There was one anecdote that for some reason didn't evolve into a story in my collection Coconut Dreams. My young sibling characters, Ally and Aiden, are in the garage of their quiet suburban townhome. The garage door is open and they are sitting on cheap fold-out lawn chairs watching a summer storm—a raging one (think: thunder, lighting, sheets of rain beating down on pavement). They feel both scared and mesmerized by the forces and decibels. They spot a few poor souls caught in it, running to get home. Ally and Aiden want to help but have no umbrella to offer, not that it would do much good in the wind. They can only watch. At a certain point they are surprised by a neighbour who comes over and starts yelling at them. The scolding is out of concern, saying what they are doing isn’t safe. That if lightning strikes nearby, it can travel, flow up the metal legs of those chairs, into their bodies and straight to their hearts. Perhaps this image was saved for a time like this.
These past couple of months I’ve been worried about this writing position. Can one be a Writer in Residence...without writing? I have not been able to write or even read literature since the news of the pandemic started. Crafting imagined worlds in these times has felt selfish. Vane. Pointless. Trivial. There's been a fogginess in thought, a numbness in body, an unrest in sleep. At times, when I’ve laid down, there’s been a weight pressing down that feels too physical to not be there.
Some (most...all) of the writers I know, have had these or similar troubles. Make no mistake, this malady is not comparable to the one still spreading stealthily across the globe. And while this crisis is affecting us all differently, there's cruelty in the way it’s compounding issues already afflicting the most oppressed communities. I know I’ve been incredibly fortunate and privileged thus far. And yet, I still feel it’s valid to acknowledge the hazards involved in bearing witness to constant suffering. Watching a storm too closely can be dangerous.
I think writers are strange folk. While one can never truly know the experience of identities outside your own (race, gender, sexual identity, etc.), a risk of opening yourself to the feelings of others, is being overwhelmed by them. The empathy necessary for good writing can cut both ways. Some of my favourite writers have an uncanny ability to tap not just the individual, but the collective subconscious. In Arundhati Roy’s The Pandemic is a Portal article, and subsequent video, I was struck by much of what she said. When asked about her process of writing when in grief, she said, “When the big lock-down [in India] happened...I lost my peace of mind. I went out and came back haunted.” However she went on to say, “As a writer I never shy away from feeling. I feel grateful that I can feel. One of the worst things can be when you stop feeling...Now more than ever, we have to feel each other’s feelings, fight each other’s battles, and howl and write and think...”
I’ve struggled finding a balance between these two paradigms. Taking shelter is a primal act; it is needed now, both literally and figuratively. As is self-care. And there is also a danger in closing oneself off to the human condition. I have no answer for the correct weighting here—more likely there isn't one. If writing advice from a writer-who’s-not-writing means anything, I’d only offer this: if you need to take a break, know that your characters are not abandoned and will be waiting for you as this storm passes.
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.
Derek Mascarenhas is a graduate of the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies Creative Writing Program, a finalist and runner-up for the Penguin Random House of Canada Student Award for Fiction, and a nominee for the Marina Nemat Award. His fiction has appeared in places such as Joyland, The Dalhousie Review, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The Antigonish Review. His linked short story collection, Coconut Dreams, was called a "stunning debut" in Quill and Quire’s starred review and The Globe and Mail named it one of the best reads from Canadian small presses. Derek currently lives in Toronto and is working on a novel in the magic realism genre.