Sunday, December 18, 2016

Odie Lindsey on Recovering Love in Fiction (Care of a Self-Prompt)

In the 62nd in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Odie Lindsey, author of We Come to Our Senses (W.W. Norton), talks about anger, disbelief, and the struggle to maintain empathy in his writing.

At Vanderbilt, I have the privilege of teaching fiction to future physicians and social scientists, asking them to empathize with bodies and circumstances often beyond their, our, bubble. At the public high school where I led a recent workshop, it was a gift to challenge young writers to imagine acts of compassion by individuals they despise. During my own readings and panels, when asked if it is appropriate for me to write about female soldiers, or queer soldiers—groups to which I do not belong—my answer is that I’m not sure; that I welcome critique and criticism, and am thankful for the discussion; that I am committed to mindfulness, and craft, and to stories not being told, to the best of my way-limited ability.

I am immersed in calls to, or questions of, empathy. Yet I’m having a hell of a time finding it in my new fiction. Right now, post-election, 2016, I am overwhelmed by fury. I am sick with disbelief.

I’ve taken to looking backwards, auditing the process of writing my story collection, a consideration of southern veterans and war-culture. The book is girded by twin objectives: to bring forth narratives of nontraditional soldiers, and/or to explore, if not explode, the militarized, masculinized South that would rear boys for battle but deny the disaster of their postwar lives. The latter—part satire, part too-apparent polemic—was inspired by my own combat deployment, 1991, and by the emotional tsunami that hit me 12 years later, as I watched another generation be sent to the same fight…knowing their homecoming would be far worse than mine.

Most pivotal, if only a glint in those pages, was love. Is love. I love my characters—even the worst of them. I love my culture—even when uppercutting it. I was taught that as a storyteller, my obligation was to seek difficult, complicated truths, charging past rote ideal and assumption, and into the intimate mess of humanity. To quote a former teacher, Barry Hannah, pursuing anything else was a “coffee shop skill.”

Only now, I can’t find that love. That mess. My latest fits of fiction import nothing more than rage, or resignation. They are one-liners at best. Lonely.

Only yesterday, I read a New York Times review of a book that dismisses empathy as unreliable, as bullshit. The Right Now Me can dig it.

Only yesterday, I re-read a section of Strength to Love, in which MLK asks: “Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies–or else?”

This morning, I chose “or else.” Though when it comes to fiction-as-in-life, the quote at least raised a process question: how to both fight and love?

I have known the answer, but I can’t recover it. This morning, I can only muster a concept, a claim, a prompt for me, the selfish little squat taking advantage of an invitation to post his thoughts on storytelling: the characters you do unto in their role as others, are in fact a doing unto of yourself. When your fiction seeks the vile and beautiful, the frail and fraught, even nurturing the pigs and monsters, you are in effect revealing your messes to your neighbors, your loves, and your enemies alike, welcoming them to trust, to invest, to critique…and to perhaps nurture their own emotional messes. To fight. To love. To be un-alone.

So get back after it, pal—or else.