These past few days, I've been watching and reading about the latest with Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Our modern media landscape, able to offer us a real-time window into this, creates such a bizarre window into a conflict that feels like one we'll be reading about in history textbooks a few decades from now. It's almost like the present is already history, but we can't see the future, so we don't know where the story leads...
Against this backdrop, I'm looking at my own life and feeling very small. I've struggled to work on my novel these past two weeks because I've got so much going on, but all of those stresses pale in comparison to what the people of Ukraine are facing this week (and over these last eight years). How do I write about the real world getting in the way of my fictional world when my real world is pretty damned idyllic compared to what's happening elsewhere?
An important tool in the writer's toolbox is empathy.
When we write our characters, we get into their lives, into their heads. We think from their perspective. We open to their experience, and we move into new spaces, recesses of our own selves, where those experiences root themselves in our lived reality.
Therefore, it can be easy — and, perhaps, a seemingly worthy excuse — to use current events, 21st-century horrors, to hinder our practice as artists. After all, we train ourselves to empathize. We see the images coming out of Kyiv, and our artistic impulse is to feel along with those people.
How do we write when the world is falling apart?
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a friend of mine encouraged me to continue my journaling practice. She said, "We are living through history. Write your experience. Tell the future what it was like."
She was right, of course, but I didn't do a great job with that. A virus is hard to see, after all. Its impacts, though delayed, are great, however.
This feels different.
Here we are now, in the midst of more world-changing history, but it's moving at breakneck speed. I can't help but think my friend was right to encourage all of us to write down our experiences. This, of course, is one of the miracles, I suppose, of the world wide web. Here I am — a high school teacher, writer, spouse, father, friend, etc. — sitting in the suburbs of Houston and writing out my experience for anyone to read. The democratization of writing, the ability for anyone to create a record of this time and place, puts us in the driver's seat of history.
So, I guess we drive.
This morning, I heard teenagers wondering if we are entering a new Cold War or if World War III is about to happen. I heard eighteen-year-old boys thinking about the Selective Service forms they'd signed this year. What do these events in Ukraine have to do with us? So much, as it turns out.
Our lives are interconnected. I know this. While we may feel isolated, at times, we are not. There is a vast human web and a vast cosmos in which we play a role. The invasion of Ukraine is not some far-off conflict with no bearing on my life. To see it as such is myopic.
Meanwhile, here I am in the midst of my own little stresses: looking for ways to keep food on the table, thinking about jobs and the Great Resignation, writing in my journal, writing for the web, writing for my life. How does one think about a career when others, inundated by rubble and the ringing of bombs and blasts, don't have the opportunity to think at all?
We fall back, I suppose, on the practice. We say, "This is what I do. I'm an artist. I make things. I will use my art to tell a story that will make the world a little bit better."
It's feeble. It's small. It doesn't feel like enough. It doesn't feel like anything at all. But it's the part we play, I suppose.
I pray for the people of Ukraine and the people of Russia. I pray for all of the people that will get sucked into these events, the people who will be whipped about by the maelstrom of history, crowded into the turnstiles of insanity.
In the coming weeks, I'll have more to report: more about writing, more about practice, more about art. But, for today, I hug my wife and son, and I cling to the hope that tomorrow will come.