Writing the Pandemic

typewriter on desk

Introduction & Context

Susanna Sonnenberg

Susanna Sonnenberg is a writer and teacher. The author of two New York Times-bestselling memoirs, Her Last Death and She Matters: A Life in Friendships, she has been teaching writing for seven years from Missoula, Montana, her home since 1993.

On a strange spring evening, when everything was newly strange, I greeted eight people who had never met each other and who didn't know me. I had not used Zoom before. This was the beginning of May. Our writing class was called Writing into The Pandemic.

None of us knew what that meant.

We would meet each Monday to write, to work through the anxieties of the day or the week, or the night, to express meaning amidst confusions. From Seattle to upstate New York, from Missoula to Athens, Ohio, we told each other stories, from basements, kitchens, couches, beds we spoke. We shared. This regularity, our growing familiarity, offered at first a reliable connection and, eventually, knowing.

The writers crafted lovely, sinewy art from the merest suggestions, as I crafted prompts for them. Sometimes a few sentences got dragged into light, sometimes a winged being of a startling essay rose unexpectedly to capture us, because that's the way free writing is. You never know what will emerge, only that the writer, intent on expression, will reveal something.

On June 1, our conversation shifted, opened. George Floyd had been killed the Tuesday before, the same day Christian Cooper, a Black man, was threatened by a White woman in Central Park. We talked about what we observed and knew and felt all around us. The writers wrote. In the weeks we'd been working together, trust had emerged, in spite of our respective circumstances, backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, a trust that enriched our conversation.

For 12 Mondays I sat down with these new friends, and learned who they were, what mattered to each one, how they saw things. The writing grounded us in this time of ferocious alienation. As rituals do, our Mondays became more than solace but a necessity, and our voices, amidst all this previously unfathomable catastrophe, grew bold with words and called to one another, I'm here, I'm here, I won't leave you alone.