Sane Writing for an Insane World
Writing the date yesterday, I experienced a moment of disorientation. How can it be July? How did half of a precious year of life go by? Covid Winter melted into Covid Spring. Covid Spring bloomed into Covid Summer. Now we're baking in the Covid sun and I can't really account for the time.
The pandemic has sucked up an awful lot of time and energy. Despite my personal sense that many days were Groundhog Day due to the repetitive rhythms of three months in quarantine, an awful lot has been happening in the world. For one thing, a global pandemic. For another, a new chapter in the battle against racism; the tragedy of Coronavirus' impact on the Black community coupled with a highly visible spate of police brutality against people of color spurred tremendous protest and activism, which for the first time has been joined by many non-Blacks. Add to that the incredible political polarization of the country, leading to the politicization of every Coronavirus recommendation by the public health and scientific sector, and the US has seemed constantly on the verge of explosion (or perhaps implosion).
What have I personally been doing during this time? Well, kind of a lot of things. Trying to live, like everyone else. Making a lot of meals at home. Doing home exercise routines. Walking the dog a lot. Worrying and having a lot of weird dreams and struggling with lack of concentration. Trying not to get Covid or give it to anyone else. Wearing masks. Trying to maintain my relationships by phone or Zoom. Trying to keep my home in order, since we are spending so much time in it. I worked at Urgent Care and tried to help the few people who ventured out looking for safe care for non-Covid medical issues. Beyond that, though, what I've mostly been doing has to do with writing.
I wrote. I finished my thesis. Last week I delivered my graduating student seminar and a reading and was granted my MFA. I wrote about the daily ups and downs of quarantine, and the heartbreak that Covid has wrought even for those of us who have been lucky enough to stay healthy. I wrote about practicing medicine in this crazy environment. I wrote about memories and ideas. I sent essays to journals and had a little flurry of publications.
I read. Memoirs, and Narrative Medicine and Essays and Fiction. Writings about racism and anti-racism and what its like to be Black in the US. Writings about what it's like to have Covid and take care of Covid patients and try to avoid Covid and watch your relative die from Covid on FaceTime. Writings about things I need to understand better.
And I taught writing. I led a Zoom course on writing medical memoir for a group of displaced medical students. We talked about writing honestly and clearly and with passion. We talked about our place in the world as physician/writers and as people living history and as people privileged to have education and medical knowledge. We talked about ethics and our obligation as writers who are healthcare professionals towards a society that is struggling with crises of health and race relations and political polarization, a society that is frightened and confused and angry, a society that we belong to whether we like it or not.
There have been days during which I felt like my activities were useless. I'm not an ER doctor or an ICU doctor, so I couldn't help with the surge of Coronavirus hospitalizations in Philadelphia. And what good, I wondered, is my reading and writing and teaching going to do when things are so screwed up in this country? Why would anyone bother with an MFA when the world is coming to an end?
But on better days, I'm pretty sure that I couldn't have spent my time in any more productive way. We are all battered daily by a barrage of information and opinions and theories. We get it from our newsfeeds, the TV, the radio, and social media, from Facebook to Twitter to TikTok. We get it by word of mouth, secondhand or third hand or eighth hand. It's often sensationalist and distorted and inflammatory. It's poorly written. It's conflictual and confusing. We are exhausted from all this information, and we don't know what to do with most of it. We are so saturated that our heads are spinning. We can't think straight.
In contrast, good, clear, honest writing gives us breathing space. It allows us to absorb and consider and question and think. It stimulates us and lets us rest, all at the same time. Ethical, well-written essays and memoir and fiction raise important questions without forcing anyone's agenda down our throats. We can think for ourselves and draw our own conclusions. It leaves us room to explore our own experiences and associations and ideas, and compare them with those the writer has presented to us.
The written word has extraordinary power. In times of chaos, reading and writing have the capacity not just to educate, but to spur us to positive action, to empathize with others, to find ways to cope. I can't think of anything more important right now.