The other day I went to see this indie documentary, Kalamazoo River: Us, which tells the history of that river’s pollution since the frontier era and the efforts of activists to get it cleaned up. It’s a bizarre film, full of hilarity and musical numbers. The director, Matt Dunstone, was on hand to answer questions afterward: a quiet, humble guy about my age, with two young kids and a wife in academia. He made immediately clear the love and dedication and enormous heaps of painstaking work that had gone into making it.
I came away full of turmoil. Sure, it made me happy to be reminded there are people who care that much and the news isn’t all horrible. And it filled me with sympathy for those tireless activists and the frustrations they’ve suffered in the face of indifference and corporate stonewalling. I know a little of what that’s like. A tiny bit. But not enough to keep me from wondering what heartwrenching environmentalist tragedy I could have made a documentary about, or written a book, or chained myself to something in protest against, if I’d just left off banging my head against fiction.
They tell you a writer is someone who just can’t not write, and there’s truth to that. But they also tell you short fiction is dead, and they’re not entirely wrong about that either. And I didn’t have to be writing short fiction. I could have written environmentalist documentaries or journalistic research or bitter political screeds. Not that it’s impossible to send a message or win hearts to a cause with fiction, but it’s hard. And doubly hard with short fiction because nobody reads it but other writers, for most of whom it’s all they can do to glance up from their own navels at the world. Didacticism, it’s called: trying to teach people something in a medium intended to entertain. People hate it. Not everybody, certainly. I’m not one of those people. In fifth grade, not long after seeing the maligned Ferngully for the first time, I helped write and appeared in a play about the importance of protecting the rainforest. Looking back, I feel bad for the parents who had to sit through that. They were probably bored, annoyed out of their skulls. That, no doubt, was didacticism done badly. It certainly can be done well, or at least better. Swift and Voltaire have survived this long. Ayn Rand still hangs on, though she’s bored plenty of people out of their skulls. Even Dr. Seuss had his conservationist masterwork, The Lorax. But look what’s happened to it now: neatly neutered and injected full of SUV tie-ins for a new generation of the coddled oblivious. Fiction wins people over and changes minds by happy accident, not because that’s what it’s for.
Of course, I know why I chose short fiction over film. For one thing, with film you have to rely on a ton of other people to help get your final product out there. With fiction it’s just you and the page: control. The selfishness, the unwillingness to engage, the navelgazing: these things are inherent in the form. And they’re common flaws in writers. Go look at your nearest online writers discussion forum (yeah, you know the one) and see what they’re talking about, fencing their way endlessly through meaningless nitpickery week in, week out, exploding like moldy confetti the moment anything really serious comes up. Who cares? But who can blame them? If writers could be heroes, pathmakers, changers of the world, they wouldn’t be writers. Except for the rare, unspeakably lucky few who can be both.
Which I guess is why this blog post: my feeble effort to try and get there. I do what I can, I tell myself, but it’s not very much. Not compared to those activists or to Matt Dunstone. I’m too busy gazing into my own bellybutton trying to divine the universal truth. But the dream, the thing that lets me sleep at night, is the hope that of course on of these stories will be so fucking good that it makes people care, enough of them that, even though maybe I’ll never know about it, they’ll go on to chain themselves to trees and make heartwrenching documentaries.