THE BOOK DOCTOR
★ ★ ★ ★
A DAY UNLIKE ANY OTHER
By Caroline Donahue
And suddenly, everything was different.
How perfect that we have all experienced this in the last few months. For me, it came within a single week. I was scheduled to attend the London Book Fair this past March, and when it was cancelled a few days before my trip, I decided to go anyway. I took the train from Berlin, enjoying the slow pace of making my way to London on the ground, without the frenzy and risk of an airport, even though it took all day to arrive.
The streets grew quiet during my visit and I collected books knowing that I might have a long wait before I could get into a bookshop again. By the time I traveled back to Berlin a week later, I was one of two people on the tube at 9am on a Saturday in central London.
Back home, we began isolating, and that has been our life ever since. One moment, I was an international traveler, the next, a hermit.
This is how stories begin. Our characters are navigating one kind of world and then, without warning, they are faced with something else. The first act of a story asks the question “how is this day unlike any other?” We usually need to have an answer to this question in order to know we have a plot that will carry us through to the end.
We have a felt sense for this change now. All of us have experienced these moments in life, both for better and for worse. We’ve lost jobs, witnessed world events, had relatives die. But we’ve also met new loves, had babies, and traveled to new places that changed who we were forever.
These life-changing moments are what make for good writing.
While I do anticipate an onslaught of pandemic literature flooding the shelves in the next few years, you don’t have to take your inspiration from real life now. Take it from how this feels.
Ask the question, what if this feeling happened, but only to one character, or to a small group? What circumstances would create such an experience? What if there were differences of opinion between people about whether or not the world had changed?
If you want to have some fun, and generate a lot of material for new stories, take out a notebook and write at the top:
“Days that are unlike any other.”
And list as many as you can. Then think, what is the strangest set of circumstances that you could put a character in the middle of this moment? What is the most awkward way for them to be faced with this challenge?
A woman having a baby unexpectedly on a ferry? Meeting the love of your life while in the waiting room of a hospital while a relative is dying? Losing a job right before a wedding?
Keep going and see how wild you can make these scenarios. And then see if you can picture someone inside these circumstances. Picture a character inside these moments and ask, “how will they respond?” Let them show you how they are changed by this moment, and where their life goes afterward.
None of us will be the same, not completely, after experiencing this period of time. As I always say, if you are a writer, you don’t have bad days anymore, just good material.
How will you use this time? It’s quite challenging to write steadily now, since there is so much unknown and so much of our regular framework of life that has been paused, or deleted. Don’t ask yourself to become a full-time professional author with decades of experience in the blink of an eye.
Just get curious. Ask yourself who might be transformed in unusual circumstances, and follow the lead of their story. A little bit of time a day is enough.
If there is one thing I am continually moved by, it is the ways that I have seen people adapt and grow. The generosity that has poured out from all over the world. Bands playing concerts from their individual homes. People writing poems and sharing them. A man celebrating his 100th birthday by walking laps in his garden to raise money for the National Health Service in the UK.
We are ordinary people, and then suddenly, we are heroes. It is all in the way we frame it, and all in the way we respond to what the world throws at us next.
How will your characters respond? Hit them with something big, and then watch them grow. There is no more inspiring process out there, I promise.
Stay safe and healthy, and let writing take care of you. Let today be the day unlike any other when your life as a writer really takes off.
Caroline Donahue is an American writer, podcaster, and English teacher living in Berlin. She is the host of The Secret Library podcast and co-host of GTFO pod. She is the co-editor of I Wrote it Anyway: An Anthology of Essays, and the author of Story Arcana : Using Tarot for Writing. She is currently at work on her first novel. Learn more at carolinedonahue.com