One thing that’s been blooming in this coronavirus crisis is dreams. Near the beginning of lockdown, a friend told me hers: the landscape outside her house was destroyed. But it was replaced by a green cactus with kangaroo-bear hybrids lolloping round it. It seemed to symbolise devastation and enforced change, but something new and tougher was growing from it.
My latest story involves a prison, and a tremendous sense of longing for and guilt about what we’ve lost through our destruction of the environment. Oddly, we’d succeeded in displacing ourselves. As I’ve had more time to listen to the birds singing above the traffic, and to observe a chopped-down tree continuously sending out new shoots in the back garden, I’ve been cheered by nature’s astonishing tenacity, and saddened at how, if we don’t get our arses into gear, we won’t be a part of it. Already, we barely belong.
What has also crept into my writing is paying more attention to all of the senses, but especially touch. Currently single, not touching people feels like a dismemberment of something crucial: connection through the body. I’ve written quite a few stories about apes and this strange absence makes me think about how they touch each other continuously, and how the warmth of another body bypasses the mind and hooks into the sense of belonging necessary to all human beings.
I’ve been wracking my brains about how this sense of belonging can help overcome the enormity of the climate crisis facing us. People’s actions during the covid crisis are a giant crucible, reflecting how we’ve acted in the past and showing how we could do things differently in the future.
There are no goals for me in writing fiction, only open-endedness: feeling my way, seeing what comes up, and following it. It’s the opposite of the control and dehumanisation inherent in the late-capitalist view of what a human should be like.
Writing constantly surprises me with the answers I find, without trying to, answers that seem to come from the sum of my experience with other human beings, which is why I think of writing as a communal act.
So, who knows how writing fiction can help change the world. Some submission calls ask you to imagine a positive future. That has its place. But writing about the sadness of the world could just as easily change something. The reader’s absorption of the writing is as mysterious as the process of creation. How to put a value on such a subtle, but real, thing? Which is why it’s so hard to fund the arts in our hyper-capitalist society.
But don’t you always remember that thing you read years ago, that you’ve never forgotten, that in fact changed your life?
Whatever happens, I know I’m going to keep on with this odd activity called writing, that is all about exploring and possibilities, without pressure. The crisis has affirmed this for me.
—August 26, 2020