On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with Charlie Jane Anders, a science fiction writer, organizer, and journalist, about her new book Never Say You Can’t Survive, about the power of creative writing during crises. They discussed the importance of being curious when writing, the complicated relationship between fictional characters and their authors, and why she encourages writers to read their work out loud to an audience. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
June Thomas: You believe that creative writing can be a shield against hard times. Can you explain why?
Charlie Jane Anders: I think there’s a thing we naturally do when we’re in the middle of hardship and political torment, which is that we retreat into our imaginations. That’s a really healthy coping mechanism. It’s a healthy process that we do. From a young age, I was doing that all the time. I was very prone to daydreaming. The more school was giving me a hard time, the more I just wanted to lose myself in my own daydreams. The reason why I’m able to do anything now is because I had one teacher in particular who saw that daydreaming that I was doing and decided to lean into it and use it to try to help me to get better at school instead of treating it as a problem that needed to be solved. But I think that what happens when you intentionally lean into that sort of daydreaming and that imagination and that kind of escapist impulse is that you can create your own fictional worlds and your own fictional characters.
Even if you’re doing creative nonfiction, if you’re writing memoir, you’re still using your imagination and transporting yourself to another time and place. You’re lost in another reality in a way that you can form a little bubble of imagination around yourself. I talk a lot in the book about how when you create a fictional character, you’re making yourself an imaginary friend who you can hang out with and live vicariously through and also get sucked into their adventures and root for them, and also think about the challenges that they might be facing. That’s just a really good alternative to the real-life challenges that we all are having to deal with.
Finally, I think that the thing we do when we’re reading, where we get lost in the story and we’re just dying to know what happens next and kind of immersed in the world, if you’re having a really good writing day, you get that but a little bit extra, too. You get a little bit more of that because some part of your brain is really activated, and you’re really trying to weave this story around yourself. It can be a really powerful way to survive stuff and possibly to help others to survive as well.
Sometimes it’s actually pretty reasonable to feel overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world. Is that a good time to write? Should you push through depression or anger in order to write? Does it work at any time?
I think that creativity and imagination can be a balm at any time. I also think that when we start thinking of it in terms of like, “push through the pain” or if you’re running a 10k and you get a stitch in your side and you’re like, “I’m just going to run through the pain,” I don’t think that’s always necessarily healthy. It’s obviously very individual, but if you start thinking in those terms, you’re losing some of the good of it. You’re also making it into an obligation and something that you’re forcing yourself to do. I’ve had a lot of really tough conversations recently with people who are like, “the more I feel like I should be writing, the less I want to write.” Or, “the more I feel like this is my job and I’m shirking my duties, the less I want to write.” One of the pieces of advice I gave in the book [Never Say You Can’t Survive] is, if there’s something that you want to do that’s creative, and it’s maybe not the thing you think you should be doing, just do that.
Even if it doesn’t result in words on a page that you could show to anybody else or get published. Even if it’s just fan fiction or your own fanciful musings about something. Even if it’s just something completely frivolous and weird and silly that’s just you goofing off in your own way. Whatever is going to just help you to distract yourself, I think is really good. I’m very anti the idea of “no pain, no gain.” I think that actually in the long term, no pain is probably a lot better. Probably it means more gain in a lot of ways. Definitely if you’re on deadline, if you’ve signed a book contract and you’re like, “I promised to get this book done by a certain date,” then you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. But for most of us, most of the time, this is part of self-care.