Writing Into the Unknown

Megan Norris Jones

Some people have compared our nation’s experience with the pandemic to the grieving process. Denial (that’s just in China!), bargaining (let’s stay home for a couple of weeks, and then this will all be better), anger (you can’t make me wear a mask!), depression (I’m going to get it no matter what I do), and acceptance. I’m not sure what acceptance looks like because I don’t think we’ve gotten there. 

From a creativity perspective, these months of upheaval and uncertainty have definitely affected my writing life, bringing it almost to a standstill. For a while, everything else was blocked out by the enormity of the pandemic. Events popped up on my calendar, and I just deleted them. Nothing was going to happen. All I did was devour news about the coronavirus. Even areas of my life previously devoted to writing shifted to focus on the disease. Half our weekly WriteOwls phone call was consumed by discussion of the pandemic. I quit reading fiction. I quit watching television and movies. I stopped midway through an audiobook. I sat down to write in fits and starts, but I didn’t produce much. I developed a hyperawareness of the fragility not just of my physical life but also of the activities and relationships that once filled my life.

Sure, some of my writing problems were scheduling issues, since the time I had blocked out for writing didn’t exist any more, and instead I was suddenly shifting to homeschool mode. But I can always stay up later or get up earlier to make time to write. I just wasn’t in a headspace for creating stories in the face of so many unknowns. Even when I was at the bargaining stage of hoping for a return to normal before the school year was out, I knew deep down that this experience was reshaping our culture in profound ways that I couldn’t yet identify. And if the whole world changed, then would the stories I’ve written and am writing even make sense in that new world?

I currently have three manuscripts that I’m attempting to juggle. One is out on submission to agents. A second manuscript is a completed first draft that I’ve set aside for a little while to give myself time to gain perspective. The third is a new manuscript that I am brainstorming and outlining. Each of them is a contemporary fantasy. But I can’t seem to wrap my head around stories that are set “in present day” when “present day” looks nothing like my stories’ settings, and I can’t imagine how life will be different in the years to come. But I can’t revise my stories to be set during the pandemic because I don’t have enough perspective on it. Maybe we get a vaccine this winter, and life goes back to normal. Maybe we never get a vaccine, and the world is permanently changed in ways I can’t anticipate. Writers are supposed to offer insight into life through our stories, but I don’t have any insight. I’m flailing and failing.

In recent weeks, as my life and mindset have begun adjusting to the way life is now, glimmers of creativity are reemerging, starting with the media I’m consuming. I still follow news of the pandemic, but I’ve also started watching reruns of my favorite TV shows. My husband bought me a book of short stories by Madeleine L’Engle, and I’ve been reading it. I’ve started listening to that audiobook that I abruptly stopped the week my children’s school was canceled. 

Most of the events I’m putting on my calendar these days still have a virtual location, and anything I plan still feels incredibly fragile, but I am penciling in future events once more. 

The truth is that I don’t know what the next months will hold. The schools are planning to reopen in August, but they could easily close again. I can’t really envision what lies ahead. But one thing I know is that I don’t want to envision a future where I am not a writer. I can’t control the market or how agents respond to my work, and I certainly can’t control the course of a pandemic, but I can get up early, and I can stay up late, and I can spend a portion of every day writing. Because pandemic or not, I am a writer.

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