I Can’t Write About the Pandemic, But I Can’t Write About Anything Else
The Blunt Instrument on how to choose a new project when you can't see past the news
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The Blunt Instrument is an advice column for writers, written by Elisa Gabbert (specializing in nonfiction), John Cotter (specializing in fiction), and Ruoxi Chen (specializing in publishing). If you need tough advice for a writing problem, send your question to email@example.com.
Dear Blunt Instrument,
I have a few different book projects I’ve been thinking about. I was trying to figure out which one to start first when COVID-19 happened. Now I really don’t know what to do. None of the projects I want to write seem important, considering all that could happen. I was lost to start, and I’m really lost now. Advice?
Blocked and Thwarted
Don’t feel as though you need to write about COVID-19. Not directly, not yet. Neither you, nor me, nor any of us have perspective on this thing—the crisis and the feelings around it are only just beginning to crawl down the well of our subconscious. Once they’re settled, clacking in the dark there, they will be a part of the water when we pull buckets up for years to come. We’ll set out, 20 years from now, to write a book about model trains and we’ll drink from that well and wind up writing about the feeling we have this afternoon. Art does not traffic in straight lines. Instant gratification is anathema. Art is done in the dark.
The best writing is not a reaction to each day’s news as it happens (what ages faster than front-page stories?). The best writing is the stuff we haul up in that bucket, years and perhaps decades later, mixed with all the pre- and post-crisis moments in our life, all the anxiety and relief, not segregated by timeframe or motif, the way childhood merges with the day before yesterday in dreams. Folks these days are sharing Katherine Ann Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a story of the 1918 pandemic. What’s shared less often is the date of the story’s composition: 1939, 20 years after the pandemic had passed. Twenty years it took that crisis to settle deep enough in Porter’s mind that the particulars of her lived experience could be stripped off or alloyed with other impressions, people she met later, the weather.
In college you may have read Tim O’Brien’s stories of the Vietnam War collected in The Things They Carried. Each year the moving, trick-box narratives of that collection more strongly cement their reputation as the English-language telling of the war, as the preeminent version (“if you’re only going to read one book about the Vietnam War…”). But note that The Things They Carried wasn’t written until the late 1980s, at least a decade after the war’s end, and wasn’t published until 1990, a good 20 years after O’Brien put his rucksack in a closet.
People are writing about COVID-19 as we speak, of course: journalism, epidemiology, diary, hot takes. Journalists are doing noble work, but I don’t think you were asking about journalism. If you’re keeping a diary, good. Writing about the most striking thing you’ve encountered each day is healthy for your writing practice and your psyche. If you’re an epidemiologist, you should be pitching articles. And yes, there will be hot takes aplenty, but they won’t age well.
The hot take is, unless deeply considered, cheap. We love Joan Didion, but the essays we love are not her moment-by-moment reports from political conventions (does anybody read them now?). We love her for her meditations on keeping notebooks, on leaving home, on the Hoover Dam 30 years after its construction (there she finds the hopeful architecture of “a tomorrow that never came”), on the meaning of a decade after most of that decade had passed. More than the colors she points out in the trees, we love what she hauls up from the well, what she doesn’t merely consider but reconsiders.
In 1917, 1918, and 1919, the years when WWI emptied its last cartridge and the pandemic flu made off with 50 million lives, what were the great writers writing? Katherine Mansfield wrote about the textures of childhood, the sounds of snapping sheets, the mystery of grown-up conversations in the next room (“Prelude”). Edna Ferber wrote a comic story about a blundering old bachelor falling over himself in search of love (“The Gay Old Dog”). Ryūnosuke Akutagawa wrote historical fictional about a trans man at a Jesuit mission (“The Martyr”). Sherwood Anderson invented Sherwood Anderson stories (we’re still writing them). Beatrix Potter kept writing Beatrix Potter stories. W. E. B. Du Bois began the first of three autobiographies. James Joyce kept puttering away on a long story about the connected events of a summer’s day in 1904.
Which brings us to the question you were wrestling with before the plague: which project to take up. My advice is to avoid thinking like a careerist. We don’t know what the publishing landscape will look like when all this is over. We don’t know what books will sell. Use your creative time to escape the zeitgeist. Lower your bucket into the well of your subconscious and write the book that you most need to write. Some of us won’t survive the coming months. This is reason, if ever, to ignore the market. Instead, pick the project that makes you feel most powerfully, the one that cracks you open like an egg when you start typing into it.
It was 1927 when H. P. Lovecraft wrote his story “The Color Out of Space,” about a strange color that lands from the sky and sickens everyone it comes into contact with, infects every surface, renders the landscape eerie. The phrase “Spanish Flu” doesn’t show up in the story. The word “virus” appears only once (“No bites of prowling things could have brought the virus”). If you’d asked Lovecraft where the story originated, you’d likely suffer a lecture about his Cthulhu Mythos, the sublimity of horror, the problem with Italians. If, indeed, the frightening, exotic virulence of the story had anything to do with the events of 1918, Lovecraft would have been the last to know.