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The Fierce Urgency of Now

[1]The world has a way of shaping our literature, bending our writing to align with the arc of history. I began writing The Kindest Lie, my debut novel, in earnest during President Obama’s second term in office, a time when Americans were grappling with the promise and limits of hope. The racial and socioeconomic chasm of that period influenced my narrative and provided the cultural milieu for the book.

Soon, we’ll all emerge from this international health crisis into a new world order, a new normal defined by this global pandemic. I’m in brainstorm mode for book two, and I can’t help but think of how the times we are living in will inevitably change me and my approach to fiction. In these Darwinian days when we fear for our health and know that basic necessities like toilet paper are scarce, it becomes difficult to trust others. I predict that the issue of trust will appear consciously or unconsciously in our writing.

I’m wary everywhere I go now, my eyes narrowed and judging above my tight-fitting mask. Last week, I stood in the condiment aisle of the grocery store and glanced furtively at an unmasked man approaching with his shopping cart. Instinctively, I pivoted and leaned into the shelves of ketchup hoping he’d pass quickly without breathing on me. Unlike a presidential era that can on a good day be viewed as an academic exercise, what we’re living through now is an inescapable, seismic shift in our way of life. It will change us as people and it will change our fiction, too.

It won’t be as simple as modifying the fashion choices of our characters in contemporary stories by adding masks and gloves as accessories. Many of us are under stay-at-home orders and will cycle through quarantines for months and possibly years to come. As people, we crave human touch and for prolonged periods we will be starved of it. I wonder how isolation will manifest in our fiction and how deprivation will drive story. Maybe we’ll translate aloneness and loneliness in new ways on the page. But I also imagine we’ll think more creatively about connection after watching quarantined people in Italy sing their national anthem from balconies.

I like to think that I write books in a dream state, but now COVID-19 clouds my actual nighttime dreams. In a recent dream I lived on a college campus in a dorm where a classmate said something hurtful because of misinformation. I had misjudged him, too. We both realized our mistakes in this one charged moment and stood facing each other awkwardly, taking halting steps toward one another. Just as we were inches away from a forgiving embrace, we jumped back, suddenly aware that we were about to engage in the most harmful behavior: hugging. That fear will find its way into my writing and the psyche of my characters, I’m sure.

I don’t write romance, but this virus will change the love story, or at least the meet-cute part. In the past, a realistic plot might have involved two people asking to see each other’s HIV status as proof they were “safe.” Now there’s a new layer of criteria for safety that could include a rapid test for COVID-19 and perhaps another test for antibodies to determine whether a potential partner has immunity. Beyond the health considerations, dating couples in our novels will likely struggle with intimacy in this new world where trust is precarious. It’s likely been weeks since you touched your own face, let alone anyone else’s.

This health crisis adds another level of burden to communities of color and the poor who are more likely to become sicker and die from this virus. My Chinese-American friends are the newest targets of hate when COVID-19 is labeled as the “Wuhan virus.” As an author who writes at the intersection of race and class, I can’t imagine telling a contemporary story set in this year or the next that doesn’t acknowledge those realities.

A black male writer I know jokingly posted Ninja-style photos of himself on Facebook wearing a face mask and a hoodie. I commented that while this was funny, it wasn’t a safe look for a black man in America. With his trademark wry humor, he responded, “Oh, there’s a safe look for a black man in America? Do tell.” Touché. The gear we now wear to protect ourselves though may do more harm to some of us. My narratives will be incomplete without telling that story, too.

Isolation has sharpened my observation skills. I’m keenly aware of budding trees, the high-pitched squeal of birds, and the deafening silence of rush hour. Writer and social commentator Roxane Gay tweeted about watching her neighbors walk their cat and reposition their cars at random times throughout the day. Their habits have become Roxane’s fascination because this is the first time in six years that she’s been still in one place for so long. I look forward to imbuing my next novel with this newfound, finely tuned attention to detail.

The themes we pursue in our fiction will undoubtedly shift to an interrogation of the social contract: How much fidelity do we owe others to be responsible for their safety and well-being? Where does personal liberty begin and end? In spite of the bitter divide in America over these issues, we see people practicing empathy, asking coworkers, neighbors, and even online strangers if they’re really okay. I religiously followed a Twitter thread of a woman whose husband died suddenly from a non-COVID condition. I witnessed thousands of people on social media hold her hand through the burial of her husband, maintenance emergencies, and her first meals alone in her empty house. I want to bring that heart for people, for my characters, into this new world. I want to dig deeper with my characters, not accepting their first, perfunctory answers when they tell me how they’re doing.

We all know death more intimately now as we lose loved ones to the coronavirus, and thinking about our own mortality will hopefully inspire us to make every moment and every word on the page count. This global pandemic reminds me of particular lyrics from the musical Hamilton:

Why do you write like you’re running out of time?
Write day and night like you’re running out of time?

Death is the only certainty we have, the one guarantee in this life. But most of us have had the luxury of living our lives as if we just might be the ones to cheat death. However, a raging virus has sobered us, perhaps humbled us. I will write like I’m running out of time not because I might die soon, but because I need to be more intentional in my living and my writing. I have more stories to tell and I want to convey all the meaning I can in them. I will be as honest as I can be with others and myself as I cope with this new normal, exposing the fear and anxiety along with the hope.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, he talked about “the fierce urgency of now.” Those prescient words should be the rallying cry of writers today in this moment. They are for me.

I will tell the stories of what it means to live in this time. I will tell the messy truth in my fiction and I will do it now.

How do you anticipate the global pandemic changing you as a writer? How do you believe what we’re living through right now will influence your approach to fiction writing?

About Nancy Johnson [2]

Nancy Johnson [3] writes at the intersection of race and class. Her debut novel, THE KINDEST LIE, is forthcoming in 2021 from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. This is the story of an unlikely connection between a black woman searching for the son she never knew and a poor, 11-year-old white boy who finds himself adrift in a dying Indiana factory town. THE KINDEST LIE was named runner-up for the 2018 James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award. Nancy’s work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine and has received support from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, Tin House Summer Novel Workshop, and Kimbilio Fiction. As a television journalist, Nancy received Emmy nominations and multiple writing and reporting awards from the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. When Nancy’s not writing, you can often find her exploring bookstores, festivals, and restaurants in her hometown of Chicago. Nancy is represented by Danielle Bukowski at Sterling Lord Literistic.

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