Writing in a Pandemic

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For the past month, a Tarot card that means reprieve has consistently found its way into my weekly story prompt. Sometimes it defines the question. Sometimes it’s the unknown quantity that might determine the outcome. Either way, reprieve is in the cards.

I find this comforting. Whether a reprieve from a broken Washington, a reprieve through self-knowledge or a reprieve via creative insight, all of it seems good. And I see this theme cropping up in places besides my Celtic Cross spreads. My writing group met on Zoom this week. We are normally very disciplined, sticking to the text of the pieces we are discussing, offering useful comments about improving our stories. This week, the sense of loss evoked in the writing provoked a different response that reverberated through the group.

I find myself wondering how much of it was the fictional stories we reviewed and how much of it was the proximity of loss all around us that bled into our comments. In e-mails after the group, one member revealed that a family member had died of the virus. Another commented that we may need to be prepared for more losses as this pandemic runs its course. And though it is unusual to discuss personal issues in our group, the underlying impetus for much writing is personal loss.

My husband tells a story that may be germane here. A friend of his from college, an English major, saw his first snow during his freshman year at an Eastern college. They were walking across campus, white flakes drifting into piles of white flakes. The African student said, “You know that snow means death.” Such a normal phenomenon across most of the United States is a literary symbol which becomes potent when it overcomes the barriers that we erect against it. Heated buildings, roaring fires, protective snow gear, all the ways that man overcomes nature. Until, as in Jack London’s To Build a Fire, nature overcomes man.

As a culture, we have celebrated rugged individualism. We’ve gone into the wilderness, positive that we would return, sure of being protected from the worst by our pluck, ingenuity, entrepreneurship and free market economy. But some things require a group and to be a group, we need to pull together. We need to listen to the advice of people who know more than we do. That means finding some other song to sing besides America First.

We do need America to come together, but that’s not enough. The virus is here. The means to fight it are spread around the world. Isolation is the first defense. But cooperation can’t be far behind or we risk freezing to death as a result of our own stubborn denial regarding the risks. And unlike a man freezing in the wild, we will take others with us if we can’t admit that we need each other.

There are two versions of To Build a Fire. In one version, the protagonist dies. In the other, he sustains frostbite and becomes a wiser person. We could use a little wisdom as we fight our battle with nature. Reprieve is in the cards, the question is how we go about making that happen and how much damage we sustain before the pandemic is over.

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