Stories begin with an empty page. The white space on my computer screen gradually fills with text – it grows, shrinks, takes form. But my memory from the early days of the pandemic is of this empty screen before me, unchanged. As the spread of the Coronavirus reshaped our days and nights, I had an additional matter to think about: how to write during a crisis that seemed to be everywhere?
As office commuters settled into working from home and frequent fliers grew resigned to stillness, I heard sentiments from friends and family: “This must be great for your work.” Or, from other writers, “Finally, time to finish my book!”
To me, such thoughts sounded distant and unreal. I am used to solitude, and cherish long periods of time empty of everything but writing. Working from home is my usual state of being. Despite the comparisons, the lockdown was no luxurious immersion for me, no day off from real life.
The world outside may have shut down, but it had never loomed so large. Everything was still, and yet everything was shifting rapidly – from the ticking Covid counters to closing borders, worries about distant loved ones, and news cycles laden with accounts of hunger and distress.
Why write at all?
In this ersatz “free” time created by the pandemic, I found that writers responded in various ways. Some hit a rich writing streak, and others struggled to get started. The initial response was often one of silence. Of needing time away from words. The blank page – usually a writer’s nightmare – was now a necessary pause.
The initial days of the lockdown in late March came with a disorienting sense of timelessness. The days seemed to meld into each other. With this came a worrying lack of spirit, a feeling that I found resonated with others. “I wondered if what I did even mattered; what was the value of writing in the middle of this kind of a crisis?” recalled Snigdha Poonam, a journalist and writer based in Delhi.
For the first couple of weeks, as it became clear that the virus was no temporary inconvenience but a force reshaping the world, Poonam grappled with such paralysing doubts. Murali Menon, Mumbai-based novelist, found himself unable to even read, far less write, anything that required sustained focus. For most of the day, he just watched the news.
“There was a sense of helplessness,” he said, compounded in his case by the distance from his parents who live in Kerala. The isolation, for him, was a deterrent. “Though I like being on my own, I also need to connect with others and go out into the world to write,” he said. “I cannot work in a vacuum.”
Rehana Munir, whose debut novel was published in late 2019, had started working on a new book shortly before the lockdown. “But I find it’s almost impossible to get back to it right now,” she said. “This particular book requires a kind of emotional involvement – and courage – that I find too daunting at the moment.”
Resorting to routine
For others, words were a raft in these uncharted waters. “Thinking back to that time now, it feels like a dream, something that I can’t believe I lived through,” said journalist Saumya Roy, who is writing a book on Mumbai’s garbage dumping ground. Between helping her family with the housework, and the increasing worries about the spread of the virus, Roy found her routine of rising early and writing to be the only thing that structured her day.
“Things in the world were outside my control, and the only place where I could do something was on the page,” she explained. By the end of the extended lockdown period, she had completed a substantial section of her book. “It’s not perfect, but at least it’s there,” she said.
While deeper creative processes proved elusive, there were other forms of writing that allowed inroads to be made. Often these were tasks that came with a deadline. Munir, for instance, found she could continue her assignments as a copywriter, and also write her columns for a weekly magazine. And despite the challenges of reporting, Poonam realised that writing for her job as a journalist was an easier muscle to use.
“I write news features, and Covid was the news,” Poonam said. She ended up completing articles on people facing debts during the lockdown and the rural response to the threat of the virus, making up to 80 phone calls for an article. “Even though I am writing less than I usually do, it makes me feel more connected to people,” she said.
And then there was the intensified balancing act required from women who write from home. Like many others across the world, I found myself caught in the Sisyphean motions of domestic chores in an unprecedented way. Even when chores were shared, there seemed to be less time, and hence less energy for my writing self.
Poonam, who keeps a daily journal, addressed the issue by counting the hours she spent on cooking and cleaning the same way as she counted time spent on researching, or reading, or writing – tasks that she describes as “work’.
With the passing weeks, distractions ebbed and pages began to fill up with more immersive work. Menon was able to use the solitude to reimagine the premise for his next novel, which he is now writing into a pandemic setting. And the enforced stillness helped Poonam revise her book proposal, without the urge to travel or attend events.
For me, the need to write eventually manifested in the habit of taking notes. I began writing as a way to bear witness to the shifting terrain outside, as well as the state of my own mind. I couldn’t address the big issues, so I wrote around them. Details from the news, images, conversations, memories – these were the words that appeared on my screen. Sometimes, work emerged in the form of a piece that could be published. Mostly, though, I was content to let text grow on the page, unformed.
In between these notes are white spaces. These are a record of the things I could not write, times when silence seemed imperative.
I don’t know if these notes will turn into something else. If I think about outcomes, it becomes harder to write. As with our bodies, we don’t know the effect this pandemic will have on our society yet. All we know is that it will be profound. Perhaps writing during such a crisis is like leaving a trail of words to mark our paths as we move from the past through the unfolding now. Perhaps when we tell stories about this time, we will begin here, from the memory of a blank page.
Taran N Khan is a journalist and writer based in Mumbai. She is the author of Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul (2019).
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.