Better Living Through Fiction: Charlie Jane Anders’ Never Say You Can’t Survive

Charlie Jane Anders’ Never Say You Can’t Survive has a unique angle on the writing craft subgenre: Anders wants to guide you through the process of creating art during a particularly difficult time, whether personally or globally. If, for instance, you’re living through a global pandemic, or living under a regime that is actively hostile to your life and wellbeing—how do you prioritize your art? Isn’t it silly and frivolous to even think about writing at a time like this?

Anders’ rallying cry is the opposite of that. During a difficult time, a writer can, literally, save their life through their art. They can literally escape into a world inside their head, find solace, find hope, find an outlet for their anger and pain, and then be able to come back into the problems of the “real” world stronger. Writing at a time like this isn’t a luxury, even if a nice idea: it’s a necessity.

Anders points out that, if your story or book makes it out to the public, maybe readers will also find comfort or renewed courage in the reading of it. But she also makes it wonderfully clear that this is a perk, not a feature. Writing through hard times is first and foremost for the good of the writer, not their audience.

As a writer this made me very happy, because I do feel in many craft books there’s an emphasis on forging a connection to your reader—and yes, this is important! I very much want all of you to feel connected to me as you read this—but I feel too often that craft books don’t talk about how good it is for the writer to write. The act of writing itself can allow us to think through problems, to give narrative to trauma, to gain a sense of control over chaos. And while I agree with my dear friend T Kira Madden that writing on its own is not catharsis, and should not be treated as such, it can be a healthy step in explaining ourselves to ourselves.

It’s sort of like putting your own mask on first, before you put a mask on your child or your seatmate: you’ll be able to provide comfort to others far better if you’ve sorted through your own shit first.

I know that might sound kind of heady, but one of the things I appreciated most about this book is just how practical Anders’ advice is. For instance, if you’re feeling stuck? CHEAT. Or, as Anders says, “Cheat like a husband in a Dolly Parton song.” Because sometimes dipping in to a new project, completely different from your main work, is exactly what you need to help you enjoy your writing process again. Section headers like “Imposter syndrome is forever”, “Screw the rules”, “Status nonsense” (one of my very favorites, about how hard people try to police “real” writing and how silly that is), “Irony works better if we care”, and “Community is everything” do exactly what they say on the tin, giving you excellent tips on how to build up your confidence as an artist. Anders also includes a series of sidebars with fun exercises that you can try on the spot. (I’ve actually started a thing that might turn into a short story based on one of them!) But this alternates with dives into deeper topics like finding themes in your writing, and how to navigate representing cultures other than your own versus appropriating those cultures. And then Anders will drop a perfect example of how to do the thing, like this advice on worldbuilding:

Worldbuilding reveals itself in crisis. I often think of the tip I heard from Arctic Rising author Tobias Buckell: instead of describing a room in a static fashion, like “there are three chairs and one of them has scalloped arms,” you can use the fight scene to establish the physical space. For example, you can let people know about the chair with the scalloped arms by having someone knock it over in the middle of a brawl.”

This book began life as a series of columns here on Tor.com, and one of the lovely things about it was watching a community grow, seeing Anders respond to questions in the comment threads, and sometimes base future columns on those conversations. That work has resulted in a book that is organic and user-friendly in a way that some writing guides are not. Personally, I love craft books (I even list posted about it) and it’s fun to see how Anders’ book fits into the landscape. Many of them also function as quasi-memoirs, or begin to feel almost like self-help manuals, Anders’ book is chatty, funny, and walks you through things like how to construct a scene, how to build a plot, how to make your characters more real—the kind of things that you have to be comfortable with in order to tap into your voice as a writer.

I also liked that Anders drew on her years as a major voice in SFF to give some genre-specific advice. For instance, on the possibility of happiness in our work:

At some point, we all started to think of violence and misery as the point of storytelling, rather than as a means to an end. Many writers (myself very much included) gloated endlessly about how much we loved to torture our characters. We all talked about Game of Thrones as if the Red Wedding was what made it great—rather than our love for the characters. Comics creators spent decades steering characters toward a “grim ’n’ gritty” aesthetic, while fantasy had to be “grimdark.” The failure mode of prestige TV has sometimes been gratuitous darkness. And so on.

We started to treat ugliness as a key signifiers of quality, rather than just one valid creative choice among many.

I loved that in the midst of all the nuts-and-bolts advice, Anders also made such a case for joy: “I start to find immense comfort in any reminder that the world is intrinsically a bonkers place where anything can happen, including joyful outlandish acts of resistance and liberation.” (Italics mine.) If I had to sum the whole book up with a quote I think it would be this one. The writer’s first job, I think, is to try to meet reality where it stands, and then try to describe it, wrestle with it, interpret it, turn it into a story. So this is a gorgeous reminder of the fact that our world’s story does not have to be what it is right now. We can change it, through our art, and through our action.

And, to build on that, Anders emphasized that hand-in-hand with the need for joy is the need for anger. Or as she puts it:

If you listed your top ten favorite novels or stories, I pretty much guarantee that at least a few of them were written because the author was pissed off about something, and just had to vent. Not only that, but I’ve found the hard way that when I couldn’t easily access any other emotion, I could always find my anger.

This is a bracing, and very helpful, topic to discuss in the world of craft books, when so many focus on tapping into your inner creativity, or finding your voice, but often in tones that I can only describe as “yoga instructor.” Sometimes you need to acknowledge that art is messy, and comes from places of anger, jealousy, spite, insecurity—and that’s OK! Maybe revise when you’re in a calmer state, but venting is a solid start.

Another thing that I want to mention in this review is that while I was reading the book to write about it, I had to keep stopping to make notes for the novella I’m working on. Which is maybe the best accolade I can give a craft book? It took me longer to read the book and write this review, because I kept feeling inspired to work on my own fiction and had to make time for that instead.

All practical matters aside, here’s what’s so fantastic about reading this book: Anders never pretends art isn’t “political”—of course it fucking is! Everything is political! And I hope that especially now, after how many months of lockdown and quarantine, with many people, myself included, staring down the barrel of a long winter alone, can we all please admit how important arts and entertainment are? (I mean, yes, so is STEM, I love y’all, thank you for the vaccine and the healthcare work, we literally owe you the world) but still: how the heck have we come through this, in the tattered, fragmented ways we’ve come through this, if not by reading, watching films, New Girl marathons, revisiting The Goblin Emperor, breathlessly waiting for the new Sally Rooney, doing the whole MCU in chronological order, weeping so hard we ruin our copies of Piranesi, re-watching all of Scorsese’s movies, blasting Lil Nas X and Olivia Rodrigo and Phoebe Bridgers?

We need art to survive.

We need our art to reflect our world, and reshape our world. We need our art to show us a world based in true equality, in justice, in empathy, because otherwise we will never get that world.

And I get it, maybe that seems a little intense? But what is writing about, if not intensity. Hunter S. Thompson had a quote I love: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” I have, to the extent that I live my life by any maxim, I try to live it by that one. So you’ll see why I was delighted that Charlie Jane Anders updated that phrase thusly: “When the going gets weird, the weird become paladins.” How beautiful is that? But true, too—it’s up to the writers and the artists and the Truly Weird to take care of everyone when reality becomes too much to bear, right? It’s up to us—the writers, the artists, the weirdos—to create a path forward. And, to quote Anders again: “The moment you wrote down a single word, you became a writer. Really.”

So pick up your pens.

Never Say You Can’t Survive is available from Tordotcom Publishing.

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