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90 Days: Lies

What is the difference between a fiction and a lie?

A fiction writer aims to tell a story that is believable even though you know it isn’t real. A liar also aims to tell a story that is believable, but they expect you to believe it is real. Their intention is to deceive rather than to entertain.    

When I woke up this morning knowing I’d write about lies today, I did not have to do much research to find one. My first read, Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters From An American (an inspiration for this series) detailed a lie necessitated by an earlier wave of Trump lies:

Trump’s insistence that mail-in voting will cause fraud and the “most corrupt election” in American history has apparently discouraged Republican voters from applying for ballots. Republican leaders are panicked.

So today the president did an abrupt about-face, at least for the Republican state of Florida. “Whether you call it Vote by Mail or Absentee Voting,” Trump tweeted today, “in Florida the election system is Safe and Secure, Tried and True. Florida’s Voting system has been cleaned up (we defeated Democrats attempts at change), so in Florida I encourage all to request a Ballot & Vote by Mail!”

Heather Cox Richardson

This is a more complicated lie than usual for Trump. Late in his term, the stories are getting harder to keep straight. The tangled web is turning back on itself. He has lied about voter fraud, which is extremely rare, since it became clear that he lost the popular vote. He has lied about mail-in ballots (they have been good enough for his votes) while the likelihood grows that mail-in ballots will be the only safe way for many to vote in November. Now he is claiming that there is something different about Florida, that it’s all better suddenly. But just in this one spot, not everywhere. 

Who is this new lie for? Is there anyone who still believes his words have meaning? “But all politicians are liars,” says the imaginary conservative/contrarian reading this. Perhaps in the literal sense that we all on average lie twice a day about small things (why didn’t you pick up the phone earlier?). I think it’s more common for politicians to make promises they are unable to enact, or to tell deceptive and selective truths. A big lie from a prominent politician warrants front page news, or at least an op-ed. But on average, Trump lies over 23 times per day in public statements; so often that we long ago stopped listening. Which might be his real goal. 

Near the start of Nick Flynn’s new memoir, This Is The Night Our House Will Catch Fire, he quotes Adrienne Rich: 

“The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting things in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.” 

Adrienne Rich

Flynn is writing about an extramarital affair, the kind of secret that brings a cascade of lies — about where you were, what you were doing, what you spent money on, and why you came home drunk. “If you are willing to share this lie with me, you will know me in ways that others cannot,” he imagines as the lovers unspoken words. 

To reconstruct Rich: The country is a group with infinite alchemical possibilities; our president keeps losing sight of them. If he ever knew they were there.

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91 Days: Fiction

I’ve spent much of the past few years working on fiction: a novel and short stories. Would I be better off spending these hundred days staying in that mode? Would a serialized novel of life in a dystopian 18th year of Trump’s regime be more effective than whatever this series turns out to be? In a recent profile of novelist and contrarian Lionel Shriver I stumbled upon last night by Ariel Levy in The New Yorker, Shriver compared writing fiction to her opinion essays: 

“Fiction is much more subtle,” she replied. “It’s more evasive, it’s more circuitous, it should be a little harder to discern what the message is—not that it shouldn’t have a message, but that message is usually complex and sometimes contradictory.” Asked which was more likely to change people’s minds, she answered immediately, “Fiction.”

I agree. For one, works of fiction — especially if we include screenplays — have a much wider audience, and are more likely to reach people who disagree with you. I read Shriver’s dystopian novel The Mandibles in 2016, knowing nothing about her politics (I was on the futurism kick that led to Future Cartographic). The book describes the economic collapse of the U.S. because of debt and devaluation of the dollar. I recall feeling uncomfortable with some implications of the scenario and questioning some characters’ takes on their newfound difficulties. But the challenge was provocative, not unpleasant. Levy’s profile made me curious to go back to Shriver’s fiction, but her overview of Shriver’s takes on politics and culture (pro-Brexit, she is a Democrat who is outraged that race and gender issues get so much attention) were less interesting. Perhaps relying on a second-hand account is unfair. I do at enjoy an original and creative contrarian. What’s the point of reading a writer who restates things one already believes, or a writer who parrots predictable opposition? Reading ought to be a search for additions, complications, or poetry that expands the known. Bookmark Shriver for later. 

Before media fragmented in to the ten thousand niche channels we have today, fiction on network T.V. played a huge role in building understanding across difference: Black life in a housing project (Good Times); life with a hippie child or a racist father (All in the Family); life as a single woman in an old school, male-dominated workplace (The Mary Tyler Moore Show); life with gay friends; life as an LGBTQ person in love (Ellen, Will and Grace, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Some of these shows might not have aged well, but putting their contemporary viewers in a position of empathy for people who didn’t represent the dominant point of view was groundbreaking. They also gave many people their first evidence that their lives were being seen, that other people like themselves existed and their lives mattered. But does media on such a scale — with millions of viewers and advertising dollars at stake — lead culture change or follow only when a critical mass, an untapped audience, is already there to be tipped over the edge? 

T.V. comedies may be the most accessible form of fiction, but I haven’t watched one in years, so I’m unlikely to start writing one now. Coming up with eight jokes per page as a response to a Trump’s campaign to cement his authoritarianism in place seems like a mismatch of tactics. He satirizes himself and seems not to care.

Upton Sinclair famously attempted to use fiction to rally Americans to the cause of labor rights. The Jungle, which portrays brutal conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry, instead resulted in a drop in sales of meat followed by significant regulations to create food safety standards. “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he famously said. I know Sinclair mainly through Chris Bachelder’s satirical 2006 novel U.S.! in which Sinclair is assassinated and resurrected repeatedly as the leader of generation after generation of struggling progressive movements. Fictionalized Sinclair looming larger than fact.

Most of the fiction I read is neither comedy nor satire. Many are close to the lived experience of the author. Often with protagonists who share their name and lifestyle with the author. Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, for example, which in-part addresses the issue of immigrant children and families separated at the border — material she covered in a previous nonfiction work. But this heart-rending issue is just one element of a story that centers on a scholarly couple’s relationship falling apart as they travel from New York to the southwest to pursue separate research projects. The books they travel, the fragments of their research become minor characters in their journey. 

Luiselli’s is the more likely path I’ll take to November 3. Some nonfiction. Some fiction. A journey in time rather than across geography. As I write these day by day, serendipitous passages from the rotating pile of readings next to me will continue to tag along and redirect us as well. 

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92 Days: Second Best

I am grateful for the opportunities I had to witness national politics up close, to play some tiny role in supporting Obama’s wins in 2008 and 2012. It felt that much worse to see Trump elected in 2016 knowing that I’d spent that season on an esoteric art project instead of participating in things I’d learned were effective at turning out voters. However, art requires free time. Separation from powerful institutions seems necessary, too. 

Not that there are no creative people in politics. There are many: brilliant speechwriters, designers of memorable posters and websites, clever strategists and communicators who are able to turn any moment to a campaign’s advantage. But these forms of creativity have a limit. They are much needed, but the creativity is constrained. The message and aesthetics must be palatable to the majority of your audience; a creative inspiration that risks offending the middle of the road is off limits. And in a risk-averse field, the line is usually drawn somewhere far safer than the 50th percentile. Politics is the art of the possible, as the saying goes. Originally attributed to Otto von Bismarck in 1867, the full quote is, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” 

So, how do we expand what is possible? How do we make the attainable, the next best better than what is possible otherwise? Outside of politics. In the culture at large, in the realm of thinkers, artists and writers. 

But how does this happen? And if I’ve chosen a 100-part essay from quarantine as my contribution to unseating Donald Trump, should I change my approach to writing to make it more effective? What constraints on my creativity am I willing to accept to have a greater impact? 

Earlier, I drew a parallel between the constraints of advocacy emails and the constraints of certain poetic forms. Every form of communication has its constraints, and the opportunity to respect or reject these constraints when convenient. I’ve chosen (so far) not to write this series in rhyming couplets. I’ve chosen to use conventional punctuation and spelling (mostly). I’ve chosen so far to use only sentences that are true, but I’ve also used included memories that I can’t verify. I’ve chosen to use some actual names and some vague identifiers such as “my friend” and “the organization.” Some of these stories have appeared in drafts I’ve written that might today be called memoir, autofiction, or a novel; the line between those three up for debate. But why adhere to any of these? Donald Trump has used fiction, misspelling and unconventional punctuation throughout his term. And many artists I admire exaggerate and fictionalize to great effect. 

This week’s posts will explore some of these constraints, as the form of this series comes together. 

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93 Days: Are You Registered to Vote?

If my time working in online advocacy taught me anything, it is to always have a call to action. So, after writing the first 5,500 words of preface this first week, it is long past time that I remind you of the most important thing you need to do right now: make 100% sure you are registered to vote.

Some states have been purging voters from the rolls for dubious reasons. Other states have early voter registration deadlines, or unique requirements. It’s best to take care of it now while you’re thinking about it.

Vote.org has you covered. It takes less than a minute to check your registration. And they’ll help you register, too. The last thing any of us wants is for the deadline to pass, or for you to show up on election day and not be able to vote. Take care of it now.

That’s it for today.

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94 Days: Sleep When It’s Over

2012 is the last year remaining to look at in this opening series-within-a-series reflecting on how I spent the 100 days leading up to the six elections of my voting-age life. That fall, I was more involved than ever. And we won the election. But I felt none of the exhilaration of 2008. In fact, I was quickly burning out.

I had been working for the past year in the role my old boss had in 2008 (see yesterday) at the same Obama-allied organization. With this promotion came more responsibilities and longer hours. If I was awake, I felt guilty any hour I wasn’t keeping up with politics and responding to emails and texts. I knew this was unhealthy and unsustainable, but the importance of the work, and the nonstop culture of the organization weighed on me.

The job of my team was to activate online audiences: email, websites, and outreach to bloggers and social media. Email was the biggest focus, and we’d had success with it in the years I’d been there. But by 2012 the inboxes our messages landed in were crowded with appeals from every cause, candidate, and nonprofit on earth in addition to the even-larger industry of commercial emails from retailers, restaurants, yoga studios, and the rest.  

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95 Days: Black & White

During the 100 days leading up to the election of 2008, I was in D.C. working long hours for an ally of Barack Obama, crafting graphics and websites in rapid response to every twist and turn in the election. As part of this work, our team went to the Democratic Convention in Denver, where I watched Obama accept the party’s nomination at Mile High Stadium. The Republican convention was in St. Paul, so I also had the chance to come home to Minnesota to support an outreach effort with bloggers covering the protests there. 

In the last weeks, my employer wanted everyone out of the D.C. office and knocking on doors in key states. I had begun dating a coworker around that time and joined her to knock on doors in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Her background in film, culture, and social justice had put her in charge of escorting two actors who had volunteered to help the campaign. Fans of quirky TV and horror movies might have known them, but on the side of the road in a Pittsburgh subdivision under overcast skies they were just two more earnest young men in Obama t-shirts trying to make a difference.  

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96 Days: Winning

I began this series writing about election losses because each was a very narrow loss that left me wondering after the fact if I might have done more, spent the last 100 days in some more intentional manner. It’s only natural now to turn to the years I voted in an election victory. Since the year lines up with the 96 days remaining until the election, let’s start with the first presidential election I was of voting age.

In the 100 days leading up to the 1996 election, I was between schools and trying to make a life in the city as an adult for the first time. My girlfriend and I had met at College in Wisconsin. We moved in together in Minneapolis having left school separately for opposite reasons: she left in part because of the anxiety associated with excelling in her classes; I left because I’d lost focus on my classes and was instead writing zines, experimenting with websites, hosting a radio show, and hanging out with friends in coffeeshops. 

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97 Days: A Circuitous Path

During the 100 days leading up to the election of Donald Trump in 2016, I was an artist in residence at D.C.’s Halcyon Art Lab (then S&R Foundation) north of Georgetown. I had been paid to work on the last two elections, so it was strange to be on the outside, not traveling to a swing state to knock on doors, not crafting updates responding to every sliver of breaking news. 

The art studio was located in a century-old former elementary school. I learned that D.C. had sent only white children there before the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing segregated schools. While working in the building and learning this history, it occurred to me that my parents were in elementary school when Brown was decided — not ancient history at all. If they had grown up in D.C. instead of Minneapolis, they might have attended such a segregated school. But northern cities had segregated schools too. Courts forced Minneapolis schools to desegregate in 1972, citing a long pattern of neighborhood boundary manipulation that included the South Minneapolis neighborhoods three generations of my family called home.

The project I developed that fall involved a lot of digging in to these kinds of histories and a lot of abstract, contemplative exploration on foot and in archives. It was in some ways a response to how I spent the previous two presidential election years. Working ten- and twelve-hour days at a political organization, I found little time for detours, nuance and creativity. I had come to believe that imaginative local work is a better way to bring about change, even though that sort of thing doesn’t scale.