The Writer in the Time of the Coronavirus*

Last Updated on March 23, 2022

Photo by Amy Friedman

Not all writers are introverts. Until we're writing. In the earliest days of our physical distancing and increasing isolation as a result of the coronavirus, many writers likely felt relief, even comfort. Isolation? Check. Staying home? A blessing. No large gatherings? Bliss. A sameness of days and nights. What's new?

Even those whose books were released and had scheduled book tours, interviews, and other opportunities to bring their work into the world, may, after a wash of disappointment, have felt a touch of relaxation. No need to dress and brush hair or glad-hand and chat with strangers. Back to the drawing board. Back to our rooms.

Having all the time in the world to write may sound like a dream, but this moment is no dream. We're inundated with bad news, surrounded by edgy children, illness, fear, and uncertainty, and many of us are separated from some of those who matter most to us. In a time like this, writing may feel like the last thing in the world we are inspired to do.

Still, I encourage you to keep writing, for your writing may actually be a remedy for the sorrow, fear, confusion, empty-headedness, and aching hearts — yours and others'. As the poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “a tunnel of silence... can be fertilizing, it can bathe the imagination… Such living silences are more and more endangered throughout the world, by commerce and appropriation.”

Finding Your Muse

If finding your own muse is difficult now, you might begin by nurturing your soul with poetry, stories, and essays that will inspire future work. Now may be the time for you to replenish rather than write. And now, in a world where commerce and appropriation have stopped churning, we can turn to our most prescient and courageous forebears, writers like Rich and her powerful Arts of the Possible.

There are others too. I've turned to poets who remind me of the power of stillness, those like Wendell Berry and his How to Be a Poet (To Remind Myself). Tucked into that poem is a recipe for being a good human being. He writes about acceptance of what comes from silence, of making the best of it, and I think of relishing those silences and taking care not to intrude upon them with the noise of what might happen in the days, weeks, months ahead. Thought yes, noise no.

During the first week of isolation, I came upon the exquisite poem “Keeping Quiet” by Pablo Neruda, written in the 1950s. I discovered it by traveling through a tunnel of wisdom, from Rich to Berry to Krista Tippett's thought-provoking podcast On Being, a guide for finding a fuller life. In those times when the muse is quiet, hiding, seeking you to take the lead, I recommend traveling those tunnels we sometimes discover as we are looking for our way in the dark. Seek out the wisdom of others. Be still. Listen. Read. Ponder words, sentences, stanzas.

When Our Muses Wake

Neruda's poem may well be the beginning of a recipe for being a writer and to becoming one of the guides for what we will be when the engines of commerce and appropriation once again grow loud. He cautions us to stay quiet so we may learn the language that accurately describes the experience so many of us are having these pandemic days. Doing nothing should not be confused with being inactive.

Neruda points out what so many writers already know: As humans, we are often so busy keeping our lives moving, we forget to pause, breathe, take the time we need to understand ourselves and the world around us. The earth has a great deal to teach us. Especially now as spring comes to the northern hemisphere, we're all aware that just when we cannot endure another day or week of bare trees, frigid temperatures, empty streets, we are beginning to see leaves and flowers bloom, birds and fish return, animals wake from slumber. A return to what we think of as life is ahead; and the noise of it will return. We would do well to recognize this quiet as a gift.

When our muses wake, nurtured by reading, thinking, and this profound stillness, we may well have a new and deeper language.

*Inspired by Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Amy Friedman

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