Social-distancing. Self-isolation. Stay at home. Lockdown. Shelter in place. Working from home. These have been my catchphrases for half a year, albeit unknowingly and under different circumstances. Writing my next novel has taken up all of my waking, non-family hours. I’ve been plugging away towards an April 1st rough draft deadline, striving for a summer release date. I’ve barely had time to socialize with friends–or to be out and about–so the directives from the World Health Organization to flatten the coronavirus curve were easy for me to implement. I prefer to work at home, close to my research material, and don’t want to lose precious time getting properly dressed and leaving the house. I work best when I can totally immerse myself in my fictional universe.
Writing is my creative outlet; it gives me joy, focus, and structure, but what happens when you do it in the shadow of a pandemic? When Shakespeare was in quarantine from the plague in 1606, he wrote King Lear. My concentration, however, has been shattered, torn between wanting to conduct business as usual and keeping abreast of the latest developments. Rather than writing full-time, a big chunk of my day is spent following the latest information on the virus’s trajectory and consuming news reports about patients, government policy, the healthcare challenges, and economic fallout. CNN is usually on in the background; the reporters’ solemn, sincere voices have become my soundtrack throughout this pandemic.
In order to ease my anxiety and get into work mode, I take occasional news breaks. Even so, reality doesn’t disappear. I may write a paragraph or two and then forget, for a split second, that we’re in dire straits, but then I come out of my writing bubble and it hits me again. I’ve asked myself repeatedly: What’s the point of what I’m writing? Does it matter in these apocalyptic times? When life and death hang in the balance? With economies and livelihoods on the brink of collapse? Sticking to a schedule, planning for a summer release–is that realistic or feasible?
Like everything else, the book world has been turned upside down. A number of writers have had their publication dates delayed or book tours canceled. Writing a book can be a lonely undertaking; doing events and meeting readers are among the most rewarding parts of the job. Luckily, the literary community has found alternative approaches to promote their work and connect with the public. Books have remained an essential part of my life during this crisis. I take reading breaks to escape, to be inspired by another writer’s inventiveness, and to marvel at their flair for words. I also support new releases by downloading them on my Kindle. Although I’ve avoided pandemic fiction–too close to home–I admire the research and imagination that went into conceiving them. These are the books currently in my Kindle library: The Glass Hotel; In Five Years; The Herd; My Dark Vanessa; Followers; Smacked; Oona Out of Order; and These Ghosts Are Family. My husband and I binge-watched Netflix’s adaptation of Harlen Coben’s The Stranger and it was a thrilling diversion. Listening to literary podcasts like Zibby Owen’s Mom’s Don’t Have Time to Read Books and buying online from independent bookstores are additional ways to support writers and the industry.
I’m acutely aware that I’m in a fortunate position where I can stay home and still manage my life under stricter guidelines. Many do not have that possibility. Coronavirus victims and caregivers are constantly on my mind. I don’t bemoan changed plans or canceled trips. These are small “sacrifices” for the greater good of public health and safety. My gratitude to the frontline professionals and first responders in healthcare, food retail, pharmacies, and other essential services is immense. I feel healthy right now but COVID-19 is a silent predator. If afflicted, I don’t want to inadvertently infect others or become a burden on hospitals at the expense of other vulnerable individuals. Out of social responsibility and solidarity, I stay home and write.
The coronavirus forced me to change a crucial element in my new book. The story was supposed to take place during the summer of 2020, the first one of the new decade. I loved the sound and symmetry of it and imagined warm, sunlit days to contrast with my characters’ inner turmoil. Yet as this pandemic progressed, I realized it would be unrealistic to ignore its presence given that every aspect of our lives has been affected thus far. But it also felt opportunistic to insert an unfolding, unresolved crisis for the sake of historical accuracy. For this reason, I restructured the narrative timeframe to 2019.
Who knows where we’ll be this summer? But I’ll keep writing and, hopefully, I’ll finish and release my new novel, humbly offering to others the distraction that has sustained me these last few months.