#162: On Despair and Imagination

I generally avoid directly addressing current events here. Part of the promise of these letters, I think, is that I will be writing to you about writing, that even in the letters that are more a catalogue of things I did during the week, they paint a picture over time of the rhythms of a creative project, or of how I integrate my experience into my work.

But once in a while the events in the news coincide with things I’ve been reading, or writing, or trying to think more clearly about, and this has been one of those weeks. This week I want to talk about despair, and stories, and imagination.

My Twitter and Facebook feeds were thick with outrage after the Philando Castile and Alton Sterling shootings. But as the week went on, with then the incident in Dallas, the emotion that seemed to take deeper hold in myself and many others was despair. What good has the outrage done? What good have the cameras and thoughts and prayers and speeches done? How can we fix something that is so deeply systemic?

The sociologist Philip Slater writes, “Without despair we cannot transfer our allegiance to reality – it is a kind of mourning period for our fantasies.” Slater’s good at that – good at making you re-evaluate what you normally think is unquestionably negative or positive. Despair is the groundlessness of having the stories we’ve told ourselves fall away (and what does it say about us that we consider this something to be avoided?) What does it say that we define disillusionment – the loss of our illusions – negatively? To put the Slater quote another way: Despair is what we feel when we’re finally ready to see the truth.

I want to be careful not to romanticize despair. To be constantly in that state would be overwhelming, paralyzing. Our stories help us make sense of the world; they help us navigate life. Despair is more of an automatic response. The body’s defense mechanism for our stories getting out of hand.

One thing I’ve noticed in the two years I’ve been back in Detroit is the way a story shared by a lot of people can take hold, and persist. I grew up, as many in the suburbs here did, with the narrative that Detroit is run-down, dangerous – you don’t go there except for sporting events. I see this story still in the way that an old friend from high school is reluctant to visit my apartment, the way a doctor out in the burbs raises an eyebrow when I tell them I live in Detroit Detroit, the way I myself sometimes tense up when I walk or ride my bike by a strip of blighted houses.

But I’ve also heard a competing narrative, as I imagine you have too, that Detroit is on the upswing. It’s making a comeback. Neighbors who’ve lived here for ten or more years have said the city’s never changed this quickly. My friend’s well-off uncle was going to loan him money a few years ago to buy a condo but then refused to do it because he wanted a place in Detroit. Now the uncle’s asking him if there are any other units next to him up for sale. Someone hears about a friend or relative moving downtown, or goes to one of the new restaurants or brewpubs with their coworkers. Little by little, a new story takes hold.

This is useful story, a better story, one might say, but being here you start to see the limitations of this story, too. Reporters come to town and profile the same ten shops and restaurants. Young people move in, wealthy developers buy out real estate, black families get priced out. The power of the gentrification narrative is that many people are already familiar with it; it’s easy to transmit; it has its own template down to the aesthetic, which was so successfully satirized (but also reinforced) in the latest season of South Park.

The problem with these stories – with any story – is that once it becomes dominant and familiar, it becomes the only thing we see. It becomes our reality. One of the reasons I came back to Detroit was because I couldn’t corroborate the competing narratives I’d had in my head. And from what I’ve experienced after two years, neither of these seemingly competing stories is untrue. There are dangers in Detroit (just as in any city) and aspects of Detroit are on the upswing (while others are going terribly neglected). There is gentrification but the are people on all sides trying to figure out how to integrate the new with the already here. It requires great imagination to see what might exist outside the stories we already have.

And maybe even greater imagination to hold all these stories in oneself without letting any one become so dominant as to take the place of true seeing and listening.

When I first started writing fiction I was obsessed with verisimilitude. There was magic in being able to channel a certain feeling, or conjure a precise character detail, and place them on the page, and have them feel real. I still think there’s magic there, but I think now that there’s an even greater magic in working out what hasn’t yet been worked out in reality.

Two years ago Ursula K. Le Guin said, “[H]ard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries – the realists of a larger reality.”

The hard times are already here, and they’re telling all of us to remember, listen, pay attention, imagine.