Writing in Troubled Times

I’m a political junkie.

It’s an inherited trait. I’m a government brat. My parents have both worked at the state and local level on and off throughout my life — in fact, it’s hard to think of a time when one or the other of them wasn’t in public service of some kind. Since my sister and I have been old enough to grasp the concepts, dinner conversations have often revolved around the issues of the day, as do our group chats. My earliest memory, from when I was about eighteen months old, is from one of my father’s campaign events, when he was running for Commonwealth’s Attorney. I’m an amateur policy wonk, and I live my life with the sneaking suspicion that someday, a career in politics may find me, whether I want it to or not.

For the past, oh, two years or so, this has all been super inconvenient and a major distraction.

I always get keyed up during elections, and the prolonged primary season made it so much worse. Then there was the actual election season. And then the election. And then, it seemed, the bottom fell out of the entire universe. For the past year, every day has been a torrent of what once would have been unbelievable news stories. Every day, another round of “I cannot effing believe this.” Every day, another threat to liberty. Every day, a little more of the national dignity chipped away. Every day, a step closer to the brink.

I’m not the only writer who’s commented on how hard it is to focus in this political climate. John Scalzi and Chuck Wendig both had great posts about it last year, among others. It’s affected even people who don’t spend their whole lives mainlining wonkiness; for those of us who were hopelessly addicted to the stream of information to begin with, it’s been… rough. How do you focus when every day, some dramatic new development wants to yank around your attention? How do you stay devoted to creating a fantasy world when reality is disintegrating around you? How do you commit yourself to writing when it often seems as though words have lost all meaning?

See, I’m someone who needs near-constant noise around her. Silence makes me agitated. I have to have music, a podcast, or the TV going in the background, even if I’m not paying attention to it. The news is often a convenient thing just to click on, without having to think about selecting a particular show or playlist or episode. I’m trying to unplug more, though, to carve out hours of my life that the political dumpster fire can’t touch. If I need background noise while I’m writing, I’m trying to choose different things. Planet Earth is always a good option. David Attenborough’s voice is so soothing, and the visuals can just sort of roll by. When I need to take a mental break, I can look up, learn something cool, and then put my head back into my work without getting derailed entirely. Cosmos works for a similar reason. Music can sometimes hurt as much as it helps, as I’m prone to spontaneous dance parties in my living room. Podcasts I find harder to hop in and out of — I either stop listening entirely, or else they derail my attention. But, I’m trying. I distract myself quite enough with social media; my audio input doesn’t need to make the situation worse.

It’s still hard, though — because I don’t want to unplug entirely. I don’t want to lose sight of what’s happening in this country, I don’t want to disengage, and I don’t want to become apathetic. However exhausting it is, I know that what the forces of darkness always want is to wear the resistance down. And I care too much to let that happen. I can’t stick my head in the sand, not with our environment and civil rights and economic freedom at such risk.

To find balance, what I have to remember is this: If I let the toxic elements of our political climate distract me from my work, they win. I have stories to tell — and those stories involve such controversial topics as valuing diversity, welcoming immigrants, championing women, working for the good of the many, and resisting attempts to turn a republic into a fascist autocracy. If I let media distractions keep me from telling those stories, they win. If I let the onslaught of horrific news items keep me from finding joy, they win. If I let myself be silenced, they win.

So how do I write through distractions? The same way I get through almost everything else: sheer cussedness.

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Cass Morris lives and works in central Virginia and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart.

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