For many of us who live in the U.S., this is a frightening time. I feel the ball of anxiety tightening in my chest everyday, triggering a queasy feeling, an uneasiness that hovers around me. My concern for this country and the people in it is at unprecedented levels – I am, at times, actually breathless when I consider the possibilities that the next few years could bring.
It has not been a surprise that I find myself turning more toward the arts, both to soothe me and to energize me.
Art and literature have, at many times throughout history, been sources of subversiveness and protest. And so I write furiously, building a story that was born from my anxiety and anger. It’s one of those tiny sparks of hope that I have, that some humans respond to calls for conformity and oppression by creating something non-conformist and sharing it with others.
It does help to read something that echoes your fears, that digs into the existential dread that simmers below the surface and exposes it. Because you know that a good writer, a kind and merciful writer, won’t leave you there in your vulnerable, raw state – there will be some satisfying conclusion to soothe those open wounds. Some way to sublimate, just for a moment, all the tumbling anxiety you’re feeling into a narrative where the bad guys were, at last, defeated. The hero may not emerge unscathed, but they will emerge, and something new will begin.
But as the political landscape of the U.S. continues to surge and heave, I find myself going back to Bertolt Brecht and Epic Theater.
The goal of epic theater, put simply, was to provoke introspection and thoughtfulness in the audience. I don’t necessarily love the techniques they were using – a distancing effect was employed to prevent the audience from identifying with a character so that they instead focused on why a character made the choices that they made. It was an exercise in keeping thoughts conscious, at the surface level. It disrupts the illusion of the audience as unseen spectator, or in other words, tears down the fourth wall.
Brecht was concerned that a realistic happy ending would pacify the audience in the same way a drug might, and make them less likely to fight back in real life. I think people in this particular school of theater philosophy were concerned that stories would become the opium of the masses. He wanted to disrupt realism in his plays, so that people can’t quite sink into the story or the characters. He thought it would spark social activism.
I’m not a big proponent of that technique. I have faith that people are able to bring their subconscious identification with a character to the surface of their consciousness without being led to it – and I think the process of doing so strengthens the experience. If a work goes out of its way to disrupt the narrative and explain itself to me, I find that rude.
But I do like the idea of allowing an audience to reflect on choices that are made. I like the idea of fostering introspection. Personally, I think introspection can happen hand-in-hand with identification with characters. Which is why I’ve also been going back to fan fiction.
Fan fiction showed me that when people become emotionally invested in characters, in worlds, in narratives, they will use that setting to explore different possibilities.
Fan fiction can be silly, and I won’t deny that there’s much bad writing out there. But fan fiction done well is the literary equivalent of guerilla fighting. It’s often where marginalized voices go to be heard, and to fix narratives that exclude or misrepresent them. It influences from the ground up, rather than being filtered down through the machine of traditional publishing, editorial guidelines, and marketing strategies.
I have needs right now.
I need to see women doing important things. I need to see characters who aren’t white, able-bodied, straight, and/or conventionally attractive doing important things. I need to see them prevail.
It occurs to me, as I write what I need, that if I can get it right, other people may derive some satisfaction from it. It occurs to me that while spending the past few years focusing on the process of writing was therapeutic for me, it may be time for me to start circulating.
I can fight back with my vote, my signature, my money, my time, my presence, my support, my privilege. Those things are important. Those things make an impact.
But I can also write stories. Maybe I’ll write a story that will help someone else work through something. Maybe I’ll write a story that gives someone hope. Maybe I’ll write a story that will contain that once sentence, that one phrase, that resonates deep in the core of all the muck that swirls around in a human mind. Maybe that little spark will bump into their anger, their fear, their indignity, and start a raging fire.
Now is not the time for civility. Now is the time for rage.