Tell Me a Story: Escape, Activism, and the Role of Narrative in a Crisis

I’ve been thinking a lot, over the past few weeks, about the role of the arts in a crisis—personal or national. The days since the election have been hard, and I’ve watched myself and many of the people around me turn to our coping mechanisms of choice. Some healthy, some less so; some purposeful, some unconscious. Along with the fear and denial and sadness I’ve seen instincts toward communication, kindness, productivity. (I’m in awe of that last one—unpleasant surprises always seem to grind me to a halt for a while; I’ve never been able to harness the adrenaline and emotion into immediate problem-solving, as I’ve seen some friends do this week.)

I wrote last week about my first extended moment of ease after the election—seeing Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway. That turned out to be the beginning of a near-total immersion in stories of all types; music, theater, television, movies, novels. (And still somehow managing to spend too much of every day following the dissection of the news on social media.) This is a familiar pattern for me, always my first instinct in a crisis. It’s at least partly denial and escapism. It’s no accident that my adolescent obsessions (still beloved) were literal fantasy worlds—Tolkien; Star Trek. The joy comes in part from the relief of distraction. In the days immediately after the election, my friends and I watched The Princess Bride for the first time in many years, and the bald grab for the peace of nostalgia it was as funny and obvious as it was effective. I felt the same instinct itching at a screening of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them on Wednesday—my brain begging me to get into it, to choose fandom and fantasy and the satisfaction of a scripted resolution over everything happening in the real world.

But it isn’t just about escaping. The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek are speculative and fantastic, but they’re not actually much of a way to avoid thinking about your problems. They’re about war and manipulation and failure; allegory for current crises or the universal limits of our character. I loved The Great Comet not because it distracted me from the events of the week but because it made me think about them with greater clarity, less despair. The same is true for everything else I’ve been swimming through—pop shows like Supergirl giving me gloriously cheesy pep talks about heroism and hope; Assassins helping me think about the American experiment and its many roadblocks, both violent and bureaucratic; Emma Cline’s The Girls giving me a long pause thinking about the sycophancy and/or charisma latent—or overt—in each of us.

This was already in the forefront of my mind before last night, when Mike Pence went to see Hamilton on Broadway and received a message from the show:

Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical. We really do. We sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us […] or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Thank you for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.

Donald Trump has condemned the speech and demanded an apology from the cast. This is chilling, in that it’s an attempt to police one of the additional, most directly useful, functions of art in a crisis: to be responsive to and critical of the world it depicts; to hold us accountable. The idea of a leader even attempting to outlaw this kind of work is frightening. But what happened last night is also somehow heartening—because it showed the power of a narrative to reach the people it addresses, to appeal to and analyze and criticize them in a way they hear and, hopefully, listen to. 

That's the root of what's so heartening about the statement from Hamilton, even in the face of Trump's reaction. I've always turned to narrative to get me through tough times. Last night, one of the stories I'm obsessed with fought back on our behalf--literally; publicly; on the record. And though it may not always be that explicit, there's no reason that can't happen more and more as we all move forward together.

Great stories are always powerful tools, and the people who tell them powerful people, but it’s never clearer than in a moment like this one. Yes, fiction (in whatever medium) is an escape if you need it—it gives you the space to gather yourself, to find hope, to find the optimism to get back out there. And once it has set you on your feet, fiction can help you describe your world; find your way to deeper truths about it; find solidarity when you fear you’re alone; and finally, begin to change it for the better. This is as true for us as writers as it is for us as readers. It’s been a tough few weeks, and I’ve been away from my manuscript. Time to get back on my feet.