Mentioning the War

Writing has many purposes besides entertainment, and one of the main ones is to take you away from reality for a while. The problem is, it’s only ever temporary, and sooner or later you’re going to encounter real-life events which will not only intrude on your thoughts during idle moments, but also potentially find an outlet in your writing, too.

You’ll be faced with a choice, not just once but many times, regarding what to do about that. Do you sacrifice the escapism in order to gain the catharsis of “writing it out”? Or do you keep a strict dividing line between imagination and daily life?

I write a mini-story every week, and this week’s tale has a strong element of vengeance, which is pretty clearly an expression of my own anger regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It’s a dark retributive fantasy, giving a fictional protagonist — and anti-hero — the agency which I personally don’t have in this situation.

This isn’t the first time I’ve made that choice. I wrote a European Union-centric techno-thriller including characters from three of the four countries which currently comprise the UK, and it came out just two days before the UK — in a farcical and anti-democratic referendum — decided to leave the EU. I wrote about it at the time. My dilemma was whether to then branch off from actual geopolitics in the subsequent books in the series, or to acknowledge Brexit in the stories. I chose the latter, because in that case it seemed just too big an elephant in the room to be plausibly ignored.

There are times when I’ll choose a different path, though. None of the stories I’ve written in the last few years have incorporated the pandemic, for example. It would impose substantial constraints on the dynamics of most scenes — as it has on our lives — but my real motivation was just that it would be too damaging to escapism. The last thing I want to read about right now is that period of fear and shock and shutdown, when I would scurry through a supermarket at unsociable hours in hope of encountering the fewest people, a mask taped to my cheeks to stop my specs steaming up, trying not to even breathe too often until I was outdoors again. It’s still too close, and we’re still in the middle of it. I panic about shared indoor air in my dreams; my characters can do without it for now.

You have to make the decision on a case-by-case basis, and it’s about you, not the real-world events in question. The arguments on each side are always equal: catharsis and comment and stand-taking and accuracy, versus escapism and imagination and mental health and narrative. Your motivations are your own, and the most important thing to do is to give yourself permission to go either way.

It is absolutely alright for you to bring your beliefs or politics or emotions into your writing. That’s one of the highest purposes of writing: to shine a light on our world, using fiction as a focusing lens. It’s also absolutely alright for you to put reality to one side, no matter how pressing or serious or portentous it is, and instead build the world that you want to talk about. That’s also one of the highest purposes of writing: to show a different world than our own, so we can see what might be, as well as what is. There’s no question of duty or ethics, and it can be just as creatively valid to banish a topic as to tackle it.

Most importantly of all, consider this final point. We exist saturated in news, almost all of it regarding events beyond our control, and so much of it serving to disillusion and depress. It is an act of disruptive and courageous rebellion to choose to be happy, and to make your art, even under such circumstances. There will be days when you — and your readers — need to see a mirror of the world, and there will be days when you and they instead need to draw a veil over it. Either way, that’s your purpose, and you get to choose which kind of day it is each time.

Write whatever you want, because your best writing will be the writing you most want to do.