Dispatches | November 18, 2004

[By Kathryn FIshman]

The results of the election almost put me in the hospital. Literally. When I was finally able to tear myself away from CNN last Wednesday I did what I usually do when I am frustrated; I put on my running shoes and ran as hard as I could. This time I wasn’t just frustrated—I was angry. And I didn’t just run hard—I ran fast. I was stunned by my stopwatch. Two hours later I was sick in bed.

A local professor told me she asked her students to carry on as though Kerry had won. She joked that within the confines of her classroom everyone would pretend that the Republicans had not taken over America.

On Thursday MSNBC ran an article entitled, “Many Americans Suffering Post-Election Blues.” Sam Feldman, a 75-year-old retired businessman who volunteered for Kerry in Florida, joked, “If I happened to be on a tranquilizer or Prozac, I would have to triple my dose.”

Voter turnout was the highest it’s been since 1968. This election yanked at the heart-strings of America by putting the war on Iraq, terrorism, abortion rights, debt, the economy, gay rights, and education on the forefront. This election asked people what matters most. And the people responded, passionately.

This kind of passion is of literary concern. As Robert Frost said, “My definition of poetry (if I were forced to give one) would be this: words that become deeds.” What are some of the deeds writers in this post-election period consider worthwhile? A few days ago a group of us from The Missouri Review were visiting with short story writer Steve Almond. Steve laid out a list of things we as writers have to tackle, among them, hate, violence, and homophobia. The Republicans may have won, but watch out for us liberals with our short stories and poems. Yes, I’m partially joking.

But what is it that writers do? We create new possibilities. Writing gives us the chance to try out reality as though it were otherwise. That’s the allure of fiction. And let’s face it, half the nation would like to imagine a different reality right now. Liberals envision a world where Republicans do not hold the majority in the House and Senate, where same-sex couples are not misconstrued as a threat to heterosexual marriage, where reproductive freedoms are not on attack, where George W. Bush was not reelected.

Can a short story or poem accomplish these things? Maybe not. But if I really believed literature didn’t have a shot at making a difference I’d stop writing. While writers can invent the stuff of their poems and stories, they cannot invent—or always choose—who their readers are. Readers are regular people: voters, minorities, tax-paying citizens, businesspeople, students, etc. Similarly, readers cannot always choose what affect a piece of writing will have on them. Every time someone reads about a world where, for example, liberal policy exists, the chance for that world becomes more real.

Fiction is a braid of what really happened, what a writer wanted to happen, and what a writer thinks someday might happen. Consider the books of Jules Verne. Whether or not Verne believed a giant cannon could blast us to the moon isn’t the point. The point is, we made it to the moon. As a writer, I have to believe that good writing is a transformative start. If not, I really will end up in the hospital. That, or I’ll break the world record for the women’s 10K.