By Eleanor Morse, Spalding Low-Residency MFA Fiction Faculty
I’ve recently finished a book and a hush has fallen over my writing life, not just the stillness that comes from the end of a book, but something else. In a recent blog post, Robin Lippincott wrote eloquently about the silence that comes from personal grief. Although different, the silence I’ve been experiencing has a kinship with what Robin wrote about: a wordlessness connected with the sorrow of being a citizen of a country where lies and injustices have become commonplace, and where those who are vulnerable are ever more at risk.
At root, it’s a sense of powerlessness I’m speaking of: losing the power to change things for the better. Out of that sense, words vanish.
I’m reminded of a time when I was about seven months pregnant with my first child. I was traveling to choir practice with my then-husband and a friend. We were driving on a narrow Maine road, the countryside lit with the golden glow of late summer sunshine. As we rounded a corner, we came upon a large man at the side of the road who was gripping a woman by her ponytail and pounding her with his fists. On the other side of the road, like a tableau vivant frozen in stone, a group of people stood watching. I told my husband to stop the car and lumbered toward the man and woman, yelling for that man to stop, for godsakes stop! He let the woman go, and she ran to the people on the other side of the road—who must have felt like cold comfort given all the help they’d given her, but still for the moment, she was safe. In retrospect, I should have called the police. I have no idea what happened to that man and woman. All I know now is that the need to end the violence was so deep, I acted from a place beyond myself. When I got back into the car, my husband said that I shouldn’t have done what I did. I could have been hurt. I never felt in danger, and there was nothing heroic in what I did. It was pure instinct, and nothing would have stopped me.
Now, the imperatives and urgencies feel even greater than that moment on the road, but how to make a difference—how to stop those things that tear at the heart like beasts? Some days, it feels as though there is nothing to do but mourn—and wait.
The silence thickens.
In a recent interview with Claire Armitstead in The Guardian, Ma Jian, a dissident and exiled Chinese writer said, “I refuse to be afraid…One’s responsibility as a writer is to be fearless.”
Ali Smith’s intellectually ferocious novel Autumn, published in August 2016, was so contemporaneous with England’s national events that it referred directly to the Brexit referendum: “All across the country, people felt legitimized. All across the country, people felt bereaved and shocked. All across the country people felt righteous. All across the country, people felt sick. All across the country, people felt history at their shoulder. All across the country, people felt history meant nothing. All across the country people felt like they counted for nothing. All across the country, people had pinned their hopes on it. All across the country, people waved flags in the rain. All across the country, people drew swastika graffiti. All across the country, people threatened other people. All across the country, people told people to leave. All across the country, the media was insane.” Smith’s book was written in the thick of it, a piece of the outpouring “all across the country,” and she herself was (and still is) a writer unprotected, uninsulated from the uproar.
How do we address events around us, when they’re still unfolding? We are, as Jonathan Coe states in “Can Fiction Make Sense of the News?” “…in the midst of a messy, unfolding narrative.” But it is still up to those of us who write (as pre-schoolers are told) to “use your words.” And it is up to us not to be polemical, hectoring, or holier-than-thou, but to turn what’s heartbreaking, chaotic, incoherent, and infuriating into something that has shape, that helps to awaken, that makes the ridiculous clear and the tragic even clearer, and that may even help mend our own and especially our readers’ hearts.
I do not know how to do this yet, or maybe ever. But speaking of pre-school, I am at that stage now, breaking my own silence and writing fairy tales, which I call Cautionary Tales for Not Normal Times. Here’s a sample from one:
Once upon a time, a great caravan of people gathered and began to move slowly northward. Their lives had become precarious, and they wanted only peace. Sometimes as they walked you could hear their laughter, the sound of hope. They were fishermen and farmers and carpenters, weavers of cloth and milkers of cows, menders of shoes and bakers of bread. They were grandmothers and grandfathers, they were babies and parents, and they were children, many children.
Day after day, they walked north. One young boy walked beside his mother. Hidden in his shirt was a small brown dog who pushed its wet nose into the hollow of the boy’s throat and breathed its warm breath there. At night, the boy felt its heart beating next to him. But there was not enough food for both the boy and the dog, and one morning when the boy woke, the little dog was still and its fur cold. His mother helped him bury it in the sand, and they walked on.
In the northern lands, the king told his people that the foreigners were dangerous, very dangerous. They would bring disease. They would rape and plunder and tear things asunder.
The column of hungry people came to a wide river, and parents lifted their children onto their shoulders and felt their way across the slippery stones, the water rising to their knees, to their waists, to their chests. They continued on through forests, across dry grasslands, through small villages…
Although these small tales do not add up to much of anything, writing them has begun to free up something else. Ali Smith said that art situates itself at the intersection between life and death, between desolation and hope. There is a balance between the two, one giving way to the other, and then the pendulum swings back. I think of the poem by Louise Glück, “The Wild Iris,” written in the voice of an iris, deep underground, as winter turns to spring. In Glück’s poem, the iris traces its journey—from silence and darkness to pushing upward through stiff earth. The poem ends with these remarkable lines. A voice, speaking again, “returns from oblivion”:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.
Eleanor Morse, a graduate of Swarthmore College, spent a number of years living in Botswana in the 1970s. She earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Vermont College. Her novel An Unexpected Forest, published by Down East Books, won the Independent Publisher’s Gold Medalist Award for Best Regional Fiction in the Northeast U.S. and was also selected as the Winner of Best Published Fiction by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance at the 2008 Maine Literary Awards. Eleanor has taught in adult education programs, in prisons, and in university systems, both in Maine and in southern Africa. She serves on the fiction faculty of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program in Louisville, Kentucky. She lives on Peaks Island, Maine.