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election anxiety countdown

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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election anxiety countdown

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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election anxiety countdown

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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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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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.