Can Writing Keep Us Sane? Some Guidance From Previous Pandemics

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In the midst of the current crisis, we may sometimes feel consumed by our worry and anxieties. We tune in to the latest news for regular updates and practical advice, or perhaps, on a deeper level, to get some reassurance or a glimmer of hope. We also try to distract ourselves, finding comfort in our little pleasures (Netflix, our favourite books…and Netflix).

However, it’s also important to remember that, albeit all-consuming, our situation is not unique. The world has already been through similarly dramatic circumstances, and people of the past have experienced other pandemics. Some of them have left us accounts of those trying times or created works of art, which remind us of the power of stories, of human connection and perhaps point to the mental health benefits of creativity. 

A significant example is Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a novel by Katherine Anne Porter. Published in 1939, the novel follows two young American lovers – Miranda and Adam – whose lives are affected by not one, but two calamities: the outbreak of the 1918 Spanish Influenza and World War I. Critics agree that Miranda’s character, a young reporter who becomes critically ill with the influenza, is an autobiography of Porter’s own near-death experience with the virus. 

Interweaving personal experience with fictional characters, Pale Horse, Pale Rider is an example of the ‘catharsis’ that art can offer, especially when depicting situations similar to ours. Porter does not shy away from portraying the most tragic aspects, but she is also keen to describe the fierce battle for life, and the characters’ stubbornness to live. Even when the illness reaches its critical point, Miranda doesn’t lose her ‘point of light’, an inner voice that relentlessly says: ‘Trust me. I stay.’

With the next example, we move from America to Italy, where long before the recent Covid-19 outbreak, 14th-century author Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, inspired by the recent Black Death pandemic, also known as the ‘Plague’. In this case, a group of ten friends escape from the crowded urban life of Florence to find shelter in an abandoned villa in the Tuscan countryside. There they spend fourteen days in isolation, telling each other stories almost every night. The Decameron is therefore a collection of these ‘novellas’. 

Here, there are a few elements that may sound, for better or worse, familiar to us. There’s social isolation, accompanied by attempts to pass the time. But upon closer look, The Decameron offers much more than that: it’s a story about stories, an emotional testimony to the power of creativity, friendship and sharing. In fact, both Pale Horse, Pale Rider and The Decameron point to a vital resource that we can all use during the worst of times: storytelling. 

You don’t need to write a literary masterpiece, or be mentioned centuries later (although, wouldn’t that be nice?), but, for example, just keeping a diary during these weeks can be extremely beneficial. Writing brings a sense of liberation (or ‘catharsis’) to both the writer and their readers, whether they are real or imaginary. You can choose to write about your deepest fears or focus on the funniest and most ridiculous bits of your day; either way, it can help you reframe your feelings and perhaps let go of the most challenging ones. 

And who knows, much like we are now reading accounts of the past, perhaps what we write today will help others in the future. What matters is that humanity has a history of being resilient, and through stories we can create powerful connections and ultimately remind ourselves: we are not alone.    

 Giulio Bajona