Back in early March, before it felt like we were trapped in a lousy cinematic mashup of Chernobyl, Contagion, and Zombieland, I was on a writing retreat with my good pal Toby Neal. We were holed up in a cheap turquoise motel on the trolley tracks near the beach in San Francisco. Toby had a horrible cough—no, not that one—and had brought her prancing little dog with her. I was on my way to visit my daughter in Oregon, who’s soon to be married.
Neither of us, despite all of those walks on the beach, saw the tsunami headed our way. Now that we’re back home and hunkered down—I’m in Massachusetts and she’s in California—Toby has been encouraging me to keep a journal, and to write her letters about whatever I’m going through.
“This is history in the making,” she reminds me, “and artists have to record it.”
She’s right. I know that’s true.
But, although my family is fine so far, I am filled with grief: for the people who are losing loved ones, for those who are struggling to find a way to put food on the table as the economy spirals downward, for the heroes keeping the ambulances and hospitals operating. I am sad for all of our children who are either too young to understand why they can’t play with friends or old enough to know that the careers they’re trying for and the trips they hoped to take this summer are on hold, maybe for a long time.
How can I write fiction, in the middle of all this?
It seems pointless. Frivolous, even, especially since I have just finished a manuscript, a book that I love. My agent is about to submit the manuscript to editors, to “shop it around,” as we used to say, back when publishers bought enough books that we could say fun things like that.
And yet, how can I not write?
While we were together, Toby gave me a wonderful gift, a collection of essays called Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process. There are many great pieces in the book, but my favorite is “Time Passes” by Maggie Shipstead.
She writes, “A novel…is a portal into a preserved wedge of time, a past, present, and future that can be revisited in a way our own can never be…It’s a trade: the writer sits at her desk (or somewhere) and expends many, many quiet hours of her solitary life in exchange for the opportunity to build more lives, imaginary ones, cantilevering them off her own and out into the ether.”
It is the word “opportunity” that snagged my attention here. As a writer, I do have the opportunity to build new lives. I can imagine scenarios where I travel to Spain or Nepal, to 1878 or 2024. I can be twenty years old again or a woman of ninety. I don’t have to stay right here, right now, because I have the magical ability to write my way out of this world and into another.
What a gift that is. And so, yes, I have started a new novel, a portal to a different world.
What about you? Are you reading to escape? Are you writing? Have you had trouble keeping your mind on it lately? Or are you digging in harder than ever? Let me know. I’d love to hear how it’s going.