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2020 election

83 Days: Expertise

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.

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2020 election

85 Days: Crusade

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. 

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2020 election

86 Days: Learn Anti-Racism

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.

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2020 election

87 Days: Nonfiction

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. 

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2020 election

88 Days: Spin

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.
Synonyms: slant, angle, twist, bias. 

New Oxford American Dictionary; Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus

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.

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2020 election

89 Days: Conspiracy

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. 

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2020 election

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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2020 election

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.