This article was written by Susanne Davis, a professor in the English department.
The best piece of writing advice I got as a young writer came from an unassuming guy, Jim McPherson, who in a bare whisper told a roomful of fiction writers at the University of Iowa that it was our job to write stories showing what it felt like to be human in our time. We all have truths we stand on to help us through hard times, and this one from Jim has helped me many times, but never more than as a writer trying to write through this pandemic.
Life’s big passages always give the opportunity to find meaning, but the challenge of being physically distant from each other, watching many fall ill and die, lose their jobs, join hunger lines, protest racial, social and economic inequality in America, REQUIRES deep reflection and then informed action. For an artist (or any creative soul and therefore any human being), we’re invited through the creative medium of our words (and our lives) to try to find the meaning of this, our life, and to take part in the conversation about that—for a writer, in words.
So, after wrapping up the May term this summer, I turned to my novel, a novel started by following stray dogs in Russia for a handful of summers more than a decade ago. I’d read and researched for the book, but now, this pandemic made clear in this present moment what those stray dogs were showing me about human experience on those distant shores. It’s not so distant, and it’s not relegated to history—this struggle for truth and freedom, and without being too woo-woo about it, the characters started showing me how to use words to show that on the page. Twelve hours a day, for six weeks. Blissful weeks, until the draft was done.
As artists at Hope, we hope; that means using the medium of our expression—for writers, not merely recording the reality of the day, but sifting through it. We try to find the perspective faith gives so that our writing does more than reflect back this day as we know it, these days of the pandemic, but uses our words to give some wisdom to the human experience.
That means digging deep into the pressure cooker of division, fear and, yes, love, in the midst of it all to explore the social fabric of our time, the economic reality, the suffering and silence of the marginalized voices, and shape it with love—did I say love? And of course, words. For while there may only be a handful of human stories, those stories feel new when we’re living them and boy, we are living them now.