Storytelling in the Anthropocene

IKIRU (生きる). 1952, Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni

Writer’s block is caused by a conflicting imperative – the need to produce, and the need to edit. 

When a writer hasn’t divided those chores properly, their wires get crossed and the creative process breaks down. It’s a crisis of confidence. The way out is to rediscover the propulsive inspiration again and banish the inclination to modify that force in any way. Let it come out with queasifying adjectives and mixed metaphors, if that is how it first appears. Who cares. Just get it down. 

Writing stories in the Anthropocene has been writers’ block writ large. The 20th century was certainly chaotic, but the 21st is frenetic. We have seen massive changes, but they are written in the sand – and the sand keeps spreading. We multiple concerns now, but which ones will be most salient moving forward?

Supply chain disruption, floods, heat domes, atmospheric rivers, brownouts, emergent disease, and social conflict are pretty safe bets. These events are ongoing, and for me, they make many narratives obsolete. Of course, there will always be room for the comforting familiarity of mustache-twisting villains and heroes who win at fisticuffs. But the important stories, the ones that help us understand our lives – how do those get told?

When we ourselves are uncertain how to prioritize problems or respond appropriately to climate disruption, how do we write characters who inhabit that space?  In the Anthropocene, where mankind itself has become a boulder rolling down a hill with increasing speed, who is the hero and who is the villain? How can our heroes save the day, when the day is still very much in question? The problem can leave us without a compass.

Fortunately, other storytellers who wrote in times of great change have already shown us how to write about our time. We just have to pick some winners from each of these upheavals. The rise of fascism abroad brings about social critique at home¹. The return of a jaded audience from WWII brings about film noir².  Systemic bureaucracy is met with stories of individual humanism. 

That last one is especially salient to me. Bureaucracy is very like climate disruption, because we all hate it, and yet we all participate in it. It seems to be an inextricable part of human activity at scale, with a billion faces, none of whom are individually responsible, or completely innocent. 

One of the best films I know about bureaucracy is Ikiru (To Live), written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. When a man who has always been a petty bureaucrat is pressed to make some meaning of his life, he finds purpose and clarity. 

Ikiru shines a light on the possibility of responsible storytelling in the Anthropocene. We can still have heroes, but only if they are implicated. Any other tale will ring false in our ears. Their success can no longer be shouted from the rooftops, for they were also villains. Their success is most powerful half-glimpsed by the world, like Watanabe on the swing, whose great triumph, in the end, was only over himself.

1) It Can’t Happen Here, 1935 ,Sinclair Lewis 
2) Double Indemnity (et cetera), 1944, James M. Cain, Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler

Clarence Boddicker

When my career as a corporate fixer got to be a pain in the neck, I changed gears. Now I enjoy cycling, cheering on the Detroit Tigers (I never miss a game!) and lending a hand wherever I can.