I was talking with an author this morning and as has become something of a rule for all conversations now, the subject of the pandemic and “2020” in general came up. In my efforts to move on, personally, from the challenges of the past year, not waiting for the calendar to flip over to 2021, we talked briefly about how 2020 and COVID dropped a lot of us out of our routines and maybe reminded us of how tenuous at least some aspects of our lives actually are, how easily some outside cause can come in and turn our little worlds upside down. But as survivors, at least so far, of this pandemic, what can we—what should we—pull out of this mess in order to make sense of it and force it to show some silver lining or positive outcome?
The author I was speaking with said that he was frustrated by a lack of new content on TV, and that drove him to sit down and write. This led me to wonder what new art is going to come of this?
What has time in quarantine, even if it’s the, maybe, hour a day gained from losing the daily commute time, so the work day is stripped down to only its essential functions, leaving an excess of leisure time while at the same time the plague itself is cutting off avenues of leisure—theaters and nightclubs and sporting events closed to audiences, and so on—generated out there that we haven’t yet seen? Will we see more writing, more art in general, released in 2021 than we would have if 2020 had been a “normal year”?
I hope so.
And this isn’t some way for me to make a weird and impossible case that an uncontrolled global pandemic was a good thing, but bad things happen, good things happen, and sometimes nothing in particular happens, and ultimately we’re only in control of our reaction to those things. And as authors of fiction, as artists in any medium, we need to be aware of those reactions.
Richard Russo, in “The Lives of Others,” wrote:
Like most authors, I unconsciously classify everything into two categories: what might one day be of use, and everything else. It’s an embarrassing habit, selfish in the extreme, but it’s also a kind of triage, necessary because you can’t pay equal attention to everything and be an artist. You learn, over time, to identify not so much what’s important as what’s important to you. What’s likely to bear fruit and what isn’t.
Will extra writing time, and the filtered-through-2020 fiction (prose, filmed, and otherwise) that comes from it, help us pull away from some of the negativity that we were awash in even before COVID? “Identity politics divides us. Fiction connects,” Elif Shafak said in his TED Talk: The Politics of Fiction. “One is interested in sweeping generalizations. The other, in nuances. One draws boundaries. The other recognizes no frontiers. Identity politics is made of solid bricks. Fiction is flowing water.”
Or will the opposite be true? When times are difficult, will people concentrate on the solutions to immediate problems, setting aside the creation of art, which suddenly seems frivolous? Or if we’re all been feeling bad, has that made us less able to do something that makes us feel good, like writing? Has COVID and the election and so on turned a lot of us into tortured artists when we hadn’t been before? If so, I’m worried now that the hoped for mini-Renaissance post-2020 may be just a pipe dream. After all, as the brilliant James Baldwin said, “No one works better out of anguish at all; that’s an incredible literary conceit.”
Far be it from me to argue with the likes of James Baldwin, but maybe there is something to that literary conceit—at least I hope there is. And we should all keep in mind that 2020 wasn’t all bad—was it? I had some happy times, and did some work that was valuable to me in the past eleven and a half months, even after the start of the pandemic. The added time—if you were able to add time, and not everyone has been—might have given you the freedom not to wallow your anguished life but maybe that time was used to create something joyous and expansive and amazing? I hope so, and anyway, none of us should ever feel forced to write a “COVID novel,” whatever that might look like.
But hey, guys, 2020 happened, and it happened in various ways to all of us, and all of us can at least try to use it in some way. Tade Thompson, author of The Murders of Molly Southbourne, reminds us:
“I bring everything I know to whatever I write, and I believe the same of other writers. A person’s complete life experience forms the basis of authorial voice, in my opinion. To hold back any part makes a narrative feel contrived.”
I honestly can’t wait to see what amazing works of art are forced out of this past year. It will probably take a decade to really understand that, but if what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, I think we’ve all come out of 2020 with +1 Strength.
Hell, maybe even +2.
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Hey, I had a couple poem published in 2020—that was positive!