I’ve read one novel centered around the 9/11 tragedy. I’ve watched one movie about it as well. Both stories had other plot threads, but the Twin Towers attack filled the background, enough to be the painful reminder I suppose it was meant to be. I remember that day so clearly, sitting with my little girl, watching in disbelief as the disaster unfolded on a television screen. It was traumatic, and when I visited Ground Zero in 2019, all those emotions I felt so many years ago bubbled to my surface, raw and fresh.
I’d expected to be affected, but as tears welled behind my sunglasses, I felt sick and lightheaded. Hollowed out. So many young people roamed around the memorial laughing and smiling because they didn’t live through that day. The significance seemed lost on them. While part of me felt saddened that they may never grasp the horrors of 9/11 and how that day changed much of how we all went about life, another part of me felt relief that they didn’t own such a grim memory. The changes we watched happen have always been their norm. Standing there, I realized I was watching the effects of time on our world’s awareness and reality.
Covid is a different beast, an ongoing tragedy not pinned to one specific day in our past, and for most, this is certainly a time we will never forget. But, there are children who are too young to understand how much the world they could have known has transformed. One day, people will look at a memorial to those we’ve lost in this pandemic, and it won’t hold the same significance that it does for the rest of us. This, again, is the nature of time as our present becomes history.
So how do we make certain that people of the future know what we went through? How do we make sure they understand the impact on our lives, so that they might do or know better? Old newspaper articles and internet chronicles will float around, of course, and the events will be documented in history books. Other non-fiction texts will become references for research papers and book reports.
But what about fiction?
Fiction has always mimicked real life, and it has always endured and educated. Storytelling is the language of our ancestors, after all. It’s the vehicle for passing down legends, myths, folklore—and real-life lessons and experiences. Even though I can’t say I want to read Covid-19 fiction any time soon, I can say that telling writers they shouldn’t write about this awful point in time would be a mistake. However, my advice to anyone tackling that mountain is: Be wise and tread lightly.
As an editor, I would be quicker to lend an eye to an emotional story about how the pandemic has altered our connection to the world rather than a story focused on the virus and the horrors brought about in its wake. I’m still living through all of this, still thinking about old friends who lost their lives, still worried about my loved ones contracting a virus that could take them from me. Reading is my escape. It isn’t an escape if I pick up a book that carries me back to the fears I’m trying to avoid. But a book that resonates because it provides a lesson about humanity? That, I might be able to do, and so might others.
This is why I enjoy dystopian novels. Granted, I prefer witches and magicians, romance and happy endings, but dystopian is one of the genres outside of those realms that I love to venture into. Dystopian fiction teaches us about ourselves and reveals deeper truths about the (often faulty) constructs of our society, as well as becoming literary think-pieces on the future. Experiencing the last year has been a lot like walking inside a dystopian dream, from quarantines and lockdowns to corrupt government failures to an ever-changing landscape of life. I remember thinking that I never imagined living through times like these, and yet I have and I am. That gives me, as a storyteller, a unique perspective, as it does every writer alive right now. Whether we choose to infuse this experience into our fiction is up to us.
My hope is that writers handle any Covid-19 story inspiration with a delicate touch and much respect for their readers. I also hope that—even in this time of difficulty and change—writers are able to nurture their creativity and write about something, because the world needs stories. It needs feel-good tales and scary science fiction, colorful Regency romance and gritty vampire fantasy.
If a writer so desires, any of these stories can resonate with the times we’re living through. Over the last year, we’ve endured personal, emotional, and physical struggles, witnessed more bizarre events than I can count, and watched while our government let people die. We’ve also witnessed acts of heroism, kindness, perseverance, ingenuity, and triumph. All of the above can manifest through our fiction in ways that don’t perfectly mirror our current reality, allowing us to reach readers on planes they feel safe to explore.
This is literary alchemy, the writer’s gift of transmuting life into fiction. We are one-day ancestors, leaving behind stories for those who come after us.
We just have to write.