Anger at friends who refused to wear masks and social distance inspired Colorado writer Johanna Levene to write “An Open Letter to My Lactose Intolerant Friend Regarding My COVID Intolerance,” a witty short piece published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency (09/30/20).
“My family is being incredibly careful because we’re co-quarantining with my parents, who are both older,” she says. “Friends for whom we’ve made dietary accommodations in the past are unwilling to make accommodations for us in a universal pandemic. I didn’t want to write an angry rant no one was going to read, so I took a humorous approach.”
That approach is exactly what McSweeney’s editor Christopher Monks was looking for. In the early months of the pandemic, he received between 400 and 500 submissions weekly. “We’d get dozens upon dozens of things a week about Zoom and social distancing and the Trump administration’s horrendous response to the crisis, etc.,” he notes. “The pieces that stood out stood out for the same reasons any other McSweeney’s piece gets published: They were funny and well-crafted. But also they tapped into the frustration, worry, anger, and fear we all were (still are!) experiencing and thus were easy to connect and empathize with.”
Editors’ inboxes continue to overflow with pandemic-related prose and poetry. Because of limited space, they can publish only those pieces that strike them as highly original, surprising, and relevant to their particular readers and their specific aesthetic. Different writers take various approaches when penning their observations, emotions, and experiences about COVID-19 and submitting them for potential publication. Here are tips for finding your own unique approach to sharing your pandemic stories – and finding a home for them in print.
Identify what makes you different
Kyle Elliott is a writer and career coach based in Southern California. The Mighty, a digital publication focused on empowering people with disabilities and health challenges, published his personal essay “4 Lessons the COVID-19 Pandemic Taught Me About My Mental Health” (06/29/20). It’s a short piece about the unexpected benefits of reduced anxiety and increased productivity he’s experienced while sheltering in place. He writes:
“I am heartbroken by the record-high unemployment rates, economic impact and deaths. I am also beginning to find the silver livings, like learning how resilient I truly am, tapping deeper into my support systems and taking time to slow down and recharge.”
“When I’m writing, I look at what the media landscape is saying and whether I have a different story to tell,” Elliott explains. “My philosophy is about identifying what makes you different, what makes you fabulous, then sharing it. I find that’s a way to break through all the pitches that editors are getting.”
The responses from readers confirm his ability to put an original and welcome spin on a universal topic. One reader emailed him to say that they thought they were the only person doing well during the pandemic. “They said they thought they were alone until they read my piece,” he explains. “I like getting to be a trailblazer – sharing a story I haven’t seen anywhere else.”
Dinty W. Moore, editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, also appreciates trailblazing writers. He tells potential contributors to listen to what everyone around them is saying about the pandemic. “If they’re saying it, then they already know it,” he says. “Look for what people haven’t come to terms with yet about COVID, and write about that.”
Since March 2020, he’s received numerous essays exploring the difficulty of writing creatively during a pandemic. He’s interested in publishing pieces that explore specific strategies for how to move beyond these difficulties.
One such piece by Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade titled “Collaboration in the Time of Covid-19” (4/7/20) describes their decision to write together on Zoom. “They wrote about how collaboration has helped them to feel connection in a time that we feel so unconnected,” Moore says.
Another Brevity piece by Armen Bacon and Phyllis Brotherton titled “The Words Between Us: A Covid-19 Diary” (05/18/20) describes the writers’ daily exchange of notes during the pandemic. It reads:
“But writers write. We are masters of social distancing – often at our best when under self-quarantine, self-isolation. So why not translate fears, anxieties, reflections and revelations into a mix of musings and forms – create a docu-memory of life during Covid-19.”
Both collaborative pieces examine a common theme – writing during a pandemic – and the authors describe their specific responses to the challenge with inspiring examples and insights into the creative, collaborative process.
Tell a unique story
Dan Mirvish describes himself as “a filmmaker who likes to write.” He’s the Los Angeles-based author of The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking, and this year, he wrote first-person articles for both Variety and Filmmaker Magazine about making a film during the pandemic.
“We had a unique story,” he says of himself and his crew. “We were one of the last films shooting in March, and so I wrote about how we arrived at the decision to shut down production, what happened afterward, and how we were able to do a lot of the work during the quarantine process. We recorded actors remotely, musicians remotely. The article offered hope for other filmmakers. It showed that you can still be creative during downtime.”
Mirvish suggests that people wanting to write nonfiction about the pandemic and quarantine identify a similarly unique story. “I pitched an angle that no one else was writing about,” he says. “We wound up shooting the rest of the film in September, and we were one of the first films back in production. We had a lot to offer to other filmmakers about how to shoot a film during COVID, describing the advantages and disadvantages, along with challenges and how to overcome them.”
Both articles resonated with readers wondering how to make films during the pandemic. The article from Filmmaker was shared on Facebook over 700 times. “People were intrigued and impressed by our resilience,” Mirvish explains. “The articles showed that it can be done, and it can be done on a budget, and people are doing it.”
Use humor. Really.
It may seem irreverent to write about COVID and quarantine with wit, but some editors appreciate the skillful blend of solemnity and humor in the submissions they receive. Take New York writer Jennie Egerdie’s “Frog and Toad are Self-Quarantined Friends” from McSweeney’s (03/31/20), a series of clever vignettes that parody the classic children’s picture books written by Arnold Lobel.
“They capture the sweet spirit of the originals, plus they’re charming, funny, and even comforting,” Monks says. “Humor and empathy go a long way toward making tough times better, and these pieces deliver on both counts many times over.” (Egerdie followed up the first piece with another published 8/24/20, titled “Frog and Toad Tentatively go Outside after Months in Self-Quarantine.”)
Levene, who wrote the droll letter to her lactose-intolerant friends about her “COVID-intolerance,” says that her piece wasn’t just about the pandemic. “It was about the frustrations that I’d had prior to COVID, doing my best to make sure I was caring for everyone, and then, when it was time to care for me and my family, it wasn’t reciprocated.”
The piece spoke to readers. People also co-quarantining with elderly parents reached out to email her about one section of her letter in particular, which reads:
“Mistakes happen. You might be laughing and shouting germs all over and never know until someone gets sick. Imagine how embarrassed you’d feel if you accidentally killed my parents. They say hi by the way.”
“Readers wrote to tell me how worried they were about their own parents,” she says. “They wondered why people can’t just put a mask on and step back and make some of these accommodations so that we can all be safe.”
Writing the piece, Levene says, felt like therapy and an attempt to reconcile what was going on in her world. “We can either laugh or cry about the challenges we’re experiencing during the pandemic,” she says. “If I can make people laugh about this ridiculous situation, I’m thrilled.”
—Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Twitter/Instagram: @WildMelissaHart