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a:Who Are We Now?

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I started a new novel recently and found, even without expecting it, that the pandemic was part of my new story, so inextricably woven into the fabric of my life now that I can’t create a fictional world in which it doesn’t exist, or never happened. But oh, my God, once this pandemic is over is anyone really going to want to read a novel that takes us back to this time? I doubt it. So what to do?

What I realized is that the heart of this pandemic isn’t about what we’ve all been doing during these endless days of isolation and quarantine, how we’ve filled our time, who we’ve squabbled with or longed for or avoided. It’s about who we’ve become. The pandemic has deepened our understanding of what it means to be human in the most basic sense—vulnerable to illness and grief, dependent on social connection that’s suddenly been yanked away, fearful, courageous, grateful, lonely. These months and months have provided us an opportunity to understand essential, universal experiences in a way that can only enrich the characters and worlds we write. It’s one thing to imagine being lonely or afraid; it’s another to live it and know in your guts and bones what it means.

We are all different people than we were a year ago, scarred and strengthened and forged into something else. And all of it is a rich lode of understanding we can mine to create characters. Consider:

  • Use the understanding of loneliness. Whether you’ve been living alone or in a house with seven roommates, we’ve all experienced a different kind of loneliness this year. What kind of loneliness have your characters experienced? What do they do with that? How has it changed them?
  • Use the understanding of our need for connection. Before the pandemic, did it ever occur to you that you might miss chatting with the guy who makes your sandwich at the deli, smiling at a rambunctious toddler who smiles back, or even accidentally bumping into someone on a crowded sidewalk? Exactly. It’s not just the dinners with friends, the big holiday parties, the July Fourth parades and graduations and homecomings that we miss; every bit of social connection matters. Show the little connections as well as the big ones when you write.
  • Use the understanding of how much it matters to be physically touched. I was out walking with a friend last week and he said something that poignant and instinctively I reached out to touch his arm—then I drew my hand back. When my adult daughters visit (six feet away, wearing masks, outside on our back porch) my longing to hug them is almost a physical pain. It had never occurred to me that empty arms could actually ache. How do your characters feel about physical touch? Do they shy from it, overdo it, fear it? What does the way they feel about touch show about who they are? Maybe one of your characters has to go a long time without touch for some reason. How does that affect them?
  • Use the understanding of compassion. My mother died in December after a brief illness. For months I had worried she would die during the pandemic, that I’d be denied the comfort of a funeral and family and hugs from friends. What I found was that precisely because people couldn’t comfort me in person, they comforted me with everything they had to offer. Pots of soup appeared on the doorstep; homemade bread, still warm from the over, was left wrapped in a clean dishtowel. Bouquets of flowers, a peace lily in bloom, bottles of wine, cookies, heartfelt emails and hand-written notes, even a warm, fuzzy blanket—they all came pouring in. It felt to me as though people were even more thoughtful and supportive than they might have been in regular times, when we were all caught up in the busy-ness of our own lives. How do your characters show compassion? Why? Have they had experiences that have made them more empathetic, or hardened them?
  • Use the understanding of loss. Everyone has lost something or someone over this last year. That loss unites us. Loss is the single most universal human experience. It can bring us to our knees, it can deepen our compassion, it can inspire us, but it doesn’t leave us unchanged. What losses have your characters gone through? How has it changed them?
  • Use the understanding of gratitude. Seriously, a year ago did you ever think about how grateful you were for a hug from a friend, being on a crowded airplane to go someplace, sitting in a restaurant, or going to a movie theater? Right, neither did I. The pandemic has shown us what it means to be grateful, expanded our understanding of the things we might be grateful for. What do your characters take for granted? What do they appreciate?
  • Use the understanding of fear. Who hasn’t been afraid this year? Fear of getting sick, of dying, of losing people we love, not to mention the very real fear of losing a job, a livelihood, a home, food security. This is some very scary shit, people. How many nights have you lain awake thinking, “Oh, my God. What if….?” Right. What do your characters fear? How do they handle their fears? What do they do if the things they fear are amorphous (pandemics) versus concrete (that snake is about to bite me)?
  • Use the understanding of courage. Finally, the pandemic has shone a spotlight on heroism. It’s one thing to be a nurse and go to work every day knowing you will have to deal with illness and bodily fluids and sadness, etc. It’s another to be a nurse and go to work every day knowing you may catch a disease that kills you. Think about the courage you’ve witnessed this year. How can your characters show courage? How might they surprise themselves with their own courage?

How has the pandemic changed you? How can you use that in your fiction?


About Kathleen McCleary

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.


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