Thoughts on a pandemic

” how to write about something so massive, so pervasive, so threatening?”

Like so many of us who have been engaging online during this period of social distancing and self-isolation, I too have been reflecting on COVID-19 and what its spread has meant for all of us.

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But how to write about something so massive, so pervasive, so threatening? How to address the daily news stories with their tallies of deaths from the virus, and the mounting numbers of confirmed cases?

I don’t know.

In emails and messages with fellow poets and writers, I’ve observed some common threads, statements like: how do we even begin to write about this? Or, I want to write about this, but… And then there’s the really big one: are you managing to write at all?

I’ve tried to stay true and disciplined to my own writing practice. I’ve committed to keep working on my ongoing projects. But then I think about:

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healthcare workers, transit workers, cleaners tasked with sanitizing public spaces

grocery store employees, restaurants serving take-out

the elderly, the isolated, the vulnerable

How does a writer keep writing in light of the fact that so many others are risking their health and potentially their lives to keep the rest of us safe?

I’m not sure I have an answer.

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I know folks are quoting and checking out Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe is probably better known to us as the author of Robinson Crusoe, and in many ways, we are all finding ourselves isolated in our own, private islands (and yes, stay home!). It is comforting to know that we humans have been through pandemics before, and that somehow, we will get through.

But for Defoe, the Journal ends with the belief in divine intervention, that somehow the plague stopped because it was God’s will. I’m not much into divine intervention (and no slight intended to those who are), but the interesting thing is that Defoe charges: “let the philosophers search for reasons in nature to account for it by”. He meant that philosophers could try as hard as they want to try and explain the end of the plague, but Defoe was sticking to his divine intervention theory.

I want to think about Defoe’s statement differently. As writers, we are the philosophers who will reflect on recent events, not necessarily as scientists or doctors, but as thinkers, as meaning-makers.

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As wordsmiths, we will search for language to make meaning of the generosity of spirit we’ve seen in so many communities, the care for the vulnerable, and the recognition that we truly are all part of one global community.

So as I sit pensively thinking about COVID-19, I recognize that as writers, we might be experiencing writers’ block, at a loss for words to describe the immensity of our global situation. But as writers, I know too that eventually, the words will flow.

What meanings will we create from our experiences of this social isolation, of having lived through the pandemic caused by this coronavirus?

As writers, what stories will we tell?

Playing in the toolbox

But do we really play? Just have fun with the sport, the musical instrument, the piece of writing we’re working on? Do we improvise for the sake of improvising?

When I was in kindergarten, my classroom, like many of its generation, had a sandbox and a wooden jungle gym. Children were encouraged to play in the sandbox, and to climb the jungle gym. It’s hard to imagine having a jungle gym inside a classroom nowadays, but it says something about how adults viewed childhood when I was a kid. Back then, children were meant to play.

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As adults, many of us seem to forget how to play. And when I say play, I mean it as an activity in and of itself. Maybe we play tennis, or golf. Maybe we play guitar in some corner of our basements. But do we really play? Just have fun with the sport, the musical instrument, the piece of writing we’re working on? Do we improvise for the sake of improvising? Are we comfortable colouring outside the lines, and discovering where those colours will take us?

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I’ve been re-reading Julia Cameron’s work recently, and she’s big on play. In her book, Walking in This World, Cameron writes that “We’re so respectful of ‘great’ art that we always, chronically, sell ourselves short. We’re so worried about whether we can play in the ‘big leagues’ that we refuse to let ourselves play at all.”

Right now, I’m working on a new novel, and worrying if it makes any sense. That’s because the novel is experimental and has characters who don’t make much sense to the everyday world. But they’re funny, and working on this book makes me laugh. As I sit down to work on my novel each day, I feel always like I’m just playing with my literary toolbox.

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And so, Cameron’s point speaks straight to my art. What if I became so worried about the quality of my novel, that I just gave up in despair of writing something “worthy”? I know this happens to folks sometimes, but fortunately I have Julia Cameron and others to back me up. What if we just all played?

Thinking in this way reminds me of one of the most interesting poets I encountered back in graduate school. Reading Gertrude Stein’s “Lifting Belly” for the first time was like an exercise in frustration:

Dear me. Lifting belly.
Dear me. Lifting belly.
Oh yes.
Alright.
Sing.
Do you hear.
Yes I hear.
Lifting belly is amiss.
This is not the way.
I see.
Lifting belly is alright.
Is it a name.
Yes it's a name.
We were right.

--"Lifting Belly" by Gertrude Stein, from The Yale Gertrude Stein, Selections, with an Introduction by Richard Kostelanetz, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

“Lifting Belly” was frustrating until I realized how it plays with language, with rhythms, with ideas about poetry. Stein’s poem challenged me to challenge my own thinking, and forced me to re-evaluate the nature of play.

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So I’m heading back to a kind of intellectual kindergarten classroom. I’m heading back to that literary toolbox, and performing mental gymnastics all over my literary jungle gym. I’m heading back to play. Because, as Julia Cameron asserts, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”