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Writing Pain in a Time of Pain: Should We Do it and is it Even Possible?

Published 20th July, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger

Writing in the time of COVID-19 has its challenges. The world is in tremendous turmoil. Add three kids and a partner at home, in a confined space, who all want your attention all the time, and the solitude needed for writing evaporates. How do we carve out a space where deep thinking can occur when it seems so impossible? Some days, I find small pockets of inspiration where what I discover blows me away, but on most days, I feel like I’m digging my way out of a 2×2 cell with a blunt spoon. 

I’m safe at home, I need to remember that, because I’m one of the lucky ones. As someone with an underlying health issue, it’s essential I stay away from other people, or else much of my writing won’t ever make it out into the world. And to write I have to believe I have something worthwhile to contribute.

My writing straddles a bizarre line between fabulism and crime fiction. The world could definitely use an injection of magic at the moment, but does it really need more scenes of horror? As a writer, what I feel most keenly during my writing process is the pain of those affected by crimes, the victims irreparably scarred or the loved ones left behind. When writing violence, I experience it from the perspective of the victim. Don’t know about you, but watching the news at the moment gives me way more suffering than I can handle, let alone fathom. The thought of taking on more as I write overwhelms me. Did I mention I also love to dabble in dystopian fiction? 

A normal writing day for me includes getting out and gathering raw material for my stories. I look like an average person out for a walk or taking the kids to school. But mostly, it’s me imagining the opportunities for crimes. A toddler snatched from a shopping centre after letting go of a hand, a child ripped from a bike into a car, an international student held captive in the back room of a single-brick suburban home. I see desperate parents in the school ground making awful choices, children who witness terrible things, or worse, are forced to experience them. I am thankful my friends keep talking to me when I share what I’ve been working on. They ask how I sleep at night. Currently, with the nightmares occurring globally, I’ve got to say, not well. 

In my new normal, as I venture out for exercise with my family, I have no impulse to imagine bad things happening. When my daughter rides her bike with her streamers fluttering from her handlebars, I leave it at that. When my son, in his preteen huffy, marches off somewhere I can’t see, my imagination doesn’t follow. I leave the moment positive: children growing into their independence. Likewise, for the woman across the road, who screams at her husband in the afternoons in summer. I won’t see her body after she is battered to death by her husband when he snaps this week. Nor will I focus in on the finger of the man five doors down, as he clicks to open child pornography. Even though these things will still occur in someone’s neighbourhood, I’m not going to write about them. I let the idea flicker then push it away. When there is so much grief in the world, adding to it doesn’t feel right.

So, where does that leave my writing? Bad things have always happened in the world, and I see it as my job to illustrate the emotional reality of its occurrence. I could slide further into fabulism but, without the razor of reality, it will lack impact. Do I escape and change genres? After all, my personal lens has shifted.

As I walk with my family on empty streets beneath bluer skies, I’m filled with a sense of nostalgia. I call out to neighbours I never knew I had, probably those whose dogs always shit on my lawn. I wave at people on porches and marvel at teddy bears and rainbows in windows, while tingling with a sense of belonging. The slower pace, the fresher air, the time spent with family not rushing around, the totem tennis and the hopscotch; I don’t mind these parts of the lockdown. We had less money in the past too, or at least we seemed to. With one income gone, we are getting used to buying less of what we don’t need. When we emerge the other side of this pandemic, I hope we remember to do this. I wonder what my short stories will look like (the familiar itch of new ideas is returning). Will I set them in the past or fast forward to the future? Because one thing is certain: I don’t want to write about this world at the moment. Not if I have to live through it.

I write crime fiction to understand how people survive crime’s legacy. But this pain is too real right now. As I’m tucked up at home, maybe I should try historical fiction, where world travel is possible and sitting on a pebble beach with my toes dipping into the warm waters of the Mediterranean allows me to witness something I shouldn’t. A mystery to be solved, possibly a crime…

Read Jem’s previous posts with us: ‘My Life of Crime’, ‘Birthing the Peter Carey’, and ‘An Unreliable Witness’.

Jem Tyley-Miller is an emerging crime writer from regional Victoria whose stories have been shortlisted for many awards including last year’s Margaret River Short Story Prize. Jem is a 2018 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow, and her work has been published in MeanjinOverland and We’ll Stand in that Place and Other Stories. She works in film and TV to fund her writing and co-organises the Peter Carey Short Story Award in her spare time.

We publish high-end literary fiction, crime and the best short stories currently being written in Australia.

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