IN THE PANIC ROOM
Writing in Times of Crisis
When this pandemic began, all desire to create fled my body with the aplomb of a parachutist ejecting from a burning plane. Instead, I developed an addiction to the news, watching this country’s disastrous response with all the fascination of a spectator on the ground as that plane careened to the earth. As I’m sure I don’t need to tell you (unless you’re one of those batshit conspiracy nuts who thinks wearing a mask turns your children into communist marshmallows and Hilary Clinton invented Black people), when Covid-19 came to town, the world suddenly seemed very small and very dangerous. Last time I felt such instant traumatic paralysis was on 9/11 when I woke up in time to see smoke spilling out of the North Tower of the World Trade Center and could only watch in horror as the rest of the story unfolded. And now, here we were, once again being told we were standing in the shadow of our own imminent destruction. This, after years of school shootings, natural disasters, incels, madmen, #metoo, women’s rights being withdrawn like they’d only been on loan, and a corrupt government with a malignant narcissist president at the helm. It all felt too much, even for a privileged creampuff like me.
When the nationwide lockdown orders went into effect, I came back to myself long enough to realize I had multiple projects in the pipeline, books and stories promised to editors that would be due in the coming weeks and months. Which left me with the same question that arises every time the world decides it isn’t quite scandalous enough to appease the Imp of the Perverse and teabags our national sense of order: How the fuck am I supposed to write in this?
In the end, I didn’t have a choice. Between mad dashes to the grocery store, planting vegetables in repurposed tomato cans like someone still sore over getting perpetually murdered by The Oregon Trail, and rethinking the placement of hugs on the scale of things I thought I could live without, the work needed to get done. If things were going to get bad, I couldn’t afford to not do my job, and make no mistake, folks, writing is a job, the hardest one I’ve ever had, but also the most rewarding.
But even that didn’t prove motivation enough.
I’d sit for hours at the computer, tabbing endlessly between the blank white page and Twitter to monitor how much worse the shitstorm had become, but nothing got written.
Days passed, then weeks.
Finally, I missed my first deadline and it was for a project I’d been deliriously excited about before 2020 dropped trou and hard-spackled our lives with shit-Skittles.
And that annoyed the hell out of me.
I don’t like missing deadlines, especially for giant projects that represent forward momentum in this sweaty old gym bag I call a career. I don’t like letting people down (though I do it all the time due to an incurable case of being fallible), so I wrote an email of apology to the editor, went back to the keyboard…
…and wrote a short novel in eleven days. And it was good. Vicious, but good. It was full of dark, terrible things, of selfishness and ruin, of imminent destruction, but safely contained in fiction, a product of my own existential meanderings while my brain idled in the panic room.
Slowly, slowly, I started to feel better. Not cured, not saved, but stable, because while I was in that other world, I wasn’t worried about this one.
I owe whatever peace I found to writing, because the world you create is a world you can control, a world in which the horrors obey you, not the other way around. It’s the same world I hope you’ll come visit to escape your own fears, because you, the reader, were an integral part of my finding some small pocket of salvation amid the chaos. A safe space, perhaps. And there’s an element of hope there, no? A single red rose growing in the vacant lot of our national despair? A book sitting on the floor that, simply by opening it, takes you to a sanctuary where you are not the vulnerable one. A place to go when you can’t escape where you are?
We’re a complicated bunch, we humans, and often we seem determined to hasten our own annihilation by any and every means available to us. But sometimes we prevail, too. Sometimes we get together and just say no to whatever startling malignancy is trying to force itself down our throats. Sometimes we wear masks to keep the devil out. Sometimes we wear one to keep the devil in. And sometimes we take a stand because that’s just what good people do.
Stephen King said: “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” And he’s right, but to that quote I would add a critical addendum:
“Only if we let them.”
- Kealan Patrick Burke