Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the fourth chapter, “Everything Is Broken! What Should I Write About?”—you can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
Everything Is Broken! What Should I Write About?
Back in 2001, I was going through two huge changes. I was starting to transition seriously from male to female—and I was also becoming a novelist, after a few years of writing short stories.
I started out writing a novel based on my own experience of singing in church choirs as a kid. Choir Boy slowly morphed into a gonzo trans coming-of-age story that ruminated on music, the uses of beauty, and how we sometimes discover our true selves by pure accident. I was just finishing up my first draft of this novel in September 2001, when you know what happened. After that, I was convinced that nobody, absolutely nobody, was going to need a surreal weirdfest about gender fluidity and sacred music anymore.
We were being dragged into war, Islamophobia was becoming government policy, and brown people were being denied their civil rights. Everyone was scrambling to figure out how to respond to the USA Patriot Act and everything else. I remember feeling so helpless, sitting in a cafe with a blank notebook and an EZ-Grip pen, wrestling with the ending to my novel while my friends were mobilizing and actually making a difference.
The world was exploding and innocent people were being targeted, and I either needed to put down my pen or find a way to write about what was going on. I was sure, after 9/11, that there was no point in continuing to write about queerness, or transness, or anything related to gender or sexuality or identity. Why focus on my own identity politics at a time like this? Why should I expect anybody to care about a subversive genderqueer odyssey at a time like this? Who the hell did I think I was, writing personal stories about the quest for an authentic self, during a time of war and atrocity?
Obviously I should change gears and start writing war novels. Or stories about fascism. I managed to finish Choir Boy and start the long journey to publication, but meanwhile I also tried to speak to the terrifying moment we were living through. I wrote dozens of not-particularly-good meditations on state-sanctioned violence—most of which were a total waste of words, but one of which morphed, years later, into my novella Rock Manning Goes For Broke.
Eventually, though, a few things became obvious to me: 1) I had a lot of stuff to work out about gender and sexuality in my writing, and this was valid and important. 2) War, paranoia and national meltdown are precisely the times when we need more stories about being true to ourselves, at any cost. 3) I had a choice between writing pretty terrible war fiction and somewhat less terrible queer lit, and only one of those two things was going to make me happy and leave me with the energy to do actual useful work in the world.
And I honestly don’t think I could have made it through the early 2000s without all the brave queer voices I was reading and listening to. I went to a million open mics and book launches, and trans spoken word events, and every show felt like going to church. We were all figuring out this shit together, and we were carving out a space big enough to let us all grow and transform and change our minds.
When Choir Boy finally came out in the mid-2000s, I helped to organize a national tour with a group of trans authors and zinesters. All over the country, I found myself talking to trans and gender-nonconforming people who desperately needed more stories to define what was possible for ourselves. We all needed each other’s stories.
When the whole world is on fire and the people you love are at risk, what should you write about?
Whatever you feel able to write. Whatever will make you feel like you can keep living and fighting. Write the thing that you’re ready and excited to write—not the thing that you feel the moment calls for, or the story that you think will fix every broken thing in the world. Your job is to survive, and maybe to help others to survive. That’s it. That’s more than plenty.
The past few years, I’ve had the same conversation a bunch of times, with other authors who couldn’t write what they were “supposed” to be writing. Maybe they were trying to finish a serious, intense military fantasy book, but they kept “cheating” and writing a fluffy rom-com about magical chipmunk princesses in love. Or maybe they were trying to write something light and escapist, to get their mind off current events, but all that came out was a dark reflection of our real-life nightmares.
I want to unpack that idea of the thing you’re “supposed” to write a little more, because it’s super unhelpful. Maybe it comes from feeling obligated to speak to a particular historical moment, the way I did after 9/11, or maybe it comes from imposter syndrome and feeling like your stories aren’t worthy. Or maybe you just really, really want to be “taken seriously,” or break into the “mainstream.” But if you let all these expectations, real or imagined, keep you from writing whatever you feel drawn to, then you’ve already lost something unimaginably precious.
I also want to take the phrase “identity politics” and throw it into the sun. Because you know what? All politics is identity politics, because it’s about who we are and who we want to be and how we want to treat each other. Politics is nothing but the sum of our experiences, which include culture, gender, religion, sexuality, and disability. If we can’t bring all of ourselves to the political sphere, then any struggle we take part in is already compromised.
Of course, there are times when you might need to write a particular thing—like, if you signed a contract in blood, or if it’s an assignment for school, or if you promised your friends you’d finish a particular fanfic. But most of the time, it’s not worth psyching yourself out, just so you can write the thing that you think someone else is expecting.
Just hearing your own thoughts over the shrilling of the atrocity organ can be a major challenge. Especially right now, as a militarized police force rolls across our cities, it’s hard to turn away even for a second. But making up your own stories about the world is a form of self-care and self-care is an important part of resistance. Plus we’re going to need new writing, all kinds of new writing, and you never know which stories will end up being treasured, in ways that you could never predict. Storytelling is an important piece of protective equipment, even “frivolous” storytelling.
It’s become sort of a cliché to say that you should write the book you wish you could read—but it’s really true, and it’s even truer during those times when the walls all start to melt. If there’s a book that would comfort or distract or empower you right now, then you might need to be the one to write it.
We’re all trapped inside history and we can’t see the outlines from where we are.
Wars, plagues, disasters, and struggles against tyranny come out of nowhere, and they can change the whole course of your life. This sucks, in part because you’re supposed to be the protagonist of your own damn story, but sometimes you get swept up in a larger arc where you’re at the mercy of decisions made by politicians, civic leaders, and cellophane dictators.
And as we’ve discussed before, writing stories can be one way to try and make sense of the huge events that we’re caught in the middle of. So you might easily assume that the best way to deal with massive situations that are (mostly) beyond your control is to write about them, or to write about stuff like them. And sometimes, that approach does pan out, like in January 2017, when I put all my anxieties as a trans person into a story.
Still, the only good thing about being trapped inside the belly of history is that this situation touches absolutely everything. Sometimes the easiest way to cope with it is to write about something that seems unrelated—because really, everything is related in the end. You won’t be able to keep reality from seeping in to your work, no matter what you do, and every piece of storytelling is about politics, one way or another.
We’ll talk more about finding story ideas in the next essay, but for now, it’s helpful to just let go of any worries about finding the “right” way to deal with a national (or global) shitshow in your fiction. If everything is messed up, then anything you write will end up touching on the messed-up stuff. Sometimes you can only see a systemic injustice from a great height, where you can look down and see the whole shape of it—but sometimes, you can only see it out of the corner of your eye.
A light-hearted romance between an elk princess and a swamp god might not just be the only thing you feel like writing these days—it might also be the best way for you to deal with the problems we’re all facing.
Also, the stuff you want to write is probably pretty similar to whatever you feel drawn to read right now. If you’re reading nothing but cozy mysteries, maybe you should try writing a cozy mystery. And you can always think about your friends and loved ones, and what you think they might want to read right now—though don’t get psyched out by trying to write something that’s not for you, just to make someone else happy. Most of all, accept that you might need to be okay with changing gears on the regular, because the thing you feel like working on today might not be the same thing that feels good tomorrow.
Almost every story is about change—especially science fiction and fantasy stories, which frequently revolve around some upheaval or transformation caused by a fresh discovery, or a brand-new circumstance. We’ll talk later about using imaginary worlds and futures to talk about problems in today’s world (and how that can go horribly wrong), but there’s something powerful about writing a story in which something changes. Doesn’t even have to change for the better—it just has to show that change happens, and it’s inevitable, and we can try to make the most of it.
It’s natural to fantasize when things are messed up, and sometimes those fantasies can turn out to be gold. Just look at those poor immigrant Jewish kids who channeled all their longing to be powerful and safe into creating Superman and Batman on the eve of World War II. It’s amazing how many of our most beloved stories are just the craving of a powerless person for a way to imagine being powerful.
And you’re under no obligation to be virtuous or high-minded—if you want to write a revenge fantasy about getting even with the jerkbags in charge, then go for it. Maybe you’ll find that after a dozen pages, it turns into something else, or develops more layers. But if it just stays a pure revenge fantasy, that’s awesome too. Just make it as gruesome as it needs to be.
I used to long for a spaceship to swoop down and take me away from this horrendous planet, the way Yondu took Peter Quill away. The more terrified and anxious I get, looking at the state of the world, the more I take refuge in that daydream and mine it, endlessly, for more stories.
That weird thought that keeps lodging in your mind in the shower? Turn it into a plot point.
That one time in your life when you felt really free, accountable to no authority figure or petty judge? Find a narrative thread about what someone could do with that much freedom.
That angry rant that you’ve been biting your tongue to keep from spouting on the sidewalk or the subway? Put a version of it in the mouth of a character, and then see what it spurs them to do next.
Like I said, whatever you can write in the middle of a garbage tornado is a good thing to be writing. But as a general rule, it’s always better to write the story that only you could have written—not a weaksauce imitation of someone else’s book. Write from your own experiences and your passions and your obsessions, and indulge all of your most unruly impulses—you can always dial it back later, in revision.
The best thing to write during a slow-motion tragedy is the thing that strengthens and amplifies your own voice. Your own perspective. Because there’s nothing more badass and defiant than insisting that your stories matter, and that your experiences and concerns are important. In the end, that’s how we make it to the other side: by bringing all of ourselves into our writing.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award, and her story “Don’t Press Charges And I Won’t Sue” won a Theodore Sturgeon Award. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinksreading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.