I’ve been pondering those questions as a memoir writer who, like everyone, is living through a stubborn global pandemic. I find myself wondering about the many, many retrospective stories COVID-19 will inspire in coming years, and what will make those stories work. That led me to some lessons I’ve learned in my own journey as a journalist and writer. And that led me to remembering what I learned writing about another shared but very personal event — 9/11 — and how that might help write about COVID.
First, the memory:
When I emigrated to America from India in the late 1980s, I was always struck when people said that they remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. More than 20 years had passed, and they still remembered as if it were last week.
Then, a few years later, a similar thing happened to me.
At 8:45 AM on September 11, 2001, I arrived at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, pregnant and expecting a tour of the maternity ward. But the nurses behind the reception desk paid me no attention. They were all staring at the tiny television screen above the reception desk.
“Excuse me,” I said in that plaintive voice used by pregnant women everywhere. “I’m here for the maternity tour.”
“No tours today,” said a nurse without turning around. “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”
Moments later, sirens wailed and the intercom in the hospital began calling doctors and nurses needed to the entrance — STAT. I had no idea what was happening. The nurse’s blunt comment was surreal. There was no instant Twitter, Facebook or other social media at the time. Dazed and tired, I sat down in the hospital reception area thinking that there was some medical emergency and, when it was over, I could get my tour.
Then another nurse paused briefly as she rushed by. “Look, kid,” she said. “Go home. Something terrible has happened. A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. It is a terrorist attack.”
Her last two words chilled me. My husband worked for Morgan Stanley then, and they had offices in the twin towers. I raced out of the hospital. Smoke was rising in Lower Manhattan. Desperate, I tried to call, but he didn’t pick up.
Even then, I didn’t realize the enormity of what would ensue in the next few hours, days and years. Yet to this day, I remember the face of the nurse who took a moment to explain what was happening. I remember the purple coat I was wearing that morning. I remember people running through the streets as I came out of the hospital, and the rising bile that caused me to vomit into a waste basket on the side of the road. And I remember somehow flagging a cab to take me across Central Park to our home on the Upper West Side.
Minutes later, my husband called. He was at the Midtown office of his firm — not Downtown. He was safe. When I tried to call, he was already on the phone to our parents — his and mine — in India to assure them that we were both safe. Twenty minutes later, all international lines went down.
Over the next few days, streams of our friends would walk up to our apartment — the bridges and tunnels were closed — and stay for hours or even days.
As storytellers of any genre, most of us know in our guts when we are in the midst of a newsworthy event. But what we do with that intuition, or the information we discover about it, is up to us.
In the hours and days after 9/11, my writer friends and colleagues filed reports to editors in other parts of the country and the world; anyone with an international connection worked their contacts and fed them stories. Some kept journals in the moment that they later mined for magazine pieces or even books. They practiced what is necessary for anyone covering a major event: They remembered things big and small, asked questions, and kept notes.
The stories we tell are often infused with and influenced by our lived memories. There are no end of stories from 9/11. But those that get told, and how they are told, depends on who is telling them.
For example, as a feminist and native of India, I found myself particularly interested in the tales of Muslim women. I remember how Muslim identity shifted, not just among my friends in New York City or in America, but around the world as some Muslims began choosing their religious identity over their secular or national identity. As police in New York began rounding up Muslims on the blanket suspicion that they were somehow connected to terrorism, my British friend Ameena came to the East Side school our daughters attended wearing — for the first time — a hijab. This was the beginning of a global trend as Muslim women whose mothers had shed the hijab and the burqa reembraced it to show solidarity to their persecuted Muslim brethren. Donning the hijab, Ameena told me, gave her an opening to explain her faith to unknowing friends.
Now, as we live through and then look back on the COVID-19 years, what are the moments you will remember? This is a useful mental model if you want to write memoir or narratives that are not time-bound: How do you tell a story, the story and your story, all of them anchored by a central event?
Kennedy was assassinated in an instant. The planes hit the twin towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania in the 9/11 attacks in about 75 minutes.
But the COVID pandemic has been with us for most of two years, and shows little sign of abating. In that sense, this pandemic is more like the world wars in which central events, not just their aftermath, carried on for years. How do you write about a world-changing event that is diffused through time?
If you are a personal essayist or a memoir writer, you have to begin with the self.
As the late William Zinsser said in his essay, “How to write a memoir,” published in The American Scholar, “Remember that you are the protagonist in your own memoir, the tour guide. You must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control.”
There are two key terms here: “narrative trajectory” and “control.” The narrative trajectory is a specific arc that your story will follow; it will be unlike anyone else’s story, even about the same event, because it will be imbued with personal details. A degree of control is something that all writers wield over their material. But in a memoir, control becomes even more urgent. Unlike news pieces where it is customary to retain some detachment and neutrality, and to explore multiple points of view, a memoir must be fiercely intimate.
So memoir-based stories, told about the time of COVID, must have both a specific and personal point of view. Easier said that written. An obvious narrative arc in these times, for example, is “I got COVID. I nearly died. I survived. Here’s how it changed me.” But that alone is not enough. What if you didn’t get COVID? Does that make your experience less meaningful than that of someone who did?
Memoir comes from the French word for memory. Modern-day masters of the form like Mary Karr and Tobias Wolff mine their memories to find gems. These gems are not always pretty. In fact, the most valuable are often the opposite: They are raw and reveal deep hurt. But here is one thing memoirists, no matter how personal their perspectives, do not do: They don’t invent events. In “The Art of Memoir,” Karr alludes to this difference by quoting a fellow writer. “’I once heard Don DeLillo quip that a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.’”
Meaning is a word with weight and gravitas. It imbues today’s journalism in myriad ways, ranging from peurile lists — “Ten things I learned from being quarantined” — to essays about mental health issues that are emerging from COVID isolation. One way to search for your own meaning in the pandemic madness, or any non-singular experience, is to probe your past to recover traumas that you have forgotten, then link it to the present situation.
This is what Amy Tan does in her fiction and in her memoir, “Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir.” As she said in a recent interview for Harper’s Bazaar, “Everything that had happened between my mother and me, despite how terrible it was at times — this is what made me a writer.” No wonder Tan’s novels involve mother-daughter relationships. Were she to write about COVID, it is highly likely that she would link it to parental trauma.
Most memoirs compress timelines in the interest of pacing and drama. While COVID seems unending, it lends itself naturally to this because it has come in waves.
Ruth Reichl, the master of the food memoir (and former editor of Gourmet, which I wrote for), has talked about this. As she says in the author’s note of her first book, “Tender at the Bone:” “Everything here is true, but it may not be entirely factual. In some cases, I have compressed events; in others I have made two people into one. I have occasionally embroidered.”
One way to use all this wisdom advice if you’re writing memoir about COVID is to ask yourself: How will you remember this pandemic, say five years from now? Will you remember the dull malaise of being stuck at home? Will you reminisce about the shocking lack of community that each of us felt? Will the unhealed trauma of this age include suspicion and rift between the vaxxers and the anti-vaxxers? If you are a doctor or frontline worker, will your memory of this time be one of rage and frustration? Or is your attention held by the daily indignities that those of us who have lost jobs, livelihoods and loved ones feel?
For me, personal memoir from a shared event boils down to three fundamental questions:
- What is a story that you can tell about the pandemic?
- What is the story of this time?
- What is your story?