Keep calm and carry on writing? I wish. by Jo Carroll

We live in dangerous times.

Not that you need telling - unless you’ve decided that the news is just too terrible to watch any more. I know someone who rations her news-watching to once a day, as she finds it too distressing. I get that - if we allow ourselves to think about the full horror of everything that is going on (not just here in the west but all over the world) we can easily by paralysed by it.

But where does that leave us as writers? I present this as a dilemma - I have no solutions. For if we are going to write about the fires and the terrorist attacks and the political shenanigans and the civil wars and floods and droughts … where do we begin? Is it possible to write about all this in a way that is new, and different, and enables the reader to think about things differently? Are there any new words for horror, or trauma, or tragedy? Is it possible to tell the story of one man or woman in the middle of all this and let that stand for all the others - when each story is utterly unique? 

I'm sure there are fiction writers, somewhere, constructing novels against the backdrop of this mayhem. How do they keep up? What it is like to weave characters in and out of terrorist attacks, a tower fire, political incompetences - with situations changing by the day?

And what does it do to us? I worked in Child Protection and was good at keeping a distance between my professional and personal lives. I stayed intact, most of the time. But at the moment journalists are racing from one disaster to another and have so little time for personal reflection that they must surely feel permanently bruised.

We can, of course, write fantasy, or history, or crime. We can fill the pages with fiction and entertain our readers. Which is wonderful, of course - we all need to escape from reality from time to time. 

At the same time, how is it possible to write in a vacuum? Is it possible to clear your head of all the contemporary crap and concentrate on something you've made up? 

I don't have an answer - and maybe I'm simply voicing my own concerns. But if anyone has found a way to carry on writing as if none of this were going on, then please tell me. 

I might add your recommendations to my website:


Anonymous said…
Thought-provoking stuff. I don't have an answer, except to say that the problem isn't that the world is getting worse but that we get to know all about every terrible event in a way that didn't happen before. 24 hour news coverage, social media, film clips... We need to work on our self-defence and keep things in proportion.
Recently I spoke at a conference on children's literature, and exactly that question came up: what are the responsibilities of a children's writer in these uncertain times? My view - I hope not too frivolous - is that our responsibility is the same as it has always been i.e. to entertain (but with a hero making moral choices the entertainment will always include depth and complexity). Moreover, the world around us is overall in a better state than it has ever been, with diseases that used to cause millions of deaths now eliminated/controlled, communities moving out of poverty etc - it's just that it doesn't feel like that because of all the terrifying news.
My mother grew up during the Blitz with a 6 year possibility that the UK would be invaded - how scary must that have been? Not as bad as for the countries that were invaded and suffered terribly in WW2. My fellow panellists remembered the cold war and the shadow of the atom bomb and fearing the world would be annihilated before they reached adulthood. A few years ago someone asked me seriously if I didn't think the world now was at a worse state than it has ever been - and I replied no, not when you consider the 10 million who died in WW2, the 6 million holocaust, the 80 (?) million who died in Russia under Stalin etc etc.
It may sound coldhearted but it isn't meant to be... just trying to remember the good things among the bad.
JO said…
Many thanks for this - and I take your point. My parents, too, were in the war - but rarely talked about the frightening bits. And I agree that we hear about things differently now, with our 24-hour news broadcasts. The reporters have a role to play in whipping it all up (the 'most serious political situation in our lifetime stuff - but I remember 1974).

And I agree that one of our roles is to entertain - never to be underestimated. It's just that I'm finding it difficult put images of Grenfell Tower (to take one example) to one side when I sit down at my laptop.

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