Drafting emails is hard.
I normally don’t stress about emails. But as a tween writing to the superintendent of my school district, this action was nerve-wracking. All the superintendent needed to do was click ‘delete’, and any difference I could’ve made would vanish. Writing emails isn’t my thing. My drive is filled with stubs of stories and manuscripts. Writing fiction is an escape for me, the tiny niche of the world where everything is okay–but emails are about as far away from fiction writing as Neptune is from the Sun.
It has been well over a year since I wrote that email. My activism has since grown beyond that. However, sending the email was the first step. It was only afterwards that I realized how much the process of writing shaped my view on activism. Here are the elements of fiction writing–and indeed, writing in general– that pushed me a little closer into advocacy for the planet.
A good story requires abundant imagination. Creativity stems upon it; we have to ask ourselves, “What will happen? What can happen? What ideas do I have? How could I make this happen?” Imagination comes with asking questions about the world we live in, and how the world (or the worlds of our own) can shape the plot, theme, and characters. As I’ve poked at the surface of environmental activism, I have realized that imagination is crucial to giving us ideas of what we can do, just like it gives us ideas for our stories. What will happen? The IPCC and UN reports have made it clear: Slash greenhouse gas emissions, or risk an unlivable planet. In fact, the recent IPCC sixth assessment report states that between 3.3 billion to 3.6 billion people live in areas deemed ‘highly vulnerable’ to climate change, and that mass die-offs of biodiversity are already underway. What can happen? What is starting to happen now: a movement of people all over the world, demanding: We want to have a say in our future. From youth-led organizations like the Sunrise Movement and Zero Hour to long-standing conservation groups like the Sierra Club, people are rising up. Then I looked inside myself. What ideas do I have? What ideas can make my community more sustainable? Now, instead of asking questions about my story, I started asking questions about society. But what about the last question: How could I make this happen?
Imagination works its glory. Great. Now comes the question: How in the world will this become a story? For that, I need to look deeper; where did I originally get the idea from? What have other writers done well? What can I do now? When it comes to writing, I find that it’s important to take inspiration from what others’ stories are and what your story can be. Sometimes you can’t wait for inspiration to hit. Yet if it does, it’s quite invigorating. With the inspiration part of the idea in place, I can start fleshing out the characters and the plot. Inspiration is the oil that turns the gears of imagination– the want to say screw this, I’m going to write that story today. With the same framework in mind when it comes to activism, I ask, “What have other climate activists done well? What impact do they have on me? What can I do now?” Today, I can easily recall my inspiration for wanting to join the climate fight: the Indigenous peoples at Standing Rock protecting their land and water by blocking DAPL; Greta Thunberg in Sweden showing the world that youth can make a difference; activists like Vanessa Nakate and Xiye Bastida bring the issue of climate justice to the table. Asking myself what made me want to become an activist was like asking myself what made me want to write the story: the idea is to be a functional activist; the inspiration is the millions of youth around the globe showing it that we can.
Rolling Up The Sleeves
If inspiration is the oil to the gears of imagination, then writing is what turns on the machine. This is universal: Your first draft of a story will not be perfect. But that is no reason to scare you away from writing that story.
It is the same with activism. If your imagination gears are well oiled with inspiration and ready to turn, it’s up to you to start it up. This does not mean you should plunge into protesting or petitioning ill-informed; once you find out what you want to advocate for, do your research. If your community needs it, then set out a plan of how you are to achieve it–not unlike crafting a timeline or a plot outline for a story. You will be nervous. It might not happen. If you don’t do it, it definitely will not happen. I sent that email to the superintendent. You cannot get used to the waters of activism without first taking the plunge.
Taking a Break
The superintendent never responded. I had failed. I continued participating in my environmental club projects, but my mind kept drifting back to the unresponded email. I was utterly, hopelessly stuck. A year later and typing this, I realize that it sounds a whole lot like writer’s block.
Writer’s block happens. I think I’m doing fine, then it’s like oh, I accidentally stepped in quicksand, I’m mired and sinking in the stubborn pages of my unmalleable manuscript…
Thankfully, writer’s block is not real quicksand. I’ve learned to give it time. Take a break, for as long as you wish. Then when you’re not actively thinking about the “failed” manuscript, come back and attack it with vengeance.
I did not choose this path with my first steps into climate activism. It just happened. After all, I thought I had reached a dead end. I now realize the importance of doing so; taking a break opens up a space and time for reflection and reevaluation. This means being mindful of your work and yourself. If you are not mindful of your needs and do not take a break in writing when needed, your manuscript will be worse for it. If you worry too much about your activism, you will forget your inspiration and your imagination for action. Take care of yourself.
Revising is an essential part of the writing process. I do not like revision; I make the dreaded mistake of falling in love with my first draft. But revise I must, and my work is better off afterwards.
A new district superintendent took the position at the start of the school year. Meanwhile, I had nearly forgotten about the email. But as the anniversary of That Day I Sent The Email came nearer, I had an idea: I’ve taken a break for months, there was a new superintendent, I might have another chance. Was there something in my email that might have misinterpreted my intentions or prompted the superintendent not to respond? I went back to the email and reread it. I noticed that I had left out key details. Turns out I didn’t do much thorough research after all.
This time, I asked science teachers and administration in my school about the curriculum and did not write the email in one day as I did the last time. Instead, I wrote it in chunks, and took breaks. I remembered thinking that it was revising fiction in real life. I was not mistaken. Not only did I revise the email, I revised my approach. Now, I think rewriting is one of the most important steps of environmental leadership–this is not limited to me. Learn. Act. Take a deep breath. Revise your view of society and culture to where everybody on this planet has a future, and plan your next steps toward that goal.
It seems like there is not a lot of listening when writing, but the contrary is true. It’s because of one word: Feedback. When you are the author of a piece, you understand your writing. However, things can become lost in translation. I have my friends read my stories. I ask them how to improve it. I find this has greatly impacted my writing.
How does this apply to the climate crisis?
The new superintendent responded the very next day, requesting that I speak with her to see how we should move forward. Talk about progress! I invited her over to one of our environmental club meetings. When I broached the topic to the club, brainstorming ideas and solutions happened quickly. We got a slideshow together to present, with all our plans. My peers came up with more ideas and solutions than I could have ever dreamt of. All of this was achieved by listening to each other’s proposals.
Listening to just ourselves, of course, was not enough. We must also listen to the people who are in charge of the things we want to change–in this case, the superintendent, the assistant superintendent, and the district wellness coordinator. Even so, they also listened to us. By the end of it, not only did we have a definite path toward environmental literacy, I also learned more about what to do–and not do–in future activism projects. Listen to your peers. Listen to the people who have defended the land for thousands of years. Listen to the community, and maybe like me, you’ll learn that even an introvert will appreciate the power of a group.
When I finish writing a story, I celebrate. Then I start on a new one. When my environmental club succeeds, I rejoice, then I keep on imagining. Nobody ever said that writing (or activism) would be easy. Nobody said it was linear, either. New ideas keep coming. More inspiration keeps fueling them. We keep making them happen. There’s a bump in the road. We step away. Rethink. Redo. Repeat. It’s not perfect. I’m not perfect. I still have things in my community I want to advocate for, big corporations I long to hold accountable. I’m neither good at writing nor deep into activism. But one experience has taught me volumes about the other. If I’m to keep going on both, I’ll have to follow the process of fiction writing. Maybe you will, too.
Hopefully, together, we can write the next chapter of our story.
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Photo: Darius Bashar via Unsplash