologies. Change the images that glorify violence into those that glorify mutuality, support, uplifting one another. Change the anger and resistance toward the idea of thousands of tired, hungry, homeless, despairing people trudging north towards our borders and instead soften our hearts into asking, “What can we do?”
What can I do? I am an educator and I am devoted to teaching my students to read and think critically, evaluate fairly, speak clearly and persuasively, and understand what they believe. I donate my time and money and goods to charities and causes dear to my heart. And still, every day, I slip behind my desk or take up my notebook and disappear into another world, a world I’ve created, where all the suffering is my own invention, and I wonder, what gives me the right? How can I, when there is so much suffering in the world?
I was thinking this morning about my work, my justifications for it (other than preserving my own sanity, following my deepest passion) and what is going to stop mass shootings while I walked my children to school. And when I walked out, I saw a truck that had broken down in the drive-up lane. A young woman, someone’s mom, got out and called to me: “My truck broke down!”
“Oh, no!” I responded. What a rotten thing to happen. I wondered what I could do. I needed to get home and finish prepping for my workshop, among a thousand other things. I’m no auto repair person. What could I possibly do to help?
I almost did it; I almost walked away. I started to head for the crosswalk. And then stopped to look back.
It wasn’t just because she was a young woman. It wasn’t just because this is my neighborhood, my kids’ school. It wasn’t just because every single time I’ve been stranded with a misbehaving car, a perfect stranger helped me. I didn’t really consciously come to moral decision, with argumentative support; I stopped because I knew in my gut that walking away was not right.
I saw her climb out of her truck and try to push. Her vehicle had puttered out only a few yards from a handy parking spot where should would be safely out of the way of school traffic. Of course she couldn’t move that Blazer alone.
I’m no auto repair person, but I can push.
So I got behind her truck with her, and we heaved, and we pushed, and that thing started moving. Then it started gaining momentum. Then a man in a pickup skidded up, hopped out, put his weight against the door next to me, and that truck started moving for real.
It took less than a minute to roll her truck to the curb. She put it in park. She got out her phone to call someone for help. She thanked me, I thanked the other guy, we all went back to our days and our lives. I felt energized and strong and buoyant as I walked back to my house having exercised muscles I haven’t used in a long time. It was two minutes out of my day, and I helped someone. I pushed.
Somewhere between breakfast and printing workshop handouts, it occurred to me: Writing is my push. Writing can be my instrument of peace.
A powerful instrument. We know personally the joys of fiction, the rewards of identification, escape, and the imaginative resolution of problems and cares. But we can also understand scientifically the power of empathy that this imaginative experience has on us. Fiction truly leads us into other worlds, describes for us other lives. It helps us understand problems more deeply, in the ways that most matter. It helps us understand what’s right and what’s just. We know reading fiction makes our brains more plastic and flexible as well as adding to our knowledge and our humanity. Fiction—the power of story—is one of the most powerful forces in the world to heal and draw people together. Perhaps THE most powerful.
I thought of that oft-used quote from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End: “Only connect.”
If we could connect in our communities, we could support one another in times of trouble. If we saw others as connected to us, we would find ways to feed the hungry child, help the mentally or physically ill without stigmatizing or degrading them. If we could stop being fearful that someone is going to take away what we have, or feeling afraid there’s not enough to go around, or the people in power are going to hurt us, we could share what we have with others. If we stopped thinking the other guy was wrong and instead started asking what he could teach us, maybe we’d reach out more. Maybe we’d listen. Was there some place along the line where the rage and despair and downward spiral of that young Marine could have been halted or reversed if someone had stopped, looked at him, decided they could spare two minutes from their day, and simply said, “Hey—do you need a hand?”
Only connect. That’s the only thing that’s going to save us. Connect the prose and the passion, read great fiction, live in fragments no longer. Only connect.