We Don't Talk About Covid
Letting the pandemic into your writing when no one wants to read about it
I’ve accidentally found myself writing what could end up being a novel. This is a huge surprise to me since I’m a creative nonfiction writer. I started dreaming it up to try and get my perimenopausal anxiety to scram, replacing dreadful thoughts with soothing imaginings. I got hooked. Next thing I knew, I was character and world-building and making copious notes. I even drew up a blueprint of the protagonist’s apartment and garden. Now I’m almost finished chapter one. The whole thing has been—dare I say it—fun and even easy. I only wish I’d discovered comfort writing before.
I have one wee problem though. See, it’s a contemporary story, set right about now-ish, but flashing back several years. My problem is the pandemic. I’m haunted by hearing folks I know say that they don’t want the pandemic to show up in what they’re reading or watching on tv—that they’d rather pretend it never happened. But that doesn’t feel right to me—especially as someone who is still Coviding and feeling gaslit already. So I think I’ll include it. It won’t be central, but like, I’ll acknowledge that it actually happened—and is still happening—and my protagonist, like me, will probably have a few strong feelings about it.
What do you think? Will I alienate people if this story ever sees the light of day? I’m inclined to not give two fucks, but I could use a little reassurance.
Always the Covid Killjoy
Dear Always The Covid Killjoy,
Comfort writing sounds wonderful. In some ways, a cozy novel sounds like the perfect antidote to creative non-fiction, since at least a few forms of CNF (e.g., memoirs, personal essay) require some amount of diving back into our own personal traumas, and frankly, haven’t we all had enough collective trauma?
With that said, it is also perfectly understandable that there are many out there who aren’t interested in reliving the pandemic in their escapist literature. So it’s a good thing that there are thousands and thousands of books that were published prior to 2020 that are available to read.
In theory, fiction has always had to be set in a specific time and place—we both know all about concrete detail and show-don’t-tell—but certainly, for quite a while now, writers have been able to get away with a general sense of “it’s happening kind of now-ish” without committing to a specific year. This has given us a kind of freedom to be muddy about time by avoiding markers of particular years and then having to go through your whole novel to make sure that there are no anachronisms. We’ve had the privilege of doing that, at least here in North America, because for a long time, nothing really earth-shattering has happened.
But in light of the pandemic, contemporary literature must, at minimum, be specific in whether it happened before or after 2020. And if after, how long after?
It’s much like watching airport scenes in movies prior to 9/11—another significant event—when you had characters running through the airport to the gate to talk to someone right before they boarded the plane. There was no going through security, no taking off shoes, nothing. It might be a really fun scene, but it’s also bizarrely unrealistic as a vaguely contemporary story. Kind of spoils the drama when you’re laughing at how unrealistic it all is.
We see this with technology. How much have smartphones changed everything? Superman can no longer change clothes in a phone booth, because there are no more phone booths. Questions can no longer serve as plot devices if they can be easily answered by Google. Everyone has a camera with them. Mistaken identity is entirely different in the era of social media. No one is going back to their ex’s apartment to pack up their records in a milk crate, although maybe they are changing the password on their Netflix account.
Just as in historical fiction, where we have to research to make sure that the details are accurate and consistent to the time, contemporary fiction also needs to be accurate and consistent to its time.
It’s entirely inaccurate to write a present day story where the pandemic did not exist. Even if your characters are in a community that had minimal covid-restrictions, they still had their own pandemic experiences. Grocery store shelves being emptied. Shipping delays on a wide and weird variety of items. Small businesses shutting down. Protests over race, privilege, vaccines, masking, mandates, and that orange-faced grifter with the small hands. Not seeing family and friends and loved ones for longer periods of time. Getting a swab jammed up into their brain.
Even if the more dramatic early events of the pandemic don’t figure in the story, or even the more subtle later evidence of the pandemic has no reason to be present, all of your characters have had some kind of pandemic experience. What happened to them during the earlier parts of the pandemic may have revealed deeper elements of their character and potentially changed their beliefs. Did they obsess over the data? Did their faith in humanity change? Their faith in government? Did they deliberately wear a mask pulled down under their nose? Did they run out to get a vaccine the first moment it was available, or did they only get around to it when someone else made them?
It’s much like contemporary literature of the 1920s, of which I am not remotely an expert. But these stories still referenced The Great War (WWI) in various ways. Virtually every adult male character in the Western World would have served in the war, or had a reason not to, and often such novels would refer to where they were or what they did during the war. Underlying it all would be some of the various ways in which these characters were scarred by their experiences in the war. It’s what that emotionally constipated asshole Hemingway was famous for—including the war in stories, even when those stories were not overtly about the war.
Humans being humans, I’m absolutely sure that there were readers who didn’t want to read war stories. Those readers had a wealth of Victorian literature to enjoy. It would have been entirely unrealistic to the point of utter ridiculousness to pretend the war didn’t just happen. Even if we look at the comfort reads of the time: Agatha Christie published her first mystery novel in 1920. Hercule Poirot was a Belgian refugee of WWI.
Contemporary fiction and television are already starting to reference the pandemic—what writer didn’t notice the wealth of conflict-filled plot possibilities inherent in the early days of shutdowns and social distancing? Some have done this better than others. Some have actually made storylines that incorporate how the pandemic changed everything, some have made a quick reference to it and then, poof, gone. Some have just decided that they are in an alternate universe that is exactly like ours but Covid doesn’t exist: they’ve become fantasies, because whomever was running the show decided it was cheaper and easier that way.
Even trashy reality TV shows have signs of the pandemic: I notice the servers in the background on Selling Sunset are often masked, even if the stars are not.
We are still at the beginning of the shift. Casual references to Covid, masking, rapid testing, shutdowns, what we did in lockdown, watching Tiger King, feeding sourdough starter and virtual school are still making their way into the work. There will come a time where diving into a post-2020 fantasy of a world where Covid never happened is going to read as bizarrely unbelievable as Home Alone, where Kevin’s family runs through the airport to get on a plane to France with one child missing, never going through a long, slow security line, and not one single person on the airline questioning why one of the McAllister seats was unclaimed.
But most importantly, this novel you’re working on is a cozy, comforting writing experience for you. If pretending the pandemic never happened is uncomfortable for you—well, that kind of defeats the purpose of writing this novel, doesn’t it?
You can’t blame people for wanting to avoid signs of the trauma we all went through. It’s what people do. And also why therapists are expensive.
But likewise, they can’t blame you for wanting to acknowledge the existence of that time we were all worried and anxious and staying indoors, and we were all in this together. Because it really happened, and it’s still happening.
Personally, though, I’m up for pandemic fiction, whether it’s in the background or in the foreground. Give me the relationship that blew up from too much togetherness during the shutdown, the strained relationships of adult children with their senior citizen parents who would not listen and stay home, the loneliness of single people isolating from everyone, the overwhelmed anxiety of parents trying to work and manage virtual school and bored children, the separation and complicated decontamination rituals of health care workers to keep their families safe, the Zoom funerals and the stress of not being able to be there for our loved ones in their last moments, the dream jobs and businesses and trips that were cancelled in the pandemic, navigating relationships and new social norms when people have different approaches to the world starting to open up whether it was ready or not, the rush of joy in making it to that first vaccine appointment, the Vaccine Hunters who navigated the complicated systems for so many, the banging on pots, the Italians singing out their windows with each other, the New York nurses wearing garbage bags and vacuum filters from a lack of PPE, the emptiness of taped off playgrounds, the rituals of washing down groceries, the strangers on Twitter and Reddit who posted a chart at the same time every day for two years so we could make sense of the data, the laughable attempt of celebrities singing “Imagine” in order to somehow be relevant when we all had bigger concerns….
Damn. It was a hell of a time.
We read fiction, we participate in stories for so many reasons. Escapism is a great one—Life is frequently less than awesome, who doesn’t want a cozy escape sometimes? But we also read to understand ourselves, and the events of our lives, and simply to have our experiences seen. It’s an incredible and even miraculous act of empathy, to write down some blend of our experiences and knowledge and imagination on a piece of paper, and at some point, a total stranger reads it and feels a sense of recognition: someone out there understands something about me, and we are connected, even without ever knowing each other.
We may never know about this happening for other people reading our work, but as readers, we’ve all had those moments. Whether we see it in some grand work of Literature, or in the fluffiest of beach reads, it’s miraculous all the same. It’s part of the tremendous gift we give the world when we write.
And so this is your gift, Always the Covid Killjoy. It’s to write a book that is warm and cozy and lovely, and also gives the other Covid Killjoys of the world the gift of that recognition, that all of this really happened, that it is still happening, that we are all still to this day affected by it even if people around us would prefer to live out their early pandemic fantasies…. you know, back when we thought that one day this might be over.
Because like it or not, we are all still in this together.
A PSA for readers. Writer Therapy isn’t real therapy and I am not a real therapist, but also, this newsletter is unlikely to kill or debilitate you or your loved ones. Be sure you’re getting your Covid information from the consensus of real scientists who are speaking within their field of expertise. Think critically about any science news; in general, science journalism is not very good, even when produced by trustworthy news sources, and you may need to go digging to fully understand what’s being reported.
But in sum:
We are in a hyperendemic era, which means Covid is here to stay, and unfortunately, it’s staying at high levels. The ‘pandemic’ portion may be over, but Covid is not gone, and people are still dying or becoming severely debilitated daily.
Covid is airborne. Wear a high quality mask indoors or in crowds, stick to well-ventilated spaces, and stay home when you’re sick.
Post-covid syndrome (i.e., long Covid) is real, in many cases debilitating, and is too new to have established treatments.
Stay on top of your booster shots, and keep an eye on future vaccine developments. The internasal and pan-coronavirus vaccines are particularly interesting.
Much like water-borne diseases went from common to rare with the introduction of clean water infrastructure, airborne diseases like Covid will likely become much more rare if we monitored and cleaned our indoor air through universal measures such as better filtration and ventilation. (Plus, clean air is just good for us.) This is an engineering problem we know how to solve: the question is the will to do it.
Evidence suggests that prior Covid infection makes you more vulnerable to all viral infections, including Covid, and enduring multiple Covid infections likewise increases your vulnerability to serious health consequences.
I’m not debating any of these points with anyone. If you disagree on some minor quibbles you may be right, but who cares? If you fundamentally disagree, you are wrong.
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I LOVE EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS LETTER, WHICH IS WHY I'M SHOUTING IT. 💛
This was exactly what I needed today. I am all for reading (& writing) pandemic-influenced literature. Thanks so much!
Also, love the casual reference to Selling Sunset. The way reality tv shows try to move past the pandemic and/or incorporate it into their storylines was (and continues to be) fascinating. The zoom-reunions, staycations, and bejeweled masks were certainly an experience.