Sidelined by the Pandemic, Student Finds a Way to Write Again

Nicole Saldarriaga
September 18, 2020
Nicole Saldarriaga

I’ll admit to wondering what a person might learn about me from examining my internet search history. Wondering if future readers will have access to the most intimate parts of my internal world – journals, first drafts, emails, and hard-drives – comes with the territory of being an aspiring writer. We all look at our heroes. We read their old letters published in books and displayed under glass, and have this brief moment of “Maybe … someday … ?” (Though we don’t usually admit it out loud). 

Here is another confession that I’ve been unable to voice, even to my family: I’ve barely been able to write since April. 

When the shutdowns first began in New Jersey, and I found myself reduced to a shivering wreck at the thought of bodies piled up in ice skating rinks, family members suggested that I keep a “quarantine journal,” but I think I wrote one entry before giving up in favor crossword puzzles and Netflix. 

Now I wonder about the things that might be left behind as evidence of my living through this historical moment – online orders, photos, web searches – fragments that would have to be pieced together by a very enterprising (and patient) historian. 

Lately my search history hints at a shift in my attitude about this seriously bizarre time. Just a few months ago, the list was dominated by searches like “scratchy throat, COVID-19,” “digital thermometers, accuracy,” “can cats get COVID-19,” and “death toll, New Jersey.” Now the searches are less frantic: “how to trim your own hair,” “roadside attractions without leaving car,” and “best butt pillow for desk chair.” 

None of this is to say that I’m not still terrified of getting sick, or overwhelmed by the collective loss we’ve experienced; but I think that as time passes, I’m beginning to accept my new reality. A few months ago, I was still hoping that I’d be returning to Columbia’s campus. Hoping turned to raging when I realized that I might not get the chance before I graduate in the spring. 

Making the decision to try for an MFA in fiction was an enormous step for me – and not just because in my dreams, my savings account still berates me for not choosing dentistry, or accounting – but because for a creative person, making that kind of decision is a monumental emotional step. It’s putting your foot down and saying, “I know that I can really do this, and the risk will be worth it.” It’s believing in yourself – in a very real way. Hence, the rage and powerlessness I felt when I realized that my two amazing, risky, once-in-a-lifetime years at Columbia would really be half a year, maybe one, if I’m lucky. 

Online Fall Term Becoming 'More Mentally Comfortable'

If I’m being honest with myself – my rage has shifted too. Now, I’m shopping for blue-light glasses, contraptions to elevate my laptop during Zoom calls – anything to make the experience of an online term more physically comfortable. It was only when I started this process that I realized the idea of a fall term online is becoming more mentally comfortable as well. 

I’m finally allowing myself to feel gratitude. I’m grateful that I get to stay safe in my home. I’m grateful that I have an amazing faculty that is doing everything they can to make this experience easier (and I’m so touched by the many professors who have reached out this summer to see how their students are coping). Honestly, I’m even just grateful that my cat can sit with me while I work.

For the first time in months, I feel the old excitement about starting classes again. I’m excited for the books to be read, the conversations to be had. I still get to be a student, and a writer, and maybe most importantly, I get to play my small role in the history of this moment, doing my part to help stop the spread of this disease. 

Just a few nights ago, in the darkness of a long car ride up the New Jersey Turnpike, I even caught myself writing again. Maybe not on paper – but where all the real writing starts: in my mind, where characters start to take shape and words start to find just the right place, almost on their own. Sure, I miss the subway, I miss wandering the stacks in Butler, I miss all the little things that used to inspire a new idea or a new phrase; but I trust that I’ll have access to all those little things again, and in the meantime I’m learning that inspiration isn’t a formula. Creativity isn’t dependent on my environment. It’s in me, everywhere I go – even if the furthest I travel is from my writing desk to the fridge. Maybe that’s a lesson I needed to learn. 

Whether future historians will get all that from my search history does, however, remain to be seen! 

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