Why English/Creative Writing is the Most Important Discipline Post the Apocalypse

May 2, 2019 § 7 Comments

Nik book fest high resBy Nicole Walker

It was after one of four Provost candidate presentations at Northern Arizona University that Julie Piering, Chair of the Philosophy Department, pulled me aside. She asked, have you heard of the Great Survival Debate, modeled after a long-standing tradition at the University of Montevallo in Central Alabama? I said, yes. I’m on Facebook. I’ve heard of all the discipline jousting events. She said great. And thus, I was signed up .

Here is the Scenario:  For the debate, we imagine that the electric grid has failed or has been attacked and, after some time, nuclear plants were abandoned and the inevitable meltdown caused death, destruction, and the annihilation of society as we know it.  The survivors, represented by the debate audience, are moving as far from the radiation poisoning as they can to begin building a new society. The group of academics invited to participate in the debate will fight for the LAST spot in the group that will journey into the wilderness with the coveted axe to build a better, safer society.

Each participant will be given 5 minutes to introduce their field and present their argument for why their discipline should be given the final spot in the new society.

My Response:

We have been preparing for the apocalypse since Hector’s body got dragged around the city gates. Troy burns. Pick up your household gods. Move on. Start again.

Literature readers and writers imagine the end every day. Book after book. We lit folks and creative writers are invested. We’ve studied every angle. A quick Amazon title search includes Princess of the Apocalypse, Apocalypse Taco, Operation Apocalypse, Wake Me After the Apocalypse, Scooby Apocalypse, California Poppy Apocalypse (OK, that’s a t-shirt but no one representing the garment industry is here so I’ll take it), Jack’s Apocalypse, One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses and Apocalypse Darling.

I had a book called Salmon of the Apocalypse that got picked up by a publisher. It was about how to prevent the end of the world through cooking.  I renamed it Processed Meats, which does recall Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and that book’s baby-on-a-stick like a rotisserie but the publisher thought that Processed Meats was too gamy, so he made me change it to Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse, which I happily did because I had been working so hard to write that book and get it published, but then a couple of months later, the publisher decided, even though his books had won the William Styron Award, that publishing books is hard and closed up shop so my book never came out: dead it its own mini-bookpocalypse.

This is why writers will be the best for the apocalypse:

Writers can handle disappointment.

Writers can handle gruesomeness—see rotisserie baby a la Cormac McCarthy.

Look. There will be no internet during the apocalypse. You won’t be able to just Google how to make fire or how to hotwire a Harley Davidson. All those books about the apocalypse—they are study guides. You have to be able to read them for their deeper meaning, like what is a flint? and what is a spark plug? and how long does gasoline last anyway?

My department chair, Steve Rosendale, who abandoned me to my own devices for this presentation, did provide a helpful 3-point list of reasons why Literature should win. Citing our sources will be of utmost import in the apocalypse, in order that we may remember how we have to manage without the Chairs of our Departments now. So I quote NUMBER 1: “before philosophy (before!) the main way of transmitting memes or culture itself was story.” End quote. Remember, we won’t have Facebook or Twitter, so we’re going to have to transmit memes, together, in person, around a fire that we built thanks to those apocalypse books that described how to use a bow drill. It’s also known as fire bow, fire drill, fire by friction, and rubbing two sticks together. On the Internet, there are photographs of how this works, but in the apocalypse there won’t be. There will only be us, and, literature, which will supply the synonyms for bow drill and those creative creative writers who will see that a chopstick and a Matryoshka doll make an excellent fire drill. Also, we are the ones who know how to drive Harley Davidsons, the official motorbike of the apocalypse.

NUMBER 2: My Department Chair, Steve Rosendale also provides this: “poetry derives from the mnemonics of storytelling and certain features of language itself — rhyming makes the story more reliable to transmit.”

He additionally offered, NUMBER 3 “In an apocalypse these basic cultural capabilities will make English the most important discipline — mainly poetry.”

So, in final defense of literature, and to celebrate my upcoming collaborative, apocalypse-adjacent essay collection The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet, I have provided for survival, a rhyming sonnet so that we may still speak, using mnemonics of story telling and rhyme, our stories:

The Five-Minute Apocalypse

The lights are out. Vultures. Cannibals too.
Well, it is a lot like Flagstaff at night
except without screens, which doesn’t feel right.
We sit around the campfire, Spam in lieu
of s’mores. Let the old kind of carbon spew.
We tell stories about the playwright who
warned us against fossil fuel as birthright.
Should have listened! Now, on canned meat, we chew.

As Language defined us, we defined it.
Every house, school, shop, bus, plate, spoon and cup
began with word first. Then was built to fit.
All gone, on words, regret, and Spam we sup.
It’s getting dark. Time out. Our last match lit.
At least English knows when their time is up.

Nicole Walker is the author of the forthcoming collection The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet from Rose Metal Press and of Sustainability: A Love Story from Ohio State University Press. Her previous books include Where the Tiny Things Are, Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She edited for Bloomsbury the essay collections Science of Story with Sean Prentiss and with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.


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