Writing in the Time of COVID-19

Writing COVID Graphic
© Salima Alikhan 2020

Client Sharon Darrow muses on how the Covid-19 outbreak will change our writing, and our readers, into the future.

What day is it? What does it matter anyway now that we are living in this limbo of social isolation? What happened to workdays, weekends made for leisure and religious observances, Saturdays filled with soccer, hikes, and pizza? What happened to Sunday?

Some of my days feel like they go on forever in a long slow dream; others flash past, like my aged Aunt Pauline told me long ago, “…so fast, it seems like all I ever get done is opening and shutting my curtains.”

When one day follows another in a kind of monotonous chaos, I find myself searching for order, for how one hour connects or breaks from another, and how and where I might find meaning. I’m a writer struggling with revision of a novel that has held a great deal of meaning for me up to now. These days, I am in a floundering kind of no-woman’s-land filled with questions about what I think I’ve been doing, what I want to do as I move forward—and why? I’ve lost the traction of meaning, direction, and purpose for this story. And maybe for my life.

I believe that American children and teenagers who are living through this time will still want many of the same kinds of stories they have always enjoyed, but they are living through a kind of slow-motion generational trauma the likes of which the readers of the late 20th and early 21st century never encountered. They are all going through a change in their understanding of what life is, what it offers of danger, and what safety really means.

I am changing, too. I am changing, too. I know I will be a different person once I come through this (if I do get to the other side of this). I will also be a different writer. It is as if the mental parameters I’ve had all my life have shifted, maybe even disappeared. I’ve always felt I had purpose, have only struggled briefly for direction, and held a bone-deep knowledge of the meaning in life. Now, not so much. Or I should say, I still perceive meaning, but find it harder to grasp, find it to have many more facets than I’d imagined, facets that are slippery to hold onto, that cause me to shut my eyes against their brilliance, their blue-gold glare. A gem of many more dimensions, colors, temperatures than I have ever known before. Yet it is a gem. Horrible and beautiful in its fearsomeness.

As our hours slip through our fingers in this new way, we will perceive time in our own unique fashions. Time isn’t what we have thought it was or what we’ve tried to make it be. It is, instead of schedules and accomplishments, the experience of transience, of impermanence. That hasn’t changed; we have just paused long enough to see this world’s true slow turn.

That, in itself, is a kind of trauma. The usual outside forces, our workdays, weekends, our imposed time limits, don’t shield us from impermanence. We are fleeting, like the clouds sailing across the sky above us, a sky we can take time today to watch, just as we did as children. Like the buds on the forsythia almost ready to bloom yellow—for another short spring. Time is a circle, and we have an imposed stillness in which to watch it turn round again today, this winter into spring. We discover that transience is what gives life its meaning—and its beauty.

As part of their school-at-home day, I read to my grandchildren over the internet. The eight-year-old wants stories strong with relationship, connection, and spunk. The five-year-old wants the comfort of re-reading the same two fairly whacky picture books for a month at a time, both stories of which are about growing in competence and responsibility. These qualities matter to my grandchildren, qualities that have always mattered to young readers. My grandchildren, like all of us, though, are forming a new and different context of experience about what those things mean.

While we write and revise our current and new books, the ones we hope will get our readers through and beyond this pandemic era, books that connect them, challenge them, reassure them, and help them grow strong, they are busy learning lessons only they can teach us. About what normal life is now, can be, should be—and about what story can and should be for them and for us.

Now, for them and for myself, I want to write into this future-world, which is the same old world just better understood and seen without my usual blinders on and maybe seen somewhat through the eyes of the children living through this time, to make story in ways that are meaningful, to help assuage the trauma and give sustenance for growth, to forge space and time for these courageous future-children and their new world dreams.

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