On Existential Dilemmas and the Creative Act:
When things get stormy, writing brings a light into the darkness.
I’ve been struggling with something lately. Though I intentionally minimize my news consumption (and try to restrict myself to the least sensationalist sources), I can’t help but notice that the world has gone a little mad. It’s scary out there. It’s as if the cruel and ridiculous worlds of satirical novelists like Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams have come to life; and suddenly the jokes aren’t so funny anymore. Global warming, economic collapse, war, terrorism, political corruption, religious intolerance, discrimination of all kinds – these are the living nightmares that keep so many of us up at night. These are Big Problems – global issues that affect all of humanity and very fate of this fragile planet.
My struggle is knowing what to do in the face of all this insanity.
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It’s an old saw, but a true one: Life is Short. This fall, I will celebrate my forty-seventh trip around the sun. I sailed past forty and even forty-five with hardly a second glance, but something about being this close to the half-century mark has made the sound of my personal countdown clock – tick-tock, tick-tock – a bit louder and more ominous. I have days where I channel Marisa Tomei’s character, Mona Lisa, from the movie My Cousin Vinny (you know the scene I mean), except instead of being worried about my biological clock, I’m worried about how to best spend my remaining time on this planet.
I mean, how do any of us live our Best Life, and what does that even mean anyway? I realize that the definition of a Good Life shifts wildly from person to person, and even –over the course of a lifetime – for each individual based on changing beliefs, new experiences, and the painful process of growing up. But lately I’ve been feeling more pressure than usual to, pardon the expression, figure this shit out.
I mean, what do we do? Do we embark on crusades and tilt at windmills, knowing full well that we have only the slimmest chance of making even the smallest difference? Or, do we focus on making our own tiny corner of the world more beautiful and kind, more tolerant and hopeful?
Or, maybe – just maybe – those two things are not mutually exclusive?
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I don’t know about you, but I am often torn between my desire to create and my sense of obligation to Real Life and Other People. I do my best to walk a straight and narrow line doing all the things that responsible people do, but I keep losing my balance because the gray matter inside my head is spinning at such velocity that the centrifugal force pushes me right off my feet. I feel distracted and unmoored because my attention and intention are split between taking care of the Real World and creating a world of my own.
I worry that writing is a self-indulgent waste of time, an unearned privilege, and a misuse of my one and precious life . I worry about being perpetually caught up with chronic navel gazing. But, eventually, my inner Guardian of my Writer Self steps in (usually with a slightly exasperated sigh) and straightens me out:
Writing is not self-indulgent. Writing is brave and generous. It is the act of digging deep down inside your heart, mind, and soul; extracting the truth you find there; polishing it to the best of your ability; and sharing it with others. Writing is the opposite of self-indulgent. Yes, it requires that you look within, but ultimately that internal searching is an effort to connect. Stories are not meant to be kept inside. Stories are, by nature, shared. They are the best gift you can give.
Though my conviction wavers now and again, I really do believe this.
Since the dawn of human consciousness, stories have informed, educated, inspired, and comforted us. Cautionary tales let us benefit from the wisdom of those more experienced than us. Stories about heroes and heroines inspire us to be the best versions of ourselves. Happy endings give us hope.
And, as a writer, the act of writing helps us break free of the paralyzing forces of fear and doubt. Though the state of affairs in the world may leave us feeling helpless, putting words down helps us understand our feelings and – if we share our stories – helps others understand, too. Through writing, you can transform the pain and fear. Through the alchemy of story, you can turn the darkness of conflict, tragedy, sorrow, and anger into forces for good.
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I have said before that I believe the world would be a better place if more people wrote. Writers never take things at face value. We are curious creatures. We ask questions. Lots of questions. We are happy to spend whole lifetimes exploring the endless possibilities of “What if?” We are observers, seekers, and storytellers. We are magicians who have the ability to make the otherwise invisible visible, thereby revealing the world as we see it to others – opening eyes and minds and hearts, creating connections, reminding readers that they are not alone. Never alone.
Writers have the potential to be beacons of hope – a light that keeps the darkness at bay. A small flame to guide and comfort us as we walk through our days and dream through our nights. Through our characters and our stories, our essays and our memoirs, we can be voices of reason, acceptance, and compassion. We can choose to write stories that embody kindness, empathy, beauty, and joy. We can inspire generosity, laughter, and understanding.
We can also expose evil. We can mirror the horrors that we see in the Real World, raising awareness through literal or metaphorical plot lines. We can imagine the outcome of some particular cruelty, folly, or corruption and enlighten people to the danger that lurks right under their noses.
Ultimately, stories – even the ones that reveal and teach – offer a momentary escape from the weight of the world. And, sometimes, this temporary reprieve from one’s problems is the greatest gift a story can give. The space created by a story gives us the chance to step back and take a broader view, to hear ourselves think, to connect the dots. Stories bring perspective and inspire us to think about our choices and actions in a different light. Whether we are writing them or reading them, stories help us step more fully into who we truly are.
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I will never stop struggling with this dilemma, but that’s okay. “Balance,” I’ve heard, is a verb, not a noun. I must gently remind myself that my Best Life is not a destination that exists entirely in either the Real World or my Writing World. My Best Life is an ongoing experience that moves seamlessly between the two unique but deeply connected hemispheres of my life. I will not tear myself apart worrying about writing when I’m fighting Real World battles or worrying about the fate of the Real World when I’m writing. I will accept that my Writer’s Life exists in both worlds, it’s just my role that changes. In the Real World, I am the observer; while in my writing world, I am a creator.
As for the question of whether it is more “right” to fight the good fight out in the Big, Wide World or to focus my energies on creating something beautiful in my small corner, I think that in a perfect world my creative efforts – no matter how modest – may be the greatest contribution I can make. Writing is how I take my stand. It represents my beliefs and my dreams. It embodies everything I want to nurture in the world. And, because I share some of what I write, writing also gives me a way to connect with others and make the world a little smaller and a little less scary.
So, if the news has you feeling a little discouraged or downright despondent, please don’t give up hope and please don’t put down your pen. The world needs writers more than ever. Write your stories. Share your thoughts. Send up a beacon of hope. Inspire and educate us. Help us to see the world in a new way. Remind us that we aren’t alone and that the good guys can still win.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.