Yesterday I drove to our valley’s “big town” to pick up books I’d consigned to a locally-owned and -operated gift shop. They’re closing because of the pandemic and the anticipated drop in tourism, the mainstay of many businesses in Montana but especially gift shops. I’m heartbroken for the owners, who have worked hard for years to build a business that has become a real asset to a downtown only recently become interesting. I’m sad for the hundred–plus artists and creators who sold work there, and I’m angry for the town and region, and over the loss of vitality the closure represents. Maybe you own or work for a business that’s threatened, and I’m sad and angry for you, too.
Each stop I made was necessary, each was safe, and each presented its own physical and emotional challenges. Even if you can’t imagine ever writing a novel even hinting at a pandemic, notice what you’re experiencing and feeling when you go to the bank, the grocery store, the gift shop that’s closing. You will never again go through anything like this, and the details will be lost at a distance of time. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably a writer; you process by writing. So write it down. Doesn’t matter if it’s in your regular journal or a special Journal of the Plague Year. Write how you felt when you realized you automatically stepped back to make sure you kept six feet between you and a woman you’ve known for 30 years. The slight bit of anxiety when you saw a car with out-of-state plates outside the liquor store and wondered if the driver had quarantined himself. That moment when you washed your hands after pumping gas to get the sanitizer off so you could eat the chips you’d bought at the grocery store for the drive home—and realized the woman smiling at you from her car thought you were washing off germs, not getting ready to stress-eat!
Notice how you feel when you have to tell your customers, your employees, your vendors, your landlord, that you can’t keep the business going. Your kids, your parents, yourself late at night.
Notice the exhaustion and fear, the tensions. Notice the generosity and the kindness.
Once you write it down, it will be available to you forever. The next time a character feels anxious, or fearful, or guilty, or even amused, you can call on your own emotional research to deepen your portrayal of your character’s experience.
Notice the fun stuff, too. The way the gnome you bought on impulse when you were picking up your consignment books makes you smile. Because, I don’t know, Gnome Sweet Gnome. All Roads Lead to Gnome. Gnome is Where the Heart Is.
Honor your experiences by taking notice.
Leslie, what a moving post. We Montanans have been relatively untouched compared to large urban areas. But the ripple effect is being felt with small businesses closing and people losing their jobs that will never come back. You captured that sense of finality. Also the underlying anxiety of how we now interact with other people, even friends we’ve known for years. Things will never be the same again.
Thanks, Deb. As writers, we have ways to process and maybe use our experience, and that is a gift.