On Writing in 2018 – AKA If 14 Million People Have Read The Grapes of Wrath, and the World is Still this Fucked, What am I Doing?

An old man is sitting with a large book from which he reads with a younger manEvery day I read the news and I cry and I think about John Steinbeck.

I read The Grapes of Wrath a few years ago, and it changed me. It was funny and beautiful and engaging, and it made me want to be a better person. I thought, yes, finally a book that inspires while still using language in a beautiful and engaging way. I read The Grapes of Wrath, and I said THIS is the kind of book I want to write.

And then 2016 happened. And 2017. And 2018.

As the news got worse and worse, I held onto The Grapes of Wrath. I told myself, if I can just write something like this, something beautiful and smart and funny that reminds people that we’re all just people and we have to take care of each other, then maybe I could make a difference. I thought maybe I could put some compassion, patience and understanding where there’s been so much divisiveness and radicalism.

Maybe I was naive. Maybe I was trying to delude myself into thinking I was making a difference in a shitstorm of events that seemed so wholly outside my control, but eventually I realized something: The Grapes of Wrath has sold over 14 million copies. If 14 million people have read The Grapes of Wrath, and the world is still this fucked, then what am I doing?

A fight with birds

There were some tough times ahead. I spent two weeks joylessly working on stories about hope and compassion and understanding while wrestling with the conviction that nothing mattered and there was no reason to work so hard on something so futile. Yet for some reason, I was still writing.

I kept going back to my pal Steinbeck and his 14 million readers. I kept thinking about the way I saw the world after reading The Grapes of Wrath, how every person seemed more precious, and how the struggles of the people around me seemed to matter so much more.

There was no denying that reading The Grapes of Wrath sparked something in me and made me want to be better, and obviously I wasn’t the only one.

I started thinking about these little lines of hope and compassion that writers and artists and people who donate to charities and smile at strangers and volunteer at soup kitchens put into the world. I started thinking about these tiny matchsticks of optimism stacked against a raging flood of indifference and anger and divisiveness. I started thinking that maybe it wasn’t that 14 million people reading The Grapes of Wrath hadn’t done anything, it was just that there was so much to be done.

It’s easy to see what the world looks like now. It’s easy to see that it’s fucked up and scary and bad for just about everyone despite the millions of people earnestly trying to care for one another and act with compassion and understanding. What’s harder is to imagine what the world would look like if we didn’t have those millions of earnest people trying their best.

It’s not that these hopeful words and actions don’t work. It’s just harder to see the work that they do.

As a millennial, I’m used to sending a message and getting a response instantly, ordering something online and it arriving at my door in a day or two, but I am trying to be patient.

Well of BolonchenI am tired, but I am trying to keep going. I am writing to my members of parliament and volunteering at bake sales and continuing to write stories that are hopeful and funny and compassionate. I am writing stories to tell people they are not alone and they matter and we are better when we are together.

It’s not easy, but I think it’ll help. I think if it’s my matchstick, stacked with your matchstick and your neighbor’s and your friend’s then maybe we can build something.

It’s okay if you’re tired, if you need some time to regroup and care for yourself, but when you’re ready, come back. We’ll be here, and we’ll start building again.

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