Exercises for the Pandemic

"You have to pick the places you don't walk away from."

—Joan Didion

Week 1: Writing in the Wake of the Coronavirus

Read the following short essay, "Fear of an Invisible Threat," published in The New Republic by Kerry Howley, in which Howley attempts to explore her fears about the coronavirus by way of a children's book and her young son's fascination with microbes. In many ways, this essay does exactly what we know the best essays do: they take, as Bernard Cooper writes, "some small aspect of what it's like to be human" and magnify it, enlarge it, inhabit it in such a way that it makes space for others to feel, think, and relate. Often, as we know, this "small aspect of what it is like to be human" is personal: the author's son's children's book, or her son's fascination with an invisible world. But it is through the act of essaying that the writer—in this case, Kerry Howley—inhabits a larger world and bridges the divide between the personal and the universal, creating a shared sense of experience about something much larger than a microbe (an invisible world, her mother, a pandemic).

After you've read the essay, consider your own lives over the past two weeks. What has changed? Which "scenes" from your own life (if you were to consider the past a play-back reel) stand out from this time? Now, consider the smallest change you've noticed. The smaller, the better. In Kerry Howley's case, it was her son's fascination with very small things, which then blossomed to her own understanding of her child's fascination, to eventually what that meant, in reality, for her mother. Go small. Go unexpected. How might you use this tiny detail or image to describe and explore a larger feeling, thought, or idea?



Week 2: Writing The Family Story

This week, we will make lemonade from the lemons we've been dealt: we will use our time at home and with family to interrogate, gently, our own generational secrets and the stories and history of family dynamics. As you are all now adults, and because we are living in a time of crisis, you may find that family members are more willing to have frank and honest adult conversations with you about what life was like before you entered it. Or what life was like for their parents, or their parents, or maybe even theirs. They might tell you stories passed down. They might tell you stories firsthand. They might trust that you can now understand a story that might not have been easily incorporated into your previous fabric of understanding. They might simply feel open.


To get you started, read the following short essay, "The Closet of Many Heads," published in Brevity Magazine by Natalie Rose Richardson, in which Richardson attempts to explore her father's childhood and his relationship with his mother through her grandmother's closet full of wigs. Once again, notice the ways in which this essay takes the small and makes it large, inhabits it, moves from a grandmother's hair accessories to a father's acknowledgment of his mother's sense of shame about race, about circumstance. Notice the essay equally informs about the grandmother and the son.


Alternatively, you might also read this essay—"Transubstantiate," published in Brevity Magazine by Rachel Yoder—and note the ways Yoder also moves from also discussing a hair piece (her aunts' glorious hair patties!) to meditating on her own childhood fascinations and questions about being a Mennonite, about the resurrection, about Christ and transubstantiation and what, ultimately, she believes.

After you've read these essays, begin to make space in your life for conversations that may occur naturally with family members in this time of tension. Begin small: ask if this period in time makes them think about another unprecedented American event. Ask what their childhood was like. Ask why you don't see that aunt anymore. Gradually build, but the key here is to listen. Listen, and work to reveal their story not by probing, but by continually asking open-ended questions: What was that like? How did that make you feel? Why do you think that was? Then what?

Eventually, you'll come to a story that you didn't know existed, one that no doubt will add dimension to your family, your history, your origin narrative. Maybe it's hard or maybe it's wonderfully light. There is space, of course, in all families for both.

Then, begin to draft, starting—once more—with the small: the closet of wigs, the hair patty. Begin with one sharp line.


Week 3: Letter To A Future Self

This week features an exercise that will result in less a work of creative writing than a work of meditation and self-empowerment. The task is to write a letter to a future self, a self that exists and is thriving next April, when ideally the country is no longer facing prolonged self-quarantine and shelter-in-place. Think of this as an exercise in self-love, a means of emboldening self-confidence, and a way of preserving and protecting what is important to you today (and well into the future).

Begin by saying hello—introduce yourself to yourself. Tell future you who you are today—what you're feeling, how you're spending your time, what skills and hobbies you're acquiring. What are you proud of? What are you perhaps less proud of? How has quarantine been for you? What has it brought up for you? What has come as a surprise to you about this period of time? What, perhaps, has not? What discoveries and new revelations have you made? What about them makes them good? What do you feel you’re learning about yourself? What about yourself are you working to understand or be patient with?


And who is this you hope to be, twelve months into the future? What do you hope for them? Who do you want them to be? What do you want them to remember, to understand, to grow towards, to believe? Encourage them. Share something that will make them laugh. Give them further aspirations, further motivation. Embolden future you.


Remember: these letters are for you and you alone. After you finish, seal them and put them somewhere safe. Mark on a calendar (or in your phone) a reminder for April that they exist. Next year, you'll open them just as the snow begins to thaw. Who will you be? What will have changed?

Be generous, be considerate, be thoughtful, be kind. Take an hour. Take two. Whatever you do, make this dispatch sound.

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