I’m writing a short story about a man driving alone halfway away across the country; he’s moving to a new city, on his way to his wife and child who are waiting for him. He pulls off the highway to stop for gas, and decides to fill up at a station a bit further down the road, one that looks smaller and more quaint than your typical Shell or Exxon. He winds up making friends with the elderly station owner. They shake hands, even. Twice.
As I was re-reading and editing, I realized that this story, first started last year, takes place in a time when such a thing was not just possible, but normal.
When you could linger indoors, without a mask, shake a stranger’s hand, even sit across from him for a meal, and not think anything of it.
But instead of coming across as normal, the epitome of ordinary, that scene is now abnormal, from a different time, perhaps lathered with nostalgia.
Has the pandemic created a before/after dynamic that must be addressed in creative writing?
Because of the pandemic, the story is set in a different universe than the one we currently inhabit, a time we can easily remember but gets more and more foreign by the day.
This story is (unintentionally) written as the way things used to be, in a setting in the past, which makes it seem more wistful and historical, a marking of the way things used to be rather than the way things are.
It made me stop and ask: how will the pandemic influence the setting in which future stories are told? Whether we like it or not, has the pandemic created a before/after dynamic that must be addressed in creative writing?
We’ve been here before
The flu of 1918–1920 killed approximately 675,000 Americans, yet the experience of that isn’t reflected in American fiction as much as one might expect. The biggest reason is because that pandemic occurred at the tail end of World War I, which unlike the pandemic appears substantially across the fictional landscape, though not directly.
By 1919, “while popular fiction abounded with war novels and the poignant poetry of the war poets was already being published, not many of the classic works of fiction written at this time deal directly with the war,” and even fewer dealt with the pandemic.
Two of the lasting literary classic published in 1920, with the pandemic raging, were “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton and “Main Street” by Sinclair Lewis, both social critiques (take-downs?) of high-end and middle of the road social society. F. Scott Fitzgerald published his coming of age story “This Side of Paradise” that year as well.
War novels captured the public’s attention and also won critical acclaim, such as 1922’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “One of Ours” by Willa Cather.
But it remains a mystery why, “despite its vast toll, the pandemic was never a big theme in American literature.”
There are exceptions, of course, with Katherine Ann Porter’s novella “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” being one of the most well known. (Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” is also frequently mentioned.)
But the scarcity of novels focusing on the 1918–1920 flu doesn’t mean it’s presence is not felt in American literature.
Literary clues of the Spanish Flu exist, but are subtle
In her book “Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature” (released this year), Elizabeth Outka acknowledges that it “was hard to characterize a familiar disease like influenza as the enemy. The war provided far more compelling enemies, ones that could be seen and put on posters and placed in stories…the flu lurked as this spectral trauma that made everything worse but didn’t solidify into its own historical event in the way that the war did.”
Literary evidence of the experience of living through that pandemic is not overt, Outka argues, but rather woven into the sense of trauma, grief and loss that was so much a part of the period. She points to the visceral descriptions in literature of the age that expose how the flu touched on people’s senses: seeing the physical changes in the bodies of those who were sick, hearing church bells chime, a sign that someone had died.
Her insight is worth holding onto as we think about how future writing might reconcile and consider the experience of our current pandemic.
Art, she says, has a way of helping us process the human experience of grief and loss, both at an individual and communal level: “Illness can come with a fair degree of unreality, and art can make it into something that has a structure and a shape. I think that grief is also somewhat like that. There’s this terrible vertigo of loss, where you’re kind of scrambling to figure out how to hold onto something, when the very point of loss is that there is nothing to hold onto. Art becomes so much more important.”
There is no world war competing for our attention now. And with a greater connectedness through digital communications, tools that are both helping us survive this time period while also channeling much of our anxiety and fear, we are all impacted by the coronavirus in some way, even if we never get sick.
Art has a way of helping us process the human experience of grief and loss
Everyone, in countless different ways, has experienced some form of trauma during this pandemic, through either death of a loved one or the stultifying impacts of extended social isolation.
From today’s vantage point, it seems impossible that the experience of the pandemic is something we can just forget or ignore, as much as we might want to.
Eventually, it will filter into art.
There’s no avoiding a writer’s historical context
When studying fiction, there is a reason to understand the context of the writer’s historical world. It sways how we see the story because it influences the writer’s perspective.
While there may be a limit to how much an artist’s occupancy in a specific time and place diffuses into their creative output, one’s writing is inherently of a time and place.
This pandemic is now with us, apart of us, each of us. While the stories we tell, both today and tomorrow, may not revolve around the pandemic, it will be almost impossible to weed the pandemic out completely.
Fiction created from nine months ago and moving forward, will come to be classified or labeled as before or after.
Writers will be composing from the perspective of having experienced the pandemic; they will be forced to identify how, in place and time, their stories are set in relation to the pandemic.
That choice is inevitable — and that delineation will have significant consequences on every scene, every interaction, every construct.
The pandemic has made so much of everyday life seem different
I’m working on a separate story set in a movie theater. One day we will again go out to the movies, but being in one now — just recalling being in one — even if a story is set in pre-pandemic times, brings forth memories and associations, perhaps even nostalgia, that carry extra weight. I certainly never intended to infuse that kind of emotion when I started that story; it’s simply about someone going to the movies alone.
But we see things differently now.
Every encounter you can think of, at gas stations, airports, hotels, houses, bars, apartments, offices, theaters, cafes, beds, anywhere where stories take place, anywhere where people are, will have different connotations and values attached to them.
Shaking hands will seem different. So too will large indoor gatherings such as meetings, schools and performances. The powerful imagery and language of love and sex, which depend on close, intimate contact, could be heightened.
There will also be stories like mine, of pandemic castaways, cut off from all things human except through screens and phones. Will there be stories to tell of the trauma and psychological withering from spending so much alone?
While I remain cocooned in my apartment, though, still avoiding most if not all social contact, I realize there are many not like me.
As I type this people are flooding airports for holiday travel, many have attended in person rallies or protests, created pods, continued a life far more closer to normal than I have.
And those who have continued to be around people, by choice, have stories to tell too, from thinking a global pandemic is a hoax, to soldiering on in the face of fear, obligation, or chasing a sense of normality.
Where are we in time?
A novel I just finished reading tool place almost entirely in an office setting. The handful of scenes not in an office were in someone’s apartment, or in a restaurant, or, ironically, enough, a hospital room.
The world this novel created was at once both normal and mundane — and completely foreign. It’s impossible to see that world right now, and not be fraught with anxiety over spreading or catching the virus. As a character, the virus is absent. We might not have that luxury in future fiction.
There will be artistic differences in choosing between pre-pandemic or during/after pandemic settings.
Through which lens, in which world, will writers take their readers on a journey to explore?
In one where we can pretend the pandemic never existed, oblivious to how much we took for granted and need social contact, access to medicine and child-care? Or a world fully aware of the pandemic, the anxiety of being exposed, the endless cycle of time at home, the constriction that has narrowed our lives?
Or maybe there will be in an in-between, such as a story where the absence of knowing which world it’s set in will make the reader decide. In that scenario, the writer will be presenting that choice to the reader, and as such, the pandemic will still be present, if only in the reader’s mind rather than on the page.
This makes it a confusing time to write. The most standard activity, such as riding in a taxi or Uber, will live in one of two worlds: one where social distancing was a concern, one where it isn’t.
It’s not that writers can’t create their own worlds, or weave back and forth in between worlds. Fiction writers create a world with every word. But it’s the perception and understanding of those worlds — especially in relation to our own — that allow us to understand and judge, enjoy or be horrified by, anticipate or be surprised, by what characters do.
Because what seems likely and what seems reasonable or too far-fetched is being redefined daily.
And just as we try to make sense of the world around us, it continues to change. Waves of more cases. More unemployment and evictions and other economic concerns. Environmental degradation. The hope of a vaccine.
The pandemic is — and will continue be — a prism
In reading up for this piece, I came across the novel “They Came Like Swallows” by William Maxwell. It is told through the eyes of an 8-year-old Midwestern child whose family is deeply impacted by the Spanish Flu.
Maxwell was born in 1908.
He published the novel in 1937.
Like the virus itself, markers of this period will be with us forever. Maybe it will take years or decades for the stories from this time to be told. The story of this pandemic, after all, is still being written.
I’m torn over what to do with the gas station story. It has a different meaning now, one that I never conceived of, naturally, when I conceived it.
To take out the interaction between the two men kills the story. And at least in our current situation, as I write this, that kind of interaction is a relic.
People are still going to gas stations, of course, but avoiding going inside. They certainly aren’t lingering and getting to know strangers.
After arriving at the gas station, the young man goes to the bathroom, and is surprised at how clean it is.
Our expectations for public bathrooms are much higher, and really, they always should have been. This is actually a general improvement in society, so let’s take it. But it struck me just how far the pandemic has reached into our lives, both our real ones and imagined ones.
Back then gas stations weren’t so clean, so to encounter one meant something that is far different than the normality of it today.
The pandemic is a prism, and it shapes or distorts all we see.
The pandemic doesn’t impact the crux of my gas station story nor does it take away, really, what the characters wind up talking about. I wrote the story in a world that exists, the only world I knew.
Now that world is in the past, and I can’t figure out if it matters.
Perhaps I shouldn’t worry about it and let the reader decide.
This post was previously published on The Writing Cooperative.
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