Writing Beyond the End of the World

By Waubgeshig Rice

COVID playground

We spend our days scrolling through countless words. Many of us are fixated on screens from the moment we awake until the moment we return to the same bed to sleep. And from day to day, not a whole lot changes, so some of the words that pass our eyes tend to lose meaning. It’s a disorienting process, and for those of us who deal in words and stories for a living, that routine can fuel an existential crisis. It’s hard not to question our purpose as writers in a drastically changing world that sometimes feels stranger than any fictional dystopia.

The world we knew at the beginning of this year is no more. It has ended, but not in the catastrophic ways we’ve imagined through books and movies. A big asteroid didn’t slam into Earth. The Doomsday Clock didn’t strike 12 and trigger a global nuclear war. A plague didn’t wipe everyone out. But we’ve had a glimpse of that potential, which is why we’re collectively reimagining our future.

As we continue to physically distance from each other, COVID-19 is changing how we work, socialize, educate, and more. Many of those elements of everyday life have changed for good, and others still remain up in the air as we await the distribution of a vaccine. The world seems to be in a holding pattern, and for many of us writers, it feels difficult to predict where civilization is headed, and how we and our writing fit into that new world.

Writers capture the world happening around them, and how people relate to it. They are the conduits for the human experience. But when everything shuts down, a weird creative stasis can set in. As everyone around the globe experiences the same thing - varying efforts to keep a worldwide sickness at bay - it can be hard to consider what to write about, or to imagine compelling stories outside of the current collective experience.

Furthermore, when lives are at stake and civilization undergoes a radical shift, art can sometimes feel trivial, especially to those who create it. As the release of a COVID-19 vaccine is imminent, experts and governments are determining the best ways to get it to the people. Meanwhile, societies everywhere are preparing for an overhaul in everything from schooling to commerce and more. With much more important efforts underway to create a safe and healthy future, it’s easy to doubt our writing and our future roles as writers.

But the appetite for literature remains strong as ever. Readers will always want to turn to books, regardless of whatever crisis befalls the world around them. They’ll seek to lose themselves in another fictional world to get their minds off a global pandemic. Or, they’ll read dystopian or post-apocalyptic books to relate with their current situation or find a shred of hope in a fictional resolution.

Non-fiction, on the other hand, can help raise awareness and build solidarity among humans. A reader will perhaps seek to learn more about a global pandemic and medical efforts to eradicate sickness. Or they could look to read about someone else’s real-life experience to build empathy and educate themselves about other ways of life. The reading possibilities are endless when we’re stuck at home and have more time to open books.

And right now, readers and writers are connecting online like never before. The pandemic shut down in-person readings and literary festivals. But thanks to the Internet, organizers have moved their events online, opening up to audiences all over the world on top of their immediate physical communities. As a result, some online readings have attracted hundreds more people than their usual actual venues could hold. It is unprecedented access that is sustaining active literary communities.

This readjustment will eventually be over. We will emerge from this pandemic, although in a different social environment. It’s difficult to predict just how everything will work once the vaccine has made its way through the world. But the hope is our literary realm will continue to thrive. The books to come from this era will be rich and resonant. And we’ll return to sharing them in person in some way.

So it’s important to keep dreaming and writing. During these radical times, writers create the art that entertains, reassures, and connects. Storytelling is how humankind has persevered since the dawn of civilization. The world will likely see another widespread event like this in the future, and ideally the stories we write now will bring us back together to learn and share.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Waubgeshig Rice is an author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation on Georgian Bay. He has written three fiction titles, and his short stories and essays have been published in numerous anthologies. His most recent novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was published in 2018 and became a national bestseller. He graduated from Ryerson University’s journalism program in 2002, and spent the bulk of his journalism career at CBC, most recently as host of Up North, the afternoon radio program for northern Ontario. He lives in Sudbury, Ontario with his wife and two sons.