This past week, I was drawn into the immediacy of news through social media in a way that makes everything seem closer and more threatening. But is the world more scary now?
In my childhood, I was quite sure that nuclear war was going to come to my neighborhood next, and a neighbor was even rumored to have built a fallout shelter. The books I read, the movies I watched, all assumed the devastating end was almost here. I still awaken sometimes to a flash of overwhelming light and the sense of everything blowing away all at once.
Perhaps I have simply changed one inevitable hobgoblin for a handful of others – antibiotic resistance, global warming, creeping fascism, advertising, pervasive racism, the myth of capitalism, even the pernicious effect of double-entry accounting, consumerism and stock gambling on the quality of manufacturing (yes, that’s one of my bugbears. So I’m a crackpot). Is this a protective fear? Am I trying to beat the world to the punch by knowing what comes next? If the world does come to a bad end, it is more probable it will be because of something I didn’t anticipate.
All my sources of news (independent news organizations, aggregators, Facebook friends, Twitter) are telling the same story: This and not that is the true threat. Here is the danger that you weren’t anticipating. These deaths are the ones that are important–until the next threat comes along. I wonder if the increasing vehemence of public discourse is due to the need to privilege one terrifying story over another, to protect the preeminence of each commenter’s fear for politics, race, gender, environment, immigration, economy, or war.
Which is the most important fear? That is the escalating online argument, and it has led some of my online friends to become monologizers while others snipe from a distance and others simply withdraw completely. It’s a problem of story-telling; media thrive on story, and threat must be believable to make the story interesting, so threat escalates and proliferates.
Fear is an essential element of story, along with many others. Yet when I’m writing, it is very hard for me to put my characters into real danger, whether it is physical or emotional. That’s a weakness, and I know it, because real threat is essential. I want the danger to be something that can be easily overcome – or else I want it to be under the control of my protagonist. I would rather my main character be the one who destroyed the world than that she be a victim. In a story I sold to Aboriginal Science Fiction a long time ago, my immortal protagonist infected the world with an incurable, fatal, perfect disease in order to bring back the sunlight, and though I knew how deluded she was, I took satisfaction in her victory. In another unpublished story from around the same time, my main character was a little girl who bought into her father’s obsession with numbers and helped him drive her (sane) mother away. I considered that a happy ending.
Perhaps I need to be the fear in my writing rather than be the victim. Certainly, whenever I try to write from the perspective of the victim, I often descend into mawkishness, and so the course corrections I make in the writing process often involve moving toward more control, no matter what the consequences. In the novel I just finished drafting, for instance, it became steadily clearer that the main character was not the hero, but a destructive force.
I’m resisting the urge to revisit that draft until I can finish revising another book, one I thought I had finished but which turns out to be incoherent and rambling. Stories, like meat, need to be marinated, not to make them more tender, but to toughen them.