On April 9, I was sitting in my sunny but still chilly yard, reading an engaging thriller, Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek, and thinking, “Ah, finally. I haven’t checked the news or answered texts for…an hour or more?” Back in the house, I had work and chores to do, but I didn’t want to budge from my Adirondack chair. I was loving this: the engaging plot and characters; the sensory experience of being outside rather than inside; a reprieve from thinking about face masks and sanitizing gel; the sheer novelty of feeling pleasure.
For three weeks, I hadn’t been able to read fiction. Looking back on that now that we’ve suffered through COVID for almost half a year, it doesn’t seem like a long time, but at the time it did. I hated that I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t lose myself in story, kept bouncing between social media and disaster headlines. I tried with several books and failed. I tried with Miracle Creek and failed, there, too.
But then on another day, on THIS DAY, I got past the first couple of chapters, and it was like finding a faster current running downstream. Finally, I was moving, and the relief not only from pandemic headlines but from my ego was palpable. Reading this book, which I would classify as hybrid commercial-literary or “upmarket” fiction (well-written, but no shortage of plot) didn’t feel like mere “escapism.” It felt like healing and like being reconnected with humanity. I wasn’t thinking about contaminated surfaces and aerosolized particles. I wasn’t even thinking about myself or my family. Page after page, I steadily lost myself in a large, fascinating cast, including a Korean-American family experiencing cultural and intergenerational tensions, several parents of autistic children, and a man slipping into an ill-advised affair. The voices! The different backgrounds! The authentic emotions! The simple pleasure of “what happens next?”
Why am I belaboring the mundane experience of losing myself in a book? Not only to look at why imaginative fiction and nonfiction matters so much during pandemic times, which has been written about more insightfully than I am writing here, but also to remind you of why your writing—whatever it is—matters.
There’s that word: MATTERS. It’s gained valid heft and multiple associations over the last few months. Black Lives Matter. And they do, and I can’t be more grateful we’re finally discussing it. Climate change still matters—even though I fear we may have forgotten how much, now that we are all terrified of COVID-19. All kinds of serious political issues matter.
But stories also matter—both when they are and when they are not about today’s headlines. All quality writing allows us to live inside other minds, to experience other realities, to develop empathy. It nearly always expands what we already know, and therefore, what we care about and how we behave in the world.
I’m preaching to the choir on this, because you probably already value good fiction and nonfiction. But do you value what you are writing or hoping to write? That’s the trickier question.
Trust me, I’ve been there. Even though I’ve written books about some hefty topics, including art and politics, sacrifice during wartime, child abuse, scientific ethics and more, there are always times during every draft when I wonder, “Why does this matter?” and “Who will read this?” and “Am I wasting my time?”
These are the questions we ask ourselves during the good times. During hard times, the questions carry even more weight. Change is in the air and we want to be part of it.
But change doesn’t come only through politics and protests. It also happens inside minds, one new insight or emotion at a time, and fiction—even fiction that doesn’t appear to be about important things—helps to make that change happen. If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t still be writing.
Lately, I’ve been working on a domestic thriller that is probably more commercial than my previous novels. Yes, I can point out the serious themes running beneath the somewhat lighter surface: mother-daughter love, the stages of grief, the dangers of cultish thinking. But my biggest hope, at this moment, is that readers simply consider this next book a page-turner. I want them to think and feel. But I’d also be ecstatic simply to find out I had transported them away from the pandemic for six to eight hours.
I invite you to think, now, about the book you are writing or planning to write. Think about your doubts. Do you wonder if your book is important enough, if anyone (agent, editor, reader) will care?
If you’re doing the work, they will. I promise.
Your book doesn’t have to be about this month’s political question or protest in order to have a valid place in the literary marketplace or in the marketplace of ideas. I am sure about that. I know because I’ve seen well-written books—including books published years ago—persist at the tops of the charts, alongside the timelier ones. I know because during the very last phone conversation I had with an agent, she said, “I’ve had such a hard time reading lately!” and she went on to describe the same experience I’d had—of needing a good story that would grab her, regardless of topic or timeliness.
But I know this, most of all, from my own experience as a reader who respects story and feels grateful for literary pleasure. You probably know that truth, too. Listen to it.
And then, get back to that story, essay, novel or memoir. We’re all waiting.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a 49 Writers co-founder, novelist and book coach who loves helping people draft and revise their books, as well as thrive during the many stages of a writer’s life. Her fifth novel, Annie and the Wolves, will be published in February 2021. Visit www.romanolax.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up for her book coaching newsletter.