My son and I were walking the dog the other day when a jogger bumped into him.
I was outraged, in a way that would have been totally unreasonable a few weeks ago. What was this woman thinking? Why didn’t she run around us at a safe distance? How could she so selfishly squeeze onto the sidewalk beside my child, close enough to breathe on him?
It was a moment that encapsulated the exhausting reality of living in the time of COVID-19. On the one hand, I was outside in the sunshine, taking a walk with my son—a rarity in the “normal” world crammed so full of soccer practices and music lessons and homework that we are left with little time to just be together in no hurry. All these long walks I’m taking give me a chance to connect with other people as well, to shout hello to them across the street and check in with neighbors sitting on their front porches. To be more firmly and consciously in the community.
On the other hand, I expect distance. I write blog posts about poor, thoughtless joggers who fail to observe it.
It’s this apparent contradiction—connection yet distance—that, I think, makes writers and illustrators better equipped to handle sheltering in place than many. And that gives us a crucial role to play in bringing a little bit of peace and sanity to a world that so desperately needs it.
No matter how we approach our craft, at some point we have to sit down, alone, and tell a story in words or images. We know how to appreciate the solitude, even as we now fret about the very frightening consequences that come from so much of it for so many people all at once.
At the same time, we are uniquely able to bridge the gap between solitude and connection. In “What Writers Really Do When They Write,” George Saunders offers this bit of brilliance (and a great many other bits as well): “We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader. You make a rarefied place … and then welcome the reader in.”
Think about this (and apply it, as well, to nonfiction and illustration). We create worlds and we welcome our readers in.
We can do this, even now. Even when we can’t invite our readers into our homes or our offices or bookstores or libraries or, for the vast majority of school-aged children in the U.S. right now, their schools.
We can, in our own shelters-in-place, make something that COVID-19 can’t touch. That doesn’t require frequent hand-washing or worrying about how to get to the food distribution site or whether that person coming toward us on the sidewalk is coughing. Something we don’t have to leave on the floor untouched for 24 hours when we bring in the mail or spray down with disinfectant when we brave the grocery store.
We—writers and illustrators for young people—have the power to connect, at a deep and intimate level, with readers who need connection in the midst of their isolation.
Yes, the manuscript I’m working on at this moment won’t make it into readers’ hands for years, if at all. But that’s true of everything we do as artists, every day.
Every day we hope our work will find its audience.
And in this time of fear and confusion and anxiety, we can offer that same hope—the kind we’re so good at harnessing—to the people who need it. All we have to do is continue to create worlds where young people now separated from their friends and communities can find a connection. And invite them in.
Melissa Cole Essig writes middle-grade and YA fiction and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina with her spouse, two kids, and a hound dog who always needs walking. She would love to connect with you on Twitter @MColeEssig. Check out Melissa’s blog last month.