Exploring the relationship between writing, art and voting in the final weeks before the 2020 election. Start at the beginning. Or jump to any day below.
There is no certification board that gives a writer permission to write about electoral politics, anxiety, or life during a pandemic. Unlike with doctors, lawyers, or hair stylists, there is no system to keep people who are bad or dangerous writers from practicing.
For a long time, I didn’t write much because I didn’t think I was an expert. I hadn’t read all the books. I hadn’t gone to the right schools. But there are plenty of writers who write as though they are an expert on something that they only heard about yesterday. Some seem to have never read a book or gone to school, and yet they write and are read.
When I heard yesterday that Joe Biden had picked Kamala Harris as his running mate, I felt like I should write about it. That’s what everyone in my Facebook feed was doing. Surely, that’s what today’s post in my election countdown should be about. But I’m not an expert on Kamala Harris. I have nothing interesting to say about Kamala Harris. Summarizing and endorsing or contradicting what others who are also not experts on Kamala Harris are saying on Facebook is not interesting to me.
And that is the one thing I am confident I am an expert in: what is interesting to me. Every writer can stake claim to that expertise.
In 2008, I was in the back row of seats on a plane from Denver to Minneapolis. Seated all around me were journalists — many of them writers, I presume — who were flying from the Democratic convention to the Republican convention. As soon as the wheels hit the tarmac at MSP, blackberries powered up and laptops opened to the Drudge Report. The cabin filled with chatter: Alaska Governor? McCain’s made his pick. Picked a woman. Sarah Palin. She’s the Governor of Alaska.
By the time I picked up my rental car, drove across town to my parents’ house, had a cup of coffee with them and opened my computer, everyone online seemed to be an expert on Sarah Palin and what the choice said about John McCain’s campaign. Reporters who covered Alaska government — the actual experts — were few, and suddenly in high demand.
Better to be the Alaska statehouse correspondent. The expert in something obscure, something you’re (hopefully) genuinely interested in, invested in, passionate about. Let others be the writers scrambling to come up with something to say that sounds like expertise.
I thought of my posts on truth and fiction last week initially as organized in a straight line, a spectrum from false to true. But as I went along, it turned out that each has some element of its opposite.
Lies and fiction must be grounded in some believable truth, must be anchored to reality or they are just nonsense. The lies that Trump used to use to steal the attention of the press in his early days have lost their anchor to reality. He still uses them, and they are still recorded and reported, but they have little power. They drift off as though they were gibberish.
Nonfiction tells a truth that is crafted to tell a story, to prove a point, or to be concise. The alternative, a book that contained every bit of information about a topic, would be as unwieldy and unreadable as a dictionary. The stories of Jorge Luis Borges come to mind: a map so detailed it is the same size as the empire it represents; or a library with every possible arrangement of words and letters.
Borges’ stories are works of fiction. But I go to them to understand reality. I have been feeling I was unfair to fiction when I put it at one extreme of my true-false spectrum last week. Fiction is often truer than the translation of our experience that appears in newspapers. It would be wrong for a fact-checker or scientist to cite Borges’ story of an infinite library as fact. But it remains an accurate expression of human experience. All possible books exist in our minds. We construct meaning from the books and information we have access to. We discard the ones filled with gibberish. But one person’s gibberish may be another’s critical text. Is this the case with Trump’s lies? “You who read me — are you certain you understand my language?” Borges’ narrator asks in The Library of Babel.
Poetry, too, is a heightened form of truth. I’ve been reading Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz. Several of her poems build a relationship between river and body. They are the same. She is an indigenous writer. Her ancestors taught her this truth. And it is true. Our body is as alive with water as a river is. We come from water, our bodies flow back in to water as we live and die. In a time when environmental protections are being discarded by Trump, the truth of our being one and the same with water, is essential. Clean water is not something that happens apart from us, it is us.
Four years ago I took part in a reading of two versions of the poem I Want A President in front of the White House just a few weeks before Trump’s election. Artist/curators Saisha Grayson-Knoth and Natalie Campbell worked with communities around D.C. to update Zoe Leonard’s 1992 poem. I have kept the flyer up since moving in to my apartment just after Trump’s win, the 2016 version of the poem facing out. It begins, “I want a Native American for president. I want a Muslim refugee for president…” (Leonard’s original began, “I want a dyke for president”). In 2020, I’ll take the upgrade on offer. But really, I want a poet for president.
I’ve recently started reading Timothy Denevi’s Freak Kingdom: Hunter S. Thompson’s Manic Ten-Year Crusade Against American Fascism. Denevi is a familiar face at all the literary events in D.C. I’ve been missing since February, like Little Salon and The Inner Loop. So reading his book — which has been in my to-read pile since its release in 2018 — is something of a substitute for those missing gatherings.
Thompson is a writer who I have long avoided for reasons that have nothing to do with the words he put on the page. In my early twenties, I read many of the booze- and drug-fueled poets and novelists who make cameos in the first chapters of Freak Kingdom, but I didn’t yet see nonfiction and journalism as art on the same level. This despite the nonfiction zine-art I was creating in those same years. Later, I knew Thompson as the Important Writer at Rolling Stone. But I took music more seriously than writing at the time, and Rolling Stone was the magazine that put pop and classic rock stars on its cover instead of the more adventurous emerging musicians I found reading SPIN or NME in the aisles of Minneapolis record stores (avoiding spending my precious music money on magazines).
But there is no more perfect time to get to know the real Thompson than amid this project on writing and the anxieties of the 2020 election. As Denevi makes clear, Thompson was concerned about the rise of authoritarianism in America from the start. And he wanted to write well-researched journalistic stories using the tools of a fiction writer.
Thompson covered the 1964 Republican national convention, witnessing Nixon speak at Barry Goldwater’s coronation, and seeing the raving crowd shout down Nelson Rockefeller. As a stringer for National Observer he had no freedom to do the style of writing and reporting he was interested in, but could see a path to it in the work of Norman Mailer and Joan Didion.
On Saturday, I wrote about nonfiction and said that this series was turning in to a memoir of personal and electoral anxiety. Thompson’s collected works might be called the same thing. He became a character in his own reporting — contrary to the conventionally distanced approach of journalists.
Thompson’s breakout opportunity was an assignment on the Hell’s Angels. As part of earning the trust of the motorcycle gang, to convince them he would tell a more complex and honest story than reporters had told in the past, he had a half-dozen members over to his tiny apartment after bar close to talk until sunrise. His wife Sandy and their young child slept (or tried to) in the bedroom nearby.
There are many ways to tell a story based on actual events. In the past few years, I’ve been reading with fascination the prominent authors of new autofiction, including Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgård. Somewhere between novel and memoir, autofiction generally follows a first-person narrator with the same name, relationships, background, and publishing history as the author. Unlike Thompson, these stories are crafted largely from memories of the past rather than original reporting and new relationships forged while getting closer to sources. Their goals are introspective rather than persuasive or informative. The titles alone tell you as much: How Should a Person Be? (Heti), My Struggle (Knausgård).
How much original reporting will I do for this series? How much will be more of the memory-mining I’ve done so far? Probably a lot more of the latter. Trump himself lives just a 30-minute stroll down Vermont Avenue from my quarantine bubble. Somehow I don’t think he’ll make the walk over with his gang of bullies to talk until dawn in my studio before this countdown reaches zero. But maybe I’ll see Tim by then.
730DC mini-series of newsletters presents stories from the District in the year 2120 (halfway to Future Cartographic’s 2215 timeline).
On Sundays, I interrupt this improvised narrative with a short post on a course of action. One concrete thing I’ve done, or that I pledge to do to help defeat Trump in the fall. It’s a sacrosanct tradition that dates back to last Sunday (we’re only 14 days in).
It has not escaped my notice that the authors and friends and colleagues I’ve mentioned so far have been mostly white. And while I’m hardly living in luxury on my design and writing income, it is a luxury to sit safely at home and write for 100 days as others — predominantly people of color, here in D.C. — work in frontline health, service, and delivery industries with an increased risk of exposure to Covid-19.
Though I have worked for progressive advocacy and cultural organizations in the past and have taken on histories of systemic oppression in past art projects, I know I have more work to do and the work does not stop.
The murder of George Floyd on Memorial Day in Minneapolis, walking distance from where my grandparents, parents and I lived through much of the twentieth century, has been a moment to reflect on systemic injustice. My family and well-intentioned white people in Minneapolis and across the country have benefitted from — and continue to benefit from — systems that excluded Black people, Indigenous people and people of color (BIPOC) just as much as overt racists who raise the confederate flag.
I will have more to say on all of this in the weeks to come. For today, one concrete step you can take is to pledge to keep educating yourself. As the election nears, discussion of racism, the racially coded language used by Trump and his allies, and of policies that disproportionately and systemically impact BIPOC are sure to remain part of the conversation.
There are many books and resources I might point you to. But the best resource is the one you actually use. Anti-Racism Daily, a newsletter published by Black wellness entrepreneur Nicole Cardoza arrives each day in your inbox in an easy-to-read and use format. It takes just a minute or two to read that day’s issue. Related stories and resources are always a click away to explore further. Sign up here.
This week, I’ve been working my way from fiction to fact in this exploration of how a writer should write in the 100 days leading up to the 2020 election. Having covered fictional, false and dishonest writing, today we cross safely in to the true end of the spectrum, or at least the end that aspires toward truth. Truth-ier.
Nonfiction concerns the real world, the series of historical events that you and me and almost everyone we’ve ever met can agree took place: dinosaurs roamed the earth; 230 million years later, humans in Mesopotamia built giant ziggurats; a short 4,000 years later after that, Patti Smith left Philadelphia on a bus for New York with little more to her name than a copy of Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations.
For the first two, we have generations of research from archeologists, anthropologists and other scientists. For the third, we have only Patti Smith’s word in her beautiful memoir Just Kids.
Likewise, these posts are closer to memoir than science writing. I’ve told stories of relationships, jobs, friends, and old art projects that coincided with — or were tied to — elections gone by. I’m doing my best to stick to facts as I remember them. But just as in yesterday’s post about spin, there are bound to be omissions and carefully crafted truths. I hope they are in service of narrative rather than misdirection or half-truth.
The alternative is to recap news from the campaign trail, analyze the positions of the candidates, and discuss the latest opinion polls. But nobody needs more of that. Certianly not from me.
Instead, I’m beginning to realize the subject all of this is about is anxiety. Anxiety about the election, the pandemic, and the future. My anxiety. Everyone else’s anxiety. As well as how to do something productive with it in the 100 — now 86 days — remaining before the election.
So far this week, as I continue to explore what it means to be a writer in quarantine with the 2020 election fast approaching, I’ve written about fiction, lies, and conspiracy theories. Fiction is storytelling that asks you to suspend your disbelief. Lies attempt to create belief in something untrue. And conspiracy theories are webs of lies that trap you in beliefs that are untrue.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received as a writer is also the simplist; simple enough that I silently contemplate it nearly every time I come to a period. It came to me from the brilliant Anna Badkhen, who co-led a residency in Banff I was honored to attend. “Write sentences that are true,” she said. I imagine she is not the first person to say this. Her book, Walking With Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah, documents a way of life among Fulani cattle herders that has persisted in similar form since the Stone Age. The advice to write sentences that are true has surely been passed on from poet to storyteller to poet in a lineage as long or longer.
I was working on fiction and poetry at the time. So the simplicity of “write sentences that are true” did not mean, “string together a bunch of facts.” It means: write sentences true to the world you’ve created; true to your memory; true to your experience.
In nonfiction, true and false appear to be a binary. But sentences can be true without being honest. If I were writing this series while employed by a political campaign, my boss would still expect me to write sentences that are true. To do otherwise risks the reputation of the campaign. A voter is likely to be offended by sentences they know to be false. A journalist might write about them as lies.
But as a campaign staffer, my boss, the voter and the journalist would all expect me to omit inconvenient facts from my sentences, and to craft each sentence to spin matters in the most favorable light. The campaign boss would push for more spin. The voter and the journalist would work to strip away the spin.
spin: noun. give (a news story or other information) a particular interpretation, especially a favorable one.New Oxford American Dictionary; Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus
Synonyms: slant, angle, twist, bias.
I might write this series as though I were working for the Democrats’ campaign, with a goal of persuading as many people as possible to vote Trump out of office. I might spin every Tweet and breaking news story, dig through related scandals and lies from the past four years, cherry-pick the juiciest examples, and crank out fodder for social media. But there are plenty of people doing that writing. Writing like that might be true, but it is not honest or interesting. And it is more unnecessary than ever. Trump has made the case for his removal plain.
In college, I published a zine filled with writing on music and art, with essays from friends on their passions of the moment: cats, travel, ska, tea. Its manifesto called for supporting the artists in our midst and turning off corporate media.
Soon after one issue came out, I received a long handwritten letter from a stranger. He’d read the zine and believed I was the voice that his fringe movement was waiting for. He cited one story in particular as the reason he wrote.
I wrote the article in question quickly to fill up a blank space before going to press. In my recollection, it was unserious and possibly even funny. I intended it as satire. I remember little more than that. I like to imagine I was channeling the classes in literary criticism I was then growing to love. Perhaps it was a Marxist-feminist hypothesis about the tyranny of laundromats. I’m not sure I want to read it, but perhaps I’ll dig up a copy in the next 89 days. The part I do remember is the headline I ran above it: “conspiracy theory of the month.”
Despite — or possibly because of — the headline, my correspondent took it seriously. His letter put a contemporary spin on what I now know is one of the oldest and most hateful conspiracy theories going: thinly veiled antisemitism blaming all the world’s problems on the banking system bankers and elite newspapers.
Most people would probably call the guy a crank, crumple up the letter, toss it in the trash, and forget about it. But it haunted me. I’m still thinking about it two decades later. What makes someone so desperate for a glimmer of belief in a fringe idea?
Yesterday I ran across Tanya Basu’s article in MIT Technology Review, “How to talk to conspiracy theorists—and still be kind.” In it, she looks at how we’re all susceptible to believing conspiracy theories, and offers tips from a patient online community devoted to talking people down from conspiracy theories, which are on the rise amid the isolation of Covid-19 shutdowns.
It’s very human and normal to believe in conspiracy theories. “Conspiracy theories resonate with us all, to some extent,” says Rob Brotherton, a psychologist who’s written two books on conspiracy theories and fake news. It’s a defense mechanism: we’re primed to be suspicious and afraid of things that can’t be explained.
Conspiracy theories are powerful in part because a cover-up is always part of the story — the idea that powerful people don’t want the “truth” to be told. For people stuck in a conspiratorial mindset, the institutions that use scientists and fact-checkers are themselves suspect; fake news. And so, they become more and more isolated, trusting fewer and fewer sources of information, and the friends who would point them to prominent sources.
A kind debunker can spend days and weeks hand-holding to build a convincing fact-based argument using primary sources that the conspiracy believer will accept as true. It is hard work. And if it involves an important personal relationship, the risk might not be worth it.
I wonder what I would say to the conspiracy letter writer today if he wrote to me. Would I have the patience to point out the flaws in his beliefs and come to a shared understanding? How long would it take? As the pandemic continues and election misinformation circulates, these skills seem in high demand.