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Writing While the World is Aflame: Writing is how we make sense of the world around us.

kid on a bicycle in war zone
The World is on Fire. But if You're a Writer, You Must Write. What You Write is Your Decision.

I’m on George Saunders’s “Story Club with George Saunders” email list. I don’t know exactly when I’m supposed to get them, they just sort of appear in my inbox and I read them, though not always—not because there isn’t wisdom there, only because I’m always writing and reading long works of fiction and I get so many emails that I can’t possibly get to them all. But this week, I read the email, because the subject matter caught my attention. Someone asked him how to write during “hard” times. Her question starts off like this:

“One thing I battle with, given that there’s a lot of hurt and a lot of help and caring,

is balancing out the anger with the caring. I don’t want to only write about the

bad stuff, the pain, the politics, the forecast, but I can’t ignore it either. I try wry humor at times, but as Billy Collins says in his workshop, if you’re not funny, don’t try to be funny.”

Saunders’s response is more detailed than this, as is the his reader’s question, but here’s the beginning to Saunders’s response:

“And when the shit hits the fan, and things in the real world are heartbreaking and too complicated, and when the first-order reaction is to just go into a room and weep for a week, fiction has, I think, prepared us, at least a little, by giving us some training in how to abide with complexity (with unsolvable sadness, rage, or agitation). Through fiction, we have spent some time already in the land where there are no simple solutions; the land where every action has a (sometimes terrifying) consequence; the land where people are put into escalating conflict; the land of heartbreak without consolation.”

The most prescient sentence Saunders wrote in the response to his reader, in my opinion, is this: “Human beings - we don’t know what they are. Not yet, not fully. The day we do, I suppose, all fiction writing could stop.”

I think he’s right. I, and a lot of writers I know, write to understand not only ourselves, but to understand the world. Writing is how we make sense of the world around us. We ask ourselves questions like, Why do people do the things they do? And, How do I react to tragedies and mistakes? To the wonderful things that happen in my life? What do I do with the pain I cause and that others cause to those around them? How do those people react? I don’t always know the underlying feelings in real life, not really, though it’s easy, I think, to grasp the superficial ones. It's through writing that I discover, or at least believe I discover, the answers to these questions. Or, at any rate, the possible answers and responses, which I get through the actions and reactions of my characters.

Soldier sitting down in full combat uniform
It Seems Like War is Everywhere. As a Writer, Sometimes it's Our Job to Reflect, in Our Writing, the Things We See.

Right now, around the globe, one cannot escape the mayhem, the wars, the anger, the tragic deaths and circumstances so many of our fellow global citizens are experiencing. We have a war in Ukraine between Ukraine and Russia. I won’t specify that it isn’t the Ukrainian people versus the Russian people, because like any war, that’s usually not the case. It’s one government and its military against another government and its military. What’s happening in Israel and Gaza between Israel and Hamas is beyond comprehension. But again, it’s not a country versus a terrorist organization—it’s people against people. The media (and I am not picking on the media—there’s too much of that already) uses what I take as shorthand to make the concept easier to digest in terms of “understanding” the sides participating.

Besides the two I mention above, there are plenty of other conflicts happening that don’t get as much press. There’s the blockade of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a conflict between the Republic of Artsakh, which is a part of Azerbaijan and has an ethnic Armenian population, and Azerbaijan itself. There’s the everlasting conflict between Pakistan and India. There was the Nigerien coup d'état in July. The Gabonese coup d'état in August. The Myanmar civil war, which has been going on since 2021. The war in Sudan. The Venezuelan presidential crisis. The conflict in the Niger delta. And so many more things going on around the world today and historically where people have, and are losing, their lives. And this doesn’t even include the craziness that’s going on here, in the U.S., between the left and the right, the Democrats and Republicans. I mean, I can’t even drop my kids off at school without seeing a giant “Let’s Go Brandon” flag flapping in the wind behind a giant pickup truck. Is WWIII coming? I hope not. But what the fuck do I know?

While all of this is going on, there are scores of us writers out there writing whatever it is that we’re writing. Some of us have chosen to ignore everything around us, which is fine. Every writer is entitled to write about the things that interest them. I interact with people writing horror, fantasy, crime, mysteries, romance, etcetera, every day. And 99% of them have no desire to put what’s happening around the world into their works. It’s simply not what they’re interested in writing. And that’s fine. It’s their choice. Unfortunately, for me, I’m a literary fiction and historical fiction guy. And I’m also a new junkie whose fiction is pretty much always based, in some way, on politics.

Through fiction, we have spent some time already in the land where there are no simple solutions; the land where every action has a (sometimes terrifying) consequence; the land where people are put into escalating conflict; the land of heartbreak without consolation --George Saunders

My novels, for good or for bad, always deal with the reality around us. They touch on abortion, mental health, wars, commercial endeavors and the industries in which they’re involved in, abuse (of all kinds—physical, mental, sexual), government corruption, the chess games played by the leaders and governments of different countries around the world, the means and methods of how bad actors use technology to spread disinformation and propaganda, how religion plays a part in so many of these issues in some form or fashion, and pretty much every other insidious thing you can imagine. It’s what makes me angry, and it’s what makes the words come out. But I have to be careful what I write. Not because I’m afraid of the repercussions that might come to me if these stories ever saw the light of day, but rather because it is a Sisyphean task, being objective.

I want my characters to experience things that they experience—not what I would experience, given the same situation. I’ve lived in Spain. It would be easy to portray ETA, the Basque Country separatists, as terrorists with no rationale for what they did prior to their disbanding, just as it would be easy to portray the Spanish government as oppressors. Same with England, the IRA, and Northern Ireland. On and on.

man reading a paper that is on fire
Sometimes This is What it Feels Like, Keeping Up With What's Happening. Fiction Can Be a Record, if You Want it To.

So how do I, personally, do that? Well, I write. I put my hero in a situation, one in which she wants something, and I throw obstacles in her way. Maybe my hero is a Tutsi girl named Mujjawimana, who lives in Rwanda, and all she wants to do is escape with her brother and sisters from the Hutu militias, who are slaughtering her friends and neighbors, as well as the moderate Hutus and Twa. Mujjawimana knows that not a single country around the world is going to help them, so she grabs what little she has and sets out on an adventure to escape. Maybe her parents are dead. Slaughtered by some of the Hutus, who raped her but let her live. Graphic, I know, and I apologize. But these things happened, and I’ve decided to tell their stories.

But as Chekhov reminds us in his rules for writing, there should be “total objectivity.” I believe in this concept, and it’s how I try to write, especially when the world is on fire as it currently is. This is not to say that I don’t have my characters show their emotions, only that I, the author, don’t allow my own personal feelings and opinions to mar the world of my story.

Unlike Saunders’s questioner, I don’t battle with myself about how to write when I’m faced with the power and raw emotion of what I see all around me. I just write. I cannot deny I’m influenced by what I see and read, by the bombs and deaths, by the injustices, by the madness. As many writers, I’m an emotional and sensitive person. I can sit at my desk and write and cry like a baby about the things happening to my characters. That emotion is coming from a place of caring—not only about what my characters experience, but about how they process the things that they experience.

I am compelled to explore the deepest, darkest parts of the world through my fiction, because it would be too painful, perhaps even deadly, if I chose another form of expressing the things that pain me. Fiction provides me with a sort of therapy through words. I don’t know what it’s like to hold a dead baby in my arms while bullets fly over my head. I don’t know what I would feel if I had to stand two feet away from a soldier at the demarcation line that separates North Korea from South Korea while SCUD missiles and thousands of heavy artillery pieces threaten to blow me to kingdom come. But I try. I do my research. I create my characters. And then I have them interact in ways that will not only engage my readers, but that allow me to get into the heads of these invented people as best as I can. And that’s something. At least for me it is.

Human beings - we don’t know what they are. Not yet, not fully. The day we do, I suppose, all fiction writing could stop. George Saunders

So to answer the question: What do I write about during difficult times? I write what I always write about—difficult times. But I don’t let those difficult times prevent me from getting the words on the page. Maybe the writer in you prefers to write about ghosts haunting a house. Or about a love story that takes place during the summer at a house in Myrtle Beach. And that’s fine. Write what you want to write about. Play your fiddle while Rome burns if you like—it’s your choice. We all decide what we do with our lives, and we all decide, if we write, what we want to write about.

But whatever your decision, just write. Someone has to provide the rest of us with a distraction from the evils and horrifying things happening around us—even if it means holding a mirror up for the rest of the world to see for itself what it is, was, and hopefully, someday, will become.

Cully Perlman is an author, editor, and human being.

If you’re looking for someone to edit your novel, email him at

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Nov 03, 2023
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