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August 7, 2018

4 Tips for Writing in a Time of War

Right now, this very second, we’re fighting a war for the soul of our country.

Are we a country that is fair and just? That takes in poor huddled masses? That enables healthcare for families so they don’t become destitute trying to pay doctors’ bills for their children or loved ones?

Or are we a fearful, hateful country that allows corruption and greed at the highest echelons of a government, that rips children away from their parents and holds babies hostage?

Truthfully, right now, I don’t know—and it terrifies me. 

For the first time in my life, my husband and I are discussing which country we should move to when we choose to leave. And after 17 years working in storytelling and entertainment, I’m currently questioning everything.

Does art even matter now? Perhaps instead of spending my free time sinking into a great book or an exciting new TV show, I should spend every free minute calling my local representatives or reading whatever horrible news story is currently breaking.

After running myself ragged between my Hollywood job and running a nonprofit for low-income high school youth, my husband insisted we take a vacation to “put some gas back into the tank.”

We found a little surf spot in Cabo San Lucas where I immediately took up chatting with all the guests. I met a woman who was there with her soon-to-be ex-husband and their two kids. Despite the fracture in their relationship, they still share a house and vacation together too.

I looked at her in wonder and asked, “How can you remain so civilized in the midst of a divorce?” Not to mention, they were possibly breaking up their co-owned law practice as well. She told me her children love the show “Splitting Up Together” where they see a couple in the midst of a divorce that still share a house together and are still friends so they think hey, we’re normal.

Art has the power to make “unusual” things feel normal.

Whether it’s a woman in the workplace (Mary Tyler Moore), a nurse with HIV (“ER”), or a bi-racial lesbian family fostering kids who have been traumatized (“The Fosters”), art shines a light on people in the margins. Art makes the uncomfortable comfortable. And before there can be any new television show or movie, a writer has taken the first hard steps and turned their ideas into words on a page.

Writing matters, now more than ever.

And yet, in this time of strife, writing something that matters can be daunting—a Herculean task when the news can deliver a year’s worth of horrors in a stunning five seconds. So, here are my four tips for writing in a time of war:

1. Find a subject that ignites your passion.

It never works to write something that you think the market wants or “will sell for sure.” Write something that you will care about—draft after draft, for days and weeks and even years on end—because it might take that long. Passion is the only thing that will drive you out of bed on some days.

2. Answer the question: “Why me?”

Often, I receive a writing submission and there’s no discernible reason why the writer has chosen this story to tell. When asked, usually it’s because they think “it’s what the market wants and it will definitely sell.” Whenever a writer answers this way, the writing always falls flat. Write something that only you and you alone can tell. And make sure that your storytelling lets the reader know why you are the only person in the world to tell this story.

3. Answer the question: “Why now?”

We’re bombarded with a million and one distractions—from constant phone alerts and the 24-hour breaking news cycle to the ever-growing queue of Netflix shows. You must give someone a compelling reason why they should fight through the noise and buy your book, read your story, or watch your show. Whether it’s a period piece or an old-school Western, find themes that can still resonate right now.

4. Write what matters.

When I was little, I would stay up late watching “Star Trek Voyager” reruns. Even then, as a kid, I knew the aliens allowed the storytellers to write about people who were different. It calmed me that even in this big, crazy universe, even if the aliens looked like insects, they all had homes, families, and children they loved, and our space travelers worked to find a way to connect with them, to understand each other.

Whether you’re writing a horror movie, sci-fi, or comedy, write a story that matters, that finds a way to connect humans with the other, the different, the unfamiliar, no matter the genre.

But whatever you do, keep writing. Because the night is dark and full of terror, but writing—making the unknown known and okay—is always going to bring truth and acceptance into the world and, right now, we need that more than ever.

~

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Rachel Miller

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