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Thursday, April 30, 2020

Describing "The Vid" ("The Cove?" "The Rona?") [Mailbox]

Right now we are only dealing with questions that are about the intersection between Covid-19 and writing, but......

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one a week or so. I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Just Covid-19 questions for now, but soon well be back to open season on any writing topic, so you can send in such a question if you wish, and I'll tuck it in the queue for later.]   

Stephanie asks:

So I have (luckily) been able to avoid COVID so far....not having first hand experience myself, how would I write about it? Interview people affected? Medical journals? I want it to be accurate. 

My reply:

First of all, congratulations, and may your streak continue. I had what could clinically be described as a "gosh darn mild" bout with Covid-19, it only lasted a week, and there is only one time in my life that I felt sicker and closer to death, and that was when I literally couldn't keep water down long enough to keep from getting dehydrated.

Don't take this the wrong way, but may you always have to do a little research to describe this one.

For the most part, writers of reasonable skill have an awesome tool at their disposal when it comes to writing about something that they've never experienced firsthand: they are also great readers.

Reading is.....well it's almost a superpower.

Reading is like the Swiss Army Buster Sword of knowing a little bit about just goddamned near everything and a LOT about anything a skilled reader set their mind to. There are doors reading alone can't ever open (we can't DO the math equations, we can't analyze the historical records with the discernment a historian has spent many years learning to cultivate, we don't have the medical knowhow to be epidemiologists, we can't conduct an archeological dig successfully, we can't command troops in battle, etc...), but we sure have it in us to have a really strong theoretical understanding of almost anything we set our reading to.

Reading with compassion is the great equalizer when it comes to trite advice like "write what you know." (None of us know what dragons or space cruisers are like, but writers have been doing just fine with them by using their reading, empathy, and imagination.) Because given time, a good reader can "know" almost anything. Not because we go through the experiences ourselves, but because those who do often write about them. And we have the whole of human experience at our very adept fingertips.

Obviously, there's a deep and almost endless honeycomb of nuance when it comes to limitations of reading to prepare a writer to describe something. Obviously, reading about a skill can't teach you the skill itself––only its theoretical application. (You might read six books on painting and understand form, content, and medium far better, but you would not be a better painter.) Obviously, reading does not confer muscle memory (whether it be for martial arts or playing an instrument). Obviously, some writers don't do their due diligence when it comes to research, even on simple things like basic science (I'm looking at you, Prometheus!). Obviously some experiences like poverty or racism are never going to be fully, completely understood by someone in a different circumstance (if for no other reason than these experiences fade away once the book is closed). Obviously, some writers assume they know how the world works, and do not listen to other people's stories before writing about "How it is™" (clouding their story quite noticeably with their ethnocentric judgement).

And it is worth mentioning that there are some folks who will never ever accept a writer who is not from a group telling the story as if they are ingroup, even as fiction, no matter how close they get it. (Look at the incredibly conflicted reactions to Middlesex if you want a perfect example of that.) And there are a myriad of valid but super-complicated reasons for that that I'm not getting into today.

But a writer willing to read with compassion and an open mind (and with ethnocentricity bound and gagged to a nearby pole by cultural relativism) can get really, really, really, really, REALLY close if they want make a good faith effort not to be a stranger and to portray with as much compassion and empathy as they can. Plus, when it comes to things like "What is a particular illness like," you aren't going to have the same reaction as you might if you try to tackle, "What is the lived experience of racism."

Which is my very long, choir-preaching, gotta-squeeze-out-a-whole-article-out-of-this way of saying that interviewing affected people or medical journals are great ways of learning what the virus does, what it feels like and how to describe it. Plus, what circumstances are very rare and would need to be mentioned as such. (It's okay if your CV-19 character were totally asymptomatic except for bad diarrhea (it CAN happen), but that is a very rare presentation, and you should probably have your story/writing reflect its unusualness somewhere/somehow.)

Also, unless you want to be on the cutting edge of breaking information, there will probably be a lot of secondary sources you can tap as well. You don't necessarily need to do interviews or dig through medical data. There are already people putting together blogs, mainstream news series, there are lots of accounts online––including mine. There are charts with collated data and statistical likelihood of each symptom. There are soon to be books with stories that try to bring home what's happening right now in a way that data points and statistics cannot. Probably we aren't too far off from CV-19 showing up in pop culture either. (And maybe an espionage thriller where it's been engineered by a pharmacologist who needs to be side kicked in the face by Tom Cruise.) A discriminating reader looking to make an accurate portrayal will have any number paths by which to make it as accurate and realistic as possible.

Good luck. And may you only ever be able to describe Covid-19 vicariously through research of first hand accounts.

Seriously.

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