One morning during the height of lockdown, I attended a live Think Inc. event from my kitchen table. As I sat, muesli in hand, peppermint tea at the ready, Jamie Metzl, an American technology futurist, geopolitical expert and sci-fi author, reminded me that despite my comfortable surrounds, the future was CRASHING IN. Needless to say, this declaration was unsettling.
Sure, my immediate world wasn’t shaking. No ceilings were collapsing and there weren’t soldiers banging at my door, but within the four walls of my seemingly peaceful home, and indeed outside it, the world it was a’changin…
In evidence, not only was Metzl administering this dose of reality to me from the confines of his New York apartment, where he’d been holed up for weeks due to COVID-19, but on the other side of the globe, in Melbourne, I too was unable to leave my house.
In the early days of the pandemic, because I had no reference point, lockdown conjured up filmic images of prison inmates in striped pajamas and American survivalists in bunkers lined with tinned goods. Initially, aside from the fact of a looming apocalypse, there was a dark thrill to it. Like anything abstract, it was difficult to conceptualise the impact such a measure might have on my life. Plus, there was bound to be a good story in it…
It turns out my impression of lockdown wasn’t far off the mark. Apart from the striped pajamas (I wear leggings to bed) and the fact that most Australian bunkers are actually lined with toilet paper, lockdown was a curtailing of the freedoms I once took for granted, including the capacity to write.
As COVID spread and the number of confirmed cases skyrocketed, the-world-as-we-knew-it transformed overnight. One minute I was dropping my children at the school gates, the next, I was sitting at our kitchen table, breaking my brain over grade two mathematics. One minute, I was sipping coffee while checking emails from my office, the next I was attending online meetings from the (limited) privacy of my residential bathroom. One minute I had time to write, a small amount, yes, but time nonetheless, the next, I had none.
Looking more broadly, advances we predicted would take decades to unfold suddenly transpired in Australia and around the globe, in weeks. Entire industries evolved to accommodate a ‘new normal’. Education, for better or worse, moved into the home and a substantial portion of the medical sector shifted online. Sadly, many, including hospitality, suffered, along with the people that staffed them, while others flourished. Video conferencing service, Zoom, for instance, reported a daily user increase from 10 million in December 2019 to 200 million in March 2020. Needless to say, Zoom executives were not queuing outside the American equivalent (if there even is one) of Centrelink.
In an earlier interview with Jamie Metzl, 774 ABC Radio presenter, Jacinta Parsons, articulated how these rapid shifts left some of us reeling. ‘It’s happening so fast, to the point where it feels like we didn’t have time to say goodbye,’ she said.
And with that brief sentence, Parsons encapsulated the mounting sense of sadness I felt at the sudden diminishing of my writer life in particular. Yes, the entire world was in the same boat, and yes, Australia was one of the lucky countries in terms of flattening the curve and containing the outbreak, but somehow it didn’t subtract from the loss.
Indeed, like other industries, the literary sector rallied. Due to its creative and innovative nature and its big-hearted community, it adapted. New books were launched and publicised online, and there was a myriad of author talks, writing workshops and free online festival sessions available. Initiatives, all of them, that made my heart sing…
But, because writing is such a solitary pursuit, we wordsmiths rely heavily on our networks for support, advice and friendship. My writing friends and colleagues, for instance, are the only ones who understand the highs and lows of developing a manuscript. And, although I was thankful for the many virtual events and opportunities, I missed face-to-face interaction and the easy ‘shop’ banter that came with it. Because, no matter how kind my partner is, and he is kind, his eyes inevitably glazed over at the words plot and character.
In some sense, I suppose, my sadness was a form of temporary mourning. I knew restrictions would be lifted at some point and that bookshops would reopen. If anything, ISO made me realise how much I took for granted, and just how much my writing life sustains me.
When news came that lockdown would slowly be lifted, causing many states to ease restrictions, it was welcome news for everyone, but particularly, I suspect, for writers. So Metzl was right, the future is crashing in, but some things will never change. The money we make from our books rarely matches the volume of heart, time and soul we pour into them. And lockdown or no, we can take pride and pleasure in the fact of our bustling, robust, creative community.
Emily Brewin is a Melbourne author. Her first novel, Hello, Goodbye, was published in 2017 and her second, Small Blessings,in 2019, both with Allen & Unwin. Her short stories have been published in a number of anthologies, including We’ll Stand In That Place and Other Stories by Margaret River Press and the Bristol Short Story Prize anthology. She has written for The Age, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Archer, Feminartsy, The Victorian Writer and Mamamia. She is currently working on her third and fourth novels.