September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. Here on the Oregon Coast, as in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., it was a beautiful fall day. Sun out, clear blue sky.
And horrors, everywhere.
I was in the middle—quite literally—of writing one of my Smokey Dalton novels. Set in another terrible time in American history, those books are emotionally dark, hard to write, and harder, at times, to think about. On September 10, I had just hit one of the most violent scenes in the book, scenes that left me shaking after writing them.
I made notes for the following day, shut down my word program, and did not log back into it for ten days.
In those ten days, I watched in horror, searched for friends, gave money to other friends and charities that had come up specifically for the 9/11 victims and their families. I also put a cat to sleep. We hadn’t even known he was ill.
There seemed to be no respite. People I knew had lost loved ones, some of my friends had barely escaped with their lives, all of the companies I did business with were shut down, and no one knew what was coming next.
It felt like we were waiting for another, equally horrible shoe to drop.
The tension was everywhere. Americans have a steel core. Built into the national DNA is a do-not-screw-with-us attitude, whether we are right or wrong. We seem to have no sense of humor when we reach that point, and indeed, that week, no one laughed.
That was the strangest thing of all to me: Americans usually find humor in everything, even if the humor is black humor. Yet we would go to restaurants, and everyone was talking seriously. No one smiled. No one laughed. No one joked.
A movie, a comedy, came out that week (I can’t remember what it was) and it tanked. We had stopped using humor to cope. Our comedians took the week off, not returning until the following week, when they felt it was safe to crack a joke again. And even then—hell, even now—we do not joke about that period of time.
I found it hard to escape. Regular television shows were too violent or too pre-9/11. For a while, some TV programs and movies edited out images of the Twin Towers from old programming because everyone found looking at them just too painful.
I didn’t want to read my usual fare. Mysteries seemed too mundane, thrillers too violent, and romance novels too frivolous. Science fiction hadn’t predicted anything like this, and for that reason, I washed my hands of it that month.
Thank heavens for J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. I had never read Harry Potter, and frankly, I wasn’t planning to. But I had the first book, and since nothing else was holding my attention (besides the tragedy), I started to read.
And escaped. Harry’s world is different enough from ours to shut out the horrors of the real world, and heal. I will forever associate those books with that need for healing.
I also credit them for teaching me about the value of fiction.
You see, I had forgotten why I was writing. I may have forgotten it before 9/11, but that tragedy brought the problem to the forefront of my brain.
How can I write, I would ask myself, when there were other, more important jobs to be done?
I always felt vaguely guilty about giving up my career as a journalist, providing information that people wouldn’t normally have had. I used to work in listener-sponsored radio, which did not have a corporate overlord, so we could report what we wanted, cover stories that didn’t get covered.
I’d watch—I still watch—the reporters who go to dangerous places or dig into that awful horrid story, detail by detail (see the movie Spotlight to understand what I mean), and then end up with reporting that would make a huge difference.
Fiction, I thought guiltily, never did that.
Of course, I was wrong.
I had forgotten that fiction got me through a dark, bleak, and lonely childhood. I had forgotten that stories were the only thing that bonded me and my cold, unhappy mother. I had forgotten that stories got me through tragedies and injuries and losses. I had forgotten just how important escape was, how essential it is to rest, relaxation, and gearing up to go another round in the fight—whatever that fight is.
During that week in September of 2011, I spent most of my time in a frightened and vindictive America, a world I didn’t recognize. I spent the rest of my time in school with some wizards who worried about how the sorting hat would place them in the scheme of things. I didn’t wish for Harry’s magic, and I didn’t want to move to Hogwarts.
You see, I already lived there—in my imagination.
And as I read, as I escaped, I realized—maybe for the first time on a very deep level—how important fiction is. It’s a survival mechanism. It’s comfort. It’s also how we learn empathy and warmth and love.
Yes, I was writing books set in a dark period in American history. I was writing about courageous people who fought against all odds to make sure they got some kind of justice. (I write about that a lot.) I got letters—I still get letters—from people who find the Smokey Dalton books as valuable as I found the Harry Potter series during 9/11.
I also get letters on my other books. Some of these letters make me cry. People go through such hard times, and somehow one of my books got them through it.
I’m not alone in getting these letters. I’ve talked with all of my writer friends about this, seen it mentioned in biographies and autobiographies of writers, and have written one or two of those letters myself. (I’ve also told writers in person, which always takes them aback. It takes me aback as well. We just think we work in isolation; it’s a shock to be told we don’t.)
But most readers don’t write to us or tell us. Those readers read our books, take a few hours to escape, and then return to fighting the good fight, whatever that fight is.
We fiction writers have provided a valuable service, but we rarely see the end result. We don’t “see” the connection with the reader. All we know is that the book sold well or that it didn’t. (One of the best letters I ever got was on a book that sold so poorly I thought no one had read it.)
We writers have no idea that the escape maybe helped a person deal with those hours while a loved one was in surgery, hanging between life and death, or provided a light in the darkness for a child who would otherwise think she was alone.
We don’t know—and we’re not supposed to know. We’re doing our jobs, creating stories. If we think about the responsibility of what we’re doing, we’ll quit as well. Providing escape is as important as giving blood—and when was the last time you did that?
I am writing this blog primarily for me. Right now, America feels like it did after 9/11. We’re battered and weary, depressed about the way things are going. Our news cycles are filled with upsetting disgusting things.
Unlike those weeks after 9/11, we’re fighting among ourselves. We’re screeching at each other, and ripping each other’s hair out, and treating each other with a startling lack of civility.
We’re not alone. Britain went through a similar cycle last summer, and other countries that I’m aware of are having vicious fights.
And then there are the mass attacks, the wars, the images of dead and dying children that come out of war-torn areas that we can’t seem to help find the peace they need.
I went shopping last Friday to get supplies for the workshop we’re running this week, and everyone snapped at me or was curt or was full-on angry. I asked one of the clerks at a checkout counter if she had noticed the tension, and did she think it was the incoming storm? (We got hit with the remnants of a typhoon this past week; our little community rode it out just fine.)
She shook her head. She said it had been like this for months and it was getting worse. She had her theories. They matched mine.
On Sunday morning, as we started the workshop, I announced one of our most important policies for our in-person classes. The students could not discuss politics or religion all week, not even when they were at dinner or standing in the hallway. Put it in your fiction, I always say.
We instituted this policy in 2000, when we were holding classes in an election year, and discovered that the students discussed writing and everything they had in common, rather than arguing about what divided them.
Half of the room on Sunday had heard the admonition before. I said, “Let’s provide a safe zone for this week. Please don’t discuss politics—”
And the entire room burst into applause. That has never happened before. Not in sixteen years of doing the workshops and making that request.
Everyone was ready for a respite. I know I am as well.
People here are laughing and talking about writing and marketing and how to survive in the future of this new world of publishing. They’re sharing ideas and strengths and goals, even though the people in the conversation may stand at opposite poles of the political divide.
That’s why the no-politics rule works at the workshops. It also works on this blog. So, please. No politics here either.
That applause got me thinking about how I’ve been feeling these last few months, this last few years, really, and it brought me back to that post-9/11 bleakness.
Which reminded me about Harry Potter, and fiction, and the importance of escape.
After I finished reading the first two or three books in the Harry Potter series, I found myself at my own writing computer. I booted it up, and started to write. I couldn’t return to the novel—not yet. I had to write about my feelings from the tragedy around me.
I wrote a story called “June Sixteenth at Anna’s,” which got some of the emotion out. Then I cried.
Then I went back to Thin Walls, a Smokey Dalton book set in the late 1960s, another time of incredible nastiness and strife in this country.
Before I started to write, I had one last realization: no matter how bleak the time, no matter how dark the national (or international) mood, courageous people step forward. They get us through the darkness in the real world. They’re the ones who shoulder that burden.
People of quiet heroism, who seem to know exactly what to do next.
Those people go home too after long dark hard days, and they need escapes as well.
So it doesn’t matter if we writers are writing dark hard-boiled novels about fifty years in the past or if we’re writing funny fantasy novels about cute bunnies that decide to conquer a garden, we’re providing escape for the folks who do the heavy lifting.
I know it’s tough out there right now. I know we’re all stressed.
Find an escape in your storytelling, and then put your stories into the world so someone else can escape too.
Because at the heart of it all, it doesn’t matter if we have the “right” cover on our books or if we promote the books properly.
What matters is telling the best stories we can, and putting those stories into the world for others to read.
So, write on, folks. Write on.
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“Business Musings: The Importance of Fiction,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by Canstock Photo/julos.