Writing in Upheaval

FOCUS, One—Narration and Covid-19: Empty Cities and the Trump Death Clock

Image by Andrewsmclain – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90485714

· As we expand the scope and depth of our consciousness to further understand this more than challenging time, and as we expand our heart’s embrace to include our global community, it may be that a formula approach to story structure simply won’t cut it. 

· Expanding the world of our stories comes with admitting the complexity and contradictions of causality, characterization, and the very structures of story.

· This is the first offering of this blog, which aims to connect the larger world with our fine craft of writing.

The first social narrative of Covid-19 v. the truth of it 

For a long time, I have been aiming to get back to writing a blog on creative writing craft and related issues of voice and language. Then, Covid-19. For a long time since this became a significant aspect of our daily consciousness, it’s also become clear to what vastly different degrees the pandemic has affected different communities, especially by race and economics; by status as immigrants, by lack of access to healthcare, by being unhoused or incarcerated. The most vulnerable and least cared for, the essential workers who would not or could not stay at home, the poor without any possibility of socially distancing…you know by now, and the urgent problems continue. 

But what about the first descriptions of the pandemic, the first narratives of Covid-19? 

Luckily, there are always people who, by nature of the complex and challenging histories from which they come, interrogate the narratives launched as The Truth. 

Such people, such writers among them, hold an expansive map of the world and its stories that includes the many distinctions that the first social narrative of the pandemic excised, veiled, buried, distorted, ignored. 

That first narrative we were fed, said—we all are affected; the virus does not discriminate.

But the hard look at numbers gave us data which said, the virus may not discriminate but human beings do; political and economic systems do; entrenched and brutal racism does; abuse and exploitation of immigrants, the poor, people of color, the incarcerated, the homeless, the sick, the elderly, do. 

Attending to these distinctions nourishes, but also makes great demands upon, the writer. 

A different map of the world = a different story

We all knew what we knew. From experience, from research, from history, from alliances, from love. But on a larger scale, we have begun to witness and participate in a vast transformation of consciousness which in ways has everything to do with how large our map of the world has become; how complex our understanding of the underlying causes of things, has become. 

Since Covid-awareness began to transform consciousness on a greater scale than ever before, a global scale, things have changed, again and again. Nothing can congeal within constant change. 

Yet, what seemed impossible—images of seemingly empty cities not destroyed by war or natural disasters—unfurled through camera rolls around the world. Of course, cities have been emptied before, all through time. Left standing, empty of inhabitants. I think of this ancient Mayan city hidden under Guatemalan jungle: “Aerial laser mapping detects thousands of hidden structures in Peten region, suggesting its population was millions more than previously thought.”


Empty cities, emerging stories

Many cities have been emptied in bizarre and brutal ways. Because of my work on a novel called History Artist, I cannot help but think of Phnom Penh in 1975 Cambodia, when the Khmer Rouge came in and rapidly pushed almost the whole population of the city out to the countryside to work unto death, cultivating fields of abundance as they weakened and starved, or were bludgeoned, slaughtered. I had already spent some time through a character who has long inhabited me—Devi Mau, basically, dark angel in Khmer—imagining the almost empty city of Phnom Penh, and then imagining with her, how it had repopulated itself after the Vietnamese overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

But, my city? New York City? Brooklyn?? The streets emptied for miles and miles?

Changes daily, moment by moment, under the virus, under the Trump Death Clock, installed by filmmaker Eugene Jarecki on the top of a building in Times Square. Giving the name of this man; a careless, “militaristic” sack of narcissism and destruction (too scared to be a thug, but getting thugs to do his work)—the only visible thing out in the city streets that should have his name on it—the Death Clock—does. The Trump Death Clock.

With the unbearable become as solid as refrigerated semi-trucks piled with corpses and parked on the streets of NYC, what is our work? 

How has our work as writers changed; how remained the same? 

Is there value to it? 

Can we keep improving as each day slips into the months of Covid-19, whether on lockdown, in mourning, in fear, in gratitude, in rage, in the truth of the constant slippage that is how we barely stand in the sunlight?

Time, the creation within which we unfold our stories, is not the same

Time is no longer divided by the same tasks, by the same easy freedom to take a walk (clearly NOT a freedom equally shared); by the same choices of how to spend the evening (choices limited often as well); by the same pileup of what must be done and where we must go. Time, then, has changed utterly, hasn’t it? It fills up chokingly with news, or with loss, or with dreams; with language that seems to fail. 

Time, the creation within which we unfold our stories, is not the same. Who we see each day, is not the same. People who did not exist for us become some of the voices that comfort us, that direct us and inform us. Who enraged us before, seem to be a unit of measure now, a rising death count; those engaged in denying rather than doing and learning and cooperating. 

The Trump Death Clock says it is measuring preventable deaths in the United States. 

So, everything keeps changing and promises to continue changing. Return to “normal”, to “before”, is nothing to bank on. Enormous changes will continue in every realm of life, and every region. For many of us it is clear that we can save the world, or not. That dealing with the issues of climate catastrophe, growing poverty and hunger, racism and misogyny, police and state violence; dealing with insane inequities, is a big part of our immediate job. 

If it seems hard to focus on our work as writers, might it not be that we are doing another job writers must do, for the moment? 

Expanding the world of our stories, the scope and depth of our consciousness, the depth with which we admit the complexity and contradictions of causality, of characterization, of the very structures of story. 

The more we come to understand narration itself, the more we see what is masked and unmasked. 

Masked. Unmasked.

Anya Achtenberg

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