No, I’m not. I don’t want to exaggerate. I’m not crouched in the trenches scribbling a last note to a loved one on a scrap of torn paper bag while the mortars rain down around me.
I am, however, trying to write in a time of immense political, social and environmental upheaval. A time where my country is constantly on the brink of an act of massive, probably irreparable self harm which will literally kill some of its most vulnerable citizens, has already empowered others to let their inner Nazi flag fly merrily in the howling gale of bigotry, and will utterly impoverish our economic, social and cultural life for decades to come.
And that’s just my country.
All around, the world is on fire. The most powerful act with greed, malice, stupidity and contempt but, apparently, without consequence. The planet smokes, boils, seethes with toxins, chokes on a locust-plague of plastics.
Writing seems barely possible, and often entirely pointless.
Among all this, how do I continue to write? And indeed, why?
I suspect that the answer to the first lies in finding the answer to the second. But to deal with the first, first: I have to force myself to look away. And that is extremely difficult to do. We are shambling plains apes programmed to keep an eye, an ear, a nose cocked for where the damn tiger is crouched to spring.
We no longer, for the most part, shamble the plains, the tiger has taken new and myriad forms, but we’re still on the alert for whatever is likely to tear us apart. And there are so many things, and paranoid ape-brain insists we must keep watch on all of them, all the time.
So I put an app on my phone that locks me out of the Internet for hours at a time, and a programme on my computer that does likewise. (I use Appblock and Sprintwork, there are almost as many others as there are distractions). And then I have to remember to turn them on, and set them to Strict Mode, because otherwise I won’t be able to resist that tug to look, to check, to see if the tiger is still in the bushes or in mid-leap for my throat.
Sometimes it helps. Other times I sit at my computer, locked away from looking for tigers, still utterly stalled by my own sense of futility.
In the face of this, I search for a powerful enough why.
I have written almost since I could read. I wrote because I was in love with words, with what they could do: with how I could use them to take something meaningful but formless out of my head and embody it, as best I could, on the page.
I wrote because I wanted to amuse, because I wanted to make people think, because I wanted to understand what I was thinking. But mainly I wrote because writing is a magic portal to take you to other worlds. I wanted to go there, and take other people with me, to see through other eyes and be in other bodies.
There are plenty who will say, writing matters. Even in the worst of times, and perhaps especially in the worst of times, it matters.
But how do I convince myself that my writing matters? I’m not weighing in on the day’s politics, I’m not providing solutions or even new insight into the horrifying mess. If one person gains a fragment of knowledge, a brush of empathy, a smidgin of compassion, from something I’ve written, it’s a bonus. There are others with wider reach doing it far better. Mostly, at my best, I’m providing a little escape.
Escape for others and, when I can write, for myself, too.
To quote Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” Especially when the reality is as loud, and terrifying, and as apparently broken as this one.
Everyone needs a break, in order to cope. People take them as and when they can. Some people hike, some people paint, some people play computer games or solitaire or tennis…and some people read.
Some people read stuff like mine.
I don’t think my work is ever going to change the world. But perhaps if someone, somewhere, reads it, and has a break, and gets away from everything for a few hours, maybe they’ll go back to their work refreshed. Maybe they’ll have a bit more strength to campaign or protest or research and they’ll help make a breakthrough.
Or maybe they’ll just find their day a little easier. I know that when I do manage to write, to go through the portal for a few hours, I find my day a little easier when I come back.
And maybe, sometimes, that can be enough.
Gaie Sebold’s debut novel introduced brothel-owning ex-avatar of sex and war, Babylon Steel (Solaris, 2012); followed by Dangerous Gifts. The steampunk fantasy Shanghai Sparrow came out in 2014 and Sparrow Falling in 2016. Her stories have appeared in a number of venues, including the BFS Award shortlisted Fight Like a Girl. She is a freelance copy editor, a graduate of Milford SF Writers’ Conference, and was a judge for the 2017 Arthur C Clarke Award. She lives in leafy suburbia, where she grows vegetables and haunts charity shops. Her website is www.gaiesebold.com and you can find her on twitter @GaieSebold