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WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

Just Start Writing: How to Craft Your Own Pandemic Memoir

As we near the third month of the pandemic, many of us are feeling a host of emotions, from fear and anxiety to boredom. What about turning to creative writing to work through those feelings? We reached out to Akron author and creative writing professor David Giffels to talk about how to use this experience to write your own pandemic story.

As an essayist, journalist and author, David Giffels knows how to craft a compelling story. He let me in on the writer’s little secret: everyone is terrified of the blank page.

"Weirdly, it's kind of a great time for somebody who’s interested in writing," Giffels told me on the phone from his home in Akron.

He thinks times of crisis, especially on a global scale, can inspire writers in a unique way.

With the world experiencing the chaos of a new normal, "it takes the writer's mind and the writer's eye and the writer's craft, to create an order or a meaning out of what that chaos is. And that basically is what an essay is."

But what if you’ve never written an essay, let alone a memoir?

"You're experiencing something right now that’s new and it's worth documenting in some way. I mean all artists are in some ways journalists. And what a journalist really is is somebody who lives a daily life and records it. I think what is happening right now is there is something that each of us has to say about it or to think about it, to feel about it."

Where do you start?
"What works for me is to know the ways that I’m able to break the cold that is there when somebody starts to begin writing."

Your pandemic story could center on the strange things you dream in your new and out-of-rhythm sleep cycle. Or maybe it’s a backstory you create for the passersby outside of your living room window.

"It doesn’t matter how experienced you are or how little you’ve written. We all experience the terror of the blank page every time we start to write."

As a creative writing professor at the University of Akron, Giffels tells his students as much.

"I've been writing for a living, basically for my whole adult life. I have the same anxiety and neuroses when I look at a blank computer screen.”

It’s meant to be comforting for his students, but he realizes he's essentially telling them that writing never gets any easier.

"You feel like a failure every time you start to write, before you've written something. So my advice is to allow yourself to write through the first half of the blank page without any concern about whether you’re going to use any of it, whether any of it is horrible, whether any of it is good, whether anybody would ever see it. Just start writing.”

Crafting a mini-memoir
I pitched Giffels the idea of taking a few days to think about our own pandemic experiences and share something we each have written. Since I’m not much of an essayist, I wanted to make it as accessible as possible. Keep it short and sweet, say 60-ish words.

To my surprise, and without hesitation, he said he was in.

"I mean talking about this has made me think about how I want to write about it in a way I haven't done yet," he said.

The three days in-between our conversations were full of hectic work hours and a few days off where I didn't quite know what to do with myself. So I took David's advice and kept it low-stakes. I wrote bits and pieces of what I was feeling, knowing that if it sucked I'd just delete it and start again.

A few drafts later I found myself calling Giffels back to share our 60-word memoirs. 

To my surprise he didn't hate mine.

Like any good teacher, he just listened to my small story. It felt good to put something out there, like I was letting a hard, little piece of my own anxiety float away into the ether.

As for his well crafted 60-word memoir, Giffels confessed he bent the rules a little. His came in at 78 words. But I decided to let the professor slide.

These Days by David Giffels

In the morning there is no morning to begin a day that is no day in a week that has no end in these times we call 'these times.' We measure time by the length of our hair and a cat's long stare and a longing for the end of measureless distance. These days that are not days grow longer and longer, and the only thing certain is that we no longer fear the man behind the mask.

  Early Night by Mark Arehart

I'm finding my voice in the dark. 3 a.m. is as early as it sounds. But I'm wide awake, buoyed by the warm, windows-down weather that has slowly crept in. It's what I leave at home, so softly sleeping, that makes it worth it. I'll be back before lunchtime. For now its instant coffee and headline after headline after headline.

Now we want to hear from you!

We want you to record your own 60-word memoir using the WKSU app on your smartphone. Start recording by navigating to the "talk to us" section in the menu. Make sure to include your name and where you live. You can also email us your 60-word memoir.