At this time next week, the election will be over. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly remember what it feels like to live in a world without political advertisements and October surprises that are really just the same old news reported in a different way.
I’m so glad I live in a state with early voting. I filled out my ballot last week and dropped it in one of the convenient polling boxes in my neighborhood park. Thank you, Colorado, for not creating obstacles for voters. Now that my ballot has been cast, I find myself increasingly annoyed by all the last-minute-bombshells-that-aren’t-bombshells on the evening news or the front page of the newspaper. I told my husband I was going to pitch a tent next to one of those park polling boxes and live there until the election is over. No one would be allowed to talk to me about the election as long as I stayed within 100 feet of the ballot drop.
Alas, I don’t believe the city of Denver will allow me to camp in the park. If it did, I suspect we’d have tents popping up within 100 feet of polling stations across the city. The weather has certainly been nice enough, and the promise of a politics-free zone seems even better than the promise of running water at this point.
But since I can’t actually divorce myself from the news of the world (though I can and will limit my exposure), I’ve begun looking at the election narrative in a different way. When I am dealing with my own writing, I like to look for patterns. I ask myself: What is the thread that runs through every scene? What themes emerge again and again? I try to answer these questions without judgment or expectation. Often the thing I set out to write about isn’t what shows up on the page. My subconscious brain has a way of asserting itself, and I can’t see what it’s trying to say until I get some distance from the work. Scenes written in a tight, focused way have a tendency to bleed over into other scenes when I give them a bit of space. Suddenly, I’ll see what ties these scenes and characters together in a way I couldn’t when I was too close. I like to think of it as literary breathing room. It’s when I figure out what matters most and what is a distraction and what should be cut ruthlessly from the final draft.
This election is no different. Freed from the responsibility of immediate decision-making, I can now look at the election news as a larger story. I try to think of it as a novel-in-progress. What, if I were writing it, would be most pertinent as we move toward the final draft? What is a mere distraction? What should be cut altogether?
I’ll tell you what stands out to me. In the first U.S. election with a woman at the top of a major party ticket, this story is about men behaving badly. Leaving aside the man at the top of the ballot for now, let’s look at the supporting characters: David Duke, Julian Assange, Paul Manafort, Vladimir Putin, James B. Comey, Anthony Weiner, Stephen Bannon. Really, I could go on and on. But just in this 48-hour news cycle alone, we’ve got a former Imperial Wizard of the KKK, an Australian computer hacker on the lam for rape charges, a corrupt lobbyist and former Republican party campaign chair under investigation for his ties to Russia, the tyrant leader of Russia best known for poisoning his enemies and appearing shirtless for photo ops, an FBI director who seems to have an outsized sense of his own power and importance, a pathetic man who can’t seem to stop sending pictures of his genitals to women of all ages, and the former head of an alt-right online news magazine best known for dog-whistling to racists and rapists alike.
If this were a novel, an editor would say it was too much to be believable. Even one of these ridiculous characters strains credulity. The sheer volume of them is mind-boggling. And then there’s outsized monstrosity at the top of the Republican ticket. Who could suspend disbelief enough to buy this silly, angry man as a character in a novel? I’m not sure I could. And yet here he is, in real life, barking and spitting and sniffing and grabbing women and calling them ugly or nasty or fat. Here he is accusing his opponent of drug use and questioning her health, while releasing a joke of a doctor’s note in defense of his own bloated vitality. Here he is refusing to release his tax returns while bragging about how he gamed the system and paid no taxes at all. Here he is spinning a half-dozen bankruptcies into a tale of business acumen. Here he is calling an entire race of people rapists and murderers. Here he is refusing to pay the people who work for him.
It’s too much.
In the final draft, America will decide if it can embrace the unbelievable nonsense and vitriol being spewed by the men behaving badly or whether it will cut them out of the narrative and move forward with something more believable and more compelling. Personally, I’ve always been fond of stories featuring strong, complicated, passionate, sometimes difficult, brilliant but imperfect women. That’s the sort of reader I am. If I were editing this election, I’d tell the writer to give me more of the strong female protagonist and spend a lot less time with the awful, unbelievable men.
Until we get that final draft on Tuesday, I’ll continue reading this narrative with a great deal of trepidation and disbelief. And if you spot a tent next to that ballot box in Washington Park, feel free to pop in and say hello. Just don’t talk to me about any of these bad characters. I don’t want to see what they will do next. I damn sure don’t want to read the sequel.