I just finished reading Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain. McLain is the author of The Paris Wife — you might have read that one, about Hemingway’s first wife. (It’s a great book, too.) Love and Ruin is about his third wife, the writer and journalist Martha (Marty) Gellhorn.
It’s historical fiction. It’s beautifully written, and Marty is honest and real. I became friends with Marty as she lived through her questions:
I’m a writer. What can I do? The world is frightening. People are fighting, killing each other. An unstable dictator is spreading propaganda. Lives are at stake. How do I write when this is happening? What can my writing do to help?
It feels prescient to be reading this book right now, for many reasons.
In Love and Ruin, Marty learns that bearing witness through her writing is her gift and her service. This is not inconsequential. It’s powerful and humane. Her work as a writer is as nourishing to readers as the work of a cook who prepares meals for hungry people.
Writers help us see the truth, and understand it in our bodies and minds. When we read a story that shows up for us, we can feel the rightness and sanity in that. Bearing witness helps to process trauma. It is how we feel connected to each other — by knowing each other, seeing each other.
Writers are uniquely equipped to put things that cannot be explained into words.
Writers can express what is inexpressible.
Writers tell the truth about the past, the present, and the future. Their superpower is their ability to be present to notice, and to craft moments in time — both imaginary and real.
Writers imagine the impossible, and create the future by writing stories and scenes that show what could happen.
“It’s up to authors to spark the imagination of their readers and help them envision alternatives to how we live.”
— Ursula K LeGuin
These skills have a cost: it takes time to write, and solitude. It requires a quality of focus that feels unreasonable to the majority of conventional society, especially to all of the excellent people out there who want to get things done.
Writing is a kind of work that needs time. Holding a story in your body, crafting it as you write it on the page — this requires an athleticism of the mind.
Writers, we need to train. The world needs us to stay in shape.
If you’re distressed by the conditions you’re seeing politically, environmentally, and at the borders and remote areas where it seems nobody is paying attention: YOU CAN PAY ATTENTION.
Write. This is something you can do.
To get inspired, I recommend reading Love and Ruin this summer. It’s a beautiful story, and it’s motivating for anyone who wants to bring their gift to the world right now — especially women who write.
Thank you, Paula McLain, for showing up to write this story, and for giving us a clear-eyed Marty Gellhorn to read right now.