Updated: Sep 23, 2018
“The job of an artist is to offer a sanctuary of beauty to an ugly world”. — Jeff Goins
Our daily news formula is predictably unchanging. Another shooting, another lawmaker turning a blind eye. Another atrocious (fill in the blank: harassment, racist, terrorist, etc.) ______ incident, another incomprehensible POTUS tweet. We’re oversaturated in bad news. Most of us opt to stay informed like the good and active citizens we are, but sometimes it’s just too much. Especially when we feel like nothing is being done to improve bad situations. It’s all we can do to not shut ourselves out from the world. My mom always says:
“I just want to collect my kids, lock my doors, and never go outside again”.
The first time I remember my mom expressing this sentiment was after 9/11. She picked me up from school and we cried together in front of the T.V, some 2,000 miles from the disaster in our little San Antonio apartment. The next day, I picked up a pencil and wrote my very first (though horribly bad and confusing) song, inspired by the sadness I felt. Second grade Julia was beaming with pride and got to sing her song at a talent show in front of a whopping 40 people, max. I imagine how my mom must have felt watching me up there, feeling part proud, part horrified knowing her baby’s first expression of creativity was because of mass death.
Flash forward to today- I sympathize with my mother. God knows how much stress that woman has gone through with four daughters, three of whom are still in school. The often-school-based mass shooting era brings us to our knees after every incident. My mom and I talk after each one, reiterating how horrible it was and how angry we are that nothing has changed since the last shooting. Relieved that it’s almost summer and my sisters will be home and away from the possibility (though movie theaters, concerts, and places of worship are just as formidable these days). Every so often we’ll recall our September 11th memories and try to remind ourselves that people go on.
We tell ourselves, bravely, “we can’t let them win- they want us to cower in fear”. But honestly, my mother is totally normal for wanting to hide her family away. Her mama bear instincts take over and her priority becomes the safety of her children. Parts of me want to hide away, too, but not intentionally. I get so caught up in my feelings that the creative sector of my brain shuts me out. I can’t always pick up a pencil and write like I did in my youth. My brain refuses to let me back in until she’s felt all she needs to feel. The problem is, the feelings don’t subside. There are too many things to worry about around the world these days. Destruction and terror are too frequent in our headlines.
For starters, I’m sick to think I could one day get a call saying someone I love has been shot and killed because we couldn’t figure out how to regulate guns. I’m afraid to watch helplessly as POTUS taunts North Korea into a potential third world war. I dread hearing my black, Muslim, or fellow Hispanic friends face discrimination in any form. That fear turns into anger, which settles into a panicked lull, hanging ghastly over me until the next incident.
After the Parkland shooting, I wrote a piece about my thoughts on gun control. I was beside myself with emotion but I managed to get it all out there and felt like I had done some good. I was relieved to write and eager to finally find my place in a seriously important narrative. But after SIXTEEN more school shootings happened, I lost my writing gusto and felt a little helpless.
Then, lo and behold, news about Santa Fe materialized. School shooting number 17. It rattled our country. Later that day, we heard about the Cuban plane crash that killed over 100 people. We heard that a Paramus, NJ school bus accident killed two and wounded many others a day before. We learned about a mother who committed suicide and killed her son by jumping off a building in NYC. This all happened in less than two days. The death-ridden headlines took a toll on me. More still, this article took me a week to start because of my subsequent writer’s block.
Now, I’m sure this probably goes without saying but, us creative types are particularly susceptible to bad news. We’re empathetic and quite aware of our surroundings. We throw lots of emotion into our work. The best of us are really good at harnessing emotion and can write coherent arguments with their passion, probably in no time at all. The rest of us (myself included) require about 10 rounds of edits and a few moments of “where am I going with this??” and maybe a cry or two when handling a particularly sensitive topic. Being a writer is challenging, in the very best way, but when we feel that block, we really harp on it until it passes. It seems like the most excruciating thing. This particular bout of news-related creative block was tricky. Not only did it keep me from any creative endeavors, it also seemed to mock me: “why do you think it’s okay to write silly little articles about your woes while others have it much, much worse?”
I attempted to combat these thoughts with some wisdom from one of my former college professors, Mara B. Huber, Ph.D. Mara was a program leader of the winter abroad trip I took to Tanzania my senior year at SUNY Buffalo. To give a little insight into the dynamic of the group: we were all used to relatively “cushy” lifestyles, at least when compared to the Tanzanian children we’d just met who walked barefoot to school, a school which lacked necessary supplies like pencils or books. We spent many of our evenings sitting in a circle and discussing the dissonance we faced in the jarring new setting. None of us had been to Africa before and none of us had seen poverty with such severity as we did in rural Tanzania. One night, Mara was comforting a teary-eyed student as we listened on.
She explained that, instead of letting our apparent helplessness and guilt get the better of us, we must rein in our privilege and do something.
Luckily, we were able to do something on our trip: we raised over $2500 which was divvied up to eager girls in the form of scholarships. We also donated a significant amount of school supplies and hygiene products. I am so thankful to have remembered that moment while going through my latest creative block. Mara’s words began to ring truer than I had realized. Why should I sit here and sulk when there’s so much I can do? After all, writers (and any other kind of artists) are privileged with their talent. What a shame it would be to let that talent sit, wasting away and collecting dust, when it could be making a difference. Even if that difference amounted to no more than a 300 word article and a few measly likes on social media. Someone would be willing to pay attention and engage with what I needed to say, but I had to write the damn thing first.
And here we are! I’ve broken through the block that tried to convince me, if even for a moment there, that I was doomed. I am happy to report that I am sitting here in my office chair fully aware that my pen is my power. Most importantly, navigating through the block has taught me that despite all the darkness we face, we must urge each other to create with intent. The artistic community must find solace in responsible creativity if we ever want to feel okay again.
We can create responsibly with anything that challenges societal injustices. Of course, that’s not to say one person can tackle the mammoth of say, gun control (though I will debate your ear off if it means you might see the good in my position). It takes a village, and maybe even a country to gather its artists to impart change. Maybe (for starters) you’ll get your neighborhood together to paint a mural depicting your appreciation of immigrants and their contributions to America. Perhaps you’ll put on a play that pays homage to the LGBTTQQIAAP community. Ultimately, we must never let the discussion stop, no matter what medium we use to initiate it. We must stay diligent — for our own sanity and for the good of our world. Fellow writers and artists alike: let’s try together to really dive face first into scary topics. Even if we’ve never tried before. Let’s try. We can dismantle our oppressors one essay, one poem, one piece of artwork at a time.