Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Keep calm and carry on - Holland House Library after being bombed in the London Blitz

In early November, I’d just begun revising the difficult first third of my novel and I was looking forward to working for a week with no distractions at a North Carolina beach house. Election day fell during our week away, but I had no expectation that the result would disturb my flow except for my anticipated delight that a woman would finally have been elected President of the United States. Back in 1979 I was elected as the first female Senior President of the Edinburgh University Students Association just one week after Margaret Thatcher had become the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Glass ceilings were being shattered all over the place, but it had taken the US another 37 years to be on the brink of breaking that “highest, hardest glass ceiling” as Hillary Clinton called it.  

You know what happened instead. Because of an anachronistic electoral system, 63 million voters fueled by anger and manipulated by cynical hawkers of falsehoods were able to produce a political bombshell. And the shock brought my novel revision to a screeching halt.

As the many far-reaching implications of the result have become ever clearer, I’ve continued to struggle. I can’t help but wonder what point there is in my scribblings, my imaginary characters in their imaginary story arcs, when the world itself has become an alternative reality?

And it’s not just Trump, it’s Aleppo and Cairo and Istanbul and Berlin. Innocent people blown up in the street. Desperate migrants drowning at sea. Children starving, alone and afraid. How does one maintain empathy and still stay sane? And above all, how does one carry on writing in the face of all this awfulness?

I ask myself what did writers and artists do in the worst times of the 20th century – during the Somme, the rise of fascism in Europe, the firebombing of Dresden, the discovery of the concentration camps? Did they wither on the vine from the sheer horror of the world around them or did they keep their heads bowed over their easels and typewriters? And did anything they produce make any difference to a world gone mad?     

In 1940 even as German bombs dropped in the fields around her Sussex home, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary: “For the hundredth time I repeat – any idea is more real than any amount of war misery. And [it’s] what one’s made for. And the only contribution one can make – this little pitter patter of ideas is my whiff of shot in the cause of freedom.” 

I take comfort from this. Yes, I’ll give money to beleaguered causes and human rights organizations this Christmas, and I’ll wrap up warm and march on Washington the day after the Inauguration, harking back to my activist youth. But mostly I’ll carry on doing what I was “made for,” firing my little whiff of shot into the heart of our nasty brutish world.