Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Perspective on Our Times

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.


JeffO said...

Interesting post, RS. The fracking debate is a mighty contentious issue here in Marcellus Shale country. Both sides are blowing enough hot air to power the wind turbines that might have been put up a couple years back in this area.

Will someone chronicle whatever the next changes are in this country? I'm sure someone will. I just hope I have the 'luxury' to read it!

RSMellette said...

Hey, we're going to need all of that natural gas, since you have to burn it to get the oil out of the sands in Canada.

Meanwhile, the biggest use of Hydrogen in this country is to make cleaner burning gasoline. Couldn't we just skip that step and drive on the Hydrogen? I drove a Hydrogen Fuel Cell car for two months. Forget environmental arguments, these cars ROCK!

Anyway... the point of this comment... how can any writer pass up such ironies?

Jean Oram said...

Holy hell. I'm not sharing what I think of all the oil stuff up here in my province. People get their lives threatened for that. But I do know what you mean. There are a lot of "oil widows" around here who have husbands that are rarely home. They are here in town with all the toys and the big house and kids who don't listen to anyone other than alpha monkey Dad, while their husband works with rough rednecks. It's something to see. And you know what? That kind of history would fit into my stories. Thanks for the perspective, RS.

RSMellette said...

I read the first two sentences of your comment and thought, "What a great story that would make!"

Glad you got there, too.

Lynn Proctor said...

wonderful post--great lessons

Jemi Fraser said...

We do live in interesting times. There is more change to come as we deal with the increasing populations and the diminishing resources. I wonder if the recent rise in dystopian fiction owes its popularity to our political - economic - environmental issues? I bet they're connected.

RSMellette said...

@Lynn - thanks.

@Jemi - I don't think the two are that related. In bad economic times, comedies traditionally do better. Anything light to take our minds off the hard times.

Of course, that's pretty much just a guess by the Gate Keepers. :) See my last post.