Why writers need to keep returning to hope

Hope is something I’ve written about before, but it’s worth returning to. Hope is vital to the writing life because it’s what prevents us becoming cynical and jaded. It’s fundamental to becoming a different story.

Hope as the antidote to despair

In my novel For Hope is Always Born. the title is a quote from Cervantes’ Don Quixote:

For hope is always born where there is love.

Despite the suffering, loss and grief that the characters experience, they resist despair. To live through what is tragic without giving way to bitterness and nihilism is a huge feat. Hope is not simplistic. It exists in the midst of real sorrow and doubt. It is not a claim to having all the answers but a refusal to become warped and sceptical or to give in to utter anguish.

In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit frames this tension like this:

This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both. It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. […] Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.

Hope as the basis of courage

The writer. dissident and later president, Václav Havel, agrees:

The kind of hope I often think about [… is] above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; […] Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.

We have hope not because we see the future and sing about things getting better, but because we value life and love and connection, even if we might ultimately fail.

As Havel adds:

Hope is […] not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. […] It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.

It is hope that gives us the courage to live small lives well, as I discussed in a recent blog.

Hope as the momentum to write

And when we have hope, we have the confidence to keep writing, to keep telling different stories that challenge the status quo. Hope makes writers a force to be reckoned with. As Iris Murdoch put it:

Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify. The good artist is a vehicle of truth.

And so many writers agree. In the 1950s Camus pointed out that

To create today is to create dangerously,

Auden noted that:

the mere act of making a work of art is itself a political act

And Chinua Achebe in conversation with James Baldwin warns:

Those who tell you “Do not put too much politics in your art” are not being honest. If you look very carefully you will see that they are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.

Hope as the ability to live with imperfection

The world is never going to be perfect, however or whatever life survives into the future. But this doesn’t diminish hope.

Our writing will never be perfect either. There’s always a gap between the great artistic project in our minds and the one we produce. The novelist Ann Patchett puts it brilliantly and poignantly:

If a person has never given writing a try, they assume that a brilliant idea is hard to come by. But really, even if it takes some digging, ideas are out there. Just open your eyes and look at the world. Writing the ideas down, it turns out, is the real trick.

[…]

I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

But Patchett doesn’t stop there. She goes on to talk about how she has learned the next step through years of practice. And the next step is not perfection but something deeply humane:

I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

[…]

Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.

When we live in hope we can forgive ourselves, forgive life, and keep going. We can keep trying and trying again to craft the next story and the next. We can keep faith with even the most uncertain future.

In a world that throws obstacles along every path, we are more likely to keep hope and to keep writing when we live with a sense of wonder and uncertainty rather than with a desperate search for perfection and surety. As Kierkegaard put it,

Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.

Giving the world new stories is not a simplistic task with an obvious or guaranteed outcome. But as writers, we witness to the need for these stories. And we work to nurture them, however imprefect they are, knowing that hope is always born where there is connection, where there is love, where there is life.

What’s new story are you becoming?

Thank you for reading — new stories and transformation have never been so urgent and writing is a big part of that. I’d love you to join the conversation by signing up to my email list and you’ll also find free courses here. While you’re there, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life, which will connect you to more transformative ideas to become a different story.

Written by

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/

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