Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are. – St. Augustine of Hippo
Do not let this world cause your steps to falter. – Alex de Campi (x)
You don’t think you’re strong enough? You are. You’re afraid. Don’t be. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight. – Dr. Vera Gorski, Sucker Punch
Not too long ago, I wrote a piece for Tor.com about what it means to tell stories in 2017 – and in particular what it means to tell speculative stories, to be able to engage directly with all forms of the what if.
I’m not even vaguely the first person to talk about this, but it’s been something I’ve been wrestling with since November: this question of how I do what I do in a world I barely recognize a lot of the time and most of the time barely understand. First and foremost I’m a storyteller; it’s one of the first things of any kind that I remember doing, and I genuinely don’t think it’s a thing I could not do. But I’m not special in that. We’re all storytelling creatures. It’s one of the primary things that defines us as beings – perhaps the primary thing. We experience reality as a narrative; we remember a past, we experience a present, and we imagine a future (and the lines between those things are blurry and porous, because we don’t experience time as linear at all).
On a level as deep as genes we understand the concepts of beginning and end. Of us. Of all things.
Stories are how we explain ourselves to ourselves. The why of us and of everything is the foundation of myth, and myths are essentially the oldest recorded stories we have. There’s a reason why, in the sociology courses I’ve taught, I’ve always set aside time at the beginning of the course to talk about myths and the truth of myths, because I believe that myths are fundamentally true. Not truth in the positivist sense, or in the sense of the empirically provable, but in the sense of being concerned with the most foundational truths – the meaning of us, who we are, what our place in the universe is. Where we came from. Where we’re going. How we make sense of anything and everything.
How we should live. Who we should be.
A myth – a story – is not an absolute good. Stories are value neutral. They can build and destroy; they can make and unmake. My doctoral dissertation focuses, in part, on a specific genocidal operation in the east of Nazi-occupied Poland and the three extermination camps built in its name (Bełżec, Sobibor, and Treblinka), and a significant component of what I’m writing about concerns dreams of utopia and the nightmares those dreams make real.
I have no illusions. I know what stories can do.
But the worst devils make the best angels. Extremity runs in both directions. As I’ve been confronting my own helplessness and weariness – and I’m awash in privilege, so things are still far easier for me in so many ways – I’ve been asking myself not only what I can do now, but how much and what the stuff I was already doing means.
The day after the election – or possibly the second day after, I can’t remember clearly now – I emailed an editor friend of mine about some professional thing. I did what I think most of us were doing during that time and asked him how he was holding up. He said something to the effect of “I don’t feel like there’s any point to what I’m doing right now. I don’t feel like there’s any point to my job in the face of all of this.”
And I was like, dude. No. What you’re doing now is more important than maybe it’s ever been in our lifetime.
Stories remind us of who we should be. They remind us of what we fight for. The business of storytelling – ideally – makes spaces for the uplifting of marginalized voices and silenced narratives. Stories help us remember our heroes, the ones with the big names and, perhaps even more importantly, the ordinary people, the everyday people, the people like us who found strength in themselves and each other and refused to back down. Stories help us imagine what the world could be – for better and worse. They serve as warnings and blueprints. They serve as signposts and maps. Stories are beacons – they give us something to follow. They remind us that when we’re losing hope, there’s so much to believe in. Those of us who face oppression, when we see ourselves in stories, when we tell our stories, we claim our own right to exist.
Stories save lives. I truly do believe that when – when – we save ourselves, stories will be how and why we do.
Stories aren’t sufficient. But they are necessary. Without them we can do nothing.
Do you feel helpless? Tell a story.
Tell your story. Look at the world and make a different one. Make your story your weapon. These do not have to be happy stories; if you know me you know that very few of my stories are happy and very few of them have happy endings.* But the very act of telling even an unhappy story is a brave one, powered by a uniquely radical joy. Because joy is very, very different from happiness. Joy is terrible. Joy is fierce.
Joy fights back.
The people we’ve been seeing everywhere the last few days, the twisted, monstrous people with their twisted, monstrous faces – they’re telling a story. Do not let that story be true. Deny it with your own. Take your story and shout them down. Punch your fucking story into a Nazi’s face.
You are not helpless.
Tell your story. And help others tell theirs.
* If you’ve ever read my fanfiction, you know that for some reason that’s where all my happy endings go. Or my version of a happy ending. I dunno. It’s weird.