The last thing I wrote before the pandemic, in November 2019, was my father’s obituary. Then he died, and I shut down, and then everything shut down.
All urgency around my writing evaporated. Supposedly, people were learning new languages and writing novels. My own novel languished in a drawer. For a year, I didn’t write, and I didn’t feel any guilt about not writing. This was a relief, but it was a hopeless, fatalistic kind of relief. My world was constricted—by the pandemic, yes, but also by grief.
The physical landscape of my world, its population, shrank to my house, my backyard, my cats, my husband, screens. Apart from reading, the sensory inputs that I typically depend on to feed my writing brain (e.g., people-watching, eavesdropping, wandering around TJ Maxx and thinking) were off-limits. My sensory data were sunlight, cat fur, water, marmalade. These plunged me into vivid, nearly consuming, memories. Contrasted with the shrinking of the physical dimension of my life—but probably related to it—the temporal dimension got slippery, elastic, expansive. Water on my skin, cicadas in my ear, I was six again. I really was.
For most of the year, I thought that being so unanchored in time and having such a limited diet to feed my inspiration meant that I couldn’t write. And anyway, the only thing I wanted to write about was my dad. I felt robbed of the chance to eulogize him.
Just about a year after his death, though, I found myself tentatively writing into my spatial constriction, sensory starvation, and temporal disorientation. I dug out the notes I’d made before my father’s death, anticipating the opportunity to eulogize him, and I realized that I was free to be more abstract than a eulogy would have allowed. I came to picture this essay as a shadow eulogy, one I would have delivered not to a room full of relatives but rather to a room full of people out there who, because of COVID-19, were grieving at home, who were canceling and deferring funerals.
This essay is as much about writing as it is about grief, my dad, the pandemic. Just as I found my way back to the colorful clothes in my closet, the fact of the essay is proof that I found my way back to writing, but with a new idea of my audience, and a new ability to refigure my experience, to fold it and visualize it differently than I would have before. The unique circumstances around the creation of this piece pushed me to do something formally I never would have done, beholden as I was to my sense of time. In thirty years of thinking of myself as a writer, I’ve never gone a year without writing until 2020. And yet, I am emerging from my year without writing more changed as a writer than in any previous year.
So, the drawer opens, and the novel comes out.
ANDREA AVERY is the author of Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano (Pegasus Books). Her short work has appeared in Ploughshares, Barrelhouse, Real Simple, The Oxford American, and The Washington Post, among other places. She holds a BA (music), MFA (creative writing), and EdD, all from Arizona State University. She lives in Phoenix with her husband and their four cats, where she works as a high school administrator and teacher. She is working on her first novel.