The Why of If

Cover photo by Blair Speed

While reading through my novel, I remember when I wrote particular scenes or lines. I’ve cut an entire book’s length of material, (100k words), but the first line I ever wrote nearly six years ago remains.

“[Character’s name] took the long way to work.”

It’s not a vivid sentence. There’s no bells or whistles. And yet it has stuck. Its simplicity is its power.

The sentence’s meaning is two-fold. The character was literally taking the long way to work, biking on a meandering dirt path rather than the linear route offered by paved streets. Yet the character also ends up taking the long way to the true work of her life. She resists her inner power, and in so doing, she delays accepting her role in helping the world.  

When I mention that I’m writing a book, people naturally ask what kind. I describe it as fantastical realism. This is because the book’s world mirrors our own while containing magical elements. Yet it’s also because the characters are tasked to bring humans back into ecological “order.” This task, in my opinion, is the true work of humans here and now.

I resonate with taking the long way to work. I try to bike, garden, and shop local, but sometimes I’m eating popcorn out of a giant plastic bag from Costco. I try to remember to ask for my drinks without a straw, and yet sometimes I forget. I seek to personally divest from fossil fuels, though alternative energies remain nascent in our country. I’m trying, anyways—not always hard enough, and not always often enough.

As I write this, Greta Thunberg sails across the Atlantic on a zero-emission yacht to attend the climate week happening in New York City next month. Greta takes the long way to work, but only literally. As a climate activist, she has done more in a year than most will do in a lifetime. To say she is an inspiration is both trite and true.

The United Nations agree on an eleven-year time frame in which we can prevent irreversible and devastating impacts from climate change. Taking the long way to work no longer seems like an option.

It’s easy for me not to think about climate at all. We had a mild summer in Montana. Storms kept the land green, and the skies remain smoke free. Yet if I read the news, the evidence grounds me in our shared reality. Alaska is on fire. Democratic debates center on climate policies. Trump attempts to undo environmental protection laws from the Obama-era…again.  

Writing a book about our relationship to nature is how I’m trying to take part in our real work. Art is often advocacy. Yet I also aim to pair the more nuanced and intangible potentials of storytelling with physical action. In this way, fantastical realism becomes a form of activism.

While people often ask what I’m writing, no one has asked why. I write for the joy of it; I also write with hope and for hope. I write because it’s what I love to do and because it’s one way I seek to help in our collective task of healing the planet. Together, we’ve got a lot of work to do. The way forward will be long, but I believe in us.