why i write in a pandemic

BY Eva Hagberg | Pandemic Diaries


Many years ago, when I was an undergrad, I got into an argument with a friend of mine. He was a politics major who would graduate and go on to work in finance, and then (now) in real estate. He is incredibly grounded. He loves numbers, and logical inferences, and the ways in which one fact leads to another fact. He is informed. In other words, he knows what he wants to know, and he figures out how to know it. He was the same then as he is now.

The argument, then and perhaps now, and with more interlocutors, was about the role of fiction. My argument, then and now, was that fiction is essential, that reading fiction gives us a way of trying on other selves, moral selves. That the reading of fiction is a method of learning just as much as his reading of war history or the particularities of hedge fund structures was. I didn’t yet understand the value of writing fiction, not having done it yet, but I believed in what I was saying. He was unconvinced. Why, he thought, when there was so much to learn that was real, that really existed, that was absolutely in front of us, should anyone spend time filling their minds with events that weren’t real? 

This is the question before us writers in this pandemic. Perhaps, as writers, we may be drawn to the idea that we should put our writing aside and focus instead on what really matters. On science. On getting face masks to people. Perhaps, we think, we should stop being English majors and switch to microbiology. Perhaps we should stop spending an hour a day reading a novel, and spend it reading the New York Times. Perhaps those thoughts are wrong. Perhaps what really matters is giving a kind of structure to this moment. We have at our disposal a kaleidoscope of writerly tools — the essay, the short story, the novel, the instagram post — with which we might begin to lasso this series of incomprehensible events into a more comprehensible form.

Six months before the novel coronavirus came to the United States, I started writing a novel, my first longform work of fiction. It was meant to be a counterpoint to my memoir, which was published last year. The memoir was a sort of lovely story about friendship and illness, but mostly love and friendship, and there were elements of an anti-capitalist argument in the narrative. (I wrote it while at Berkeley; I couldn’t help it.) The book’s main point was that all that we have been taught about life — that it is some sort of journey somewhere, that we must have a direction, that people who are sick must get better, that they will have a better chance of getting better if they only try — actually missed the real point, which is that we are presented with a series of moments that afford us the opportunity to expand, to become more awake to life. To learn something new. The plot of the memoir tracked a number of years during which I confronted a number of life-threatening situations. The message was about how I got through them. The book was ultimately optimistic, and loving. When it was reviewed, which was often, the reviews spoke of the tenderness and deep well of love the readers felt, the way in which the narrator, who is a version of me, led them into darkness and then back out into the sun.

My novel was designed to be the B-side of my experiences. Where the memoir was the sun, this book would be the underworld. I had gone through so much horror — the horror of not knowing what was going on, of not understanding why my body wasn’t cooperating in the way I wanted it to, the absolute existential horror of not being able to explain, in language, what I was experiencing. It is a horror that many of us now, I think, are feeling, maybe for the first time. I wanted to articulate the horror of hearing the phrase, “I can’t imagine” so many times that I began to realize that I myself could not imagine what I was going through, either. Can any of us truly imagine what we are going through now?

My problem with illness was ultimately one of language. I experimented with other forms: I wrote an essay about what it was like to lose a square inch of my brain, which ended with a love letter to the medical language that had once so soothed me in its clarity. I tried short stories, like one about a woman who fears that her child will grow up to be a serial killer.

The short stories led me to the novel. I wanted to write something that let me articulate the emotional experience I had had without the constraints of memoir. Memoir, especially for women, asks (requires) us to be a friendly narrator. The novel requires the opposite. There are three characters in mine. One of them, a 37-year-old woman living in Oakland who stumbles across what she thinks is a new disease, is comprised of all of my most unlikable characteristics. Another is a 16-year-old teen who figures out that something very odd is going on with the teens she sees on PlayDance, my fictional version of the app TikTok. And the third is a researcher at the CDC, who’s been tasked with tracking the sudden explosion of a disease — a disease with a very particular and very chilling and very specific symptomology (which I will save for the book).

I started writing the novel in September. I learned about contact tracing, and what epidemiologists actually do, which was tough, because not everyone knew an epidemiologist back then. And I started drafting. The characters came alive. I understood their motivations, their fears. Themes started to emerge, ones that had nothing to do with what I’d thought the book would be about. It turned out that the book was about being seen, being recognized. As I wrote, I realized that I was telling the truth about our country. Neighbors couldn’t understand each other, couldn’t reach across divides. Doctors saw patients, and said , at the same time, that there was nothing wrong with them, and, that they needed immediate help. (How many times have complex patients been met, in the US, with earnest hopes, from doctors who can’t help, that they find out what’s wrong with them?) The novel’s imaginary disease, maybe, was just one of perception, or of doubt. Maybe it wasn’t even imaginary. I wrote pages and pages of dialogue that felt as though it just wanted to emerge from my fingertips, completely formed. The book might be extraordinary, or it might be trash. I have no idea. But I got to live inside the heads of characters who were realizing that a pandemic was coming. Now, here we are.

My fictional pandemic is nothing like the real one. It is subtle and slight and insidious, unlike the coronavirus, which is hard-hitting and horrific and destabilizing, everywhere and contagious and constant. I know. I am on Day 33 of infection and have only recently begun to feel like myself again. The morning I woke up and thought about the novel is the morning I knew I would survive. 

Writing is one way that we can make sense of worlds that have happened and the worlds that are to come. Had I not been writing this novel about a pandemic, I would not have been immersed in imagining a world in which everything changes, at first slowly and then very quickly. I had plotted out emotional courses, written out potential responses. So this world, when it came, wasn’t as much of a shock. People have asked me why I write, and I say that it is because otherwise I would have absolutely no idea how to make sense of the world. It is only when I string sentences together that I begin to get a grasp. When I link A to B on the page, B and C feel easier in real life.

Our culture likes to joke that we don’t need writers in the apocalypse, that art is somehow the last field we should save. First, we need the scientists, and the psychologists, and the physicists, and the microbiologists, and the virologists. And yes, we need them. But without people who can understand how to look at patterns and begin to weave them together into story, without the seers who can imagine where our real-lives might go, we are lost.

When I first heard of the pandemic, I put my project away. I couldn’t actually write about a fictional pandemic, not when a real one was underway. But recently, I decided to start writing again. I’m halfway through the first draft. The way I’d planned to end the story might not seem so interesting anymore, not with the numbers of deaths that we’re facing, but I might still stick with the idea. It’s a good ending for a novel. And besides, the point of the book was never to be accurate, or predictive. The point was the same as with all fiction: to use a particular plot to begin to explore ideas that are universal. How, as humans, do we love each other? How do we accept change? How do we begin to experience the unimaginable? What do we do when language fails us? What do we do in the face of extraordinary loss? Answering those questions is why, so many years ago, I read as much as I could. Continuing to ask those questions now, is why I write. I hope you do too.

Eva Hagberg, PhD, UC Berkeley, author of How to Be Loved: A Memoir of a Lifesaving Friendship, Brooklyn, NY