‘The world’s on fire:’ How our favorite genre creators keep going when the dystopia becomes reality

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Mar 9, 2018, 6:06 PM EST

Our world is difficult right now. Or, rather, it’s always been difficult for many of us and the rest of us are just now catching up. We’re carrying sandbags filled with grains of privilege and all our bags have developed holes of varying sizes, tiny bits of comfort dropping behind us and blowing away. As some of us notice our bags are lighter than they once were, some feel no change at all. Some never got a bag in the first place. But we’re all together here in this storm, sand in our eyes, still needing to get through every day.

For creators, this has been challenging to say the least. Not even just in terms of the political climate—with depression and anxiety and other debilitating mental health issues, the ability to process coherent thought to be read or viewed by other people, or even to force your fingers or voice to do that work at all, it just feels impossible. I personally took about six months off writing my own stories to do other people’s work. It felt easier. Safer. Less exhausting. But when the stories exist within you, the point comes where you must let it out. By your own desire or by contractual obligation.

This idea was a common theme shared by creators aboard the JoCo Cruise. In various panels and conversations, creators opened up about how their ability to tell stories has been impacted by a burning world. As Wil Wheaton put it in a Modes of Storytelling panel, “Nothing matters in the real world, so nothing matters in my little made up world.” Throughout the cruise, in all its panels and conversations, there existed this through-line of, “This can be hard. But I have to.”

Author John Scalzi’s “I have to” moment came courtesy of his editor. “The last year I was just usually distracted because the world’s on fire, and I’d started writing and just the number of words I was writing on a daily basis went down, and I was doing a lot of, like I wrote 200 words, now I’m taking the rest of the week off. And then finally I just got to the point where my editor called and said “Yeah, it’s due tomorrow. We can’t put it off.” Scalzi wrote 14,000 words in one day to complete his book Head On, due for release next month. 

For others, unencumbered by the necessary push of a hard deadline, the answers have been a bit different. Writer/producer Amy Berg has found solace by leaning into the ugliness—if not in the world, than in her own writing. In what she calls the “puke draft,” Berg pours her thoughts, however disjointed and incoherent, onto the page. But in the last year or so, she’s taken to doing so on a yellow legal pad in longhand. “I even make my handwriting bad so that it looks ugly,” she explained in the Modes of Storytelling panel. “Because then I won’t take it so seriously.”

Meanwhile Wheaton has coped by choosing to channel rage into something creative as act of defiance. And, he noted, as more and more people do the same, we’ll reap the benefits. “In 18-24 months we’ll see fiction that is more optimistic,” he predicted when asked by an audience member about the negative futures depicted in recent pre-Trump speculative fiction. “Because we’re already in the dystopia.”

To find any kind of balance between hope, reality and creativity has been and will continue to be a struggle for most of us. As we seek solace or escape in genre works, creators have an important role. In a conversation between Scalzi, Berg and myself, Scalzi got to the heart of why creators must carry on, even when their minds are elsewhere.

“The last year, not just for me and Amy, but for a lot of creators and people has been to try and find that new balance, because the world has changed and not necessarily for the better,” Scalzi said. “But at the end of the day, my job, her job, is to get the words out so that they can do what they’re supposed to do. And without sounding arrogant about it, one of the things that’s nice about what we do is, even though the world’s on fire, our job is to get people a few hours where they get to go out of their own head. You don’t want to let down people, you want to be  part of the support network to help them get through their day especially these days. Ultimately that’s one of the things that pushes you to go, ‘I still need to get stuff done.’”

And perhaps that’s why every creator kept telling me how the week spent aboard the JoCo Cruise was a rejuvenation, an opportunity to rest, collect themselves, and start again. 

“There’s a spa on board, but I just feel like just being here with all of these people feels like a massage for your soul,” Berg said.

Added Scalzi, “That’s definitely the tagline for JoCo Cruise 2019: Soul Massage.”

Header image: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi.

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