Isolation as springboard for creativity

How a writer turns pandemic into annus mirabilis


It was inevitable: the smell of Purell would always remind her of the winter of 2020.

Maybe that will be the first line of my novel about life during the great coronavirus pandemic. As a writer - albeit of erratic output - I know that isolation can be a springboard for creativity. When I'm stuck on a character's motivation or have a plot hole in need of filling, I jump in my car for a silent solo road trip.

The romance novelist Nora Roberts began her first novel when stranded at home during a blizzard. How she had time to write with two toddlers in the house is a mystery. Shakespeare supposedly wrote "King Lear," "Antony and Cleopatra" and "Macbeth" when the Black Death shut down London in 1606.

The year of the last major outbreak of the plague in Europe, 1665, was Isaac Newton's annus mirabilis. Sent home from Cambridge, Newton used the period of sequestration at the family manor to develop the basis of early calculus, and with a set of prisms and a hole made in a window shutter, conceived his theories of optics. (Students take note: Newton accomplished these mathematical and scientific feats without academic guidance.)

For the last 20 years of her life, Emily Dickinson lived in both physical and creative isolation. She rarely left her bedroom in the family home, conversing with visitors through the door, and wrote hundreds of poem that she shared with only a few trusted friends, demurring when encouraged to publish. Hiding her work from a world she thought would not understand her prevented Dickinson from being pigeonholed in a specific poetic style and free to write where the muse took her.

The restrictions of the current pandemic have generated a wave of coronavirus-themed videos and articles that range from the inspirational to the satirical to the instructive to the just plain weird, but it is too soon to know what great works of literature, art and science will also come from it.

I am spending too many hours of my isolation scrolling Facebook to see what my friends are doing in theirs, checking websites for updates on new cases and new bans, and not writing. It is likely that much of the world is doing the same (I just looked over at my step-daughter, who instead of reading the book she has to write a paper on, is watching videos on her phone, one earphone in her left ear).

People may have been forced to shrink their worlds to the walls of their homes, but as long as they can't catch the virus from the Internet or an Xbox, the time they spend streaming movies, checking social media, shopping for nonessential items or battling villains in Runeterra while racking up micro-transactions will remain constant or increase.

If I were to find the discipline to put down my phone and write a novel of the coronapocalypse, what genre would it belong to?

Not dystopian as that pessimistic world view is not one I care to inhabit either literally or in my imagination. I don't want to write about the loss of human life because a president was only interested in positive outcomes that would help his reelection campaign, and the fear of displeasing him caused his staff to underplay, underestimate and out right lie about the numbers.

Absurdist? Ridiculous things are happening during this crisis: women coming to blows over rolls of toilet paper for an illness that does not cause diarrhea nor excessive peeing; the hoarding of masks and hand sanitizer whose efficacy against the virus is questioned by health officials; and the diversion of a United Airlines flight because a man who was coughing and sneezing freaked out some other passengers (he had allergies). I have read Camus, Kafka and Beckett and I didn't really understand them so I don't think I'm smart enough to be an absurdist writer.

Maybe I could write a sweeping love story set against the backdrop of a global contagion, like the novel from which I purloined my opening sentence.

But I think I would choose to write the story of a painful though timely intervention. While debate is raging over climate change, Mother Nature steps in to remind us of the world we are losing but it is not too late to regain. A world where dolphins and swans swim again in the canals of Venice and the water is so clear you can see the bottom. Where bird songs fill the pollution-free air of once congested cities. Where the rich eradicate poverty by redistributing their wealth. Where fear and hatred are banished. Where humans rediscover the interconnectedness of all life.

It's probably fantasy, but I wish it were nonfiction.


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