At my age, when I begin making decisions that could affect the rest of my life, I spend a lot of time thinking about how vast the world’s problems are. Maybe people are naturally good, but I have to ignore an awful lot just to get through my day. How can one person make an unjust world just? How can we live when even the elites we demand action from seem just as powerless as us sometimes? People have dedicated their entire lives to one issue or another, and still died with problems unsolved.
What do we do? What can I do? Is there anything more selfish than chasing after a dream, in troubled times like these?
I’m a firm believer that the best way to help the world is to do the thing you’re good at. Some people are natural organizers, or persuasive speakers, so they become activists and attack the problem directly.
But my skill is writing. I’ve got naturally good English and I really enjoy making things up, so I write. I’ve never wondered whether it’s what I’m meant to do, and I know I’m very lucky to be so certain.
I’ve discussed before why J.R.R. Tolkien was right to scribble notes on fairy tales while Hitler menaced Europe, and there are plenty of studies demonstrating how reading fiction makes you more empathetic. So it’s true that fiction can make the world a better place.
That said, after the 80th rejection, it’s hard for facts and figures to make me want to keep going. I wonder if I’m chasing rainbows, maybe even wasting my life–and when I have those thoughts, there’s a different vision that sustains me.
In this vision, there’s a girl, maybe 12 or 13 years old (I don’t know why she’s female, it’s just how I thought of this). She’s in middle school, and being bullied relentlessly. Maybe she doesn’t have cool clothes, or crushed on the wrong boy, or she just likes to sit on her own and read books during lunch. People vandalize her locker, trip her in the hallways, steal her backpack.
Whenever she opens up her Facebook, she’s bombarded with messages telling her to kill herself. She doesn’t have any friends–she’s become social poison. Her teachers can’t do anything. Her parents mean well, but they don’t know how to help either. She sits at the front of the bus so she can get off as fast as possible, and once she’s home, all she wants to do is shut herself in her room.
In there, she’s reading one of my books. Maybe The Valley of Steel: her parents got it for her for her birthday, but she’s just now gotten around to reading it. She likes the way Lauren takes charge of her own destiny, even though she makes mistakes. She likes the descriptions of all the things she sees on her journey in the alternate America. And while she’s reading, something happens: her problems seem farther away. She’s caught up in what’s happening. Just for a moment, even though I’ve never met her, I’ve been able to invite her into shelter.
It’ll be all right, I want to tell her. I made this place for you. Stay as long as you need. The story I wrote might remind her what it’s like to feel happy. It might be enough to get her to school again tomorrow. If I lived five lifetimes, it wouldn’t be enough to make her a world where the strong didn’t bully the weak–but I can do what I can for her in this life.
My cousin has described feeling this way when he was trapped at an awful summer camp with only two books from The Edge Chronicles to sustain him. I think this happens with every writer, from bestselling novelists to people who post free fiction online. I don’t know exactly how many people are alive today because J.K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman gave them the strength to carry on, but I bet it’s in the thousands.
I keep trying, because even if there’s only one of these girls in the world, it’s worth it if I can help her. So I’ll do what I can.