I think the short answer is, “we don’t.”
As an MFA student here at CSU, I’m meant to contribute something to the MFA blog on the subject of writing. Which is what I start doing. Writing on writing.
And then word gets out that an unhinged mob of Trump Loyalists are climbing up the walls of the Capitol. One source says there’s a few hundred people. But a few clicks later and I know it’s actually more in the thousands. I take a drink of lukewarm coffee that I had abandoned on my desk after learning Jon Ossoff was projected to win a seat in the Senate. The news had, briefly, risen me. I now sink into Twitter, NPR, Fox, CNN, all the Posts and Times, making use of the subscriptions that drain my teaching assistant stipend and leave me a sad albeit somewhat-informed twenty-four year old who is truly no fun at gatherings.
A man leading the crowd shouts, “This is My Country” at a black law enforcement official.
A knock from my roommates, whose politics I find insufferable and yet whose small-town sweetness has taught me lessons, things that nobody who I agree with on “trickle-down economics” ever could. How a small-town perspective can actually help make one’s problems smaller as one grows bigger, stronger. “Not working on vacation, right Lilia?” I hear outside my office.
I scroll Twitter. One of the men who stormed the Capitol wears a hoodie that says Camp Auschwitz. “Just watching something,” I tell my two Wisconsinites.
“Could I actually use some of your creamer?” asks A___.
Scrolling. There’s talk about a noose, totally unmistakably a noose. Nobody in it, right?
“You know you don’t need to ask,” I tell her, and mean. B___reminds A___ that they have their own creamer and A___ reminds B___that their creamer is hazelnut and that she wants caramel.
A Facebook friend posts, with a Shocked Face emoji, that two people occupying the crowd currently serve in the Senate.
“All creamers matter!” B___says from the kitchen, and I feel embarrassed.
A TikTok goes viral in half a second. “The police opened the fucking gates.” Same facebook friend comments about a 14-year-long study from the FBI that confirmed the armed forces and police have been infiltrated by white supremacists and fascist sympathizers.
“Thanks Lilia!” say A____ and B____. “Don’t work too hard,” they tell me, and mean.
A new hashtag is trending. #civilwar2021. The hashtag matches what is on the tee shirts of many of the people at the Capitol.
I am at once gratified and humiliated that my roommates see my off-balance ratio of gobbling the news and typing on my laptop as a kind of labor capable of working a person to the bone. Another person who tells me not to “work too hard” is my friend J___ in New York City, a man with a trust fund so substantial that he works one month out of the year for the purposes of entertainment and who’s been working on the same short story since 1993, the one that explores the “tragedy of inherited wealth.”
In a way, what you’re reading right now might be a manifesto of self-loathing disguised as a sincere soul-search. How am I, a writer in a world of seemingly endless decent fiction, contributing to the real world? Most of us have probably asked ourselves this question at some time or another, voiced our concern to a mentor or colleague, and gotten a response along the lines of “I don’t know, but you have to keep writing anyway.” And then we go on, trusting the process, until another bout of existential dread shows up inside us. Rinse and repeat.
But after the domestic terrorist attack that occurred today, I think this question inevitably brings up another harder one, or perhaps it’s the same question minus the self pity: have we artists really thought about our function in a new world order that, after every indignity thrust upon us by this regime, appears more and more inevitable? Well-meaning, left-leaning artists typically get really romantic about this, where we all sit around and talk about how divided we are in this post-truth world and somehow the art of storytelling is what’s keeping us afloat. Like many things in our time, this is probably at once a profound historical truth and yet a profound lie we might be telling ourselves in the present to feel better and maintain our own status quos. I think many of us, myself included, suffered from a failure of imagination in thinking “post-truth” was final destination, the worst things could get before we all woke up, saw one another’s humanity and that “this isn’t who we are,” and bounced back to a kind of pre-internet civility and sanity that necessitates a shared reality among countrymen and women. We see what happens when we treat critics of the GOP and their savior Donald Trump as hysterical and alarmist. We label people leftist nutjobs for calling Donald Trump a fascist, and now look where we are. I think we need to take the domestic terrorists at their word (hashtags) that they are prepared to begin a civil war in the name of their God.
I’m not saying that we all need to burn our Morning Pages, abandon our projects and learn how to throw a Molotov cocktail tomorrow. We are not all activists. We are not all able-bodied or spiritually a fit for the type of work that on the ground activism entails. And I get it. I feel like so much of the last four years has been about surviving the day to day insanity without undergoing psychiatric hospitalization yourself. But what I am saying is we very well might be entering a world where every last one of us need to reconsider our priorities, consider how our citizenry and artistry pronounce themselves. Chaos and upheaval across time and the globe forces the young and bright-eyed, including those with “talent,” “creativity” and “potential”, (ie how we like to think of ourselves in MFA programs across the nation) to see things other than their own dreams so they can do their part to fight to retain a world where those dreams can be realized. I fear that up and coming writers and other arts practitioners have been conditioned to minimize our sense of civic responsibility in the name of our passions. Everybody else has, too, but the fact that corporate middle-class America isn’t out there in droves painting signs, making calls to congress, and organizing mass demonstrations should serve as a cultural given and not as an excuse for our own political inefficacy.
If in fact this is not the last kick and scream of a dying tyrant and his followers but rather the beginning of something very, very dark and dangerous, perhaps we will have an immediate responsibility to take some of the burden off those who have been doing all the fighting for us up until now. This burden, frankly, weighs more heavily than the responsibility of putting our writing first, a mantra that made perfect sense in a world that may, unfortunately, soon be unrecognizable. To be honest, people who are comfortable, who maintain the status quo, business as usual, will not ever do it. Writers are different. We ask to make each other uncomfortable. We disrupt. We expose cracks. Our prose and poetry make us activists for the worlds we have dreamed of; perhaps more of us need to consider advocating for the world we are in, in ways that get us off the page, something that, unlike our democracy, is guaranteed to be waiting for us.
One of my friends on Facebook shared a photo of the siege today, with the caption “We deserve so much better.” That kind of entitlement is disconnected from the reality that the global majority live in, and yet we continue to say these things in America, mostly from the mouths of people whose civic work stops at the latest Facebook profile filter in trend. (“Stop Antisemitism, White Silence Is Violence, Stay Home, Save Lives). With the utmost respect to each and every artist-activist out there, who I believe are the best of us, overall this applies to the arts community far more than is proportional to the level of empathy that we claim drives our work and personalities.
Historically, we know that under totalitarian regimes, art thrives. But is that a reason to sit back and wait for us all to get there so we have something interesting to write about? Politicians do nothing without pressure from us. Each of us, especially those of us without children or outstanding obligations to people other than ourselves, ought to get immediately connected with the individuals who have been exerting environmental, anti-racist and anti-fascist pressure on politicians in our communities and beyond and ask, how can I be of some use right now and what do you imagine the use being one month, two months down the line and organize our lives and writing around that timeline to the largest extent we can manage.
Lilia Shrayfer is a first year fiction writing MFA candidate and graduate teaching assistant at Colorado State University. Before coming to grad school, Lilia worked at Lambda Literary and as a paralegal. She’s also a playwright and alumna of Brandeis University, Sackett St. Writers’ Workshop, and the National Theatre Institute. In New York, Lilia performed as an actor at 13th St Rep, Dixon Place, Playwrights Horizons’ New York Musical Festival, and Columbia University. Lilia is happy around dogs, foreign films and books and highly unhappy around fascists.