One night in April 2020, during the depths of the lockdown, Lesli Hiller was at home in New Hyde Park, watching television. “I saw something on the news about 1918 and that epidemic,” she says, “and I said to myself, ‘wait, the diary is from 1918.’”
The long-forgotten canvas-bound diary—with the phases of the moon and a list of American presidents from George Washington to the then-serving chief executive, Woodrow Wilson—had been found by her father in the barn of the home the Hiller family had owned in upstate Nicholville in the 1970s. Lesli, then a young girl, had kept it ever since. It was a totem of her childhood, but now, in 2020, it took on new meaning. Lesli took out the diary, and rediscovered the life—or at least one year in the life—of young woman named Goldda Sovay, who chronicled her day-to-day existence in her rural community in the waning days of World War I, and as a growing influenza epidemic began to claim the lives of her friends and neighbors.
Re-reading Goldda’s diary helped give Lesli some perspective on the current pandemic. As horrific as what was unfolding around her in 2020 was, reading the death toll, even in remote St. Lawrence County, in 1918 was sobering. Goldda, the diarist, recited the names of her young friends and relatives who died—sometimes several members of the same family who perished within a few days. Yet, perhaps displaying the stoicism needed in an age of war and pestilence, she describes the toll the epidemic was taking in rather terse, bland language. “I feel like death was so commonplace, especially with the war going on,” observed Lesli after reading the diary. “For us, people dying at young ages is shocking. It didn’t seem so shocking to her.”
It is that kind of insight that can make a diary, a journal, or a memoir so instructive, so powerful. Or so newsworthy. I wrote about Lesli Hiller’s 1918 diary in the Act 2 section of Newsday. The story, which appeared in September 2020, elicited strong, positive reader response.
There’s something about reading the words of people living at a certain moment in history. Whether it’s a diary of life during the flu epidemic, the letters home from a Civil War soldier; a memoir written by a Londoner who endured the Blitz.
We are living at such a moment.
“The coronavirus pandemic has perhaps more than any other event in living memory, made people hyperaware that their present will be remembered in the future,” wrote Morgan Ome in The Atlantic. “And this new, strange sensation has compelled many to capture the moment for posterity.”
Writing down our experiences this past year—and the very different world that we will soon enter as the pandemic recedes—can be comforting to the writer and instructive to future generations. Journaling—a written record of your thoughts, feelings, or observations, is how Master Class defines it—can be a truly satisfying, rewarding experience. But it doesn’t have to be a structured, day-by-day transcript of your life since the first time you had to wear a mask to the supermarket or your first Zoom staff meeting last Spring.
It could be in the form of a letter to a loved one (alive, deceased, or as yet unborn)—or even to yourself.
And while it could chronicle this present and speculate on the future, the experience of the past year has no doubt prompted some thinking, and writing, about the past. One would expect a spike in the number of independently-published memoirs in the next few years, as the authors—forced indoors for much of 2020—used that time to reflect on where their lives have taken them; on the experiences of their youth; on the lessons they have learned.
Exactly what you write, how and through the lens of past, present or future is entirely up to you. But we would encourage you to simply do that: Write. Here are some tips that might help get you started on putting your thoughts down on paper—digital or analog.
Getting Started: Go Freestyle! Kevin Horton, former editor of the Gold Coast Gazette—an award-winning community newspaper on the North Shore—recommends “freestyle” writing. “This is when you when you write whatever comes to your mind, without regard for correct punctuation, grammar or structure,” says Horton, who also taught writing at New York Institute of Technology. “It’s basically allowing your mind to flow on a topic that you want to write about.”
The pen is mightier than the keyboard: That’s only a half-truth. Few professional writers who grew up with Word and Google Docs would never want to go back to the days of manual typewriters. But for writing your experiences, your thoughts, your feelings, there’s something more intimate and visceral about dialing it way back—to the pen. Writing longhand on paper says author Nancy Rubin, “feels more personal.” She also maintains that it sparks creativity. “Think about it: you are in a silent room, alone with your mind. Your thoughts are bound to start running, which will help you come up with more creative ideas. And creative ideas are definitely needed whether you are trying to create a technology product that lasts or write the next best-selling novel.”
Which brings us to an important point:
Before we write, we think: That’s what I’ve told my students, whether they were freshman in college or physicians who attended the annual Harvard University Medical School writing course in which I was a guest instructor for nine years. In the case of pandemic writing, you should think about what it is you want to write: Your observations. Your thoughts. Your experiences. Or, as mentioned, your past. If so, as a journalist, I feel you have the obligation to be as honest and accurate as possible. Or at least tell the reader you’ve made it all up! Either way, be honest. That’s a trait readers can usually discern.
And don’t worry that you have nothing to say. Even the most routine observations or interactions can be telling and, whether now or to your reader of the future, illuminating.
Pandemic prompts to get you rolling: Writing teachers often use prompts—phrases, words, or questions that can stimulate thinking, and spark your creativity. Here are some pandemic-specific prompts, suggested by the blog Danxiety.
- In what ways is your life different now than it was a year ago?
- What are things you never realized you were grateful for, before COVID?
- How are you going to change your behavior after the pandemic?
- What were your most memorable moments in the past year—and why?
- Write about how you spent your time today
- What have you learned about yourself during this experience?
Speak up, writer! The great writing coach Roy Peter Clark recommends that you read your work aloud, to get a feel for the voice. “It’s incredible how your writing can change from the page when you speak it,” he said. “You’ll catch errors, inconsistencies, and awkward phrasings.”
In other words, if you speak what you write, you’ll make it easier to read. The converse of that is true, as well: Write as you speak. Good writing shouldn’t read like a textbook, an abstract of a journal article, or (with respect to any barristers reading this) a turgid legal document. It should be clear, concise, and conversational. It should be natural and easy to understand. As opposed to the world we have been living in for the past year, which is neither.
And that’s why you need to write it down. Give it a try!
John Hanc has written or co-written 18 books, most recently “Your Heart My Hands: An Immigrant’s Remarkable Journey to Become One of America’s Preeminent Cardiac Surgeons.” (Center Street, 2019) by Arun K. Singh, MD with John Hanc. A long-time contributing writer to Newsday and many other publications, Hanc also teaches writing and journalism at New York Institute of Technology, and—along with Kevin Horton—works with local authors to write and independently publish their books through their companies, Enhanced Communications LLC and Tender Fire Books.