I heard a story once about Ruth Ozeki’s “A Tale For The Time Being.” It was 2011 and the book was done, like, done done, at the printers done, when the tsunami hit Japan. The story is about a Japanese teenager and apparently she felt strongly that she couldn’t put a book out into the post-tsunami world that didn’t address the impact of the event.
The version I heard was that she recalled the book from her publisher and rewrote it to include the tsunami. If you’ve read the book, you know she made the right choice. It’s a wonderful story.
As writers, we (usually) aim to ground our stories in a time and place. But what do we do when a particular time (and I’m not naming any names here *cough* 2020 *cough*) sucks?
When we are writing in difficult times, do we change our stories to reflect the terrible things that are actually happening, like Ozeki did? Or do we ignore the sad and depressing and write a story that somehow manages to avoid the things we wish were different. Or maybe we write into a future where we might expect/hope things are better.
I’ve been tracking some interesting murmurings on this topic on Twitter. Here’s what I’ve learned:
You Can Rewrite Your Story
It’s entirely possible that your story will be more interesting if you embrace the pandemic and write a new draft, set squarely in 2020, face masks, protests, politics, and all.
PRO: Whether you’re writing difficult times in fiction or non-fiction, you’re embracing the reality we’re living in, and people will be hungry for these types of narratives in the future, needing to see their experiences reflected in the stories they’re reading. It might also make your story a cultural marker of sorts – a creative documentation of what we’re all living through.
CON: On the flip side, it’s possible people will not want to read pandemic narratives. I would certainly understand if people didn’t want to revisit this time. But you can only write what you feel compelled to write. If you’d rather not embrace the pandemic you can always…
Ignore Our Current Reality
While it’s not really an option in our lives, we can absolutely ignore reality in our fiction. You could write fantasy set in another world, or historical fiction set in a time far removed from the present. You could set your story in 2019 so that it’s modern day, but avoids all the grossness we’ve fallen into as of late.
PRO: Even if your story is straight-up-the-middle literary fiction set in modern day, there is probably a way to write around the pandemic. Maybe your character is by nature a bit of hermit, reluctant to go out bars and restaurants even in the best of times. Maybe they live on a ranch far from anyone, and they’re dealing with deep, personal family drama that doesn’t invlolve the outside world.
CON: If you set a story in 2020 and don’t at least mention the pandemic, it will not read like 2020. And that is a totally valid artistic choice. Just be aware that it will come across as a semi-alternate-reality kind of story. My advice, if this is the way you want to go: just don’t ever say 2020, or mention anything that happened this year. Plenty of books do just fine without ever stating what year they’re set in. People will assume it’s 2019 and carry on.
Or Jump To The Future
What I’ve done with my current WIP is to set it in 2022. My thinking on this is two-fold. First, I’m hoping it will come out in 2022 and feel contemporary. Second, I’m not writing 2020. I’m just not. 2020 can suck it.
PRO: The benefits of this choice are obvious. It allows me to set my story in a time when things have gotten back to normal (let’s hope). There is a reference to the pandemic that happened in 2020, but it’s history, past tense. I’ve taken the (hopefully not too) optimistic stance that face masks will no longer be a thing and we can ride the bus again without buckets of hand sanitizer.
CON: I could be wrong. I mean, what if things gets worse? Like the bad joke goes: what if 2020 is just a movie trailer of the epic shit storm that’s still to come? What if an earthquake rips California down the middle or COVID-19 mutates and gets worse?
Time Will Tell
I’m banking on things getting better, but I am absolutely willing to rewrite at any point, up until the moment the publisher prints the first run. It would be disappointing to have to dive back in, especially now that I know how much work goes into getting a final draft ready to print, but Ruth Ozeki made the right choice. I hope I would have the artistic strength and integrity to do the same.
How are you dealing with the pandemic in your writing? Are you embracing or avoiding these difficult times? Or maybe there’s some middle ground coping strategy I haven’t thought of? Would love to hear from you.