In the fall of 2016, I traveled to China for the first time, a two-month fellowship sponsored by the Shanghai Writers’ Association. I was there to work on a new novel, but in reality, I spent much of my time and attention putting together this issue of Ploughshares.
It was a good time to be elsewhere. The US presidential campaign was in its final stretch. For months it had consumed me so completely that writing was nearly impossible. I hoped that distance would help me unplug from political news long enough to get traction on a new novel. But the world is smaller than it used to be, and even in Shanghai, the US election was impossible to ignore.
The stories and poems in this issue were written well before November 8—yet many, incredibly, seem to prefigure it. This isn’t as unlikely as it sounds. It is prescience of a very particular sort; the kind of psychic extrapolation literary writers excel at. The forces that decided the election were certainly at work a year or two ago, long before the news media identified them. And by training or habit or simply natural inclination, the writer of literature is sensitive to invisible currents in the culture. We are made of porous stuff, highly absorbent. The writer is the box of baking soda at the back of the refrigerator, absorbing whatever is ambient.
News reporting is born of the moment. Its timeliness is the very quality that defines it, and so it is written in a state of urgency. Literature is just the opposite, a composed thing. Unlike journalism, it’s made largely in the subconscious, and with rare exceptions, needs time to develop. If news reporting is farm-to-table dining—the fresher, the better—then writing literature is cheese-making, a kind of smelly transubstantiation that depends on natural processes, fermentation and coagulation. The poet or memoirist or fiction writer may make use of what’s happening in the world, but those facts are merely ingredients. We mix them together and leave them in the cellar, and over time, they spoil into something else entirely.
In the aftermath of the election, a great many of us are once again struggling to write, to think beyond the day’s headlines, unable to hold a single thought in our heads. Maybe we’re still absorbing what’s ambient. Now more than ever before, the culture needs writers: journalists to explain what’s happening, poets and fiction writers to ingest and metabolize and make art of it, the sort of writing that reads the wind.