When I was first approached by Open Book about doing the author residency for the month of February, my first thought was that I would do a serialized short story and write a piece of fiction in the same way that some of my favourite writers like Dickens and Dumas had in their time. I really liked the idea of engaging an audience in the same way that type of writing did more than a hundred years ago. I had, however, to change my approach when I found out that the focus of my posts needed to be more journalist and nonfiction. In the end, I settled on writing about the process of writing the short story instead.
So, in a series of nine posts during the month of February, I will be sharing this process along with consecutive excerpts of the first draft of the story. I will be posting on Mondays and Fridays throughout the month. The last post will be on Sunday, February 28th, 2021.
I decided that the story I wanted to write would have something to do with navigating romance during the time of a major pandemic. I sometimes like reading the Dating Diaries segments in the Toronto Star so I thought that I would use that as one of my jumping off points. I knew also that I wanted to write something in the science fiction genre since I have been working in the genre for the last few years on my first science fiction novel; 2084: The Conversion. The novel is a contemplation on climate change and race. It tells the story of two female scientist of colour navigating a world which has been decimated by climate change. This genre also felt appropriate since I’ve been feeling as if I’ve been living in a science fiction novel since March of last year. I’m sure I’m not alone.
To make things more interesting, I decided that I would place the story 5 years from now during the outbreak of a second major pandemic in less than a decade. I wanted to deal with the familiar but also provide some sort of cautionary tale as I like to do in my work.
Since I enjoy reading stories or books that start in the midst of an action, I decided to start somewhere in the middle of an action. I like the idea of situating the reader in the world that I’m creating right off the bat.
My creative process, for the most part is an intuitive one. I always try to begin from a place of knowing nothing and being completely open to whatever comes to mind during the writing process.
When I start writing, I normally don’t know my characters names, I usually let that come to me as I write. I also have no idea of how many characters would come into play or what their characteristics or the interplay between them would be. Plot, story structure and endings are things I don’t normally plan or sometimes even contemplate before I start writing. I start with a blank page knowing nothing but open to letting the creative forces, wherever they emerge from, lead the way.
Creating without parameters is what I enjoy the most and this is how I started this short story which I give the tentative title; Love In The Time of COVID; a nod to one of my favourite books and authors. The following is how the story begins:
She immediately saw the twinkled in his eyes as they crossed paths in the frozen food aisle. She hugging the right side of the isle, him the left. The slight upturn of his eyes behind his mask told her that he was most likely smiling. A stranger’s stare was rare enough, but a smile was special. It felt almost like a miracle. She left the aisle forgetting to pick up the vegetable crust pizza that she was curious about trying.
The fleeting glace had made her day. Eye contact, sharing space or even small talk with strangers had been something that had grown out of fashion since 2020. In the five years that had passed, she had kept company with a very small circle of people, none of whom she had spent more than twenty minutes face to face with or had seen naked.
As she picked up and examined some eggs and placed them in the personal shopping basket, the look in the strange man’s eyes stayed with her. She wondered what the rest of his face looked like. His eyes were kind, and his physique could not be seen under the bulk of his large parka, but she imagined him to be attractive. Maybe he was lonely and just trying out smiling with his eyes, she thought. Maybe he had practiced that same expression with others. Self-doubt was something that had plagued her thoughts often even after all the mindful exercises, mediation, and hours of self-help podcasts.
As she passed the aisles heading back to the frozen food section, she searched each one to see if she could get a glimpse of him. Even though there were a number of male forms that could have been him, none walked with the slightly off-centred gait. She had always been a quick study with gaits since she had spent almost a full year as a teenage walking around in a blur, not realizing that she needed glasses. She learnt to identify people by their walk when she was not close enough to see their face.
She had given up hope of ever seeing the man again when he appeared behind her as if out of nowhere.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Christene Browne, originally from St. Kitts, is a well-respected and internationally acclaimed Toronto independent filmmaker and was the first Black woman to direct a feature film in Canada. In 2011 she was awarded the Visionary award by the Women's International Film & Television Showcase for her ground-breaking documentary series Speaking in Tongues: The History of Language, which features Noam Chomsky. She recently completed a feature documentary on Toronto’s Regent Park, the oldest and largest Canadian housing complex, and is working on an animated documentary on the early life of famed Canadian author Austin Clarke. Her first novel Two Women (2013, Second Story Press) is about two women who share the same soul and deals with the cyclical nature of domestic violence. Her second novel Philomena (Unloved) (2018, Second Story Press) tells the story of a woman who lives a life devoid of love and deals with issues of sexual violence, mental health, and homelessness. She currently teaches at Ryerson University in the RTA School of Media and is developing her first libretto.