by R.S. Mellette
My neighbor will turn 100 years old this month. She was as old as I am now when I was born. When she was one year old, the first drive-in gas station was built, bringing the total number of gasoline-purposed buildings up to 3 in the whole country.
I think of her every time I see commercials on TV for natural gas drilling in America, where they say that—using fracking—we have 100 years of gas reserves. By the time I'm my neighbor's age, the country will be halfway out of gas. By the time someone born today is her age, we will have no gas reserves at all, so I wonder what the gas lobby is bragging about.
Why do I bring this enviro-political hot potato up in a writing blog? Because of something a Turkish acting teacher told our class at North Carolina School of the Arts 30 years ago. "Know the politics of your character," she said, and followed up with, "the politics of most American characters is none at all, which is just as telling."
And I think of Steinbeck, who was 10 years old when my neighbor was born. He told stories of families and working class individuals against the backdrop of the only economic times worse than those we are living in today.
I think of Mark Twain, who died just two years before my neighbor was born. He recorded the voices of America from his youth, when this was not a free country for many of the people who built it.
And I wonder what young Twain might live in Arizona? What Steinbeck might now be on the road to a North Dakota oil boomtown? For the first time in world history, we have to change our economy from a high-density fuel source (fossil fuels) to a lower one (hydrogen, solar, wind). Will we have a writer to take us through this change the way Charles Dickens (died 42 years before my neighbor was born) took us from wood to coal, or Upton Sinclair (34 when my neighbor was born) from coal to oil?
Sure, you might not write about these world changing events, but if your stories are contemporary, they should be included. They play in the background. They are the undertow to the waves your characters face. And we, as authors, owe it to our society to record their effects.
We writers are all Tom Joad. He promised to "be there" and so should we.
R.S. Mellette is an experienced screenwriter, actor, director, and novelist. You can find him at the Dances With Films festival blog, and on Twitter, or read him in the Spring Fevers anthology.