The day after one of the biggest wins in sports history, with less than a week to go before a contentious presidential election (no hyperlink needed), seems an odd time to be writing fiction. I’m sleep-deprived, for one. And I have a lot of things to say besides inventing dialogue between pretend characters.
I believe this election matters. I have my own considered reasons why and what it could mean for my sons as they grow up. I have written roughly a dozen articles in my head on everything from–nope, I won’t go there (if you know me, even a little bit, you can probably guess). But despite the fact I’m getting ready to launch what could be perceived as my first-ever “political” book in January, I’m not weighing in on whatever happens next Tuesday. I’m writing fiction.
Copping out? Maybe. Maybe I’m just an ostrich shoving my head in the sand, as if inventing worlds can help me escape this one. Maybe I’m just exercising a particular brand of elitist privilege that allows me to blithely pursue a superfluous “hobby” while people out there are dying. Guilt, guilt, guilt.
This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. During the three years that my husband and I lived with the homeless in the inner city, I often felt like my job of writing about literature was basically the least helpful thing I could offer anyone. Can a hungry kid eat a book? Is this vocation putting a roof over anyone’s head? (I earn too little for that.) Should I be protesting something? Writing letters to Congress? I gave serious thought to abandoning the writing life altogether.
Yet I would return, again and again, to stories. Books by people like Dorothy Sayers and C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Jane Austen. Authors who wrote during wartime–even some, like Tolkien, from the front lines. Many of them had plenty of things to say about current events, as evidenced by their collections of letters. The poet T. S. Eliot, for instance, was an outspoken conservative who published political essays in the literary journal he founded, while Dorothy Sayers went to bat for women on issues of gender equality. I, for one, love her treatise Are Women Human? but rarely run into anyone else who’s heard of it. And I had no idea Eliot wrote political essays till a lecturer at a conference mentioned it–which perhaps betrays my limited knowledge of Eliot, or perhaps betrays something deeper, something about the nature of his real legacy.
My point? These authors gave the world something. But it wasn’t their opinions on the critical political decisions of their time. It wasn’t their pithy 140-character soundbites that shamed their enemies and changed no one’s minds. Their generation, too, had journalists and politicians and activists who triumphed and failed, some of whom we remember, many of whom we don’t. But what lasted were these authors’ stories.
Back to those three years with the homeless. Toward the middle of our stay, before my husband’s job took us to the suburbs of Lansing, MI, one of our guests had to have leg surgery. She was a recovering narcotics abuser from the streets, as different from me in race and class and life experiences as any friendship I could imagine; and her long recovery stretched the limits of our household’s energy and compassion. She, a bored and demanding sufferer; the rest of us running at top speed just to make sure everyone got fed and deadlines were met and paychecks deposited…God help us.
At one point she had run out of movies to watch, so I brought her my limited collection: the boxed trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, extended editions. My caveats were plentiful: “It’s fantasy by a dead white guy. Lots of white guys running around. Almost no females, and they’re all white except the giant spider. I’m not offended if you hate it.” But she said, “Sure,” so I loaded movie number one into the DVD player and left.
Hours–maybe even days–later, as I stepped away from my laptop to grab some snacks from the kitchen, wafting down the hall came the soundtrack of The Return of the King. It swelled recognizably to the last, most certainly doomed battle before the gates of Mordor; I could practically taste my own remembered tears running down my cheeks. “For Frodo,” came the voice of Viggo Mortensen–then mayhem, Howard Shore’s unforgettable strings, the apparent triumph of evil at the end of all things. But somewhere in the midst of it rose that lone soprano–you know the one I mean–and all of sudden I heard my housemate yelling.
“The eagles!” she whooped, “the eagles are comin’!”
The house rocked with her roars of jubilation. “Thank you, Jesus, the eagles are comin’!”
I once heard Newbery winner Katherine Paterson say to a packed auditorium at the Festival of Faith & Writing, “I want to be a spy for hope.” And now I get it. After that moment in the hallway, my housemate’s joy ringing down the walls, I get it. This week, while following all the manic online activity and joyous enthusiasm around the kickoff to National Novel Writing Month, I get it. After turning to my Facebook community for encouragement–and receiving a flood of moving, hopeful responses–I get it.
Right now, what the world needs is for me to be writing fiction. What my sons need is for me to write stories they will read for themselves someday, long after the next president is gone. Stories for my homeless friends, stories that outlast today’s headlines, stories for my great-grandchildren or whenever the Cubs next win the World Series.
This is why fiction.
This is what I have to say.
(To read Part Two, click here.)
Sarah Arthur is the author or editor of over eleven books, including Walking with Frodo: A Devotional Journey through The Lord of the Rings and the forthcoming The Year of Small Things, Radical Faith for the Rest of Us (Brazos Press, Jan 2017; with co-author Erin Wasinger). The preliminary fiction judge for the Christianity Book Awards, she speaks around the country on writing and publishing. When she isn’t chasing two small boys around the house she can be found writing fiction while listening to the Yo-Yo Ma station on Pandora. www.saraharthur.com