EXPRESS YOURSELF

Why Writing Matters, Even in a Pandemic

We won’t forget all the mundane intricacies of life during the time of Covid-19 — thanks to the personal essay

Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C., during the influenza pandemic of 1918. / Photo: Library of Congress

The reliance of contemporary journalism, particularly online journalism, on the personal essay has been the subject of criticism and sometimes revulsion — often with subtexts about generations and gender, navel-gazing youth taught by years of therapy to look within for the most important subject.

Then the pandemic happened.

When it did, a lot of us looked back to the last similar pandemic, in 1918, to see what life was like when the whole world was vulnerable, when people were masked and cities stuck in a cycle of shutdowns and reopenings. And a lot of us didn’t find very much, a phenomenon that was baffling historians who had been looking at it long before Covid-19 sent readers reeling back through the pages to get a sense of how to get by and get through.

Historian Howard Phillips calls the 1918 flu “the reappearing shadow.” Historian Alfred Crosby called it “America’s forgotten pandemic.” It was overshadowed by World War I, but it’s also less of a fixture in the popular imagination than other pandemics, like polio or AIDS. Part of that’s because there was never much to go on in the first place — the primary documents that make up that foundation are eerily silent on interior lives.

“It’s striking to me,” medical historian J. Alex Navarro told History.com. “I’ve read… probably thousands of newspaper articles on influenza from all these cities throughout the pandemic, and I can list off the ones that stand out that talk about the personal tragedies of common folk because they’re just so few and far between.”

There are a lot of explanations for this, none provable, all compelling. In her legendary essay “Illness as Metaphor,” Susan Sontag observed that many illnesses have served as grist for novelists — to the point of cliché, as any student of Victorian fiction knows — but the flu lacks “mythologies” that writers can tap into as metaphor. The flu, perhaps, is too commonplace; as, for instance, with cars, it is so everyday, typically experienced as drudgery and boredom, that it doesn’t leap from the page.

Or maybe the opposite is true. Virginia Woolf, no less incisive than Sontag, lamenting on the lack of illness-related fiction in the essay “On Being Ill,” writes that “the great wars [the body] wages by itself, with the mind a slave to it, the solitude of the bedroom against the assault of fever or the oncoming of melancholia, are neglected,” because “to look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer.” Crosby, the historian, was simply “puzzled.”

As Paul Sonne wrote in 2009, Woolf — writing in 1926, years after the Great Flu — would have to wait until 1937 for a significant English-language literary novel on the pandemic, William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, followed by the most famous American flu novel, Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, in 1939. And after that, there wouldn’t be much to come. Thomas Mullen, who actually did write one, was also surprised by how few there were and landed on an explanation something like Sontag’s. The randomness of it makes it slippery for writers. (And now that we’re so good at modeling, we have a full grasp of its randomness, the quantitative measurement of which has dominated so much of our understanding of Covid-19.)

But something has changed. What changed, perhaps, remains puzzling. But now we have a lot — a lot a lot — of narratives of personal tragedy, and a lot of narratives of sort of the opposite, the grinding dullness of life under tightened restrictions, the boredom that feels bad to admit to in the face of so much slow horror. But that’s there too, and we know a lot about it.

And thank God.

Part of what changed is the economics. In 2014, Olga Khazan surveyed the phenomenon and concluded that, in part, personal essays are popular because they’re cheap, and they’re cheap because they do not (sometimes, not always) require reporting and research. Perhaps more important than expense, however, is speed; reporting and research require time, and a first-person experience can bring relevant experience to the screen faster than a reported piece. There are problems with this that have been rightfully lamented and which Khazan details, but she concludes, not unreasonably, that a lot of them are good, irreplaceable by third-person reporting, and, on the whole, “internet culture is better off for it.”

Having written and edited a lot of words about the Covid-19 pandemic during the Covid-19 pandemic, I have to agree. It’s not just the internet that made the first-person mode safe for journalism, of course; some of it is changes in the industry and culture generally, like the New Journalism of writers such as Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson, in which we saw the world — better — through their interior lives. And it’s probably made third-person reporting more capable of writing about other people’s interior lives, which is important too. (And, TBH, probably easier to pitch to editors, too.)

There are countless examples of all this. One that comes to mind is this New York Times piece by Sarah Lyall on “hitting the wall.” (Full disclosure, I work there on contract editing and writing newsletters, so I’m required to be more attuned to the Times coverage of most things.) There’s not a lot of first-person in it, but it’s there, and it’s good:

What time is it? What day is it? What did we do in October? Why are we standing in front of the refrigerator staring at an old clove of garlic? Just recently I myself spent half an hour struggling to retrieve a word from the faulty memory system that has replaced my pre-pandemic brain. (“Institution.” That was the word.) Sometimes, when I try to write a simple email, I feel I’m just pushing disjointed words around, like peas on a plate, hoping they will eventually coalesce into sentences. Am I excited about my daily work in this month of April 2021? I would have to say that I am not.

The piece is tied to an informal but large qualitative survey of sorts, where editors asked readers to submit their reflections on pandemic work burnout.

In two days, 700 people responded.

Consider that for a second — when an academic like Navarro goes back to the newspaper records for the 1918 pandemic, he “can list off the ones that stand out that talk about the personal tragedies of common folk because they’re just so few and far between.” For one piece in the Times on work burnout, there are dozens of examples, plus a writer’s own experience, plus the experts she got to unpack the threads between her experience and the shared ones of the people who wrote in.

The questions journalism is supposed to answer are who, what, where, when, and why. It’s hard to write when the “what” is “nothing” and the “when” is “never” (or “nothing, all the time”). But we’ve slowly built a space for that, and it was there when we needed it, and it will be there when future generations want to remember what has, in the past, been forgotten.

Freelance writer/editor in Chicago. Words in Marker, The Atlantic, COVID Tracking Project, elsewhere. Author of ‘Chicago: From Vision to Metropolis.’

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