I recently saw an author complain that no one seems able to ‘capture the moment’ in ways that we have seen from bright lights like Hunter S. Thompson or Tony Kushner. The ascension of Donald Trump, the floundering of the Democratic Party, the rising seas, and the fall of the American dream: there has yet to be an essay or a movie or a novel that locks people in their chairs, enrapturing its readers who mutter, “Yes, yes, yes!” over and over at the encapsulation of these fraught times. Certainly some writers heard the same words I did and thought, well, wait till they read my next thinkpiece, but I am as paralyzed by the tidal wave of the here and now as I was before that gauntlet was thrown.
Beginning my writing career at this moment in time feels like an exercise in futility. There’s the petty stuff: yes it is hard to find time to write when working two jobs; yes it is hard to fight to be heard among the thousands of other aspiring writers; yes it is hard to know that I’ll have to write clickbait articles or vacuum owner’s manuals at least once during my career. But feeling like a minnow in a gigantic pond, or writing in fits and starts on my phone at work like I’m doing now; I share these circumstances with many young writers throughout history, and in other times I reckon (perhaps indulgently) I could overcome such challenges. What makes me feel useless in this exact place and time is a constellation of complications, a web of outrage in which every thought and essai eventually becomes tangled.
Perhaps it’s that I’m desperate to allay my privilege, or the fact that I came of age as a politically active citizen in 2016, or perhaps the times are really as desperate as they seem, but every single time I sit down to write I am compelled to write about politics. I know that all writing is political, but what I’m talking about is more toxic than that: writing about anything in the Trump era has to be writing about everything. A play is an allusion to the Republican Party. A short story is a critique of the tax bill. This recipe I found offers a sharp rebuke of white nationalism. It’s baffling. There is guilt in not using every waking moment to fight back, to rally, to call representatives, and such a high bar of activism poisons everything. Unless what I write is immediate, critical, and actionable, I feel like a cotton candy machine, shitting out saccharine nonsense that dissolves under the slightest external pressure. And it tastes bad. And it stains everything. You get the point.
Such political malaise settled in early. My partner loves the musical Wicked, and I had never seen it, so in September of 2016 I bought tickets to the show for the day after the election. We were already worried sick about it by then, and when the morning of the show arrived the city was so in shock that the packed subway cars were silent, like everyone was taking the L to a funeral. Still, my partner and I dressed up, took the train to the theater, and settled in to watch. It’s an absorbing show, but during the opening number, No One Mourns the Wicked, I found myself distant; enormously guilty; enormously sad. With a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, I thought with self-disgust: How opulent of us. How absolutely inappropriate for us to be dressed up listening to showtunes when a lit match had just been thrown into a tinderbox. We enjoyed the show in the end, but the feeling of shame drove us to walk — my partner still in heels — from Broadway to Columbus Circle to join the protest in front of Trump Tower. We stayed until people started getting arrested, talked quickly about whether or not tonight was the night to go to jail, and then we left. Again, privilege; and again, guilt.
Goodness and warmth and fiction have felt like unearned luxuries since the election. This feeling has not ebbed during moments of victory like the Women’s March, or during rebukes of the GOP like the defeat of Roy Moore, or even the retaking of the House. In such instances I had hoped to find moments of peace or some sort of celebratory relaxation; a congratulatory lowering of my heart rate, perhaps? But I have yet to enjoy such a respite. Instead my reaction seems to be either cynicism — this too shall pass, pal — or a doubling down on the negativity, as though the victory was because of and worth my singular attention on the politics of dread.
Though the specters of the current political landscape haunt every thought in my head, what stymies me isn’t politics or writing. Quite the opposite: my major is in political writing (and environmental science; please hire me, I’m interdisciplinary). I believe that education, communication, and transparency are vital to an informed public and that trusted sources and authors have a significant role to play in interpreting events and trends for public consumption. I see writers doing that, and I look up them: I would love to be a Shaun King, who is a changemaker and a news source all at once; or a Kate Wagner, who writes her niche with universal appeal; or a Jessica Mason Pieklo, who is a lawyer and a podcaster and an inexhaustible monitor of the Supreme Court. But right now I am none of those things, and none of these writers. I am only a kid with no idea how to pick apart the bolus of The Moment™️, spending all my efforts trying to capture a full picture of it all, vainly trying to see everything through the lens of everything else.
Instead of reading it as a challenge, perhaps I should interpret the author’s complaint about no one capturing the moment as truly capturing my moment. There’s so much to deal with, so much to push back against, so much to fight for; there is simply so much that no one activist or author can capture it. That may be a projection of my own inadequacies, and should there be a writer who can wrap this era up in a bow, I look forward to reading their work. Still, it’s hard to imagine a lively piece of written word in which no vital threads were left untied, or where a foundational issue isn’t left out. The times are simply so much.
Until that marvelous, moment-encircling piece is breathlessly published in the New Yorker, its impossibility is a selfishly comforting fact for an infant author like me. Instead of writing about everything all the time in hopes of capturing it all, maybe I can write about the banalities, the tiny moments of joy and loss, the victories and the fictions that I yearn to tell, without feeling like I’m failing my duty as a writer. Perhaps over a million words, in concert with a million other writers, I’ll help outline the times, sketch them in a way that future historians will be able to sum up in thinkpieces of their own. I can only hope that I’m cited correctly.