You may find yourself at home during this public health crisis, either because you have symptoms or are no longer able to go to work. Or maybe, like me, you just don’t want to pass on illness unknowingly. Whatever the reasons, here you are in this strange place we call “self-isolation.”
Welcome to the new order. It’s not going to be fun or easy. But maybe you finally can carve out time to finish (or begin) that novel. You can read and write poetry. Oh, I know there are kids to feed and dogs to walk, but for the first time you might actually be living the life of many getting-by professional writers. That’s right, we mostly sit in our flats or bedsits or homes writing. We ignore whatever is going on elsewhere in the household, and hide away, dreaming up scenes and characters and little spurts of dialogue, plotting, plotting. It’s not glamorous but it’s our life as writers.
But wait, are you living the life of a writer? Not really, because your entire psyche has been taken over by intrusive thoughts about your own health or the health of loved ones, how you are going to afford to pay your rent or mortgage, whether you will see your parents or your adult children who are living in their own isolation. Maybe you’re wondering how to get enough food. Writers are supposed to be free to explore their imagined worlds, right? But what imagined world can compete with our real life situation? As Dorothy Parker would have said, “What fresh hell is this?”
We are all caught up in the moment. It’s understandable. But the kinds of pressures we are facing are nothing new for some writers. In 2017, in an article called ‘Writing in Troubled Times: Reflections of An Indian Writer’, the novelist and short story writer Geetanjali Shree describes her difficulty in conducting her business as a writer in India with its poverty and violence. What she can’t get out of her mind are the “migrant workers … living in tent-like shelters made from left-over material like bricks and plastic sheets and tyres and rods and rubbish” while “children play badminton with a discarded shuttlecock and discarded unmatched sandals for rackets.” She explains, “My writing has come to a standstill. I cannot see the value of, or think of, writing about anything else … Suddenly everything is challenged and everything is changing too fast around us – new tones, new colours, new voices, new visuals. Killings go on.”
Imagine what this writer is contending with today as Hindu nationalists continue their violence against Muslims. Or look back in history and consider Rupert Brooke, Anne Frank, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Oscar Wilde … among the many great writers who have written in the worst of circumstances, amidst war or from prison. Indeed, prison literature, born of desperation and violence, fear and boredom, is marked by its own transformative power and persistence through the ages. As Max Nelson writes in the Paris Review, “No writer intends to produce prison literature” and yet “to this loose canon … new work is still added daily.”
Writers have always worked under terrible stress, in bad situations, in isolation or in crowded, hostile conditions. Without a country cottage or artist’s garret or room with a view. As our world continues along its uncertain path, the only difference is the scope of the problem. All of us, writers or not, are being asked to exercise some degree of isolation and this may continue for many months.
Writing in isolation isn’t easy. Even in peacetime, even without a famine or pandemic, a writer’s isolation is both a necessity of the craft and a threat to sanity. To write well during a global health emergency we must focus not only on what is around us, however bleak, but also on the dreamed-for notion that our lives will one day go back to normal. Not every life will improve, we know that. But the very act of writing suggests a future in which our words are read. Writing is an act of optimism and courage, a storing up for better days.
The isolation of the moment is both the same as and different to times past. Because it is ubiquitous we can share it. In sharing it, we reduce it, at least in that place where it matters most, in our hearts. For those of us with access to social media, our common isolation can feel at times almost like a common room at a university, The University of COVID-19. I feel a new kinship with other writers. I’ve been reaching out across Twitter and Facebook and WhatsApp to hear their thoughts, fears, feelings. They include famous authors, newly published authors, new writers, students. What are you thinking? I ask. What are you writing?
Some are scrambling to make plans as their publishing events are cancelled. Maggie O’Farrell has a new book coming out shortly. All her events have been cancelled and she’s not on social media. But her husband, the novelist William Sutcliffe, is handing over his Twitter feed on March 31st at 8pm so people can join her virtual launch party.
In fact, little gatherings are erupting all over the place, like campfires around which we can gather. A round of Hollywood celebrities sing John Lennon’s Imagine, Arnold Schwartznegger invites us (and his miniature ponies) into his kitchen, Anthony Hopkins plays piano to his cat, Sam Neill cheers us up by laundering his shoes. And poets – poets from all over the world – bring us into their private spaces to read verse.
That’s right, we’re all invited. Invited to everything. Every virtual party, every virtual event. Threaded together by social media, we are reaching out, talking to one another, willing to unveil more of our private lives even as we are shut in. No matter how early you are in your writing, how new or unpublished, you have a place in this world of writers in isolation. It is a unique and beautiful thing. And while being connected through technology isn’t exactly the same as sitting in a library full of others who love books, or the halls of a university, or on the porch step of a retreat, shoulder to shoulder, it’s not that different. We are all still here, thinking about the world, reflecting, reading, discussing.
I’m in the process of organizing some videos and live talks to help those of you who are planning to write during this difficult period. Of course, I’m corralling as many of my writer pals as possible to join me. We’ll show up on your Twitter feed or on Facebook or YouTube sharing our thoughts about books and ideas. During this period of isolation, none of us needs to feel alone.
Marti Leimbach is a novelist, university lecturer and freelance writer. Friend her on Facebook or on Twitter, @MartiLeimbach. Image: What Remains of Edith Finch, Annapurna Interactive, 2017