The New Self-Help

When the World Is on Fire, Write

A novel protects what a missile can’t

This story is part of The New Self-Help: 21 Books for a Better You in the 21st Century.

The first weekend of the war in Iraq, I wrote my writing students an email.

I had felt a sudden, intense protectiveness of them. I didn’t want my students to go into the draft, rumored then to be a possibility. I wanted to lead them to another world, one where people value writing and art more than war. But I knew then, and I know now, that the only thing that matters is to make that world here. There is no other world.

I told them that art endures past governments, countries, and rulers. That art is not weakness but strength. I asked them to disregard the cultural war against the arts that has lasted most of their lives, the movement to discredit the arts and culture in American public life as being decorative interruptions of more serious affairs, unworthy of funding or even of teachers. I told them how a novel protects what a missile can’t.

That email was a beginning. It was the moment I turned my back on the idea that teaching writing means only teaching how to make sentences or stories. I needed to teach writing students to hold on — to themselves, to what matters to them, to the present, the past, the future. And to the country. And to do so with what they write.

Much of my own time as a student was spent doubting the importance of my work, doubting the power it had to reach anyone or to do anything of significance. I was tired of hearing about how the pen was mightier than the sword. Swords, it seemed to me, won all the time. I didn’t really commit to writing until I understood that to write is to sell a ticket to escape — not from the truth, but into it.

When writing works best, I feel like I could poke a word out of place and find the writer’s eye there, looking through to me. What I mean is this: When I speak of walking through a snowstorm, you remember a night from your childhood full of snow, or from last winter, say, driving home at night, surprised by a storm. When I speak of poetry, you may think of your poems, or poems you’ve seen or heard, or you may remember you don’t like poetry. In each of these cases, something new is made from my memories and yours.

All my life I’ve been told this isn’t important, that it doesn’t matter, that it could never matter. And yet I think it does. I think it is the real reason the people who would take everything from us say this. I think it’s the same reason that when fascists come to power, writers are among the first to go to jail. And that is the point of writing.

We won’t know when the world will end. If it ever does, we will be better served by having done this work we can do.

When writers in New York complained they could not write after 9/11, it seemed to me they were frozen by writing for that audience, by writing for the missing. Who we all felt, somehow, were watching. Waiting to see if we were worthy of being alive when they were dead. Waiting to see the stories we would tell about the life they would no longer have among us — waiting to see if it was worth it. It occurred to me later that this was precisely what we owed them.

So if you are reading this, and you’re a writer, and you, like me, are gripped with despair, when you think you might stop: Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write.

And when war comes — and make no mistake, it is already here — be sure you write for the living too. The ones you love, and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there?

Excerpted from HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL with permission from Alexander Chee and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.

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