Of the many casualties of this pandemic, large and small, one I grieve personally is the writing program in the University of Wisconsin’s Division of Continuing Studies. Its workshops, classes, spring Writers’ Institute, and week-long Write-by-the-Lake retreat have taught me so much in recent years and introduced me to so many amazing people. Now the program’s big events are discontinued, online services are winding down, and the last of the staff will leave by the end of June.
To grieve is not simply a stronger form of to miss. I miss family members I don’t live with, Door County vacations, eating out. They’ll be back. I grieve the deaths, the abandoned dreams, particular shops and restaurants closed forever. I miss informal interactions over lunch or breaks when a conference has to go online. I grieve how, when budgets get tight, the arts are the first to go.
Will history be the judge? Does the arc of history bend? Figures of speech both reflect and shape our expectations.
My constitutional law professor thought the courts should have ended “separate but equal” education not by finding it unconstitutional, but by enforcing equal funding for all schools, making segregation financially unsustainable. It is easy from this distance to consign him to the wrong side of history. We call “the right side” the one that wins out in the long run as accepted and wise. Three problems with this notion:
When truth is stranger than fiction, a little old-fashioned murder and mayhem offers respite. Crime Writers of Color led me to FIB agent Jade Harrington (Don’t Speak, below) a few months back. Other novels of presidential elections may ease the weeks ahead.
“What was a restaurant, Grandpa? What was it like to go to school with kids who weren’t in your pod?”
If you are tempted to write dystopian science fiction set in the After Time, start now. In the tale playing in my head, food shortages from perpetual fires and hurricanes have driven the United States into a rigid caste system, with the ruling class leaving the rest just enough food to perform essential labors. As loss of habitat increased human-wildlife interactions and resultant pandemics, extended family groups within each caste have withdrawn into fortified pod-housing. Story line: Teens from different castes form a forbidden friendship and scheme to cross the militarized border into Canada.
This is fiction, not prediction. We could just as well emerge into greater compassion, personal and economic security, freedom, justice, and mutual respect. It would be welcome but not the basis for a page-turner. In that world, you might prefer to write historical fiction about the Before Time and how so much, temporarily, went so wrong.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.