One Way or Another

How I keep writing through the pandemic.


Debbie Harry turned 75 on July 1st. You would think this milestone would be headline news — one deserving of college survey classes and think pieces galore. And under normal circumstances, the occasion of Harry's birthday would have earned plenty of column inches.

But, as you know, these are not normal circumstances. And although there were a few "Debbie Harry through the ages" photo spreads, the Blondie frontwoman — the original influencer and New Wave idol to so many — was left without much of a party.

It wasn't for lack of trying on my part. In the days leading up to July 1st, I was moved to write an essay both honoring Harry's big day and memorializing my mother (who would also have been 75 this year, had she lived).

Both women, in their own way, taught me so much about feminism and femininity and what it takes to make it in a man's world. ("Kill 'em with kindness," advised my mother after a particularly humiliating experience at the hands of my male coworkers, "and then crush them into the ground with the heel of your stiletto.")

As with so many writers who trouble themselves with memoir and personal essay — those of us who mine our pasts as a way to make sense of our present, those whose private lives are made public in hopes of connecting to and comforting others — the act of making oneself vulnerable on the page is hard enough. Heck, just putting pen to paper is worthy of a medal.

But what happens when you build it and no one comes?

Rejection, in any form, is painful. But for writers like myself who trade in creative nonfiction, in pop culture, in crafting intimate and personal narrative, there is no world to explore and no subject that trumps (pardon the pun) the current news cycle. Nor should it.

As a writer, I already live in my head, but now my head is like the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, and I'm losing all perspective.

Lately, I've been reading how so many of my fellow authors are "writing through the pandemic." Beautiful, thoughtful, and funny essays, which, individually and in toto, have made me feel less lonely in what is essentially — especially now — a solitary enterprise.

Whether I'm writing or not writing, I realize that I am always writing. The hallway of mirrors is always reflecting something back, whether in funhouse form or grossly magnified like something found in a hotel bathroom. The challenge is to take a long, hard look into it and decide if you still have something to say. Luckily, I always do.

Please clap.

Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and the author of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.

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