Seven days ago, I looked at my in-progress stories and thought, who gives a shit about any of this? I’ll admit it. I’m worried. Not panicky but worried. And I’m stressed too. My kids’ school just closed indefinitely. My parents are in their 70s and live in another state.
For the last few days, I’ve struggled to focus on my writing. But I’m lucky. I still have a paycheck, a side gig, and my kids’ school will conduct classes online. And most importantly, we’re all healthy. But that angst of uncertainty and panic still hovers like an annoying gnat you swat away only to be replaced by another. I’ve learned a few strategies to deal with the stress, and it helps.
My writing, though, feels forced, and I know why.
Five days ago, I wrote a draft of a story about relationships — one of those pieces where I limped to the finish line. The funny thing is, a week ago, I thought it would become my best work. For weeks, I had been seeking out people in longterm relationships and asking them how they’ve stayed happy for so long. At the moment, it doesn’t excite me, and I feel no desire to finish it. It’ll have to wait.
So what do I do? What do you do? The answer’s obvious. You write. People wrote plenty of books in 1919, at the height of the Spanish Flu. Writers penned several classics in 1943 when WWII raged. There’s no reason to avoid it today. But what do we write about? Do you press on as if the world still exists in the pre-COVID-19 era?
Tastes change during times of upheaval. The reader who would have eagerly clicked on a story about relationships or growth hacking may not care about that anymore. Now, they just want to know how to stay safe, and maybe deflect their fear with something light. Honestly, I don’t know what they want. I’m guessing. But, I just downloaded three fiction books to my Audible account, so I’m jumping aboard the distraction train.
For the last few years, I’ve followed a simple approach to writing: connect personal experience to a universal issue that appeals to a broad audience. But now we have this looming threat hanging over us. I can’t ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist.
Somehow, I need to convey that uncertainty and occasional fear with those broader issues. I can’t pretend it doesn’t exist for the sake of writing an evergreen story. That feels disingenuous.
It’s okay to let your environment influence what you write and define how you approach a topic. That’s what makes you unique. Fuck evergreen stories. Tap into the emotion you feel, that everyone feels. Let other people know your challenges.
COVID-19 doesn’t have to play a central role in every story you write. But recognize it, let it shape you, and above all, acknowledge the new reality. Here are a few ways I plan on incorporating current events into my writing.
Bake it into the introduction
Write a short personal narrative that mentions, references, or implies a connection to some aspect of life in the era of COVID-19. If I were writing something today, I’d mention our family hike in the woods this morning — an attempt to have fun while social distancing.
Don’t feel compelled to portray everything as gloomy. A short story about how you couldn’t find coffee at any of your local supermarkets adds a bit of levity. You don’t even need to mention the virus. Your readers will connect the dots.
Share your story
Don’t tell it like a press release. Be descriptive. Write a scene. Demonstrate what you’re going through. How has your life changed? How has it affected your relationships, career, financial situation? Are you awaiting test results? What’s it like? How are you coping or failing to cope? And what’s the takeaway you want others to remember? These questions will spark dozens of ideas. No, not all of them will pan out, but some will.
If you’re unable to come up with an interesting story, consider using your current environment as a backdrop: food shopping in a quarantine environment, working from home strategies, commuting on empty roads.
Tie in current events with a universal issue
Focus on one aspect of what’s happening and connect it to something universal: how people respond to fear, how to calm yourself in times of stress, finding love, the importance of leadership, the divide between the wealthy and poor.
There’s a nearly infinite number of possibilities if you narrow your focus enough. Zoom in on a single aspect, event, or situation and dissect it. In times of crisis, there are always lessons we can learn.
You don’t have to write about it all the time. And you shouldn’t. But don’t avoid it because you feel it’s a transitory issue or because it’s discomforting. Reveal that human being behind the keyboard. Reading about other people sharing similar struggles, fears, and hardships remind us that we’re not alone in the world.