Keep Writing: Peter Mountford, fiction writer and Hugo House instructor

Posted Thu, 2/23/2017 - 2:26pm by  |  Category: , ,

In a recent meeting of my yearlong manuscript class, when I asked how everything was going, everyone began unloading about how paralyzed they feel, as writers, and how they are fixated on the news.

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this. Since the election, so many writers I know—students, friends—have been confiding that they are transfixed by what is happening on the news, every day bringing a new volley of terrifying, uplifting, or baffling news. Their own writing, by comparison, feels so minor.

In part they’re suspicious of trying to write directly about the big political events that they are increasingly obsessed with, because they recognize that there’s a likelihood that the writing would be thudding and lack nuance. But they also can’t act as if nothing is happening, or turn their back on the screaming news—it almost feels as if it’s a dereliction of moral duty to turn away.

So they’re emotionally distraught not just about the news, but by the way it’s holding them at bay.

Fine. I get that.

But here are some reasons why you should just write anyway:

Writing is activism.

Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin . . . I’m not going to try to enumerate the political valences of the authors we adore. But it’s pretty obvious. Even the less obvious examples, too. Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See is about the lives of “small” figures finding their way through World War II. But the book also humanizes a Nazi while allowing for the cruelty that the character embodies. It shows how cruelty and violence can sneak into the souls of otherwise good people. The book is about a lot more than that, but this simple task of shining a little light onto an aspect of humanity that people don’t want to look at, that is a political act. An act that induces greater empathy and thoughtfulness and an inclination toward mercy, openness.

The other thing I want the writers who are stuck to know is that you don’t have to try to write about the news of the day, or avoid it. Just write. It’ll be nice to take a break from the news, and you won’t miss anything, you won’t be a less valuable advocate for justice.

If the news of the day is itching at your soul, it’ll sneak into your work through the pores of your sentences; it’ll inflect itself, without you even trying, throughout your plot structure, your characters, everywhere.

To take a less fraught example: Try binge-watching a television show and then writing. You’ll see how that which is preoccupying your mind sneaks into your work, whether you want it to or not. That’s why I have very veiled “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” and “The Wire” references in my first novel.

Also, there’s the concern that writing doesn’t change things. Or that you’d need to write a massive bestseller before you have any real societal or political impact.

I don’t have any illusions about my power to alter the world. Though I may want to, I’m not going to really overhaul the status quo of very much, if anything. I can’t even convince my daughters that their obsessive reading of Goosebumps is what’s causing all their nightmares. Fortunately, overhauling the status quo is not my job. My job is to sit down and write as best I can, and then get that writing into the world. Writers are just here to maybe apply a little pressure where it counts. You don’t have to try to be political. Just be real, and write with care and love, and watch as your writing disrupts your foes.

Now more than ever, we must write. Novels, stories, essays, and poems show us our humanity, deepen our empathy, and enrich our lives. Lately, we’ve seen our community of writers and readers grow beleaguered, angry, confused, and paralyzed. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing advice and words of encouragement from Hugo House writers and instructors on what keeps them returning to their work. We hope these words inspire you, too, to keep writing.

Peter Mountford is the author of the award-winning novels A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, and The Dismal Science. His work has appeared dozens of major magazines and newspapers. He teaches at Sierra Nevada College’s MFA program and is the events curator at Hugo House.