In mid-March, COVID-19 was getting out of hand, according to Premier Legault. There was too much handholding, not enough handwashing. I was sent home on a paid, two-week hiatus while they rejigged my job to allow me to work from the confines of my condo.
Yep, just like that, on a silver platter, I was handed a free writer’s residency, a sort of Banff Centre—without the view. I arrived home buzzing with plans to return to my novel, a second attempt at an intimidating, mind-consuming genre, a labyrinth that is brutal to navigate under the best of circumstances. Now I had the time I needed to drift, daydream, open myself up to the Muse.
Bright and early the next morning, I dug up my notes, twenty or so pages of rough dialogue, my character studies. And… I waited, with my fat mug of coffee, as writer’s block settled in. Nothing was coming to me except heartburn and anxiety. I made a sideways leap and brought out my sketchbook and charcoals. Maybe a different discipline would trigger something. It did.
I Googled “online drawing tutorials.” I learned about gesture and line of action. I drew stick figures and flour-sack torsos, filled my book with two-minute poses, not all bad. My humanoid sketches earned many “likes” from my Facebook friends.
On April 1st, I came to the realization that I was the Fool, having pissed away that free time, that subsidized residency that some only dream about. I was back at work—at home—on my regular hours, alone in my nine hundred-square-foot condo except for the virtual humans congregated on Zoom. Something tugged inside, contrition, or maybe the grim reality of our collective isolation was finally hitting me. We could be in this for months. If so, I would accrue the odd minute here and there, lulls in the day when they came up. Hours saved on the daily commute would amount to several weeks, enough for a jumpstart on the novel I seldom have time for. There were no excuses.
I re-read my writing. The protagonist materialized in my peripheral vision, strange indeed during this period of physical distancing. Other characters came forward, as well. Partly developed, with habits and idiosyncrasies. They joined me for dinner, watched me at the mirror brushing my teeth. Their voices spoke to me again.
Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for talking heads and messy lives, human sensibilities rubbing up against each other, bleeding all over the place. Nudging a story forward. I prefer character-driven prose to something conceived on a rigid timeline. I like shaking hands with my characters, inviting them in, luggage and all. It’s how I discover what they want, how they speak to each other, their strengths and weaknesses. This material is the engine for my story.
That night, I found a Myers-Briggs personality test online and administered it to my characters, as well as a questionnaire I use to help me build backstory. What’s your favourite vegetable? If you were an animal, what would it be? When was your last orgasm? My iPhone and I settled into bed for another night in this Great April Fool’s Joke the universe is playing on us. I loaded my favourite podcast: “Where Should We Begin? With Esther Perel.” Essentially, you’re a fly on the wall during family/couples’ therapy. Why did this man cheat, or that woman not want children? Each podcast illuminates something about human nature and helps me create the emotional portfolios of my own characters. Helps me locate the details that shape them into the flesh-and-blood people we see—or, rather, used to see—huddled at the bus stop. Talking to each other. Holding each other.
Carolyn Marie Souaid is the Montreal-based author of seven poetry books and a novel, Yasmeen Haddad Loves Joanasi Maqaittik, winner of the Independent Publishers Awards’ Silver Medal for Best Regional Fiction in 2018. Her work has appeared in The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, and the Literary Review of Canada, and has been featured on CBC-Radio. Her new poetry manuscript is The Eleventh Hour.
Photo credits: Dave Sidaway/Montreal Gazette (headshot)