Before and After

Write a description of a lake as seen through the eyes of someone who has just committed a murder. Do not mention the murder.

That exercise—made famous by the novelist John Gardner in his writing book The Art of Fiction and a favorite of many Gotham teachers—has been on my mind a lot this week, as more and more writers ponder out loud what it means to write in the time of coronavirus. 

Students have asked if it’s too soon to address the pandemic directly in their work (no), or whether they’re obligated to write about it (no). They wonder whether their work will be dismissed if they don’t mention it at all (no).

What you should understand right now, though, is that no matter what you write, it will be
viewed through the lens of the pandemic.

How often can you truly say something applies to 100 percent of humanity? Shakespeare even found an exception to the rule that all people are “born of woman.” This pandemic is like skin being the human body’s largest organ, or the sky stretching above all of our heads.

“This disaster is so much more surrounding and immediate than any other mass emergency in living memory that even if it doesn’t occupy the action of every manuscript to come, its shadow will at least pass over the stage,” says Michael Ray, editor of the literary magazine Zoetrope: All Story.“ A story about isolation or powerlessness or kindness that has nothing to do with the pandemic could have everything to do with the pandemic.” (Full disclosure: Gotham partners with Zoetropeon classes and contests.)

“There isn’t a story in the world that isn’t impacted by coronavirus in some way,” Tim Herrera, an editor at the New York Times said recently in a seminar for freelance nonfiction writers. “Every story, even if it’s completely unrelated to corona, needs a line or a graf that at least acknowledges the context in which your story is happening.”

My colleague Mo Krochmal calls this “quarantineature,” because whatever you write will be a revelation, because of when you wrote it. It’s not up to us anymore.

Isn’t that true of most of writing anyway?

Which brings me back to Gardner’s exercise. We’re all in the position now of being able to see how a lake would look different before and after an earth-shattering event, no guesswork involved. If you’re up for it, try a version of this exercise on your own. Write about a lake as seen by someone gazing out at it last summer. Then, write about it again from the point of view of someone seeing it today.

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Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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