#amwriting,  The Answer is 42

Writing through a pandemic

Usually, when I release a new story, I like to sit back and let readers experience the story for themselves without much set-up.

Sure, I’ll write a blurb to let you know what the story is about so that you can decide up front if it’s the type of story you like to read, but I don’t set many expectations beyond that because I don’t want to bias your experience.

The latest story I just released though… this one is different, in so many ways.

First, some context. I knew I needed a write a story for this anthology a long, long time ago. I was given plenty of time to come up with a story to fit the theme, which was loosely “parties,” and the genre, which was loosely “urban fantasy” (I say loosely because the authors in this collective also cover the contemporary fantasy spectrum, which is more my comfort zone anyway, so that was just fine by me.) In fact, I probably had… oh… 18 months heads-up on this assignment. Easy-peasy, right?

But if you know me at all, you’ll know that 1) I’m a creative at heart, and therefore projects will take as long as the time given to do said project, and 2) I struggle with accepting “good enough,” and will therefore keep iterating right up until deadline, and 3) while as a private person I’m pretty easy-going, when it comes to work, I’m a Type A… which means I refuse to be late on a promised deliverable.

Yes, all this combined in one person can cause problems. Ask my therapist how.

Anyway, I knew pretty quickly what kind of “party” I wanted to center the story around–I wanted a celebration that wasn’t very well known, that I found quirky and charming, that was ripe for supernatural shenanigans, and that was set in winter. I chose that season not only because it’s my favorite, but because I knew our targeted release date was November/December 2020, right as we’d be heading into winter. And, of course, what came to mind immediately, for me, was Ullr Fest, a strange (to me) and funny and charming tradition in my husband’s skiing world. So I had all this planned by, hmm… maybe summer of 2019.

Later that year, I finally had a protagonist–not Ullr, but someone else. Someone close to him, close enough to be mistaken for him. Or, hmm, what if it was the other way around? Aha! A conflict! I finally had a story. Rubbing my figurative hands together in glee, I sat down and scribbled the first few lines of the story right around January 2020, right before I headed out of town to attend a writing intensive workshop. I might have even hummed a little ditty or two. This was going to be a fun romp through a mistaken identity arc, and I was so looking forward to writing it.

The workshop took up a bunch of my writing time (I produced three stories for that session, one of which decided it wanted to become a novella rather than a short), and then I headed into yet another pair of writing conferences in February, so that month was sort of shot. Then the first week of March was taken up by in-laws. Skiing, feasting, family time, etc. (You are starting to sense how important skiing is in my real-life world, yes?)

But Ullr was never far from my mind; as soon as my in-laws were gone, I’d work on that winter story and deliver it months ahead of time. I’d be the goddamned poster child of effort and productivity. I was pretty proud of myself, I’ll have you know. I think I contorted my shoulders into knots trying to pat myself on the back.

The day my in-laws flew home to Boston was the day Salt Lake City started shutting everything down, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ski resorts closed not 48 hours after my in-laws left, weeks ahead of when they normally would. The restaurants were shut down. Bars closed. Coffee shops and libraries, closed. My tutoring clients cancelled. Overnight, we found ourselves living in a shocking new world.

I don’t need to remind y’all of what the last 9 months have been like. We’ve lived it. We’re still living it.

So all of a sudden, I didn’t want to write a fun story about parties. Worse, I was in no mood to write, period. It’s like the fount of creativity that had always–always–been at the core of my being, the one thing I could always count on to get me through sleepless nights and boring doldrums, was gone. It’s not that I’ve never had writer’s block; oh, I’ve experienced that aplenty, trust me. It’s that I’ve never had this emptiness where the drive to create once lived. And it scared me–not only because I’d never felt this lack of creative drive before, but because I had promised a deliverable, and I am more scared of letting other people down than I am of letting myself down. It’s backward, I know. But that’s my Obliger personality trait roaring through.

I spent all of April and most of May and June working on things that were more analytical than creative, because analytical I could still do. Analytical relied on my Type A, and my Type A is what got me through depression, a crushing relationship and divorce in my 20s, and a whole bunch of other shit I care not to remember. So I studied a lot and read a little (a lot less than I thought I would, given all of our suddenly free time, but I found it hard to focus during that time), and reworked a few business things behind the scenes. I submitted stories and got rejected a lot, but that’s okay because my writing group and I made a game of it, and it was fun to “win” at something for a while, even if it was in racking up rejections as fast as I could send in stories.

In July, the first thing that changed was Hamilton releasing on a streaming service. Like so many others, my husband and I kept striking out trying to obtain tickets whenever the production rolled into town, so when we discovered we could watch it at home, we immediately signed up for the month and loaded it up. And even though neither of us are big into musicals, we couldn’t stop watching.

Long after the credits rolled, I couldn’t stop remembering the words in the song, “Non-Stop,” when everyone asks Hamilton, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”

And that hit me pretty hard. Because, you see, I’m not a young wannabe-Bohemian writer anymore, drifting through her literature degree with starry-eyed visions of fame and (hopefully) fortune, suffering for her creative art. I’m middle-aged, comfortably ensconced in that time of my life when the idea of “running out of time” pulses like an electric undercurrent through every prying question that is asked of me and what I plan to do with my future. (There probably isn’t a version of “Why don’t you have kids?” that I haven’t heard yet. My answer now and forever: “Because.”)

I don’t need fame and fortune. Okay, sure, the fortune would be nice, but only because it frees me to write without the stress of figuring out how to also pay our bills. I don’t want the fame. Save it for someone else who’s happier to deal with it.

The only thing I need is to write, because I have so many more stories to tell.

(Remember that creative drive? Yeah, it came back, baby, and it’s right back in my core, where it belongs.)

The day after we watched Hamilton, I sat down and wrote a piece of flash fiction to clear the rusty cobwebs from my creative brain. It wasn’t great, but that’s okay–flash isn’t my strength, so it’s something I practice from time to time without any great expectations attached to whatever I produce. That felt pretty good, so I went on to finish that novella that had been brewing since late January–another 14,000 words added to the 8k I had, a fairly good stint of writing for me.

That done, I looked at what else was on my to-do list, but that was more out of habit than anything else. It was late August by now, and a particular deadline was looming.

I knew what was next.

So I cracked my figurative knuckles and opened up my Ullr file.

So I totally didn’t intend for this to happen, but this is now part 1 of a 2-part series. Read Part 2, “On the other side of our long, dark winter,” here. 🙂

C.H. Hung grew up among the musty book stacks of public libraries, where she found a lifelong love for good stories and lost 20/20 vision for good. Her stories have appeared in Analog SF&F, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and khōréō magazines, as well as anthologies edited by Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch, among others. She was a third-place winner of the Baen Fantasy Adventure Award in 2023.