The timing of the coronavirus pandemic has been convenient for exactly no one. For some writers’ careers, it’s been devastating. They’ve had their book releases eclipsed, their tours canceled, their sales thrown off by readers’ new economic precarity — several years’ worth of hard work and anticipation thrown, largely, down the drain, although some have been holding virtual book tours, and social media posts imploring people to support authors by ordering their books could help. (Please do this if you are able!)
If the pandemic continues in varying degrees through fall 2021, as some scientists are predicting, lots of other writers will be similarly affected, along with book stores and the entire publishing industry.
It’s been ill-timed for me, personally, too. It comes just as my agent has begun negotiating the contract for the memoir-in-essays I have been working on for years — my first solo book, after publishing anthologies. I have been playing what feels like the world’s longest game, being dogged but patient in my pursuit of a deal. I’m hoping the small indie publisher we’ve chosen to go with will be able to ride this out, and I’ll get to go forward as planned. But who knows?
It’s been challenging, though, to feel as if my publishing plans and my writing in general matter at all right now. In the midst of a global health crisis that is disrupting lives and killing people, it feels frivolous to even think about my book, continue with my newsletter, or write anything at all that is not virus-related. This, after decades of struggling to overcome a feeling common to many women: that my story doesn’t matter, and I don’t have permission to tell it.
But last week I took a walk through a bucolic Kingston cemetery where my ancestors are buried, and it brought to the fore something I’ve been thinking about since this pandemic began: My great grandmother, Freida Fischer Kemp, died at 25 in the Influenza epidemic in the early 20th century, and I know almost nothing about her life, or her experience of getting sick and dying young.
It’s been challenging to feel as if my publishing plans and my writing in general matter at all right now.
She left behind my grandmother, Clarisse Kemp Masket, who was just 3 at the time, and her husband, Elias Kemp — who had a nervous breakdown following the loss of his young wife, and sent my grandmother to live with an aunt and uncle in the Bronx.
These are the only parts of Freida’s story that anyone in my family has ever talked about. It’s all I know about her. What I wouldn’t give to know her story, from her point of view.
* * *
Clarisse went on to die relatively young, too, of breast cancer, at 55. I was 6-and-a-half, and I adored her, but I know so little about who she was beyond a little girl’s idealized Nanna. I’ve had many motivations for wanting to write and publish my memoir, but one that keeps me particularly focused is the realization that both of my grandmothers died around my age. My other grandmother, Sally Cohen Botton, died at 53 of a brain tumor. I am 54.
I think often of a George Eliot quote: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” But my grandmothers didn’t live long enough to be who they might have been. Maybe I am getting to. Maybe my story about that will affect someone else — while I’m alive, and later, when I’m gone. Maybe it’s true what they say, that you teach what you most need to learn; clearly I wouldn’t be in the line of work I’m in, helping people tell their stories, if I didn’t believe people’s stories matter.
So that settles it: My story matters, and so does yours. I’m giving myself permission to write as I feel called to through this dark time. And if you need permission from someone other than yourself, I’m giving it to you, too. I’m not shirking any responsibilities to do it. I’m helping others out, staying connected to loved ones, making donations to helpful organizations as I can, doing my job. But when I am so motivated, I’m going to take a moment to write about what is happening, inside me and around me. I will tell myself first what I think and feel, and maybe later, share it with the world.
* * *
Lately I’ve been writing in the wee hours of the morning, when anxiety about this mind-boggling, ever-changing catastrophe keeps me awake. It feels good to be productive, to get my thoughts out of my head and into a Word document. Who knows how much of it I will ever publish? The effort still feels worthwhile.
We are living in interesting times — I would argue too interesting. There will be things to say about it. Let yourself say them, if you want to.
Sometimes thoughts will come to me before I’m ready to explore them more deeply. My feelings are too raw — I might not have gotten enough critical distance from the experience to delve into it. I try to jot even a few lines about it anyway so that later, when I’m readier to tackle that subject, I have some notes from when I was going through it, even if the notes are rough. Since 2005, I’ve kept a running Word document where I capture these kinds of thoughts. I also maintain a Google spreadsheet with story ideas. As soon as one comes to me, I try to get it down before it’s lost. The Notes app on my iPhone is my fall-back for when I’m not near my computer.
I can’t tell you how many times a few lines I jotted in a white hot moment of anguish came in handy later. I recommend setting yourself up to capture your thoughts easily, any time they come up.
We are living in interesting times — I would argue too interesting. There will be things to say about it, now, and in the future. Let yourself say them, if you want to.
* * *
A caveat: This post is not meant to impose pressure or judgment on anyone. I’ve noticed many writers posting on social media about how their anxiety has hampered their ability to concentrate, and how they are instead giving themselves permission to take time away from their writing. I support that choice — and I will note that despite my early morning writing sessions, I myself am finding it difficult to string words together at any significant volume.
Last week Rosanne Cash tweeted about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined during the Black Plague, which I found eye-opening.
Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.
— rosanne cash (@rosannecash) March 14, 2020
Then literary twitter started joking about it, with quips like, “No pressure…” and I totally get it.
But, if you are interested in writing right now, there are some great free resources being offered. Here are some:
- Vanessa Mártir offers many personal essay prompts that she made available for free in 2019 on her Writing Our Lives site.
- Cookbook author Julia Turshen is offering free food writing workshops via Instagram Live.
- Rachel McKibbens is offering writing prompts for 30 days in a Twitter thread. (Anyone can access them, but she is asking for donations to The Pink Door, the writers’ retreat for women-identified writers of color.)
- Weds., 3/25 The Writing Barn is offering a free webinar called “Writing Through Troubled Times.”
- Nancy Stohlman and Kathy Fish are offering 30 days of free writing prompts.
- Toby Litt has a free 10-session short story writing workshop online.
- The Porch Writers’ Collective in Tennessee is offering daily writing prompts on Twitter. They’ll be moving them to email, so sign up here.
- Barrell House is offering free online write-ins.
- Anna Polonyi has started Quarantine Quill, via the Paris Institute for Critical Thinking, a podcast on which she offers one writing prompt and one writing tip each day, for the duration of the lockdown in Paris.
- Stonewall Writers & Readers is hosting free writers’ groups online.
- Leigh Shulman is offering free online writing workshops next week, and also free writing prompts via email.
- The Writing Class Radio podcast, hosted by Andrea Askowitz and Allison Langer, offers free prompts, tips, and stories to study.
- Author Suleika Jaouad has launched The Isolation Journals, a free 30-day newsletter with prompts from other writers like Esme Wang, Kiese Laymon, Melissa Febos, Maggie Rogers, and Elizabeth Gilbert.
- And one more from me: I’ve got an into-level essay writing workshop on Skillshare. If you sign up for it, you can get a two-month free trial that lets you access all the courses on their site. Right now, Skillshare is also offering two months free (without having to give credit-card information) for current K-12 and college students, and others who qualify based on need. (I’m pretty dorky in my video, and I wish I’d thought to like, style my hair that day…? But I stand by the content of it.)