Why Write When the World Is on Fire?

Image: a lone person stands watching distant smoke rising, silhouetted against a colorful sunrise.
“Sunrise w/Distant Fire” by Susan Smith is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers an online course, Story Medicine, designed to help writers use their power as storytellers to support a more just and verdant world.

Over the course of the pandemic, many of us struggled as writers, and many of us independent editors and book coaches faced some version of the same question from our clients: Why write a novel when the world is on fire?

It certainly feels like a reasonable question. We don’t spend hours in universes of our own making when a hurricane is bearing down on the city where we live. We don’t occupy ourselves with imaginary conversations with imaginary characters when real people are calling for justice right outside our door. And we don’t spend time daydreaming about plot and character when the house is on fire.

But where do we turn when we’re waiting out the hurricane in the hotel of a distant city?

Where do we turn after the protest has passed, and we’re struggling to make sense of what we witnessed?

Where do we turn when we’re trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces of our lives and move on after the house has burned down?

We turn to stories.

Here are three reasons to keep writing, even when the challenges in the world at large feel overwhelming.

1. Novels offer solace

I don’t know about you, but in times of trouble, books have always been my refuge. They’ve been there for me in times when no one else was (like the cafeteria in sixth grade) and in times of great uncertainty (like the period of my life when I had cancer).

And in this I’m not alone: as print sales over the last two years have shown us, in times of trouble, people turn to stories.

It’s easy to feel like your story is only meaningful to you, because you’re the one who’s writing it. But the truth is, the author of every novel you ever loved probably felt that way at some point or another.

Keep writing because stories matter.

2. Novels change the reader

Yes, stories can offer us a much-needed escape from the pressures and challenges of this world. But they can also offer us a source of moral courage in grappling with those pressures and challenges.

When I think of the books that have had the most impact on me, books that have shaped the way I think, act, and see the world, I think of books like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Ed Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang—and, more recently, Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted, Richard Powers’s The Overstory, and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing.

Not surprisingly, many of these same sorts of novels have been targeted in our current wave of book banning crusades.

The next time you start to feel like writing fiction is pointless, in the face of the challenges we’re facing in the world at large, ask yourself: If fiction doesn’t have any real power in the world, then what are all these people so afraid of?

Write because stories have power.

3. Novels change the writer

Remember when I mentioned the period of my life when I had cancer? As anyone who’s faced a diagnosis like that can attest, it has a way of clarifying what really matters to you, and what really doesn’t—and one of the few things I realized I regretted, at the point when I received mine, was the fact that I had not yet published a book.

If writing and publishing a novel is on your bucket list too, then let me just affirm this for you: doing so is one of the most meaningful things you will ever do with your life.

All in all, I’m a firm believer in the power of storytelling. That’s why I developed my course, Story Medicine: to help writers of fiction claim their power as storytellers, and use that power to effect positive change in the world.

In times of sickness, times of cultural upheaval, and times of real existential threats, like nuclear war and climate change—I think stories matter more than ever.

So wherever you are, if you’ve been struggling with this question, Why write when the world is on fire?, remember: Your words are water.

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