Life During Wartime

People ask me how I can focus on writing when the world is in the midst of chaos. At best, politics are a distraction. At worst, they can inflame real, dire conflict. No one knows yet which version of events we are living through.

But I think we can agree that this is not a normal time. 

I have two pieces of advice for anyone struggling to get to their work.

1. You can remain politically active and aware, while also working. But it's not a crime to protect yourself from harm. You are allowed to turn off the news until you can breathe again. It may help you see clearly. Patterns will emerge from the overwhelming noise, and you need to be rational enough to be more proactive, less reactive. As an artist, you must do whatever you can to retain your humanity, or your work will devolve into propaganda.

2. Your values, point of view, and insights are what make you an artist. Without working to promote your political point of view, do pour all of what you are into the work. How to tell the difference between agitprop and good art? There is no answer to this, but I think there is a key in how vulnerable you allow yourself to be while working. The deeply personal -- not necessarily confessional -- but explicit and specific choices will place your work into the realm of universal, and thus powerful.

What do I mean? I am suggesting taking more risks rather than fewer, but doing so inside a structure where you aren't inventing something obviously political. 

For example, some of the greatest protest music ever written was set in a time other than the conflict at hand. Immortal paintings sometimes portray events in epic, symbolic terms rather than literally.  Literature goes to a granular level, one where you live through the characters, feel what they feel, see what they see when the world is upside down. To achieve these effects, the artists who made them chose to speak via a familiar genre, be it traditional folk songs, religious triptych, or dystopian thriller novel. They let their radical ideas cleave to recognizable conventions, so the world could understand their outrage.

(The works I am referring to are The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, sung by Joan Baez, Picasso's Guernica, and George Orwell's 1984. But I could also be speaking of Hamilton, the paintings of Kehinde Wiley/Jacob Lawrence/Jean Michel Basquiat, or The Hunger Games. This is why repressive regimes defund the arts, burn paintings, and ban books. Because these pieces of art disturb the convention even while embodying it.)

Whatever you are feeling, bring it to your work. But do so cleverly, by making choices that resist devolution into an angry rant. Choose forms that elevate your ideas to the universal human story.

No matter how you get through the days ahead, remember that artists make a difference, especially during wartime.

Peace to you,