Creative Responses to Worlds Unraveling:
The Artist in the 21st Century
In 2007 I published a political novel. I’ d never intended to write it.
Until I was in my late thirties, I kept my political concerns segregated from my creative writing. Of course, they crept in anyway, but always indirectly and never deliberately. On the face of it, I was an apolitical fiction writer, and I stayed faithful to that segregation for a couple of reasons. For one, I’ d accepted the conventional American literary wisdom that explicit politics can ruin literary art, especially fiction, a wisdom I saw confirmed again and again in many of the 1930s social realist novels I read for my dissertation research on class in American literature. But a second reason was more decisive: I simply didn’t believe fiction could put a scratch in contemporary social and political problems. What good, I asked myself, was imaginative artistic work in the face of “real world” crises as urgent and overwhelming as the ones we’ve faced in the last several decades? What was the use of even trying?
So, I continued scrawling away on my short stories (because I’ll lose my mind if I’m not writing fiction) while I shuttled my political concerns (because I can’t live with myself if I’m idle there) into my academic research and writing, into teaching, into direct activism, and, in 2000, into helping my sister Catherine Pancake make a documentary film about mountaintop removal in our home state of West Virginia.
That’s when I got in trouble.
It was July. Catherine and I were running around the southern West Virginia coalfields with a new digital camera, interviewing people suffering from the fallout from mountaintop removal mining, a catastrophic form of strip-mining that blasts up to five hundred feet off the tops of mountains to get at thin seams of coal. On this day, we were with a local woman named Judy Bonds who was working for a brand-new anti-mountaintop removal grassroots organization after she’ d been fired from her Pizza Hut job for speaking out against the coal companies. She’ d protested after she found her grandson standing in the creek in front of her house holding dead fish in his hands and asking her what had happened. Judy was taking us up a hollow called Seng Creek to meet a family who had recently had severe flash floods caused by a mine directly above their house.
This family, whom I’ll call the Reeds, had four children. They showed us the flood damage to their trailer and to their yard, and the oldest son, fourteen years old, told us about being knocked out of his bed by a mine blast. They all talked about how frightened they were that on the mountain behind their house was a slurry impoundment—a large lake that holds wastewater from processing coal—that might crash down on them as a wall of toxic water in the next big rain.
That evening, I found myself in the back of a pickup with three of the Reed children and a couple of cousins, my sister in front with Mr. Reed, bucking up a rough road along a ruined creek toward the mine. As we climbed higher, passing trees that had slid down the sides of the ripped-up hollow, there were bulldozed mounds blocking the road in places, and pools in the creek glittering a metallic green. These tough little barefoot kids told me how proud they were of their daddy’s driving and how scared they were of the floods; how they lay in their beds terrified of what might come down off that mine; how they were bound and determined to someday scale the mountain and see what was really up there.
We came to a halt at the foot of a pile of soil and rocks and dead trees, as tall as an eight-story building, which had been dumped over the side of the mountain as the company blew it up in pieces. The kids piled out to scramble over boulders, their agile bodies a surreal anomaly in all desolation. The ten-year-old, Dustin, turned to say to me what the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the governor’s office, and even the White House refused to admit: “This is dangerous,” Dustin looked in my eyes as he told me. “This is dangerous.”
I left Seng Creek altered. The next morning I tried to scribble down as fast as I could all that had happened because I thought it would make a good journalistic piece. At that point, I still didn’t believe that fiction would do proper justice to a subject like this one; I even feared the situation might be trivialized by putting it in a fictional form, but then something new happened.
About two weeks after I went up Seng Creek, I heard in my head the voice of a fictional fourteen-year-old who lived under that mountaintop mine. I wrote down about five pages of what he said. I figured it was a short story, but a few days later, the voice of another kid in that family came, and a little while after that, a third voice. About this time, I realized that what I was writing wasn’t a short story, but a novel—which I’ d never written before, never thought I’ d ever write, because I was so bad at plotting. Worse, this was a novel that tackled head-on a complicated and controversial political issue. Both of these realizations scared the writer in me nearly to death.
As soon as I let on I was writing a novel about mountaintop removal, my own reservations about political novels were mirrored back. People would ask me why I wasn’t writing nonfiction, and by nonfiction they meant the journalistic variety, not creative nonfiction. Some activists seemed put out, as though I were wasting my time. Some writers seemed suspicious, as though I were betraying art. The same question—“Why didn’t you make the book nonfiction?”—continues to be one of the most common I get in interviews and during question-and-answer sessions.
I well know there are excellent reasons to be cautious when approaching explicitly political material as a literary artist, and especially as a writer of literary fiction. Nonfiction can directly reflect on ideas, present information, and even advocate for a “side” without violating the promise the genre makes to the reader. Fiction is another story. Treating politics in fiction is hard to carry off without violating the novel or short story’s “vivid continuous dream”—John Gardner’s term for the spell the best novels cast, a spell too often broken by overtly political works. Of course, fiction can take some liberties—we do have novels of ideas, though they are less popular today than in the past, and there are postmodern experiments that deliberately flout that “vivid continuous dream.” But generally speaking, in realist fiction a mere whiff of the didactic or polemic, any glimpse of the work’s creator stepping in and directing the reader about how to think or feel, can shatter the world the writer has so painstakingly constructed and unravel the reader’s suspension of disbelief.
This is true also of much poetry and certain kinds of creative nonfiction. Integrating into any literary genre the facts, information, and context a political subject often requires is very difficult without undermining the art, and making the job even harder is the reality that contemporary American audiences are less familiar with encountering politics in literature than are audiences in other countries. I can also tell you from personal experience that writing political fiction doesn’t make you very popular with commercial publishers. It’s no mystery why American fiction writers today are actively discouraged from pulling advocacy politics into their work—except for identity politics, which are a natural match for character-driven fiction and many times aren’t recognized as politics. Certainly political literature presents myriad challenges to the writer, and I know there are places in my own novel where I stumbled into exactly the traps I’m pointing out here. But is the fact that such work is challenging a reason to avoid it altogether?
For me, this question became moot when Appalachia—the place where I grew up and where my family goes back seven generations, the place that gives me my stories and language—was being blown up, physically and culturally. The devastation of my place is bald, unambiguous, and impossible to explain away as “natural” or temporary or repairable. It was easy for me to be radicalized. But the truth is, this kind of runaway loss—usually in more subtle and insidious forms—is happening everywhere right now, on the level of the environment, of economics, and of human rights, to name just a few. As artists witness this accelerated unraveling, more and more of them are compelled to treat politics in their art, many for the first time. I know this from my writer and visual artist friends and collaborators, and I know it from my students. As we artists turn more toward these issues, we face hard questions before we even get to how one balances aesthetics and advocacy, the most daunting question perhapsbeing the one I mentioned at the beginning of this essay: why make art at all? Isn’t documentation, the presentation of facts, a more efficient and effective tactic for a writer in crises like these? And isn’t direct activism most efficient and effective of all?
After a number of years now of hearing reader responses to my Strange As This Weather Has Been, I’ve finally made peace with my guilt and anxiety about channeling my activist energies into literature. I’ve at last come to accept that cliché we’re told when we’re young: you have to trust that your greatest gift is how you are meant to contribute to this life, regardless of what that gift is. As a fiction writer, I will probably reach a smaller audience than a journalist, a scientist, a charismatic public speaker, or a grassroots organizer, but fiction writing is what I do best. I’ve learned I need to have faith not only in that, but also faith that the journalism, science, speaking, and organizing will be carried out by individuals with those gifts. And once I surrendered to the notion that making literature was what I needed to do, something interesting happened: I started to perceive the unique abilities literature, including fiction, has to educate, move, and transform audiences that are possessed by no other medium, including reportage and documentary.
For example, I believe literature is one of the most powerful antidotes we have to “psychic numbing.” It’s not easy to actually feel, with our hearts, with our guts, overwhelming abstract problems that don’t directly affect us, especially now, with so many catastrophes unfolding around us, and it’s tough to sustain compassion for the nameless souls struggling with those catastrophes. But we do have great capacity to empathize with the personal stories of individuals. I once heard Wendell Berry point out that “public suffering means nothing if it isn’t understood as compounded of an almost infinite private suffering,” and he went on to illustrate this with a quote from André Gide’s World War II journals: “thousands of sufferings make a plateau. It’s like that bed of nails you can lie down on. But one death, one instance of suffering, one Lear, one Hamlet, is the point of sorrow.” 1
Fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry do exactly that: they immerse the reader in the personal stories of individual people. In our Information Age, when we can get thousands of facts and sound bites about any subject—and in this way build a bed of nails—literature is one of the few arenas where an individual can actually “live the life” of a person who is a subject of injustice. The reader of a novel or a book-length work of creative nonfiction, for instance, spends hours upon hours vicariously living the lives of other human beings, and such an experience can generate great compassion in the reader. Not even imaginative documentary offers this kind of opportunity for a sustained relationship between audience and subject, both because an audience spends less time with a documentary and because, I would argue, viewing a film requires less effort from its audience than reading literature does. That effort means the reader engages more actively with the art, ultimately arriving at a more intimate and manifold appreciation of the issue the art addresses.
Of course, journalism and documentary, too, present individual stories. But those genres are restricted to the exterior worlds of the people interviewed. Novelist Don DeLillo has remarked that one distinction between the fiction writer and the journalist is that the fiction writer can show “the impact of history on interior lives.” 2 Creative writing—imaginative writing—gives a writer tremendous freedom to explore and portray the interior terrain of a range of people. My novel, for example, is narrated from six perspectives, so I was able to submerge my readers in the immediate sensual fears, losses, secrets, desires, and loves of characters running the gamut: from a ten-year-old boy obsessed with machines, to a teenaged girl forced to choose between attachment to land and a viable future, to a disabled miner struggling to reconcile his gut knowledge that the mountains are sacred with the dogmatism of a narrow Christianity. If the writer can evoke these interior lives with complexity and compassion, the reader’s understanding of social injustice and environmental disaster is dramatically broadened and deepened. Personal stories in literature can wake up and stimulate sleeping and numbed imaginations, reshaping how readers perceive reality and leading them to understand, in a deep organic way, why particular power inequities must be changed.
Also significant when we think about the power of literature for advocacy is that fiction, poetry, and the literary essay can have a much longer shelf life than information or reportage. Literature radiates far beyond a specific time, place, and issue because art embodies truths that are not literal, that are not time- and place-bound. Thus we still read Grapes of Wrath when we don’t read 1930s newspaper articles about the Dust Bowl, not even those written by Steinbeck. Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Storyteller,” puts it beautifully:
The value of information does not survive the moment in which it was new. It lives only at that moment; it has to surrender to it completely and explain itself to it without losing any time. A story is different. It does not expend itself. It preserves and concentrates its strength and is capable of releasing it even after a long time. . . . It resembles the seeds of grain which have lain for centuries in the chambers of the pyramids shut up air-tight and have retained their germinative power to this day.3
Finally, it’s essential for us to remember that the transformative properties of literature are not limited to its content. Literature’s form, too—its style, structure, figures of speech, tone, mood, formal originality, and experimentation—evoke in readers fresh and profound understandings. Form can be political when it moves an audience to question what seems given. Form can shake up dead paradigms and jolt us into envisioning alternatives. Art’s beauty can make an audience yearn for a different kind of reality. And beauty can also simply help heal. As Phil Ochs put it several decades ago, “In such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.” 4
As I was writing my novel, I didn’t give much thought to all those particulars. I wrote it with the conscious aim of just trying to show the truth about the devastation of a place I loved and with the hope of generating compassion for the living beings suffering because of this devastation. If people understood better, I thought, they would help make change. I didn’t hold lofty expectations because I knew how limited the audience for literary fiction is, especially literary fiction about Appalachia, but I was compelled to make my own small contribution.
When I started my book in 2000, almost no one outside the coalfields—except hardcore environmentalists—had heard of mountaintop removal. In the thirteen years that have passed since then, the number of people who understand mountaintop removal and are advocating against it has increased beyond anything I’ d ever imagined, through the efforts of thousands of residents, activists, scientists, artists, and even a few politicians. Reams of newspaper and magazine articles have been written on the subject, and dozens of documentary films have been made, and several laws and regulations intended to limit mountaintop removal have been proposed, although only a couple have passed.
This takes me back to my story about Seng Creek, the Reed kids, and Judy Bonds, the former Pizza Hut waitress who introduced us to the Reeds. I live in Seattle now, but I try to get back to southern West Virginia at least once a year. In 2008 I was having lunch with some elderly friends of mine there when one, Mary Miller, asked, “How long has it been since you’ve been up Seng Creek?”
Even though my entire novel was set in an imagined landscape based on that hollow where the Reeds lived, I hadn’t actually driven back up in there since 2000, and I told my friend that.
“Well, we got to get you up there,” Mary said.
We got up there, or at least as far as we could go. In the years since I’ d last seen Seng Creek, the upper part of the hollow had been washed out by a flash flood, just as the Reeds had said it would be. After that, the company had swept in and bought and torn down all the homes. The topography was now altered beyond recognition by fill dirt and giant culverts and non-native grass and two drift mouths for underground mines, and by a sediment pond where the church used to be. Bulldozers worked the steep slopes above our car. I asked where the people we’ d interviewed had gone. My friend said the elderly woman I’ d based one character on had moved into Charleston with her daughter. And the Reeds? Nobody knew. Finally Mary said, “We got to get out of here before a rock falls on us.”
In 2010, two years after that drive up Seng Creek, I got some news about Judy Bonds. In the time since then, she’ d won one of the most prestigious awards in the world for environmental activism, the international Goldman Prize, and she’ d become known as “the godmother of the anti–mountaintop removal movement.” I spent a lot of time with Judy in the early years of the century, and she is one of several women I drew on for the main character Lace in my novel. The news I got was that Judy had been diagnosed with brain cancer. By January of 2011, she was dead at age fifty-eight. Water tests of the creek outside her house—the creek where her grandson held the dead fish—show that it contains polyacrylamide, a cancer-causing agent used for coal processing.
So, I have witnessed the landscape where my work is set and the people who inspired my characters continue to be destroyed by an injustice my creative work tried to address. And these are just representative episodes in the larger context of the expansion of mountaintop removal in the last decade—at least five hundred mountains blown up, possibly two thousand miles of streams filled with toxic rubble, countless people dead from poisoned air and water. This escalation has continued despite drastically expanded public awareness of mountaintop removal and its fallout, despite great public outcry against it. And just as what happened to Seng Creek and to Judy are only two examples of the larger conflagration in central Appalachia, the Appalachian crisis is just one instance in a larger global context crackling with intensifying life-threatening crises, from global warming to mass extinction to the breakdown of economic systems—all of these documented endlessly, ad nauseam, by the press and others.
Many of us have certainly felt despair about all this, especially about our inefficacy to effect change. I’ve felt cynicism, at other times apathy; I’ve felt the impulse to isolate myself, insulate myself. I’ve wallowed in these states. I’ve ranted. I’ve struggled with guilt over my paralysis. Until, finally, this insight broke up that paralysis:
Periods of disintegration most often contain within them profound possibilities for creation, so an era like this one, precisely because of the scale and scope of its dissolution, offers tremendous opportunities for sweeping systemic change. I know we still need truth-telling art. But given our circumstances, I believe we artists must open ourselves wider to how art performs politically beyond bearing witness, because I’ve concluded that the only solution to our current mess is a radical transformation of how people think and perceive and value. In other words, we must have a revolutionizing of people’s interiors. And such revolutionizing is exactly what art can do better than anything else at our disposal, aside from spirituality and certain kinds of direct experience which are not as easily available as art.
Take, for instance, literature’s power to exercise, develop, and revitalize the imagination, the imaginations of both readers and writers. In our culture imagination is impoverished and misdirected at a time when we desperately need new vision and ideas. The literary arts, especially fiction, make more extensive and sustained demands on a reader’s imagination than perhaps any other form of media. Admittedly, the imaginative effort a person must make to read literature means some won’t bother to engage with it at all. However, those who are willing to participate can come through the interaction deeply imprinted precisely because they had to engage their imaginations so energetically. And that exercising of the imagination can help readers and writers imagine better in other parts of their lives.
Pushing a little deeper into the relationship between literature and the imagination, I want to point out, too, the way literature—both the reading of it and the writing of it—can reunite an individual’s conscious and unconscious. I can’t emphasize how imperative I think this reunion is. I would argue that many of our contemporary ills are caused or exacerbated by our culture’s rending the conscious from the unconscious, then elevating the conscious—the intellect, rationality—to the complete neglect, if not outright derision, of the unconscious. This is disastrous not only because such psychic amputation cripples people, contributing to feelings of emptiness, insatiability, depression, and anxiety, but also because within that castoff unconscious—in intuition, in dreams—dwell ideas, solutions, and utterly fresh ways of perceiving and understanding that we need urgently in an era of unraveling and transition. I, like all writers, know the power of the unconscious because it’s where I’ve gone for decades for my fiction writing. I know how boundless that realm is, how explosive with energy and light; I know my unconscious is eons ahead of my intellect, worlds larger in vision than my rational mind. This is exactly where we’ll find the materials and the fuel for that transformation of psyche I’m talking about. And our very business as artists is trafficking between the conscious and the unconscious; indeed, we are one of the very last groups in this culture who have a sanctioned day-to-day relationship with our unconscious, with our dreams and intuition.
Now I’ll crawl even farther out on my limb and, refining this notion of artists’ reintegration of the conscious and the unconscious, I’ll propose that artists are also translators between the visible and invisible worlds, intermediaries between the profane and the sacred. How is this pertinent to the case I’m making for art’s ability to create change in the world? Only by desacralizing the world, over centuries, have we given ourselves permission to destroy it. Conversely, to protect and preserve life we must re-recognize its sacredness, and art helps us do that. Literature re-sacralizes by illuminating the profound within the apparently mundane, by restoring reverence and wonder for the everyday, and by heightening our attentiveness and enlarging our compassion. The magic and transcendence and mystery that characterize true literary art make a piece of literature a microcosm of the wider universe, of the mystery and profundity and transcendence that reside there for those willing to look for it.
Talk of the holy may be off-putting for some, so let’s just boil it down to love. Jack Turner, in The Abstract Wild,5 insists that only genuine love of our environment will incite us to save it, and, further, that aside from direct experience, only art can make us fall in love with the world. “Mere concepts and abstractions,” like those in science and public policy, “will not do, because love is beyond concepts and abstractions. And yet the problem is one of love.” And for those of us who still feel periodically ashamed about not taking more direct action, Turner has this: “We can all drive a spike into a tree, but few can produce visionary fiction or memoirs that transform our beliefs and extend the possibilities of what we might come to love.”
Writing these words in 2013, I’m aware of how my confidence that literature matters in the ways I’ve discussed seems fantastic and romantic. Literature’s audience is too small, readers’ attention spans are too attenuated, competing media and technologies are too distracting and seductive—I still drift into this skepticism. But I also know that throughout human history the mythmakers, the culture-creators, those who dream forward for their communities, have been the artists. Yes, contemporary culture has trivialized, ghettoized, and marginalized us whenever it hasn’t been able to commercialize us, and I fear many of us have internalized this sense of irrelevancy. What I’m suggesting now is that we take ourselves more seriously and make ourselves more relevant.
I believe literature’s most pressing political task of all in these times is envisioning alternative future realities. My biggest disappointment with my own political novel is not the missteps where I strayed into polemic or awkwardly integrated information. My biggest disappointment is that my novel does not provide vision beyond the contemporary situation in central Appalachia. I have learned that it’s much easier to represent a political situation in literature than it is to propose alternatives—to dream forward—without lapsing into Pollyannaism or cynicism. But I’ve come to believe that the greatest challenge for many twenty-first-century artists is to create literature that imagines a way forward which is not based in idealism or fantasy, which does not offer dystopia or utopia, but still turns current paradigms on their heads. I now feel charged to make stories that invent more than represent, that dream more than reflect. This is not to say that I have more than glimmers of what such fiction will be, but I carry a burning urgency that it must be done.
1. From Berry’s talk at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference in Roanoke, VA, 19 October 2008.
2. From Melissa Block’s interview with DeLillo, “Falling Man Maps Emotional Aftermath of September 11,” All Things Considered, NPR, 20 June 2007.
3. From Benjamin’s Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.
4. From the liner notes of Ochs’s album Pleasures of the Harbor, A&M Records, 1967.
5. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1996.