On Writing and the Pandemic

30 Mar

NY-empty-streets

By Lanny Morgnanesi

I’m not sure I’m ready to write.

The Coronavirus pandemic has inspired innumerable blogs, podcasts, articles and commentaries. Photos and videos of ghostly, empty streets circulate widely and never end. Footage of people singing to each other as a salve to the quarantine are reaching large numbers in live, nightly broadcasts. And I’m empty of thought.

In such times, for writers, the bare minimum is a journal. You can start it with vigor, try to shed light on the mundane, neglect it a little then let it trail off, but – unless you are out there and in it, which means you’ve got something – you are writing whatever everyone else is writing. My journal began thusly on March 23:

It’s impossible to put today in perspective, since yesterday was bad and tomorrow most certainly will be worse. At this point, at this time, numbers cannot adequately describe what we ultimately will face and how we will get there. Instead, let a few statistics be a point of demarcation along a road of unknown length. Let them serve not as a measure but only as a backdrop for the very present.

At that time, COVID-19 had infected 292,142 people and killed 1,600. Today, a mere seven days later, there are 729,100 infected people and 34,689 deaths. Experts say as many as 200,000 could die in the U.S.

Aside from my venturing out once for groceries – noting the absence of flour and yeast and realizing that in a panic you can’t outthink people – there really was little to write about at a time when there is a great deal about which to write.

While not writing, I read a little about writing. It was a retro piece in the New York Review of Books from 2016. The author was Joan Didion, whose utter and complete immersion in the art of writing has always fascinated me, and the piece was simply called California Notes. She begins saying that in 1976 Rolling Stone magazine asked her to cover the San Francisco trial of Patty Hearst, the heiress kidnapped by political radicals who became one of them and took part (while armed) in a bank robbery. Didion is a Californian who relocated to New York, but the Patty Hearst assignment would bring her back to California. She would seek inspiration for the piece by reacquainting herself with the state and trying to revive her own emotions about it.

didioncouch

Writer Joan Didion

For me, as I sat not writing, the best part of California Notes was Joan’s confession that she attended the trial but never wrote the piece. There was no explanation, except: “I thought the trial had some meaning for me—because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.”  Her California reflections, however, led her years later to write a compilation called Where I Was From and even later  California Notes.

There’s a famous Nora Ephron quote that reminds me of Joan and has been repeated in this time of crisis: “Everything is copy.” I always thought it peculiar that such a quote would become so famous, since few outside of writing know what “copy” is. The reason must be because writers are the ones always repeating the quote. Anyway, “copy” in this sense means “material” for writing, and now – with the world shut down by a virus — everything is indeed copy. You go outside for a walk and it’s copy. You venture out and drive through town and it’s copy. You cook a meal or seek activities for your kids and it’s copy.

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Trancas, California, March 1972

Didion with husband, the late writer Gregory Dunne

Even without a pandemic, everything for Joan Didion seemed to be copy. (Her husband died and she got a book out of it). It might be that everything around Joan Didion, all the clouds she allowed to cover her success and notoriety, seemed like a personal pandemic, so she recorded it. In California Notes, she mentions an airline trip from New York to San Francisco in the 50s and reports that on the flight she had, “a Martini-on-the-Rocks and Stuffed Celery au Roquefort over the Rockies.” This means that while in her 20s she was taking notes on everything she did.

It’s true that in my youth I took notes. Joan got much more out of hers than I ever did. Like with her, the urge still remains with me. Recently, while in semi-retirement, I agreed to take a $25-an-hour job as a census taker, figuring I would get something out of it, a story about the real America, even though I’d only be visiting the homes of people in my mostly white, mostly affluent suburban county. As the virus spread, the government wisely decided not to send people house to house. I never went to even one.

In California Notes, there is mention by Joan of an early newspaper job at the Sacramento Union. Newspapers require reporters to learn local “style” – the proper way to refer to things in print. Joan touches on this and says,  “I learned that Eldorado County and Eldorado City are so spelled but that regular usage of El Dorado is two words; to UPPER CASE Camellia Week, the Central Valley, Sacramento Irrigation District, Liberator bombers and Superfortresses, the Follies Bergere [sic], the Central Valley Project, and such nicknames as Death Row, Krauts, or Jerries for Germans, Doughboys, Leathernecks, Devildogs.”

Patricia-Hearst-front-emblem-Symbionese-Liberation-Army

Heiress Patricia Hearst, after her kidnapping

Everything is copy. Sadly, I didn’t make any kind of record of the local style at my first newspaper, and can only remember this: “Do not use a period after the ‘S’ in ‘Harry S Truman High School.’ A period suggests an abbreviation and in this case ‘S’ is not an abbreviation because President Truman did not have an actual middle name.” In the same way I know I cannot compete with the person who thought to buy yeast before I did, I know I cannot compete with writers who know what food and drink they had on a plane in 1955, or can recite that actual constraints put on them decades ago by local “style.” Maybe Joan Didion came up dry at the utterly fantastic trial of Patty Hearst, but she found inspiration at every other turn in her life.

I’m sitting here now looking for inspiration. I suspect I’ll find it eventually. I’m fairly certain, however, I won’t be writing about my neighbors singing, if indeed they ever do. I prefer instead to write about things we fail to see. And right now, I can’t see anything.

 

8 Responses to “On Writing and the Pandemic”

  1. Vickie Lester March 30, 2020 at 6:38 pm #

    That’s some good copy. A local bakery here is selling flour and eggs and offering curbside pickup. You might have similar luck there. And here is a link for a recipe to make sourdough starter if you find flour — I’ve done this before and eventually I stop feeding the bubbly organism in my fridge and I have to throw it away (it turns unappetizing colors if underfed) and start again. In the meantime it’s an extravaganza of pancakes and bread. https://www.theperfectloaf.com/7-easy-steps-making-incredible-sourdough-starter-scratch/

    Liked by 1 person

    • NotebookM by Lanny Morgnanesi March 30, 2020 at 6:53 pm #

      Thanks for reading. I’ve since found both yeast and flour but it’s great knowing how to make starter. I’m surprised at how good my bread (white) has come out. Tasty when used for French toast. Sounds like you are managing well. I hear people are now buying baby chicks so later they will have eggs

      Like

  2. Mark J OKeefe April 7, 2020 at 12:21 pm #

    Not sure if you remember me or not. My name is Mark O’Keefe and I worked for 36 years at the Herald-Standard in Uniontown, including nine years as executive editor. I was writing a daily column but it got axed as the coronavirus forced the newspaper to cut expenses. Could I sent you some columns or is this just something you do on your own? You can email me at mokeefe1@yahoo.com.
    Thanks!
    Take care

    Liked by 1 person

    • NotebookM by Lanny Morgnanesi April 7, 2020 at 1:51 pm #

      Hi Mark. Good to hear from you. NotebookM is my blog. Sorry, but it’s exclusively for my writing. You may want to start one on your own. Take care.

      Like

  3. Monacular Spectacular May 1, 2020 at 8:01 pm #

    “Everything is copy” I’ve never heard this quote before but it’s an interesting observation. Reading about how Didion got a book out of her husband’s passing but couldn’t produce anything for Patty Hearst gets me wondering further; everything may well be copy but does that necessarily mean it should be written? Can we only write when we feel a connection to the material? Or can we write regardless?

    Fascinating post either way.

    Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pat Wandling May 18, 2020 at 3:16 pm #

    Joan Didion, a great talent, my fave. — along with Lanny. Loved reading this “non-writing,” Lanny.

    Liked by 2 people

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  1. Blogging in the Time of Coronavirus: A Reading List — Discover – #purplerelativity - May 22, 2020

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