A Writer in the Time of Pandemic

I never thought I would live through something like this. I thought plagues and pestilences were something I would only read about in books or see in historical TV dramas. A horrible ghost haunting Elizabethan romances and hackneyed documentaries about ancient Rome. But that’s not our fate.

Writer Isolation

It’s frankly difficult for me to process everything that’s happened in this past month alone. The closures of businesses, schools, restaurants and public gatherings. Here in Virginia a couple of days ago, the governor made clear what’s been common practice for most of us for some time: We are all to stay at home unless we need vital food, supplies, or medicine. An exception was made for some exercise. Bracing stuff, but necessary and the right call.

I really don’t know what to say at times like these. Words do fail me. Which is odd for a writer to say. But it’s true…

What I will say is that our country, and the world, need to do better. There were many warning signs about this that were downplayed or simply ignored. There are clearly systemic weaknesses, particularly here in America, that need to be addressed to mitigate and treat this now and to make sure it never happens again. I’m not a public health expert and it’s not my place to make suggestions or theorize as to what these steps might be. But we desperately need advice and plans from qualified health experts over the coming weeks, months and years. And then we need to adequately fund and act on them.

Secondly, I want to share my thanks for the work of all first responders (doctor, medics, nurses, firemen, police) here at home and around the world. And anyone who is still out there, going to their job each day to do essential work at grocery stores, factories, security firms, power/water plants, trash collection facilities, the post office, etc., etc. While the rest of us are hunkered down safely inside you’re out there, keeping society functioning and safe for the rest of us and at risk to your own health. I can not thank you enough. This goes especially for the nurses and doctors on the front lines fighting this disease.

While I won’t comment on the public health aspects of this, I do want to share some of my thoughts. I do want you to know how I am and what I’ve been doing the last couple of weeks as this has taken hold. In short, my physical health has been fine, but mentally, frankly, it’s been a challenge. And how could it not be? With the daily drip, drip, drip of bad news globally, nationally and locally–how could it not be?

So, I’m going to share a bit of what I have been up to during this time in the hope that sharing it will ease the burden for me and might be a boost for you. So, without further ado, here’s my update. What this writer has been doing in the time of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

I left work and entered self-isolation here at home on April 13 at 4:22 p.m. We still have the stopwatch going, yes. So, that marks 19 days in self-isolation so far.

I wish we had a vaccine. I wish we had more testing kits available. I wish we had ventilators and more masks. But we don’t. What we do have is knowledge: the germ theory, epidemiology. And they tell us that we need to practice physical distancing. That’s the tool and that’s what we’re going to use. We certainly are here.

My wife and I are lucky in that we both have office jobs that aren’t deemed essential. That means that we both can work from home and still get a paycheck without having to venture out. We’re very fortunate that way. Very.

Honestly, a lot of my life this past couple of weeks has been sucked up into work. I happen to be a guy who, well, gets drafted into crisis communications, that sort of thing. It’s a blessing and a curse.

In certain ways, it’s a welcome distraction. In other ways, I wish I could focus on other things (like you know, writing fiction). But at the same time, I just need to remind myself this is a pretty good gig and I’m pulling a paycheck which is really lucky at the end of the day.

With all this time around the house, it’s not surprising you turn to different things. One thing I’ve turned to is gardening. It seems a lot of other people have, too. I think the reason that so many have is that it not only relaxes you, but connects you to nature and gives you a sense of accomplishment. You plant a seed, something tiny, and then…with care and time, it pops up and becomes something entirely different and new.

And over time, you start getting a little better at it. It’s just reassuring at this time of so much negativity to see a simple spring garden budding, moving forward without a care in the world. I guess that’s what it really is for me.

Here’s some live footage:

Blue bell

Of course, as a writer, there has to be a good amount of reading when I’m not working or out in the garden. A lot of it is what I’d call “comfort reading” the sort of stuff I have turned to in times of struggle, tribulation, and crisis in the past. Some is research, some are classics. All of them speak to me. In no order here’s what I’ve been reading:

Heruka’s Life of Milarepa — A great rambunctious sinner and practitioner of black magic comes to have regrets for all the carnage he’s caused. Reflecting on the many painful reincarnations to come, he changes his ways, and sets off to find a lama to guide him toward enlightenment. Set in 12th century Tibet it can be a slow read, but it’s plenty interesting.

Dogen’s essays on Zen, Shobogenzo — Here is some dense reading on Soto Zen Buddhism. Sure, there’s the talk about space and time being an illusion. But also about the self being an illusion–that’s the tough one. Interesting and heady stuff.

Maimonides, The Ethical Writings — This is more research. A leading scholar of Jewish law and renowned Andalusian philosopher takes on what makes a wise man…well….wise. His answer? Eerily similar to those Buddhists above: The man who takes the Middle Path between austerity and avarice, between anger and complacency. Interesting to compare and contrast with other Muslim and Christian thinkers of the same time like ibn Rushd.

Epictetus, The Discourses — In which the former slave reminds us that all we ever really have are our own choices. Keeping this one close, right on my bed stand. And cracking it open often during these trying times.

So, motivated by the Zen Master Dogen (above), I decided to dive into meditating. My friend Matt had given me a nudge earlier and recommended Headspace, a meditation app. Really. There’s an app for that.

I think it’s important to have new experiences and try new things. The app has told me I’ve meditated 11 times now. I usually do a 10-minute session. The first 5-7 times were really tough and, honestly, felt more stressful than not doing it. You’re always fighting with not sitting comfortably or having your mind wander to thought after thought after thought (they say you should just let them rise and fall, but still…!). But somewhere around session 8 or so, I felt I was getting “better” at it. I felt calmer, more relaxed. The mind would either let images go if they came up or, on rare occasions, would remain clear for a few precious moments. After those sessions, I did feel better, calmer, more focused afterwards.

It’s something that at least, doesn’t harm me and seems to help. Something to keep up over the next couple of months, if I can. Headspace offers the first sessions for free, so now I’m going to try just doing this one my own and see how that works.

Checking in with friends, neighbors and family
This is really important. We’ve made sure to check in with family (especially the parents and others who are getting on a bit), friends and neighbors. We just want to make sure everybody is hanging in there and OK. The frustrating and anxiety-inducing thing is that we’re all in lock down and it would be hard to help. But that makes it even more important to check in and talk. And even to reach out to those friends and others who maybe you haven’t talked to in awhile.

Helping Out Where I Can
My wife and I are also trying to fund those businesses that we normally had patronized but no longer can. That means local businesses like restaurants. We have bought a number of gift certificates from them. We’re making sure to keep paying for any maintenance or services like HVAC maintenance, cleaning, etc. that we would normally pay for (even though they don’t come to the house now). We want to help out as long as we can here, especially since we’ll need these services when things get back to normal.

And I’m looking at what I can do to help promote some artists, some good causes and some independent bookstores on my Twitter. Check there soon for more on this front.

Going Easy on Myself and Others
Sure, they say Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine (but did he really?). You know what? Good for him! Hey, everybody look, it’s Billy Shakespeare pulling romances and historical dramas and fantasies out of thin air and creating masterpieces that last for centuries. Even a plague hasn’t stopped him from producing another gem. Well hell, great job, Bill!

But seriously, not everyone is going to do that. And you shouldn’t set this as a goal for yourself. The goal you should set for yourself is surviving this pandemic. Everything else should take a back seat to that. Is your writing or creative activity in a lurch–that’s fine! Is your yard going to hell? Fine. Have you not shaved in the past month? Fine.

Are you stocked up and focused on just getting through this? Good. Maybe checked in with some older friends or family members? Fine. You’re doing exactly what you need to do: Get through this thing.

It’s just a reminder for me to go easy on myself. And to go easier on others. It’s a tough time.

Writing fiction
That being said, I have found some time to write fiction. Not as much or as often as I would have liked. But I am adding to the word count. Sure, the word count is lower than usual, but you know what? That’s OK. These are extraordinary times, work is crazy and the news is simply horrible. So, I do what I can do. I turned back to it last Sunday and it was great, super stress-relieving. It was just great to do something I do on a regular basis and just tap, tap away at the keyboard. It seemed to hold off the darkness just a little bit more. So, I’m going to keep doing it, but not stress if I don’t hit my wordcounts. Simple as that.

Having faith in the future
Lastly, it’s important to know humanity will get through this. I mean that the human species will live through this just as we have through the plagues of the past. And if you’re a student of history (like me), you’ll know that over the long term, things could look even brighter. Think about it.

After the chaos of the Black Death came the Renaissance. After the flu pandemic of 1918, we had the booming 20s. I believe once this is over and we have a serious discussion about how to avoid it again, that things will get better. They could even be much better, with time. But we need people to work for that future and believe in it. People who believe tomorrow can be better than today. And that hard work begins…rightnow.

Take care of yourself out there. And be good to others.

Until next time,


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