So, lately, every time I tuck into one of my fiction projects, I have an overwhelming urge to make all the characters go into self-isolation due to a global pandemic.
From their different worlds and happenings, my characters respond to me in their own ways:
“I feel like this new direction will undermine the potential import of what we’re actually trying to do here, Sulya. But – you know – as you will. I’m currently unemployed, with some savings, and I have a giant stack of books about chaos theory and dark matter on my nightstand.”
“I know you’re going to eventually make me talk about shit I don’t want to talk about and that lovely man is going to break my heart. So whatever. As long as you make sure my kid is safe somewhere, I’m happy to stay home with my cat and practice Shostakovich.”
“First I break my leg in a toilet and now I’m hiding from Super-Virus? Bit much don’t you think? Have you been drinking too?”
The thing is, though, that’s what this virus has done isn’t it?
It’s swept in and changed all the plots.
In light of this, it’s not really unreasonable for me to feel like fiction pieces, some of which I started three years ago, aren’t “relevant” right now. Variously, I am writing about teachers, parents, playwrights, musicians, farmers, accountants, scientists. Literally none of those occupations have the same “normal” they did a few weeks ago. My teenaged son experienced his first “online” public schooling just this week. In my neck of the woods, I’m pretty sure no one is currently allowed to perform or see plays. I really should get my tax stuff to my accountant because I’m sure he’s still working, but even his normally entrenched, seasonal deadlines have been materially and purposefully changed to accommodate the growing weirdness.
Just last week, I was baffled that Contagion was the number one watched movie on Netflix for a while, but I’m not anymore. A lot of us feel knocked out of our regular stories so we’re looking to connect with the stories that feel closer to our new truths. My fiction also has “before-pandemic” roots. To maintain its credibility, it’s not surprising that I keep wanting to add pandemics and massive changes in economy, enforceable laws, and social practices.
And hand sanitizer.
And toilet paper.
And people arguing about toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
Good old fashioned thin-poop-paper and gelatinous alcohol fisticuffs.
If I made the drastic changes I keep wanting to make, my character’s kid could sleep on a giant stack of toilet paper. Maybe they feel a wayward pea under there? Maybe they get to marry royalty for being a Highly Sensitive Person?
Toilet-Broken-Leg-Gal obviously can’t shower easily, but she does have a budding love interest and who wouldn’t want to read about a sexy hand sanitizer rub down? There’s a porn for everything right?
Feel that cool burn, I say.
Feel. That. Cool. Burn.
Unemployed guy can read all his books, create topiary animals in a newly grown beard, and learn to darn his socks from YouTube videos.
Worthy ideas, all.
I’m that good.
The bald truth is that none of the things I’ve been writing are about a global pandemic.
Or toilet paper. Or hand sanitizer.
All the issues and curiosities, problems, attractions, heartbreak, and politics that made me start writing these pieces still exist in the human condition. All of my muses may be indoors more than usual, and have germ-free hands that feel like air-dried raw chicken skin, but everything I started writing about pre-pandemic still matters to me.
I feel disconnected and weird and worried and tired and wired pretty much all the time right now, but the world hasn’t actually ended. It’s just taken a drastic, collective, sometimes scary, sometimes interesting, and always challenging, turn.
Humans are still the same incredible combination of awesome/kind/creative and selfish/mean/dumbf—k that we’ve always been.
I’m sure I’m going to eventually write about all this weirdness in fiction. But, if I did it now, to these stories, it would be reactive and wrong.
Obviously, no writer can ever be sure anything they write will ever matter to anyone until the work is shared. It’s just that I have to finish work to share it. And to finish means I can’t stare glassy-eyed at the screen or pen in contemplation of drastic plot-derailment just because my plot feels drastically derailed.
The pandemic plot-change is very real in the Real, but my fiction must hold true to itself because we still need stories that aren’t just about flattening steep curves on graphs or the numbers of new cases and deaths. Our stories can’t all be about how to bunker down sanely with family during mandatory quarantine. We can’t only think about how to wrestle with new forms of solitude.
Abrupt change in circumstances is not the same thing as being swallowed whole by weirdness even when it feels that way sometimes.
My characters showed up and offered me their stories and I said “yes.” They’ll follow my lead when they have to, but really, it’s their show and I’m just trying to keep up and offer what I can. I don’t want to be the person in my own writers’ room who thinks “Rosebud” should have been code word activation for a zombie-alien invasion in Citizen Kane.
We all still have stories that exist beyond the too-easily-consuming pandemic plot lines of our collectively, and increasingly, weird day-to-day.
And, so do my characters.
I wrote this because I needed to remember that even in Our Year of the Plague, the plague is not the only story.
Not for me. Not for my characters. Not for any of you.
The wave of weirdness is going to keep on crashing for a while but don’t let it snack on your stories. Hold your plots close, please. Then, imagine new and better ones and hold those close too.
All the stories matter and I’m going to try to keep writing mine.