Writing Through the Pandemic: Novelist Leslie Pietrzyk on Shifting Her Work to a Smaller Scale

"For a writer, whatever the question is, 'writing' is the answer."

Coronavirus 2020

About Coronavirus 2020

Washingtonian is keeping you up to date on the coronavirus around DC.

We asked Washington writers to share stories, poems, drafts, musings, and other things they’ve been working on during quarantine. Today, thoughts from Leslie Pietrzyk, whose books include the novel Silver Girl and the short-story collection This Angel on My Chest.

What are writers writing during the pandemic? I mean, we’re writers, so we should be writing, right? And we’re all introverts, so shouldn’t social distancing be right up our alley? This plot feels ideal!

However, what’s a plot without conflict?

In my case, the conflict is that as a reader, I find myself avidly reading too much news, with a special interest in stories about people on the frontlines telling their tales—this is what life is like in the ER, in the morgue, in a tent on the streets, in a research lab. I’m much more interested in this sort of report than in the depressing numbers and distressing policy seesaw. Likely, this is where the stories will arise in the novels and stories and poems and plays ahead. But as a writer—a novelist—right now, I know I don’t have the necessary distance and perspective that a good novel requires. I can’t yet be the “mastermind” tasked with maneuvering characters, tugging thematic threads, and creating the artful whole.

Also, honestly, I just don’t have the focus. How can I think about my personal fantasy world when this real world requires so much energy? Just getting through a day is more than enough—and kudos to all who are doing that, day by day.

The conflict takes a twist, though: As a writer, I find it very hard not to write, because writing is the way I make sense of, well, the world. How can I not think about writing, not long to write, not feel that everyone I know is busily writing the Great Pandemic Novel while I’m trying to score toilet paper on Amazon Pantry? So not writing is not an option. This added complication is one that fiction writers know well—chasing our main character up a tree, as the saying goes. Part of me wishes the solution were as simple as taking a break from writing.

I’ve found myself gravitating to a half-finished novel I was working on several years ago. I still like the characters and the setting—DC and NoVA—and though I can’t write that novel right now, I can try to reshape the chapters into short stories. Returning to this old world is like hanging out with friends, wondering why you stopped seeing them.

So during the pandemic, I’m revising and tinkering and narrowing grand novelistic themes into concerns that can be handled in 15 pages. Or not. It’s low-stakes work, which is what I need now. Maybe these stories will form themselves into a collection, or maybe not. Maybe I’ll publish them, or maybe not. I enjoy working on this smaller scale, thinking about sentences and words and commas. In an uncertain future, I enjoy the prospect of spending a couple of weeks with a story rather than the couple of years (or more) my novels require. I enjoy writing about a time before—not a time during—as I wait, as we all wait, for the time after.

I like to say that for a writer, whatever the question is, “writing” is the answer. And my primary question for something as vast as this pandemic—a paradoxically very real abstraction—is “How can little old me possibly manage this?” The answer, again, for me, is simple: by writing one word after the next. Do that, and the ending will appear. That’s what I’ve learned as a writer, and that’s why I’m writing now.