Reviewed by Angela L. Eckhart
According to the CDC, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on January 20, 2020, in Washington state. Before long, this Coronavirus would change the world. Everyone was affected, in one way or another, but it wasn’t just by the virus. Other events in 2020 disrupted many of our lives and caused turmoil, particularly politically and economically.
That year and into the first half of 2021, a group of writers from Washington documented their experiences in essays, prose, and poetry. These writings comprise Writing While Masked: Reflections on 2020 and Beyond (Washington State University Press, January 2022) with work by seven writers: Mary Ann Gonzales, Tyson Greer, Wanda Herndon, Laura Celise Lippman, Jane Spalding, Suzanne Tedesko, and Beth Weir. What is so appealing to me is that I, too, belong to a group of close writing friends, but we can claim no communal work. I applaud these seven writers in bringing this themed collection to fruition, because I know the struggle to complete writing projects.
The book begins with a Foreword and Authors’ Note and ends with a bio of each writer in “All About Us.” The stories are arranged chronologically in sections for each month of 2020. Each section begins with a “title page” listing notable events within that month, and not all are related to COVID. For example, Sept. 10 indicates: Wildfires in Oregon cause 500,000 people to evacuate—more than 10% of the state’s population—with an unprecedented 900,000 acres burned. This information, vital to 2020, gives the book a reference-like style before getting into the writers’ stories.
Following December 2020, there’s another section titled “Reflections on 2020” in which each writer offers a comprehensive view of the year. Then a “2021 Postscript” begins a final section containing collective pieces from January to June 2021. While the layout of the book follows this organization, not all the writers contributed work each month while other months contain more than one piece by a particular writer. For example, August 2020 contains three writings, while July 2020 consists of ten.
A personal and timely collection, this is a history book of sorts, documenting 2020 with facts, opinions, thoughts, and controversial topics. It’s not just the virus that is causing upheaval in 2020; it’s a conglomeration of events. This book contains documentation of those events known by all.
In the first essay in January 2020, Lippman states the obvious, “The virus and its prevention have been politicized and they are now symbols of cultural divide.” Weir agrees, saying, “The coronavirus happened to appear at a politically urgent moment in the United States,” and soon thereafter, “…the Black Lives Matter movement has gained traction unimagined before the murder of George Floyd.”
Pandemic coping mechanisms are adopted and practiced. Many of the writers kept busy with a plethora of activities: playing Scrabble, binge-watching Netflix, making masks, cooking, baking bread, gardening, and creating and sticking to routines. Tedesko spent privileged time with her three-year-old grandson, Sky. In her essay, “Skyschool,” she and her husband watched Sky three days a week, describing the moments as, “a bright light in the form of a small child…drawing me out of my gloom and teaching me oodles along the way.” Spalding conquered the Instant Pot, moving through recipes of Indian food and discovering a whole new world of spices. Greer resumed her bread-baking routine, only to realize yeast was hard to find after the pandemic stripped shelves of supplies. After reaching out to friends in Idaho, she received the yeast she needed in the mail.
Stories in this collection are relatable; one cannot help but recall one’s own experiences. In Weir’s essay, “New York: Before it Started,” she remembers trips to New York City and says, “Little did we know when we left the Big Apple that the coronavirus was going to deny us any opportunity to return in 2020 to try once again.” Spalding managed to squeeze in her trip to Italy in March; however, she returned on March 19, “three days after Governor Jay Inslee shut down schools, and all but essential services in our state, and told everyone to ‘shelter in place.’” Many postponed or were forced to cancel their travel plans.
Two years later, we remain affected. The virus is still present, albeit not like it was before the implementation of vaccines, and people still are testing positive. While Americans—and everyone else in the world—create their new “normal,” Spalding wonders, “How do you prepare for a life that warns against making plans?”
While some of the writings are repetitive, such as Weir’s mention of their terrier, Jack, it doesn’t detract from the messages being conveyed in each essay; rather, these mentions strengthen the reader getting to know them, like old friends. Ultimately, each essay or prose can stand on its own, and some have been published elsewhere.
As a writer, my favorite piece of trivia is in the “Reflections on 2020” section. Greer says, “When a plague swept through London in 1606 and theaters closed, Shakespeare locked down and penned King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.” She offers this point because “…we have adapted, too.” Ultimately, they all found and made the time to write resulting in this collection. Greer states, “Neither I nor anyone in our writing group will claim accomplishments of Shakespeare’s measure, but we did write…and write…and write.”
By Spring 2021, Greer says of the virus, “…we’re living with it, not overwhelmed by it.” The focus is on remaining hopeful and recognizing those things in our lives to be grateful for.