Writing Through the Pandemic: Novelist Carolyn Parkhurst on Making Space

"When you come to the end of it, what would you like to be able to say you’ve done?"

Coronavirus 2020

About Coronavirus 2020

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

We asked Washington writers to share stories, essays, poems, drafts, musings, and other things they’ve been working on during quarantine. Today, an essay by novelist Carolyn Parkhurst, author of The Dogs of Babel, Lost & Found, The Nobodies Album, and Harmony.


I can’t be the only one who traces the beginning of this disaster to the night Sarah Palin sang “Baby Got Back” on The Masked Singer. It was an inconsequential moment in terms of both politics and entertainment, but it nevertheless functioned as a sort of tipping point. After months of watching the world grow inarguably stranger day by day, the performance—surreal and oversaturated—felt like the part of the dream sequence where you finally understand that none of this can possibly be real. (Except it was.)

Two days later, my family—me, my husband, and our two teenage kids—came home at the end of the day, and we haven’t left the house since.

When time becomes hazy and slippery, as it has for many of us during quarantine, when it stops being the primary force by which we organize our lives, beginnings and endings become harder to pinpoint. It changes our internal narrative structure.

We make lists. We write in bursts and fragments. We look for different ways to tell the story.

For months before quarantine, I’d been bemoaning the bittersweet, relentless nature of time. My older child, my son, is about to graduate from high school. He’s on the autism spectrum, and getting him to this point—all those years of helping him navigate his own challenges and our own—feels like a huge achievement. Five years ago, I wasn’t sure that going away to college was going to be the right path for him, but here we were, celebrating college acceptances and helping him decide on a school. I was excited and thrilled for him, but of course I was also a little bit sad.

Me: Our last months all together under the same roof! It all goes so fast!

Universe: Okay, here you go! Family time, all the time! Enjoy every freaking minute!

Note to myself from four months ago: You should be aware that even though your child will be enrolling in college, that may not be the same thing as going away to college. Just something to think about. I’ve probably said too much.

During the first couple of weeks of quarantine, I didn’t write at all. We were all still figuring out the new rhythm of our days, I was helping the kids get used to the challenges of distance learning, I was anxious about the larger situation and reading news about it constantly. Plus we suddenly had a lot more dirty dishes, and I had to bitch about that. I was miserable, and that seemed just about right.

In the informal lottery that determined who was going to get which workspace in this new configuration of working and studying from home, I ended up with my bedroom. The problem is, I hate my bedroom. It’s a huge mess, and has been for quite a while. It’s like the picture of Dorian Gray, getting messier when the rest of my house gets neater, because it’s the place we end up stashing everything we don’t have a place for.

But I got tired of sitting there feeling unhappy about it. Doing something is better than doing nothing, so I started doing a tiny bit of cleaning and decluttering every day. There’s still a long way to go, but now I have a corner, a single tiny corner, that looks exactly the way I want it to, and I love it.

What would I write, anyway? In three years, I’d started and abandoned three different novels. Nothing was holding my attention, and when I got stuck, I had no idea what direction to take to fix the problem. I’d never had to deal with this before. Notably, it started around the time of the last presidential election. Coincidence???

The best piece of advice I ever received was this: When you have a generous impulse, follow it. I’m not a particularly religious or mystical person, but I believe that if there is a meaning to life, it lies along the axis of love, kindness, and generosity.

So I do favors for friends and sometimes relative strangers. I’m a good tipper. I try to approach the world with an open heart.

Being generous with myself is the part I don’t always remember.

There’s a project—a novel, though it’s so early that I hesitate to call it that—that I’ve had in my head for almost ten years. I worked on it for a while in 2010, but my editor at the time wasn’t convinced it was right for my next project. (She was probably correct. My thoughts about it back then were pretty jumbled.) I took it up again in 2016, but then the election happened and I stopped writing altogether for a while. (A lame excuse, I know. I can blame a lot of things on our current President, but my lack of writing output isn’t one of them.)

But this novel, or rather this idea of a novel: It’s a big sprawling mess of a thing, made up of interconnecting parts that may or may not make any sense together. You know that video of Lin-Manuel Miranda at the White House in, like, 2009, where he first introduces the ideas that would eventually become Hamilton, and everyone laughs uncomfortably because he sounds like a crazy person and there’s no way anyone could think a hip-hop musical about the country’s first Treasury Secretary is a good idea? It’s kind of like that, but without the part where it’s all in hindsight and we can all relax because it turned out to be a masterpiece. I’m still at the part where it just sounds crazy.

But for ten years, it’s been there in my head. I’ve loved it secretly and wistfully, like an unrealistic crush. When running errands, I’ve sometimes changed my route in order to drive past significant locations. Yet in the past three years, as I’ve started and then lost steam on those three other potential novels, it never occurred to me to return to this one.

Okay, so I lied when I said we haven’t left the house in three months. For one thing, we have a dog who leads us on creative and elaborate tours of the neighborhood at least three times a day. And we’ve started going out for drives when we can’t stand to be in the house anymore. Also, I’ve been to CVS four times.

Still. Everyone’s here, all the time. I love these people, but come on.

My focus is scattered. My emotions seem more mixed up, less compartmentalized. Closer to the surface. I’m cheerful, anxious, irritable, giddy, desperate, and optimistic, all in the same day. My equilibrium gets thrown off by how everyone else in the house is feeling. And I’m tired, even on days when I’ve done almost literally nothing.

There’s a suspension of rules, at least some of them. Shower at 2 PM, if that’s what works for you. Have an hour when nobody needs anything from you? No reason not to take a nap. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to learn new habits.

It’s hard when lack of mental space collides with lack of physical space. When do I think about whatever it is I used to think about when on my way to pick up the kids from school? As one friend asked on Facebook, where do I go to cry?

While I was cleaning my bedroom, or that tiny part of it, I came across the books. The books I bought for research and inspiration in 2010, when I first had that idea. And I started looking through them. All the feelings I’d had then—the excitement, the sense of potential—came back in a rush.

After a while, you gain a little bit of clarity. This time out of our usual lives, this time out of time, might have an upside. It’s not exactly true that the Chinese word for “crisis” is the same as the word for “opportunity,” but that doesn’t mean that Homer Simpson wasn’t on to something when he created the word “crisatunity.”

It’s a reset. Time spent in quarantine becomes a microcosm of life itself: When you come to the end of it, what would you like to be able to say you’ve done?

Understand that when I say “you,” I mean me. But I also mean you, if that’s something you want. If you think it might help you to hear it.

It has never been the right time to write this book, and maybe it isn’t now, either. But doing something is better than doing nothing. I went back to the novel and looked over what I’d written before. I started to read the research books again. And bit by bit, a tiny bit a day, I began to write.

Go easy on yourself. This isn’t a time for hard edges and stringent regret.

Nachos are fine for dinner. Making a Pinterest board for your novel counts as real work.

Be creative when you can, in whatever opportunities manifest themselves. Playing a game with my family, I had to come up with an entry for the category “A college essay that’s bound to get you rejected.” I am as proud of my answer (“My Splendid Butt”) as I am of some pieces of actual published writing I’ve done.

I love the idea of this book. I’m still scared of it in about 20 different ways, and I still don’t know if it’s going to work how I hope it will. But there’s no way to know if I don’t try.

And I’m a lot happier now at the end of the day.

Don’t get me wrong. The dishes are still very much an issue.

We have been expecting caution and tentativeness, but the way the world finally breaks itself back open isn’t cautious at all. It is urgent and explosive. It turns out that whatever else we’ve been doing for the last several months, we’ve also been preparing. For the fight that lies ahead.

And writing is more important than ever.

Look for the places where good comes out of bad.

The oceans have gotten quieter in these months, and maybe your brain has, too. Your busy modern brain, overcrowded and overscheduled, reverting to a state of nature.

Be the empty streets of Manhattan. Be the Welsh village overrun by goats.

Be the canals of Venice, finally clearing out enough to allow space for dolphins and jellyfish to swim. Who knew they were there the whole time?


Carolyn Parkhurst

Carolyn Parkhurst is the author of four novels, including “The Dogs of Babel” and “Harmony.”