By Jon Roemer
I spend too much time thinking about uncertainty. As a writer and editor, I think about what pulls a story forward. Will our heroine lose everything, will our hero make it home safe. It’s a state that I enjoy—reveling in not knowing what’s next. I make the space to do it, to engage in imagining horrible loss.
But this week, after several weeks, uncertainty has run out of fun. The path ahead feels too urgent for speculation, for the work of a novel. Should novels even be a priority right now?
I know the proper answer. Imaginative work is how we change, how we find new directions. But it’s happening so fast. What feels monumental this morning will get outdone tomorrow night. The uncertainty of an invisible virus has crashed into the certainty of George Floyd’s moral cause, which has fiercely pivoted to the uncertainty of remedies. It’s very hard to say how this year will end, except as a measure of how we care about each other.
Since the start of our coronavirus troubles, I’ve been watching how writers express their expectations. A week before George Floyd was killed, I listened to two clever and famous poets talk about the impact of Covid-19, how its disruption will usher in a new era, ending racism, homophobia, and patriarchy, along with capitalism’s rapid collapse. A very bright outlook. In fact, I thought they were being funny, and I laughed with my dog. But when I looked at the screen again, their smiles were kind of wry, like they knew it was wishful thinking, but maybe only kind of. Like right now, maybe, who can really say.
The next week, following Floyd’s killing, I got Roxane Gay’s take, in an essay explaining that a new path to equality is not on its way. “Eventually, doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but black people will continue to wait, despite the futility of hope, for a cure for racism.” That’s very different from the radical poets. Gay isn’t so rosy; she doesn’t think we can imagine our way out of this mess.
And then this week, Anna Deavere Smith called herself a hope-a-holic. Smith’s theater piece Twilight reflected on the Rodney King riots, and as she’s done before, she called on writers and artists to grow our moral imagination. With a wincing look at a TV anchor, she described our imagination as “not as robust as it can be.”
Well, ouch. But also, yes.
In my family—white folks with roots in the Midwest—I have a niece in Denver who yearns to join the protests but is continuing her family’s pandemic confinement. Another, now in Tampa, is out and about, juggling her work, her daughter, her wife and their church events. Yet another has been to Ozark family reunions and flown across the country to reunite with her dad, who’s been isolating alone for weeks. Here in California, my boyfriend owns a bar shut down by pandemic restrictions, while protests against police have blocked doctors from treating his father’s heart condition. On a recent group call with Silicon Valley consultants, I heard one after another welcoming the idea of career counseling, looking for exit strategies, while my sister works in health tech in a new job that’s bustling. I could pull them into a novel in a Dos Passos maneuver, starting with the counterpoint of POC communities. But this slice of life could quickly feel naive. Given the pace of change, the catastrophe coming next week, it could quickly get dated, reading painfully oblivious to the new disasters still on their way.
Less than a year ago, I published a novel crafted around a moment in time, aiming to capture the pressures re-shaping San Francisco. My focus was on the neighborhood, how proximity has lost its potential for identity, and how modern urban life can be so solitary it can skew our measure of ourselves and reality.
The same pressures are still here, but new ones have piled on, and the book’s relevance, as always, is in the hands of the reader. I also wrote it with a very open ending, wanting the protagonist to arrive at a new awareness but still reside in the same place, with a lot of the same problems. That was important to me, to dramatize a recognition of shared responsibilities.
It’s not autobiographical—the narrator is even more of a buffoon than me. But I think that’s the condition I’m trying to describe today: my anxiety around a lack of movement, which is mandated here in this phase of the pandemic, and my fear of a failed imagination, which even the sharpest poets and writers are facing.
Late February/early March felt like a horror movie, the fast, almost tidy way the pandemic was unfolding and the way cable news filled an expository role. It looked like a Soderbergh split-screen concoction, like Contagion on replay from a decade ago. Until the spectacle got repetitive, the numbers got close to home, and angry people started filling my streets.
It’s important, I think, that it felt like a movie, like it’s a story we know already, even if the actual lived experience has been entirely new and challenging. Because that means we’re up to speed—a writer and an editor has already anticipated our uncertainties—so we at least know the common wisdom, and we’ll be able to move quickly.
But writing quickly hasn’t always been my thing, and now more than ever, it’s probably smart to work without expectations, without a sense of an ending. I’m listening, taking notes, moving things around, because new thinking sometimes comes from rearranging old ideas. I’m still interested in the tension between individual and communal obligations, I’m still looking to greater minds, and I’m still hoping for a time when uncertainty feels a lot less perilous.